Even if you aren’t overly familiar with the work of Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the duo’s distinctive image is synonymous with comedy and cinema. Jon S. Baird’s latest feature pulls back the curtain to explore the men behind the slapstick public personas. Years after their Hollywood heyday, Stan (Steve Coogan) persuades Ollie (John C. Reilly) to hit the road, and the pair embark on a live theatre tour of post-war Britain.
Writer and director Andrew Fleming explores a complex yet colourful relationship in comedy drama Ideal Home. The plot follows flamboyant celebrity chef Erasmus (Steve Coogan) and his temperamental producer and husband Paul (Paul Rudd), who enjoy a lavish lifestyle together in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their turbulent marriage is complicated further when Erasmus’ estranged ten-year-old grandson Bill (Jack Gore) arrives at their door in need of a home.
The developing dynamic of the dysfunctional family unit carries the plot, bringing a gamut of emotion to the heartfelt story. Paul is the grumpy ‘straight man’ in the beginning while Erasmus is brilliantly bonkers in comparison, but they’re equally outrageous. The introduction of ‘the kid’ throws a spanner in the works of their quarrelsome relationship, and hilarity ensues. Coogan and Rudd are both on fine form, pairing together remarkably well and enjoying their share of the sharply written jokes from Fleming’s terrific script.
Steve Coogan may well be best known for his comedic beginnings and his recurring reincarnations as television and radio presenter Alan Partridge, but from more recent roles, in particular his part in Oscar nominated film Philomena, we now know he can do serious seriously well. In courtroom-drama Shepherds and Butchers, written and directed by Oliver Schmitz, he plays compassionate defence lawyer Johan Webber. When seven black men are callously shot and killed by 17-year-old prison guard Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds), Webber is given the impossible task of defending him at the trial. Set in 1987 South Africa, he is pitted against prosecutor Kathleen Murray (Andrea Riseborough), who argues that Leon should be sentenced to death. An intelligently told story unfolds, exploring and dissecting the conflicting views on capital punishment; a system which was abolished just eight years later.
Based on an incredible true story, ‘Philomena’, directed by Stephen Frears, tracks a mother’s search for her long-lost son nearly fifty years after he was brutally taken away from her, with the help of a disgraced journalist. Judi Dench stars as Philomena Lee who was sent to the Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea after falling pregnant at a young age, and was forced to sign away parental rights. After keeping her first born a secret for decades, believing she had committed an unforgivable sin, she meets former Labour party advisor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who is seeking a fresh new direction after very publicly losing his political position due to his controversial words being taken out of context, and they embark on an investigation which takes them further than they could ever imagine. Exploring themes of religion, forgiveness and redemption, the factual account is beautifully told, helped by a strong script and even stronger performances.
Coogan takes script writing duties as well as producing and of course co-starring, and this is very evident in the dialogue between Sixsmith and Lee. A balance is accomplished between the serious nature of the subjects tackled and an almost Partridgean humour which is laced through key scenes, with Dench expressing a knack for natural comic timing showing the fragility and naivety of her character. Their friendship blossoms after a slow start because as Sixsmith assists Lee, she also helps him as he welcomes the distraction, choosing Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story in an attempt to win back readers, rather than beginning a novel on Russian history which he initially considers when he is left in need of a new career path.
Aside from the brilliant conversational scenes, Frears directs in documentary fashion at times, using found footage style fragments to accompany the globetrotting mission, revealing a little more bit by bit, teasing and shocking the audience while leaving every turn unpredictable. The flashbacks of a young Philomena are also well handled in providing a lengthy character arc and how her dark past living with the evil nuns has left deep personal scars on her outlook of life. The portrayal of the wicked sisters is typical yet harrowing with Barbara Jefford impressive as the cruel Sister Lindegarde who played a pivotal role in Philomena’s fate. Her strict religious background clashes with Sixsmith’s atheist views, coming from Coogan’s own mindset as he boldly rubbishes organised religion and those who conform to it. His anti-religious rants are both impactful and very funny, and his eloquent way with words reflect the intelligence of the film. Dench is equally effective, her reactions to the narrative twists are heartfelt and hard hitting, packing emotional punches that brought me close to tears on more than one occasion.
