The single-take film is a gimmick, but it’s a fascinating one that reaches new heights with the exhilarating German heist drama Victoria – imperfections and all
Hitchcock experimented with it in Rope. Mike Figgis tried it out with Timecode. Alexander Sukorov upped the ante with Russian Ark and Alejandro G Iñárritu faked it (brilliantly) with Birdman. Shooting a movie in one continuous shot, or a series of single shots (Hitchcock was limited by technology), is one of those cinematic parlour tricks that sound gimmicky, but if matched with the right material can bring a movie alive in far more authentic ways than normally possible.
Victoria (****) is a film like that. A bank robbery movie set in the hour before and after the event, it uses the all-in, adrenalin-juicing chaos of the heist – where myriad things can go wrong and any mistake can potentially derail the perpetrators – as a brilliant metaphor for the high-stakes nature of the filmmaking process itself. Shooting in a single, continuous, two-hour-plus take across 20 locations in Berlin in the early hours of the morning, writer/director Sebastian Schipper has managed to harness the nervous energy of his cast and crew to make a remarkable film about the calamity unleashed when you break the rules.
That theme is embodied in the film’s eponymous protagonist. Victoria (Laia Costa) is a young Spanish woman who has given up on her childhood dream to become a concert pianist and is now working in a Berlin café, trying to enjoy herself away from the rigid discipline of the rehearsal room. Her life, however, is irrevocably changed when she meets a group of locals at the end of a hedonistic night out clubbing. At first the film uses the single shot to convey the blissed-out perfection of the night, particularly as Victoria connects with Sonne (Frederick Lau) and lets herself be carried along by the momentum of the evening. But when Sonne’s ex-con friend is called upon to repay a favour to a gangster acquaintance, she finds herself roped into an early morning heist as a makeshift getaway driver.
If the plot sounds preposterous on paper, it’s not on screen, thanks to Schipper’s ability to let the action unfold in a plausibly naturalistic way in real time using that aforementioned continuous take. And it really is one take. Though a back-up plan to do a jump-cut version was put in place to satisfy the film’s backers should the experiment not work, Schipper managed to capture what he wanted on the third and final attempt. In some respects that makes the film an intriguing statement about filmmaking in the digital age. At a time when so much can be tweaked and fixed in post-production, it uses the freedom of a lightweight camera and mega-gigabyte memory card to give its story the cohesive spontaneity of live performance. Even better, the technique doesn’t call attention to itself; it just amplifies the urgency of the situation by keeping the actors fully in the moment, mistakes and all. This is exhilarating cinema – perfect in its imperfections.
Nobody is going to mistake Eddie the Eagle (***) for exhilarating cinema, but this cheerful biopic of Britain’s first Olympic ski jumper is almost as generous in spirit as it is loose with the facts, using, as it does, the standard underdog sports movie formula to convey the essence of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards’s story without exploring the darker times of a man too casually and cruelly written off as a national joke. Sunshine on Leith director Dexter Fletcher certainly goes to great lengths to make a film that laughs with Edwards, not at him, and he’s aided in this by Taron Egerton, whose performance as the bespectacled Cheltenham-plasterer-turned-unlikely-Olympian is hard to resist, particularly as he takes every setback in his life on that jutting chin of his. The film, however, does rather load the dice in his favour. Most of the characters standing in his way are one-note caricatures and most of the plot is fabricated, most notably his coach, a former championship ski jumper who has his own issues with the sport (he’s played by a typically game Hugh Jackman). Yet the film still makes a winning point about the nobility of failure and the victory inherent in doing one’s best.
There’s more of this sort of thing in the documentary Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree’s Story (***), which explores the trials and tribulations of the maverick Scottish cyclist against the backdrop of his 2013 attempt to break the land speed record in a human-powered vehicle in the titular Nevada town. Obree’s story has been told before in The Flying Scotsman, a not-especially illuminating biopic starring Johnny Lee Miller. That film paid lip service to the mental health issues that drove him to attempt suicide, but mostly it was a standard underdog sports movie that didn’t provide much sense of who Obree really was. As such, there’s certainly room for another film about his life and this one gets him opening up about his mental health issues, his sexuality and his bitterness at what he sees as the enforced curtailment of his professional career – all the while showing him pottering about in his kitchen, constructing a prone bike out of old saucepans and rollerblade parts for the aforementioned shot at the land speed record.
There’s something undeniably charming and Eddie the Eagle-esque about Obree’s Blue Peter approach to his sport of choice. Alas, the problem for the film is that bike’s finished design – which resembles the top part of a submarine in which Obree is completely encased – doesn’t lend itself to dynamic cinema: watching the wobbly contraption careen down a deserted strip of highway proves somewhat anti-climactic.