Film reviews: Rosewater | Spooks: The Greater Good

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Maziar Bahari in Rosewater. Picture: Contributed
Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Maziar Bahari in Rosewater. Picture: Contributed
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JON Stewart’s directorial debut shows the value of humour as a means of combating the darkest times

Rosewater (15)

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Starring: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Claire Foy, Dimitri Leonidas

Rating: ****

The story of London-based Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari’s incarceration and torture after returning to his native Iran to cover the tumultuous 2009 elections is not one that sounds like a barrel of laughs. Held in isolation for 118 days while his heavily pregnant wife, Paola, remained in London campaigning for his release, he was repeatedly interrogated, beaten and at one point forced to confess on Iranian television to being a spy, after the election of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked widespread protest and violence over the validity of the results.

Though it’s no spoiler to reveal that Bahari survived to tell the tale in his memoir Then They Came For Me, what is surprising is that his story has not been used as the source of another overly earnest Hollywood treatise on an oppressive regime. Instead, in the hands of the soon-to-be ex-presenter of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, a serious story is approached with irreverence familiar from Stewart’s work on the satirical news show he’s hosted for the past 16 years. This reflects not only the absurd reality of Bahari’s arrest, but also a welcome appreciation for the value of humour as a means for coping with and combating dark times.

The latter is something directors frequently forget when dealing with weighty subject matters, but Stewart’s experience in processing politics and injustice through a joke-heavy satirical prism serves him well here, not least because The Daily Show played an integral part in the story. Before he was arrested, Bahari participated in a sketch on the show in which regular “correspondent” Jason Jones, pretending to be an American spy, spoof-interviewed Bahari about the elections. Bahari’s interrogators subsequently used the clip as evidence of his own involvement in espionage; his rational protest querying why an American spy would have his own TV show falling on wilfully deaf ears.

That sketch is dramatised to amusing effect in the film, as is the moment Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal, is arrested at his mother’s house in Tehran after shooting video footage of the chaos following the election results. Scenes of government goons carting people off to uncertain fates are usually sources of wrenching drama in movies, but Stewart makes this the funniest in the film as Bahari’s interrogators raid his possessions and obsessively quiz him on the pornographic content of a Sopranos box set and some Pasolini DVDs.

Their ignorance is laughable but dangerous too and that’s the point Stewart is getting across: the trumped up charges are too absurd to believe, but their consequences for Bahari – and for others like him – are no laughing matter. He soon realises, for instance, that his interrogator, a man he identifies in his blindfolded state as Rosewater, on account of his scent (he’s played in the film by Danish actor Kim Bodnia, star of TV’s The Bridge), thinks Newsweek is a spy organisation and that Chekhov – whom Bahari quotes on his Facebook page – is some nefarious associate. What hope does an intelligent person have when confronted with such nationally sanctioned stupidity? The answer is to be found in the way Bahari retreats into himself: mentally escaping his ordeal through his imagination and drawing strength from memories of his family and his love of music and culture.

Stewart proves himself an adept visual stylist here, using simple techniques such as lighting scenes using the glow of a laptop screen to reflect the darkness that comes from being physically cut off from the people Bahari cares about the most. But he also uses more sophisticated styles. When Bahari first arrives in Tehran, memories of his late father and sister, who both ran afoul of previous regimes, are reflected in the shop windows as he walks down the street. It’s an elegant way to fill in crucial details of Bahari’s background while also reminding us of the psychic hold the physical geography of one’s home exerts.

Stewart’s good with performers too. Though he’s been up front about owning his own ignorance in terms of casting a Mexican and a Danish actor in the leads instead of actors of Iranian descent, both do fine work, particularly as Stewart ratchets up the claustrophobic tension between them in the film’s second half. Bernal plays Bahari as somewhat meek, but never succumbs to victimhood, and Bodnia captures the stupidity and cruelty of Rosewater without slipping into the sort of sub-Dr Strangelove absurdity that could have robbed the film of some of its determination to remain grounded in reality.

Ever the media satirist, Stewart also weaves in a pointed analysis of the positive value which social media is starting to have in diminishing the power of oppressive regimes. The terrific final shot is a subtle symbol of hope for the future.

Spooks: The Greater Good (15)

Directed by: Bharat Nalluri

Starring: Kit Harington, Jennifer Ehle, Tuppence Middleton, Peter Firth, Elyes Gabel

Rating: **

Watching Spooks: The Greater Good, it’s hard not to think of that gag in The Thick of It when Nicola Murray complains about feeling as if she’s in “the cruddiest spy film ever: The Eastbourne Ultimatum” – there’s just something a bit naff about the way this movie spin-off of the long-running British drama tries to ratchet up the excitement without the budget, the cast or the action chops to compete with its genre forebears. The big screen proves an unforgiving canvas: for both the show’s hitherto high-end production values and its topical urgency. Constructed as a sub-Bourne tale of rogue operators, institutional corruption, security threats and crises in the intelligence services, the film feels like a karaoke blockbuster: the general shape is there, but all the notes are a bit flat.

