A Private War (15) ***
The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
Jellyfish (15) ****
Instant Family (12A) **
The late Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin gets a worthy tribute in A Private War, a biopic that transcends some of the clichés of its own conventional construction by rendering the last decade or so of her life (she’s played by Rosamund Pike) as a harrowing portrait of someone both traumatised by and addicted to the pain she’d committed herself to covering. Framed by her fateful decision to report on the bombing of civilians in Homs during the Syrian civil war in 2012, the film rewinds to 2001 and settles into an overly familiar story of a hard-living combat reporter who thrives in war zones but struggles at home. Even before sustaining an injury that would necessitate her wearing her distinctive eye-patch, Colvin’s home life is presented as a disaster zone of wrecked relationships, nightmare-plagued sleep, meaningless award ceremonies and daily battles with her editor (Tom Hollander) – the sort of empty existence meant to signify the personal cost of being so thoroughly and nobly committed to exposing the suffering of others. But the cumulative effect of repeatedly jumping between these sorts of scenes and the various hotspots Colvin reported from gradually ensures this is more than just The Hurt Locker for hacks. It has a raw and uneasy power, one that resists the clunky screenplay’s many attempts to reduce Colvin to a series of easy-to-understand psychoanalytic bullet points. Pike’s brusque, ravaged performance helps. She gets beyond the PTSD tropes to show how Colvin’s personal demons and contradictions were an indelible part of who she was and why she was so good at her job. Making his feature debut, acclaimed documentary maker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) also seems to understand the parameters he’s working within and uses them to his advantage to make trenchant points about the relentlessness of the job mirroring the one constant of combat: the unyielding suffering of those caught in the crossfire.
Joe Cornish makes a belated and welcome return to directing with The Kid Who Would Be King, an imaginative British children’s film that offers a fresh riff on Arthurian legend. Though far gentler than Cornish’s 2011 debut Attack the Block, the new film nevertheless uses our politically uncertain times as an amusing backdrop for a kid-friendly tale of bullied outsiders banding together to save Britain. The threat is an embittered sorceress-turned-dragon (Rebecca Ferguson) intent on exploiting the destabilising chaos of our times to escape the underworld. The only person who can stop her is 12-year-old Alex (Lewis Ashbourne Serkis), who discovers a sword on a building site, realises it’s Excalibur and convinces himself it’s a sign from the father he’s never met to embark on a quest to save the country. Helping him is his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and an eccentric, shape-shifting Merlin (Angus Imrie), who arrives at Alex’s school to instruct him on the chivalric code and encourage him to work with his tormentors to prevent the looming catastrophe. Brexit isn’t mentioned directly, but it’s implicit in a narrative in which it falls upon the young to save the day by seeing through lies perpetuated by their fearful, spineless elders. Stylistically, the film has some of the wonky appeal of 1980s British fantasy films like Time Bandits, though Cornish also makes a play for kids weaned on The Lord of the Rings with some elaborate (and not always great) CGI-heavy set-pieces. That can make the film feel simultaneously under and over-cooked, but it’s also been made with a great deal of charm and the young cast are delightful.
Delight isn’t a word that could be applied to Jellyfish, but this fiercely independent British film about a 15-year-old girl forced to take on responsibility for her younger siblings does feature an incredible central performance from up-and-coming actress Liv Hill. Just 16 when she shot it, she carries a tough film about difficult subject matter– mental illness, sexual exploitation – with the sort of matter-of-fact authority that’s just right for a character forced to get on with a terrible situation. Debut writer/director James Gardner has plenty of empathy for his protagonist, especially when she’s encouraged by her well-meaning drama teacher to channel the defensive sarcasm she spits back at her classmates into a stand-up comedy routine for an upcoming high school showcase. Though the idea of finding self-worth in performance is a well-worn trajectory for British films about the marginalised and the dejected, Gardner eschews easy triumphalism by remaining true to his protagonist’s situation and using the film’s Margate setting to weave in a deft critique of the gentrification process turning a blind-eye to people like her.
Instant Family equals instant hell in this comedy about a childless couple’s decision to foster a trio of siblings. The “hell” part isn’t really a comment on the disruption that ensues when professional house renovators Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) take on responsibilities for which they’re not entirely ready; it’s a reflection of the experience of watching a movie with a likeable cast being sabotaged by the tone-deaf ineptitude of the execution. Veering wildly between ribald jokes, serious discussions about child abuse and scenes of saccharine sentimentality, the whole thing falls flatter than a Joanna Lumley BAFTA monologue.