Movie Review – Their Finest

Their Finest is a charming film about filmmaking. Pity it has to take place during the war.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Just as Nazis make for reliable movie villains, World War II movies seem to be all the rage now among independent filmmakers. As I attended the screening for Their Finest, the cinema ran the trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife, a film in which Jessica Chastain tries on a Polish accent and Daniel Brühl is once again in his Nazi pyjamas. It’s a sign o’ the times that now, when The States are firing missiles across borders and ISIS is essentially an invisible enemy, we should find solace in movies about war.

That’s the awkward position Their Finest finds itself in. It’s a picture set against the second World War, but aims to assuage our concerns that a bomb might go off while you’re watching it. It’s surprisingly light-hearted, considering the body count it dials up as the minutes tick by. It’s also thoroughly unfocused, flitting between genres like a starving dog suddenly given three bowls of grub to choose from.

Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a Welsh lady living in London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston). She gets a job as an assistant screenwriter for the film division of the Ministry of Information, where she meets Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a passionate writer commissioned to pen the next propaganda film in an attempt to spur the Brits on to victory.

That’s not the confusing bit. It would’ve been simpler if that’s all Their Finest had been about. Instead it cobbles itself together so it becomes part comedy, part war movie, part romance story and part satire on American film consumerism, the self-righteousness of actors and the film industry in general. Oh, and it’s set in 1940, so of course it’s also a feminism piece, with both Ellis and Tom throwing masculine superlatives around like misogynistic Frisbees. The many parts actually work quite well on their own, but as they come together they manufacture what is otherwise a slightly disjointed whole.

Plots about issues as dark as war have to be handled with care, especially if it’s going to be a comedy. I, for one, don’t think there’s much to laugh about when a bomb explodes and we’re left with horrifying images of mangled corpses, but Their Finest somehow manages to slip in wry one-liners even as characters are brought in to identify the bodies of their fallen friends. Yes, the line may have been funny, and I might have laughed a bit, but I felt guilty for doing so.

At the end of the day, Their Finest’s heart is probably in the right place, and there are wonderful performances all round; Miss Arterton is particularly buoyant. It just needs more focus, more reverence for its grim subject matter. It’s a sweet, harmless ride, but in the grand scale of the World War, it all ends up seeming just a little bit silly.

Their Finest is available in Australian cinemas from April 20 

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – Denial

The Holocaust: fact or fiction? Even if you’re pretty sure you know the answer, Denial is still a gripping look at the two scholars who actually took to the courts to settle that question.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American historian and professor of Holocaust studies, is interrupted in the middle of a speech by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a famed British Nazi Germany academic whom Lipstadt has labelled a Holocaust denier in her new book. After she refuses to debate Irving publicly on the topic, he sues her for libel. With a crack team of renowned lawyers behind her (including Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott), she enters a widely publicised case with the potential to cause massive historical ramifications and sway the consensus on whether or not the Holocaust actually happened.

Though most of the audience it attracts no doubt already knows the outcome of the incredible court case, writer David Hare (The Reader) and director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) still manage to wring a great deal of suspense and intrigue out of the famous Irving v Lipstadt and Penguin Books lawsuit in Denial. In fact, the core court scenes are interesting and engaging enough to be ranked among some of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas. The rest of the film certainly works hard to live up to matching these scenes in engrossment, but doesn’t always reach the same high.

Though a level of emotional connection is certainly necessary to the screen, especially when covering such a sensitive subject, emotion ends up being a peculiar Achilles ’ heel for Denial. Oddly, the cold, informative court proceedings are far more interesting than the scenes in which characters are given the chance to express how they feel about the situation, since more often than not their strong emotions turn them blind to rational, logical thinking.

This particular problem is embodied by Lipstadt herself; Rachel Weisz is great in the role, lathering on a thick Boston accent, but her character often frustrates, ironically due to how strongly she feels about her Jewish ancestry. She’s unable to form arguments when put on the spot by Irving, brushing it off as “not needing to defend truth”. She frequently goes against the advice of her lawyers, attempting to call on Holocaust survivors as witnesses despite their warnings, and can barely contain her pride or anger throughout proceedings as everyone else around her manages to keep a straight face. There’s also her assertion that Irving is attacking her because “she’s a woman”, which, while potentially valid, feels a little too shoehorned in to appease today’s audiences.

