Film reviews: Una | God's Own Country | The Limehouse Golem | Patti Cake$ | Stratton
Since Blackbird debuted at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, Scottish playwright David Harrower’s exploration of sexual grooming and the queasy questions it raises has been revived multiple times, with last year’s acclaimed run at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow swiftly followed by a Tony-nominated Broadway production starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels. Judging from reviews of both, the play remains something of a gut-puncher on stage, which makes it difficult to reconcile its lauded reputation with its (re-titled) big screen version. Adapted by Harrower himself, and helmed by theatre maverick Benedict Andrews (who directed his own production of the play in Berlin back in 2005), Una does not make for a particularly compelling film. Dramatically flat and stilted, its contentious subject matter has been rendered frustratingly banal by unconvincing subplots, shakily handled reveals and stylistic flourishes that undercut the performances of its top-tier cast. Revolving around the titular Una (Rooney Mara) as she confronts the middle-aged man (Ben Mendelsohn) who sexually abused her when she was 13, the film explores the emotional wreckage of their respective lives, with Una tracking down the man she knows as Ray (Mendelsohn) and the pair of them pouring over the details of their former “relationship” – a three-month affair in which Ray exploited the schoolgirl crush of his neighbour’s kid before a botched attempt to run away together landed him in prison.
Una’s possible complicity in her own victimisation and Ray’s ongoing refusal to consider his paedophiliac proclivities as anything other than a one-time mistake are the muddy waters the film wades through. The problem is that Una and Ray’s verbal sparring never bruises us the way it supposedly does them. A desperate attempt to open the drama out with flashbacks to Una’s childhood, combined with an underwritten subplot involving one of Ray’s colleagues (Riz Ahmed, thoroughly wasted here), dissipates the dramatic momentum, repeatedly interrupting what could have been a pressure-cooker-like two-hander between Mara and Mendelsohn. That’s too bad. Both are well cast. Mendelsohn’s rugged masculinity provides a believable hint of sexual danger and excitement in the sterile suburban cul-de-sac where Ray and Una’s attraction for each other first flourishes. Meanwhile, Mara – overcoming a rather strained British accent – delivers Una’s heartfelt, angry recriminations with the sort of unsettlingly explicit details the damaged and the vulnerable have a hard time filtering out. It’s during moments such as these – as opposed to, say, Andrews’ rather clichéd attempts to signify Una’s emotional state by having her engage in joyless sex in a nightclub – where flashes of the source material’s obvious power bleed through. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between. Too often the film feels like a run-of-the-mill issue movie, limping along with plenty to say but no real idea of how to say it on screen.
British director Francis Lee’s auspicious debut God’s Own Country is the sort of film that could also have been written off as an issue movie. But this same-sex love story – about an isolated Yorkshire sheep farmer (Josh O’Connor) whose tough existence is transformed when he falls for a Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu) – is far too good for that. Transcending its bleak setting with a hopeful story about people from different cultures forging a better life together, it’s a film that certainly feels appropriate for the times, both in its progressive attitude to sexuality and the unintentional lament it offers for everything positive that Britain voted against with Brexit. Yet it’s also an exemplary character study, with bold, fully realised performances from O’Connor and Secareanu and typically excellent support from Ian Hart and Gemma Jones.
Starring Bill Nighy as a closeted Scotland Yard detective investigating a series of grizzly murders in 1880s London, The Limehouse Golem has such an intriguing set-up, it’s almost a shame that the film – which has been adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel by Woman in Black screenwriter Jane Goldman and Spanish horror director Juan Carlos Medina – pays only lip-service to the story’s queer subtext. Instead, it concentrates its energies on delivering a fairly ripe homage to the penny dreadful, one that also owes a cinematic debt to From Hell and several contemporary-set serial killer films, the naming of which is too much of a spoiler to include in a review. Still, Nighy is good as the detective whose investigation becomes intertwined with the trial of a music hall star (Olivia Cooke) accused of poisoning her late husband – and there’s something quite pleasing about the film’s garish evocation of Victorian London’s seedy underbelly.
Patti Cake$ may have grabbed headlines earlier this year when it sold for $9.5m at the Sundance Film Festival, but this underdog story about an overweight white-trash 20-something woman’s determination to make it as a rap star is more High School Musical than 8 Mile. Newcomer Danielle Macdonald is good in the lead, but writer/director Geremy Jasper makes the film’s follow-your-dreams message too literal with multiple, cringe-inducing fantasy sequences.
It’s not as bad as Stratton,though, a cheap-looking action film from Con Air director Simon West. Starring the reliably terrible Dominic Cooper as the Special Boat Service maverick of the title (the SBS is the naval equivalent of the SAS), it finds him on the hunt for a vengeance-seeking terrorist determined to destroy London. Optimistically set up as the first in a franchise, Stratton plays very much like a feature-length pilot for the sort of TV show Julian Barratt’s recent Mindhorn spoofed so mercilessly.