That’s evident from the off, as a joint MI5 and CIA operation to transfer prominent terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) across London is ambushed. Fast cutting and a few hand-held camera shots do little to disguise the boilerplate dialogue or the film’s lack of scale when operational confusion results in Qasim escaping and an agent being shot. The failure of the operation prompts MI5 head Harry Pearce (Peter Firth, a veteran of the show) to go dark by faking his suicide and going after Qasim himself. When he reaches out to disgraced former agent, Will Holloway (Kit Harington), however, he realises there’s a traitor in their midst.

With the show having featured the likes of Matthew Macfadyen, Richard Armitage and David Oyelowo, the presence of Game of Thrones star Harington is a clear attempt to sex up the movie. Sadly, his character proves a bit of a damp squib as he becomes the film’s focal point. Purposely written to be a few beats behind the other characters, Harington sells us on Holloway’s slow-on-the-uptake position a bit too convincingly for him to really convince as having ever been a credible agent. Slightly more interesting is Tuppence Middleton as the agent he’s partnered up with after he’s brought in to help track Harry down. Unfortunately, the film’s botched determination to fill the film with all manner of twists ensures her fate isn’t handled in a particularly compelling way and what should be moments of high drama feel rushed in order to get on the next piece of action.

Alas those action set-pieces don’t add up to much either. By now, they all have third- or fourth-hand feel to them, the immediate post-9/11 climate of fear that infused the TV show having long since become the stuff of movie cliché.

Phoenix (15)

Directed by: Christian Petzold

Starring: Nina Hoss, Nina Kunzendorf, Ronald Zehrfeld

Rating: ****

German filmmaker Christian Petzold serves up a fascinating meditation on the legacy of the Holocaust with this intriguing tale of an Auschwitz survivor who undergoes plastic surgery and becomes, if not quite a new person, someone she doesn’t quite recognise or know how to be. Played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss, Nelly was a nightclub singer from a rich family before being taken to the camps; once she returns to normal life with her altered visage, however, she sets about trying to track down her gentile husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) against the advice of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who suspects he had a hand in her incarceration and so is determined to keep them apart. What unfurls is strange and unsettling as Nelly’s husband, noting the similarity, but not realising the woman he thinks is dead is actually standing before him, enlists Nelly in a scheme to impersonate herself in order to access her family’s money – a scheme in which Nelly, in her new guise, agrees to participate. Petzold – riffing on film noir and Hitchcock – transforms this heightened melodramatic premise into a richly symbolic film about the tension that exists between the desire to reclaim a past destroyed by the horror of the Holocaust and determination to erase the memory of that past (and all its attendant guilt and recriminations). The ambiguity of Hoss’s performance – what’s driving her is open to endless interpretation – taps into the almost incomprehensible complexity of the nation’s psyche in the immediate post-war era. Petzold builds the film to a stunningly executed finale that serves as a potent metaphor for the way the performance required by denial can’t hope to suppress the truth from revealing itself.

Girlhood (15)

Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré

Rating: ****

With her previous films Water Lilies and Tomboy, French writer/director Céline Sciamma marked herself out as a chronicler of the complexities of female adolescence, exploring the almost imperceptible ways in which sexuality and gender can so easily confound the tweens and teens. With Girlhood, though, she’s changed things a bit, zeroing in on a group of marginalised, working-class black girls living on a Parisian estate. With gender, race and class counting against the characters even before stepping into the hormonal minefield of adolescence, Girlhood’s a much tougher proposition, as evinced by the way its 16-year-old protagonist, Marieme (Karidja Touré, below), finds her already diminished prospects further minimised by an exclusionary education system and a bullying older brother who’s making her home life hell. Falling in with a girl gang, though, she finds a sense of empowerment via its hierarchical structure, and via the security and friendships that ensue. Though perhaps proceedings tend towards harsh uncertainty, Sciamma never forgets the importance of showing the moments of unadulterated joy that teens always find, regardless of how troubled their situations are.

Top Five (15)

Directed by: Chris Rock

Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union

Rating: **

Chris Rock squanders an interesting idea with an implausible premise in this comedy about a superstar stand-up (Rock) who no longer values his comic instincts. Unfortunately in his capacity as the film’s writer and director, Rock has chosen to structure it around a day-long walk-and-talk interview with a beautiful New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) that inevitably leads to romance. As a plot device this stretches credulity to breaking point and too much of the subsequent comedy is presented in crude, broad strokes for Rock’s satirical gems about race, class and gender to have their desired effect.