Her team of lawyers are the real heroes here, particularly Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton, who conjures up some genius rebuttals to Irving’s admittedly convincing arguments. Timothy Spall shines as the scowling historian, especially in court where he’s allowed to present his evidence against the Holocaust without bias. Elsewhere the film is a little too quick to condemn him as treacherous and villainous; perhaps rightfully so, but it’s tempting to think that this could have been even more provocative and compelling if both sides were given equal contention.

Despite its emotional flaws, Denial is incredibly absorbing to watch. A trip to Auschwitz part way through creates a sombre atmosphere and helps to ground the situation in a sobering reality, reminding us of just what these two intellectuals are squabbling over. The handling of the hearings alone is enough to make Denial a welcome entry to the courtroom drama genre.

Denial is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films 

Movie Review – Loving

4 film reviewers walk into a cinema… here’s what the Hooked On Film team made of the award nominated film Loving.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Loving breaks all the racial problems of 1960s America down to a very simple truth: that a man and a woman should be allowed to marry each other without having to keep a baseball bat by their bed. It uses soft tones and simple language, and boasts two incredibly powerful performances in Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, whose real-life interracial couple (Richard and Mildred Loving) helped bring down the wall of discrimination that kept so many people apart.

Director Jeff Nichols’ film is touching in all the right ways, and portrays the couple as both stubborn and steadfast. But what it lacks, I think, are stakes. Much of the drama comes from Edgerton and Negga, whose problems don’t really amount to a hill of beans. We get the feeling they changed the world not because they wanted to, but because they were simply swept along for the ride.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

This lack of stakes is also my main gripe with the film. It’s incredibly tedious to watch; your attention peaks in the opening scene and falls steadily from then on because there’s no conflict. I knew how the story would pan out and it never really engaged me emotionally, aside from a few moments here and there. Coupled with notable plot devices that seemed to be blown out of proportion – where simple solutions could have easily solved the problem – I grew weary from the whole affair.

I’m sure the true story was every bit the touching and inspirational tale Loving wanted it to be, but unfortunately this didn’t translate well on screen.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

While it’s true that Loving is a slow film, it’s less meandering than it is delicate with its subjects and the subject matter. Nichols avoids confining his actors to your standard story structure and opts instead to let Edgerton and Negga live as the Lovings in front of the camera. It’s a brave stroke of realism that pays off dividends in making the pair appear as though they are a real couple, even if it means the more mundane aspects of life must also be present.

The subtleties of the performances are what truly elevates the film, favouring quiet resonance over impact. Edgerton is barely recognisable beneath Mr. Loving’s rough, rustic appearance, and Negga says far more with her saucer-sized eyes than ever comes out of her mouth. The lack of forthright conflict means that Loving is not the most entertaining or compelling film, but Nichols’ nuanced style appropriately reflects the humble motives of its couple; the desire to avoid discord and live a normal life.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

It’s just that, for all its subtle niceties and slavish accuracy, I found the whole affair rather…boring? Loving is told at an almost glacial pace, inching along and offering only minute details along the way that often feed into very little or nothing at all.

The film finally starts to come good when Nick Kroll‘s cheeky civil rights lawyer arrives on the scene, but unfortunately everything leading up to this point is rather dull. Like the others, I can see what Nichols was aiming for – a film that focuses on the quiet life Mildred and Richard so keenly want rather than showy, cinematic moments – but it simply didn’t work for me and I found my attention slipping at numerous points throughout the film.

Loving is available in Australian cinemas from March 16

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films

Movie Review – Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane is a slick underappreciated political drama that offers Jessica Chastain a platform to really flex her acting chops.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

With a fearsome reputation, Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is a highly successful lobbyist in Washington DC who finds herself at the centre of an earthshattering scandal when she is recruited to spearhead the embattled anti-gun lobby.

With pro-gun advocates lining the streets to tear her down, Sloane has the fight of her life on her hands if she is going to sway the hearts and minds of key senators regarding a key piece of firearm control legislation. With each underhanded tactic, the dirty underbelly of US politics starts to become increasingly evident – and at its centre is Sloane herself.

