Tag Archives: England

Review: OFFICIAL SECRETS

OFFICIAL SECRETS. Country: UK / USA. Director: Gavin Hood. Screenwriters: Gavin Hood, Gregory Bernstein, Sara Berstein. Based on the book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.” Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, MyAnna Buring, Adam Bakri, Tasmin Greig. Language, English. Runtime: 112 minutes. Release Date: August 30, 2019. Venue, IFC Center. Mostly Indies rating: B+

You probably never heard of the backstory that became Gavin Hood’s latest incursion into political wars, the movie Official Secrets. At the time, I was constantly glued to CNN and other news media outlets and barely heard a peep into it (at least on this side of the pond) and any news item coming from the UK may have been during the late nights, or through BBC America. In short, the true story of Official Secrets concerns the whistleblower actions of Katharine Gun, a Mandarin-Chinese translator working for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who in early 2003 came across an email (as did her entire unit) sent by Frank Koza, chief of the NSA, That email, which normally would have vanished into the agency’s intranet, traveled much farther than originally intended. It essentially requested GCHQ to conduct a secret (and illegal) eavesdropping on six non permanent members of the United Nations — among them Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan — to monitor their reaction to the debate on Iraq. The reason for this was because these “swing” nations were critical for the push for the war against Iraq.

Katharine’s reaction to the email is equal parts horror and outrage. Taking a printed copy of the email home with her, she gives it to a friend (MyAnna Barling) who later on passes it on, where it lands as an article in The Observer and into the hands of journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) who conducts a research to see if email mentioned in the article is valid. When that becomes the case, the paper publishes the email; however, the US Government is able to deny any involvement. Meanwhile at GCHQ, tensions are mounting as every employee is being interrogated. Knowing that she must do the right thing, She admits to being the one who leaked the email, gets arrested, and sees her life start to fall apart around her as she must now seek to defend her actions while her Kurdish husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) also faces the pressure and threat to be deported.

Movies involving whistleblowers are always fascinating because they portray the almost archetypical conflicted person going against tradition and raising their hand to uncover the man behind the curtain. As far back as All The Kings Horses, and most recently, as The Post, they always, invariably, make for compelling storytelling, stellar acting, and in creating an atmosphere of pure paranoia that often threatens to swallow the characters whole. After all, we live in a world where we now know to the extent that the powers that be may seek to influence those in key positions to steer nations as if they were prized vehicles into a pre-packaged outcome. Official Secrets is a tense as fuck expose story with compelling performances by Keira Knightley (for once not doing a period piece), Matt Smith, and Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson. Stick to the end to see the real Katharine Gun speaking out after she is exonerated by the British Court.

CHURCHILL

Brian Cox visually dominates the screen as Winston Churchill, which last week ended its run at the Quad Cinema.

CHURCHILL
UK
Director: Jonathan Teolitzky
Runtime: 104 minutes
Language: English

I doubt that Brian Cox will get anything even close to an Oscar nod for his portrayal of a man the UK has labeled “the greatest Briton who ever lived”. From the moment he appears on screen, in what seems to be a fevered dream, standing on the edge of n English beach as the waters roll up to the shore glowing a deep crimson, Cox as Churchill visually and aurally dominates the film and does not let go. Not wanting to make the mistake he made in the Battle of Gallipoli during the First World War Churchill balks at the plans General EIsenhower and Bernard Montgomery, England’s Field Marsh to the plans they have for D-Day. They, on the other hand, see him as something of an old coot who may be past his prime and may not have the insight needed to win the war, and largely ignore his calls for caution. As Churchill’s political and inner life unravel, so does his marriage to Clementine (Miranda Richardson, really drawing a fully fleshed out character from her pat scenes) who herself sees a man imploding into nothing. As with all docudramas and biopics this one takes its liberties to draw out the inner conflicts of one of the most famous and celebrated personages of England’s recent history, and while on occasion it veers dangerously close to schmaltz — for example, when a secretary, played by Ella Purnell, makes her own small mark in a speech that moves Churchill — it always remains fairly true to the historical figure and the man in equal measure. Now, if only we could have our own, and not this mess of a leader, all would be well in the nation.

Cburchill is still playing in theaters, but look for it soon on Netflix and other VOD platforms.






THEIR FINEST

THEIR FINEST
UK
Director: Lone Scherfig
Runtime: 117 minutes
Language: English

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

It’s no secret that women figured prominently in the early days of film making, but as the Twenties gave way into the Thirties, their presence became much less prominent to the point that by the time the Forties came around the only thing they were allowed to do was to construct the ‘slop’ that made up the expository dialogue, the wardrobe, and cosmetics (hair and make up) department. Their Finest touches on the fictional character of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a woman who in the Second World War became instrumental in creating propaganda films to boost the British morale (and thus securing herself a position as a feminist at a time when feminism as such was barely an embryo.