‘Philomena’ is a huge storytelling achievement, developed from Sixsmith’s book ’The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’, offering a weighty, well judged adaptation. This marks a fitting end to a remarkable year for Steve Coogan, rounding off a series of well measured performances in films including The Look of Love, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and the wonderful What Maisie Knew, displaying his versatility to switch between serious turns and the comedic roles which he is perhaps better known for, given his TV background. This may be an exciting sign for things to come in an acting career that hasn’t received deserved recognition thus far but working with veterans like Dench can only improve his reputation. He has certainly established himself as my actor of the year, in a powerful picture that goes down as my film of 2013.
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A modern adaptation of the Henry James novel of the same name, which looks at the break up of a dysfunctional relationship through the perspective of their neglected young daughter. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan star as rowing rich couple Susanna and Beale, an ageing rocker and wheeler art dealer respectively, going through a turbulent marriage where their six year old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile) is used as a bargaining chip, passed from pillar to post. She only finds occasional solace through nanny turned stepmother Margo, expertly portrayed by Joanna Vanderham, and surprisingly also with Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) who Susanna marries soon after the divorce in a selfish ploy for sole custody. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, ‘What Maisie Knew’ is beautifully made, full of top drawer performances, great humour and has a heart wrenchingly touching narrative.
Maisie’s isolation is shown effectively through the cinematography, by putting her petite figure in gaping wide shots, a microcosm highlighting her minor significance in the sensationalist lifestyles of her parents. Also, when holding hands with a grown up, we, as the audience, are continuously placed at Maisie’s head height, the faces of her elders often left unseen, illustrating the flimsy nature of her upbringing and letting us into her world. This is a recurring theme, the story allowing us into Maisie’s way of life, through use of neat close ups of her drawings, toys and games of tic-tac-toe, but not shying away from her inner trauma, the built up sadness and torment expressed perfectly in a memorable scene with one single tear. There are zoom fixations on Susanna and Beale, as if the camera represents her gaze and what makes her tale so heartbreaking is that she clearly adores her parents yet her love is unrequited. There are one or two tender moments in which we see that she may well be loved by her mum and dad, but not in the right way.
What aids this success are the magnificent performances from all concerned. Veterans Moore and Coogan are both great in the parenting roles. We see a lot more of Moore’s reckless rock mum which she has down to a tee but Coogan is equally effective in a very Coogan-esque smug but funny role. As with all the actors, they excel in scenes with the amazing Onata Aprile. With shades of Mara Wilson in Matilda, Aprile is impeccable in the titular role. Co-star Vanderham stated that even when Aprile is in neutral mode, her facial expression suggests sadness which works brilliantly, giving off an effortless aura. She not only plays sadness well, she brings a lot of humour, delivering excellent observations on the people around her. Scenes at the school really help to offer a nostalgia of childlike humour, in particular in a hilarious moment when she introduces her new step dad Lincoln to her class like a show-and-tell piece. Vanderham and Skarsgård are really good and their characters are also mistreated and used by Maisie’s parents and through this neglect they form a bond with Maisie.
I have nothing but praise for ‘What Maisie Knew’, and was instantly drawn into the story and the likeable, and relatable characters. Onata Aprile steals the show, evoking a hugely emotional response and the clever direction and camera work links us to her viewpoint. It is interesting to see a feuding break-up film through the eyes of the child, who is inevitably affected the most, their outlook deserving of its showcase. Last year, nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis was showered with award nominations for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, showing young stars can now be recognised in the same way as adult actors. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying she was amazing ‘for her age’ but she was incredible for any age and makes this film a faultless masterpiece.
See the trailer: