It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to reunite with actors they have worked with previously, which is exactly what writer and director David Lowery has done in reconnecting Rooney Mara with Casey Affleck on-screen. Their past collaboration was a Western romance, and the latest piece is something not only very different from that, but unlike anything you’ll see all year. Indie drama A Ghost Story follows lovers credited only as C (Affleck) and M (Mara) and their suburban married life. After tragedy strikes and C is killed in a car accident, he returns home as a white-sheeted ghostly presence to watch over his wife as she struggles to cope with the enormity of her loss.
Some directors can attract A-listers thanks to their previous collaborations, their industry reputation or by the way in which they make films. The acclaimed yet divisive Terrence Malick falls into this category and has pulled together Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman to make up possibly the most star-studded cast in recent memory. His latest feature is romantic drama Song to Song, which unfolds against the backdrop of the music scene in Austin, Texas. At the centre of it all is Faye (Mara), a rising musician who embarks on a relationship with fellow performer BV (Gosling) but who is also seeing his manipulative producer Cook (Fassbender); hence a complicated love triangle ensues.
Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize back in 2008, and now writer and director Jim Sheridan has adapted the Irish story from page to screen. The plot centres around mental hospital patient Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave) who has spent fifty years in an institute after she was reported to have brutally murdered her new-born baby. With plans set in motion to demolish the home and for a flat redevelopment, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) is sent to assess her state of mind. A dark past is soon revealed through both the scribbles and sketches in her beloved Bible which give the film its name, and in flashback sequences were Rooney Mara takes the leading role as the young protagonist.
Todd Haynes’ romantic drama ‘Carol’ takes place during a crisp New York winter in the early fifties and is based upon the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is strong-willed and sophisticated but suffering the trauma of a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), which is complicated further by a custody battle for their daughter. Whilst searching for the perfect Christmas present for said daughter, she meets shop worker Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) with whom she embarks on a forbidden relationship. Their romance clashes with the narrow minds of a less accepting time, but can love prevail against adversity?
The plot unfolds at a slow but steady pace, perfectly capturing the nervous excitement and awkwardness of the early stages of a relationship through to the point where Carol and Therese have an almost telepathic bond, expressions often saying more than words can. That’s not to say the script isn’t joyous but sometimes less is more, and the silences are so effective. As good as the characters are, the backdrop they inhabit also deserves a mention. The high production values and attention to prop detail give the cinematography a rich texture and a dreamy glow which feels suited to the subject matter with just enough authenticity.
The success of this adaptation heavily depends on the acting, and Blanchett and Mara more than deliver, the juxtaposition of their performances highlighting the fact that you can’t help who you fall in love with. Carol is an elegant powerhouse, hard on the outside but with a soft, vulnerable centre. Therese on the other hand is wide-eyed and innocent, and has an endearing fragility to her that gives the resemblance of a porcelain doll. The contrast between them adds to their connection which is fascinating to watch in its carefully handled development.
Todd Haynes succeeds in recreating the rigid yet dazzling fifties in a way that illustrates how far we have come in the acceptance of the LGBT community in society, and tells a hugely emotional story in the process. His greatest achievement is in the magnificently nuanced performances he draws from Blanchett and Mara and with awards season underway, ‘Carol’ will be deserved contender. Rooney Mara, in particular, should be a hot favourite in her categories. Her tender portrayal of Therese Belivet is, as Carol describes her lover, ‘flung out of space’.
Set in the not so distant future, ‘Her’ blends science fiction with romantic-comedy and holds a mirror up to the possibilities of mobile technology. Screwball director Spike Jonze explores themes of love, friendship and artificial intelligence in utopian Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a thirty-something divorcee who makes a living penning love letters for those with an inability to express their feelings, despite lacking confidence with women face-to-face himself. Lonely and raw from his separation from soul mate Catherine (Rooney Mara), he invests in an advanced operating system, who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) for companionship and to compartmentalise his working and social calendar. As the OS expands its capabilities, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha develops, asking questions of modern-day romance and its requirements, be it technical or otherwise.
