Film reviews: Out of Darkness | Perfect Days | Wicked Little Letters | Shoshana

Filmed in Scotland and set 45,000 years ago, Out of Darkness is a robust big screen experience at a time when too many films are only too happy to satisfy the small screen expectations of the streaming services, writes Alistair Harkness

Out of Darkness (15) ****

Perfect Days (PG) ****

Wicked Little Letters (15) *

Shoshana (15) ***

Memory (15) ***

Formerly titled The Origin, Scottish director Andrew Cumming’s Highlands-set Stone Age horror film Out of Darkness finally arrives in cinemas almost 18 months on from its London Film Festival debut. Set 45,000 years ago and revolving around a tribe of early humans who arrive in a new land in search of food and shelter, it’s a curious beast, unusual for a Scottish film in its artistic boldness and execution, and unusual for a modern genre film in its tightness of plot and subtlety of theme.

That plot follows the general contours of a wilderness survival thriller as the aforementioned nomads quickly realise their new home is barren and desolate and not the promised land imagined by their fearless leader Adem (Chuku Modu), whose command soon starts faltering as a mysterious nocturnal entity snatches Adem’s son Herron (Luna Mwezi), fuelling paranoia, hatred and distrust in those remaining, among them Adem’s heavily pregnant “mate” Ave (Iola Evans), his timid younger brother Geirr (Kit Young) and a defiant, no-nonsense outsider called Beyah (a star-making turn from Safia Oakley-Green).

Out of DarknessOut of Darkness
Out of Darkness
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Blunt violence and cannibalism duly follow and though there are some blatant nods to Alien in the group dynamics that emerge, Ruth Greenberg’s script uses the set-up and the genre elements to explore the destructive origins of our species in nuanced and intriguing ways. That the script is also written in an authentic-sounding, but entirely made-up, language adds to strangeness, but what impresses too is the extent to which Cumming and his cinematographer Ben Fordesman (who also shot Rose Glass’s creepy Saint Maud) capitalise on the dramatic dreichness of the landscape with unusual camera angles and natural light to create a look that’s familiar yet otherworldly. Offset by Adam Janota Bzowki’s dissonant, thunderous score it’s a robust big screen experience at a time when too many films are only too happy to satisfy the small screen expectations of the streaming services.

Currently in contention for an Oscar for Best International Feature, Perfect Days marks a wonderful late career flourish for Wim Wenders. Set in Tokyo and building on Wenders’ life-long love of Japanese culture, the film sees the 78-year-old German director bringing his celebrated outsider’s eye to the story of an ageing custodial worker whose mundane-seeming job cleaning the (admittedly architecturally astonishing) toilets dotted around Tokyo’s hipster Shibuya district belies a richly cultured interior life.

Though nothing much happens as we follow Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) through his very ordered daily routine, the film quietly builds up a mesmerising portrait of someone who’s achieved a kind of serenity in a life filled with hinted-at passions and possible familial discord, the latter elliptically suggested in the way Hirayama responds to the minor disruptions life throws at him when his niece comes to stay. But we also learn almost as much about him from the joy etched across his face as he listens to his meticulously curated tape collection (The Kinks, the Animals, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Nina Simone all feature), one of the many ephemeral moments of tranquility Wenders effortlessly turns into an overarching metaphor for the contentment this character takes in the world around him.

There’s not much contentment to be found in Wicked Little Letters, an insufferable Brit-com with an overly-pleased-with-itself sense of its own naughtiness. Apparently based on a true story about a quiet English village torn apart by a poison pen campaign in the aftermath of the First World War, it stars Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley – the former as the pious victim of a flurry of anonymously penned invective, the latter as the foul-mouthed Irish immigrant fingered for the crime. Both are thoroughly wasted in a film that overestimates the comic potential of contrasting the sleepy setting with the elaborately constructed profanity emanating from its inhabitants’ mouths.

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Perfect Days

With Shoshana, Michael Winterbottom makes a timely attempt to examine some of the complex roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict with a period film built around prominent Zionist Shoshana Borochov (Irina Starshenbaum) and her romantic relationship with Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth), a high-ranking officer in the British Palestinian police force who was involved in investigating Jewish acts of terrorism during the British Mandate. Despite the biopic associations of the title, though, it’s actually more about how extremism creates unconquerable divisions, with Winterbottom flirting with using the central romance as an imperfect allegory for the political situation as a whole before shifting the focus of the film entirely to the conflicting policing styles of Wilkin and his stiff-upper-lipped colleague Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling), whose adoption of the same hardline approach to terrorism he’s used in Arab villages “up North” makes the situation even more dangerous. Though it’s hard to dismiss the feeling that Winterbottom has bitten off more than he can chew, the procedural elements and performances are solid enough.

A somewhat schematic romantic drama about a recovering alcoholic (Jessica Chastain) and a man with early onset dementia (Peter Sarsgaard), Memory sets up a very strained, very weird and very contrived moment of conflict early on that writer/director Michel Franco quickly bottles out of exploring. Instead he reverses the really dark implications of this early revelation in favour of a more palatable relationship drama, one that uses Chastain’s character’s abuse-filled backstory for some last-act melodramatic fireworks, but mostly revels in the tender sight of two lost souls finding each other against the pleasing backdrop of its upscale New York setting. Though it’s too bad the dramatic framework lacks credibility, Chastain and Sarsgaard do heroic work to make it compelling moment to moment.

All films on general release from 22 February

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