The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG) Directed by Bharat Nalluri 3/5 Nothing quite captures the meaning of Christmas and the festive spirit like Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol.
Not forgetting The Muppet Christmas Carol or Scrooged starring Bill Murray, this film, rather than another umpteenth adaptation, relates how Dickens (Dan Stevens) came to pen one of his most timeless and classic tales.
Based on Les Standiford’s 2008 book, it takes a fascinating look at how his flagging writing career (after three flops in a row) was saved by this masterpiece, which the author had to self-publish.
It is both a captivating and magical film that provides a gripping insight into Dickens’s home life and his writing process.
The scenes in which he interacts with his fictional creations, especially Ebenezer Scrooge, played superbly by Christopher Plummer with a comic edge, as he works through his writer’s block are the highlights of this comedy drama.
Stevens makes a dashing and charismatic Dickens portrayed as a modern man who was fierce and flawed and seemingly going mad as he had six weeks to deliver his work in time for Christmas.
He also had his pregnant wife and kids to contend with along with his fantasist father (Jonathan Price) who would steal papers bearing the Dickens signature to flog them for money.
It is an intriguing film which, like Dickens’s work, captures admirably the spirit of Christmas.
Happy End (15) Directed by Michael Haneke 5/5
“I make my films because I’m affected by a situation, by something that makes me want to reflect on it, that lends itself to an artistic reflection. I always aim to look directly at what I’m dealing with. I think it’s a task of dramatic art to confront us with things that in the entertainment industry are usually swept under the rug.”
So says Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke and he proves it potently with this bitter, often cruel but ultimately eminently justified dissection of the conformist values of a monstrous once well-off French family whose construction company is on its last commercial legs.
The drama is established by Haneke with a surprisingly but ultimately hard-hitting long sequence in which a static camera focuses on a deeply set construction site where tedious digging is suddenly interrupted by one of the walls of the site collapsing into the working area.
By setting his story in Calais, now riven by the refugee crisis, an increasingly septic state of affairs about which the family initially remain uninvolved and uninterested, Haneke adds a compelling extra jug of sociological acid to his unique and compelling story.
Somewhat improbably but effectively, he demonstrates he is up to date with an opening sequence of a woman going through her bathroom ritual filmed by 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin) on her smartphone.
When her mother ends up in hospital, Eve ends up with her sexually errant divorced dad Thomas (Mathieu Kassowitz) and his new wife.
The compelling centre of Haneke’s increasingly cynical study, however, is firmly occupied by Isabelle Huppert, riveting as the motivated materfamilias Ann and the exceptional Jean-Louis Trintignant, unforgettable as Ann’s bloody-minded father, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, whose continuing search for the eponymous happy end provides a strong narrative centre to a vivid satire.
Despite its multifaceted, often rather more than a tad overcooked storyline, it nevertheless grabs you and holds you throughout thanks to pertinent characterisations and performances to match and, especially, to Haneke’s unique vision which, despite often appearing to be in defiance of narrative logic, keeps you watching.
Huppert and Trintignant are given the best dramatic scenes and make the most of them but smart casting includes Toby Jones as Huppert’s lover Laurence Bradshaw and Franz Rogowski as her dissipated son.
Fine performances make the movie well worth watching, but, more than that, Happy End — as cynical a title as you could hope to find — deserves to be seen in order to see a master film-maker whose only appropriate creative influence is himself at work.
Most Beautiful Island (15) Directed by Ana Arsenio 4/5
Having published several books on horror movies I reckon I’m something of a shockfilm expert or, more likely, merely a genre nerd.
That said, I cannot recall my nerves being stretched then shredded so sadistically or being filled with such a growing sense of scary foreboding as achieved here by star and brilliant debuting director Ana Arsenio who rightly earns auteur status as writer and producer as well.
In her “Inspired by true events” story, Arsenio scores as down-on-her-luck Spanish immigrant Luciana, not really making a living in New York’s human jungle, dressed as a chicken giving out promotional leaflets on the streets and escorting bloody-minded kids home from school. Then a friend inducts her, without telling her what to expect, into a secret party that will bring her 2,000 dollars.
Sadly, Luciana agrees, plunging into an escalating nightmare of terror that culminates with her trapped in a glass coffin with a poisonous spider crawling over her naked body while sadistic onlookers watch.
The perversion she depicts — both in narrative and characterisation — is all too convincing. Arsenio’s film scored at the London Film Festival and wins my open admiration for scaring me shirtless with as scary a shocker as I’ve ever admired.