Chastain is a hurricane that tears through this film – chewing through scenes with a ceaseless energy and furiousness that leaves the rest in her wake. It’s a compelling performance that illustrates how the efforts of one actor can truly elevate a movie several notches. With every line, we as an audience question her motives and methods, torn between sympathy and disdain. Like a potent mixture of Claire Underwood and Gregory House, Elizabeth Sloane is a goldmine character that Chastain digs into, tearing at the ethical quandaries and strategic chess moves with glee.

With mealy dialogue that recalls Aaron Sorkin’s finer moments, Miss Sloane cleverly structures its narrative by recalling events that lead to a pivotal scene towards the end of the film. Edited together like an account of her misdeeds, the film is like an autobiography that peels away the layers of this uncompromising and tenacious character. The film is also a commentary on the flawed, rotten system at the heart of American democracy and highlights the corruption of powerbrokers to get Washington to bend to their will.

This last point is probably why the film slipped under the radar in the US last year; not just because director John Madden deconstructs the gun control debate, but also because the film exposes America’s justice system for what it really is. It’s a heavy film loaded with talky scenes about bureaucracy and passing legislation, but also one that really rewards those who stay with it until the all the intricate jigsaw pieces are slotted into place and the full picture of what Sloane has up her sleeve slides into frame.

The supporting cast – Mark Strong, John Lithgow, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg – are all great too, however it’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Esme who emerges as the best supporting role. Forming a key part of Sloane’s offensive against the gun lobbies, it’s the dynamic that emerges between the two characters that forms the basis of the film. Jake Lacy draws the short straw – he plays a male escort in Sloane’s employ outside of work, but his arc feels rushed, forced and then hastily (and inadequately) resolved come the end.

Filled with compelling characters, ideas and themes, Miss Sloane has been wrongly passed over this awards season, but it’s well worth your time and money.

Miss Sloane is available in Australian cinemas from March 2

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review -Alone in Berlin

Another World War II thriller arrives, but it feels less like an effort and more like a coercion.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

A German working couple trying to create disorder within the Nazi regime by planting heretic postcards anonymously throughout the streets of Berlin sounds like a potential nail-biter, doesn’t it? Why yes, it does! And this act of bravery indeed happened in 1943. But as thrilling as it sounds, Vincent Perez’s quiet rendition of events doesn’t so much stir our emotions as it duct-tapes them. This is a disappointing picture.

It’s hard to feel anything for a movie and its characters when it doesn’t know what it wants to feel for itself. Alone in Berlin is well-made and convincingly acted (with Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson and perpetual Nazi poster boy Daniel Brühl masterfully steering the lumbering vessel), but what it lacks is any real sense of purpose, or drive. It feels like a ship set out to sail the open waters with no hope of ever reaching land.

But I take my hat off to the real Otto and Elise Hampel, whose sacrifice made this story possible. They lost their only son in the war and decided to take out their grief on Hitler in silent rebellion. No protests. No riots. Just carefully written passages of revolutionary proclamation distributed to the people, knowing quite plainly that if they were to get caught, they would reunite with their son much sooner than anticipated.

Much of Alone in Berlin involves the Gestapo’s efforts to track down the culprits before it becomes a mess too chaotic to subdue. The investigation is led by Brühl, who sees the number of postcards piling up all across town and begins to worry that he may never solve the case.

Alas, what could have taken fifteen minutes to wrap up takes about forty-seven years, and every bit of Alone in Berlin’s middle section threatens to fall asleep even as it prods itself to stay awake. It all goes nowhere, and the film carries such an atmosphere of dread that we are certain of the outcome about halfway through. That’s never a good sign.

Both Gleeson and Thompson are fine in the restrictive roles they’re given. Yes, just fine. When you’re on the run from the law, there’s not much available to you in the way of versatility, and both actors are so good at being fine they almost made me believe they were suicidal rebels attempting to change the world.

At the end of the day, that’s the word that best befits Alone in Berlin: Almost. It’s almost a good movie. The setting almost resembles an authentic 1940s Berlin. The story almost goes somewhere. The ending is almost not so melodramatic as to be laughable. Now stop and think about the word “almost” and see if it still holds any meaning for you.