Despite being full of ideas and imagination, I struggled to connect with the central character, and felt slightly patronised and preached upon by the heavy topics raised. The ‘looks or personality’ quandary comes into play in an unorthodox manner as although Samantha has no physical presence, essentially ‘living in a computer’ as she puts it, she does have a personality and later has the mood swings and emotions that come with the ups and downs of a relationship. Without giving too much away, there’s a section where Samantha does arrange for a body to take on her persona and this presents an oddly intriguing threesome dynamic. It reminded me a lot of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series which also predicted where technological enhancements would take us, but his effort was more effective and thought provoking due to its darker satirical approach.
I admired the ambition, and the film definitely looks the part, the idyllic location serving as a pleasant and interesting backdrop to Theodore’s story. However nice the aesthetics are, the problem lies in the unnatural conversations with Samantha which were cringe worthy at times, the attempts at humour, for me, missing the mark. This could be down to the fact that Johansson was brought into the project late on. Her voiceover was added in place of the unknown original which had been recorded in sync with Phoenix’s lines. In fairness, the recasting in some respects of Scarlett Johansson was a shrewd move. Because of her iconic good looks, her voice is easy to recognise and identify with, and this helps but I didn’t buy into the bond at all. It all still felt very naff and manufactured.
Joaquin Phoenix is no stranger to a complex lead role, so seemed an inspired choice to take on the introvert, Twombly. Unfortunately, he is outshone by his co-stars, even his computerised girlfriend. Rooney Mara is very impressive once again, in a similar role to her Social Network turn, but this time more assured. I could’ve done with seeing more of her character who represents the grounding reality in a world of dreamy ideals, though she steals the moments she appears in. The stand-out performance is Amy Adams as Theodore’s best friend, Amy. They relate through their desire to express themselves creatively, Theodore through his writing and Amy through documentary filmmaking. They are there for each other through their troubles, and the natural friendship plays out very fluidly.
‘Her’ has no shortage of invention but the outcome has mixed results. The slick cinematography works well with the subject matter, as does the soundtrack but it is let down by its feeble cracks at rom-com humour and sentiment. This creates an incoherent narrative and the film doesn’t appear to know quite what it wants to be, though it has no doubt of its own intelligence. If it had focussed on being an investigative sci-fi flick, I think there’s room for a more in-depth study and more challenging material for the experienced cast to tackle, thus giving itself the opportunity to fulfil its potential.
Gone are the days of western stalwarts like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when the genre was at its busiest, bringing cowboy films to cinema screens thick and fast. In more recent times, tradition and stereotypes from that field have been replaced by more ambitious modernised takes that come few and far between but are usually worth the wait. Notable examples include Andrew Dominik’s epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Tarantino’s twisted homage Django Unchained, both directors applying their own style and attitude to the familiar environment of the western film.
In steps David Lowery with whose artistic vision has been strongly compared to that of Terrence Malick, with ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’, his Bonnie and Clyde-esque romantic crime drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Set in 1970s Texas, criminal lovers Bob Muldoon (Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Mara) are embroiled in a shootout with the authorities and when Ruth shoots local police officer Patrick (Ben Foster), Bob takes the blame, leaving her to raise their daughter alone while he is sentenced to life behind bars.
Although the plot focuses on a notorious outlaw on his quest to reunite with his soul mate, there is a lot less action that you would imagine. Key events such as Muldoon’s prison escape are spoken of but go unseen and instead Lowery aims his directional wand at glorious landscapes, revelling in the dusty beauty of candlelit rooms allowing the characters to develop at a brooding pace. Bob and Ruth’s bruised bond is continued through scribbled love letters accompanied by a drawling voiceover delivered convincingly by Affleck but as time wears on and news of Bob’s flee circulates, Ruth is faced with the choice of holding out for him as promised or settling down with Patrick who holds a torch for her, unbeknownst to the fact that it was she who pulled the trigger on him years before. The internal dilemma can be seen as the youthful wilds of western ideologies versus the realities of growing up and nurturing a child. Ruth is interestingly caught somewhere in the middle, raising questions of her flawed character and her relationship with Muldoon who is still living out his own misguided version of the American Dream.