When Catrin comes to the Ministry of Information looking for a secretarial job to make amends while her husband (Jack Houston) tries to score as an artist, she gets whisked into a world she couldn’t dream of: the motion picture industry. While working on short propaganda films that sought to make the women of England to join the workforce, she somehow, by a series of machinations, finds herself working in a major project. The project touches on the story of two sisters who stoke a boat to Dunkirk to save their father and in the evacuation, and the Ministry hopes to make it into a wartime movie. There she meets Tom Buckley (a dashing, bespectacled Sam Claflin who bares a strong resemblance to Nicholas Hoult), a screenwriter with whom she does not initially get along but with whom she must work with. Somehow the two of them manage to create a rousing variation of what was initially a bland picture to begin with and in the interim, a camaraderie develops among the cast members (among them Rachel Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons — making his requisite cameo these days as upper management, which he plays with eyes closed as if the title were his — and best of all, Bill Nighy as a ham of an actor more concerned in his looks than the picture proper.

Their Finest will bring on some twists and turns with Catrin’s character as she slowly rises among the crowd to assert herself as a key player in the making of this film, and it’s often slightly predictable — a romance is almost certainly assured between her and Tom — but never dull or cardboard. The best part of Their Finest is how we as an audience get into the creative mind of a female who shapes a movie while living out her own drama as World War II rages on around them, and it balances comedy with drama rather deftly — often in the same sequence. This is a total crowd pleaser and a quintessential woman’s picture that would not have been out of place during its time, and it’s also a picture that speaks of the resilience of a people unwilling to surrender to chaos and death, but continue to soldier on while using escapism as a jumping off point.






THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

 

At first glance The Man Who Knew Infinity would seem an unlikely movie dead on arrival. The very thought of making a biopic about an advanced Indian mathematician whose deep calculations are still being utilized today to calculate black holes doesn’t strike me as a topic that would make the masses rush to the theater, form lines, and eagerly await the opening credits.

But, surprise, surprise, this movie takes such a topic and dresses it in a little Merchant-Ivory and some new age metaphysics. In doing so, The Man Who Knew Infinity manages to create a rather masterful and even suspenseful drama of a man who had “all this in” (as he continues to mention throughout the picture), all these calculations. Srinivasa Ramanujian, a native of Madras, India, had been creating and annotating in notebooks for his own viewing — calculations that were literally begging to be revealed upon the world. Continuously rejected for employment in his own country due to the nation being run by severe Englishmen who looked at Indians as little more than savages, he lands a job as a bookkeeper. His ability to work without an abacus lands him in the eye of his supervisors who see great potential in him. Just as he is starting to form a family with his wife Janaki, Ramanujan finds himself on his way to London — and not just London, but Cambridge — to work under the tutelage of mathematician G. H. Hardy and publish his works.

Ramanujan believes the publishing thing is a cut-and-dry event that would have him back in India in no time. Hardy, while seeing his level of genius, also needs for Ramanujan to form proofs that his calculations work as he’s created them. Ramanujan for a while comes across as a man with an almost insufferable ego — he “sees” the calculations (which land him on the wrong side of a professor with a fragile ego who becomes a thorn on his side. However, the proofs have to materialize; otherwise, even when these calculations can be as revolutionary as stated, they’ll mean little to the math world.

This is a great study in contrasts of characters. Dev Patel as Ramanujan may be infused with an entitlement, but he eventually reveals to Hardy, his polar opposite, that he is attuned to an inner voice, the voice of the gods, and that they come to him in visions holding these pristine calculations in tow for him to materialize onto paper. Hardy, a confirmed atheist, resists for the longest (and Jeremy Irons is his usual good in portraying a stern father-teacher-turned friend). He can’t believe in Ramanujan’s perspective . . . but who is he to deny it?

The Man Who Knew Infinity manages to also expose the rather casual racism that Europeans have had towards people deemed of “an inferior race”. Ramanujan’s position at Cambridge shields him from going to war in 1914 when the story is set and this engenders some animosity from those who are fighting and see him with contempt. Professors sneer at him for being foreign and despite his discoveries deny him a place among the elite. He gets beat up, badly, at one point, and no one notices — again, because he’s “brown”. In short, London becomes more and more an alien place for Ramanujan to exist and it starts to affect his physical and mental health.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a good debut picture by its director, Matt Brown, a solid biopic that manages to engross and involve you in the plight of this one extraordinary man who, it seems, came for one purpose only — to leave his calculations for future generations. That it’s been playing for a solid two months now speaks volumes to the type of movies that the public wants to see instead of the popcorn  garbage that pollutes multiplexes in late spring. This is the kind of picture that was popular in the times of old Hollywood and I for one am glad that it’s become as successful. I would have wanted that the actor slated to play Ramanujan, R. Madhavan, would have remained as the prime choice, but Dev Patel is excellent in a role that places him onscreen for the entire picture. Devhika Bise, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam are very good in their respective roles.