Rooney Mara gives a very impressive performance as the conflicted Ruth Guthrie, continuing a fantastic run after the brilliant Side Effects earlier in the year. She manages to underplay a charismatic blend of vulnerability and unpredictability perfectly, and I would not be surprised to see her receiving a second string of nominations at the awards season. Affleck also is in fine form, fighting from under the shadow of his older brother, and carrying on his association with the modern day western after his memorable turn as the aforementioned Robert Ford. He and Mara establish an early connection effectively in the beautifully filmed opening scene and this chemistry resonates through to the closing frames holding the minimal narrative together.
The aesthetic impact outweighs the uncomplicated story which trickles through middle sections at a snail’s pace which is fine for the most part but lacking a little oomph to carry it through. In defence, this is Lowery’s biggest project to date and ultimately shows potential and perhaps if he was as inventive a screenwriter as he is a director then it would make for a sturdier, more balanced film. It is however exciting to see another interpretation of the genre which successfully dodges the deep cliché pitfalls and joins an exquisitely made collection of the neo-westerns, and though it may not be as impactful as others, it is a far cry from flogging a dead horse.
After Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement, the talk around his final film began and after his recent successes with Contagion and Magic Mike, the anticipation of ‘Side Effects’ has been high, though the film doesn’t need the ‘last film’ hype to support it; people would still be talking about this in ten years time regardless. A medical psychological thriller starring Rooney Mara as Emily, a young wife with a depressive history, and Jude Law as her psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks. After Emily drives her car into a wall at speed in an apparent suicide attempt, Banks steps in to help, trying to assist her in recovery, administering drugs intended to ‘stop your brain telling you that you’re sad’, but when he gives her the newly available Ablixa, disaster strikes and his professional and family life fall apart, leaving questions to be asked which seem to have no answers.
When recommending ‘Side Effects’, and confronted with the question of what it is about, it is extremely difficult to give an answer without wanting to blurt out the whole plot. It is a disturbing tale of deceit where the flawed integral characters give nothing away, duping each other as the narrative dupes the audience. Just when you think you have the plot weighed up, it changes. There is no hero in this story, just greed and trickery which gives it a shockingly current quality and provides a twisted, but brutality honest projection of the society we are living in. Despite the characters not being entirely likeable, it is imperative to see how their stories pan out as even though you don’t necessarily care for the characters, you care about what will happen to them in the end. Not only is the concept exceptional here, but it has visuals that complement it so perfectly. The palette is limited, the shots drained of colour and the use of linear cinematography traps attention. Never has New York City looked so claustrophobic and unforgiving.
So maybe the cast will be underwhelming, drowning in the complexity of the script and the visual strokes of genius, but no, the acting is faultless. Rooney Mara follows on from her beautifully warped performance as Fincher’s Lisbeth Sander with another masterstroke. She’s come a long way since playing Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in The Social Network. The character of Emily is so deeply multilayered and Mara excels, taking it in her stride, portraying a vulnerably fractured soul that on paper would maybe seem far-fetched and making her believable. Not to be outdone is Jude Law with what I think is a career-best performance as Dr Banks. He shows class comfortably as the wealthy, well dressed doctor, so smooth and self confident. Then the character cracks show and a murky past is touched upon, we see Banks descend into a state of paranoia and anxiety, glugging bottles of beer in his pants in the afternoons whilst on a laptop, hunting for evidence to prove his innocence and it’s then when we see Law stand out. It is at Banks’ lowest when Law’s standard is at its highest. The supporting cast are excellent also, Catherine Zeta Jones mysteriously menacing as Emily’s former psychiatrist Victoria Siebert and even walking talking lump of flesh Channing Tatum can do no wrong as Emily’s high flying businessman husband, who’s just spent four years in prison for inside trading.
If this is Soderbergh’s last hurrah, then he will be sitting up from the director’s chair with the knowledge that he has created a masterpiece. He’s got the best out of his actors, put a brilliantly clever script to very good use and made a thought provoking film that deserves all the plaudits it will no doubt receive. If you are only as good as your last film then for Soderbergh, it is a job well done.