Alone in Berlin is available in Australian cinemas from March 2

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution 

Movie Review – T2 Trainspotting

“Choose watching history repeat itself,” says Renton, updating his “Choose life” mantra, but if Trainspotting was the high, T2 is all about dealing with the comedown.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Twenty years after stealing their enormous drug deal earnings and abandoning his gang in Edinburgh, Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home from an extended stay in Amsterdam. He reunites with his old friends Simon “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner), who are initially contemptuous for his betrayal, but Renton convinces the trio to go into business together. They agree, though the still-scorned Simon secretly plots his revenge against Renton. Meanwhile, the psychopathic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) escapes from the prison he’s spent the last two decades in thanks to Renton, and learns of his return to Edinburgh…

Busy schedules, a very public feud between director and star, and the general fear of not doing the original justice have held back a sequel to Danny Boyle’s breakout classic Trainspotting for two long decades, but at long last the highly anticipated T2 Trainspotting is here. And unlike most belated sequels to beloved films that are better off left alone, T2 does the best you can ask of something of its type – it honours the original, while providing closure and standing on its own feet as a good film; even if it can’t quite reach the greatness of its begetter.

This isn’t a drug film, or a film about youthful thrills, spills and chills like the first. This is a film about the long-term consequences of all of that; how all the decisions of a drug and crime-fuelled early adulthood come back to bite in middle age. It’s an all-too-real look at facing the music that knowingly holds a mirror up to its audience to make you think “What the fuck have I done with my life?”

Our characters spend a sombre period coming to grips with this, but soon enough the boys agree it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. That’s when things kick into gear and T2 becomes a rollicking good time. Renton and Simon’s friendship/rivalry forms the core of this story, with betrayal constantly hanging over the pair like a cloud.

Bremner is sadly not given much to evolve Spud beyond his lovable idiot routine. Carlyle, on the other hand, is the stand out; his batshit insane Begbie is even more terrifying this time as he hunts Renton with murder in his eyes, yet shows a vulnerability around his family that actually makes you feel for the guy.

There’s an even mix of old and new music on the updated soundtrack, and remixes of both that sum up how T2 feels. It never forgets its beloved roots, but it’s surprising, thrilling, and unexpectedly becomes something funny and fresh on its own. If not entirely necessary or quite as good as Trainspotting, it’ll make you more than happy enough to choose life again.

T2 Trainspotting is available in Australian cinemas from February 23rd 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

Movie Review – Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a bolt out of the blue – a riotous crowd-pleaser that is just too darn good to ignore.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Awards season is too often reserved for sombre and contemplative dramas; this year we’ve been treated to thought-provoking and emotionally-heavy films like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and Fences, all of which are great in their own right – but sometimes you just want something that puts a spring in your step and a smile on your face.

If you think I’m talking about La La Land, you’d be much mistaken. Arriving like a bolt out of the blue, it’s Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures that is the biggest, brightest and most charming surprise of Oscar season.

Hidden Figures is the story of a team of African American female mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program; Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a gifted math wiz, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a driven leader and programmer and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a bright and gifted engineer. Together, these three women strived to break free of the societal shackles imposed upon them and radically change the path of the Space Race.

Spearheaded by a trio of fantastic performances, Hidden Figures takes a little-known story that deserves to be told and makes it something you aren’t likely to forget for a long time. Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all brilliant in their own right, bringing depth, humour and individuality to their characters.

Henson shines in the lead; having not seen her in much before now (I don’t watch Empire), I was mightily impressed by the extent of her range. She shows that she can do it all. She’s funny, endearing and heartbreaking – sometimes all in the same scene.

Spencer is great too; her role is more assertive and strong-willed, but she too gets a round of lines that bring the house down. Personally, I would’ve given her awards nomination to one of her two peers, but I can see why the Academy went for her performance – she’s already a winner for The Help and has that all important cred. The breakthrough performance is without a doubt Monáe as Mary Jackson; her wit and comedic timing takes the film to another level.

The supporting cast are firing on all cylinders too; Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst play in opposition to our lead trio and their arcs are satisfying to follow. Mahershala Ali is fantastic also – he’s just a bundle of pure charisma that wafts through the film spreading charm. The only actor who doesn’t get a lot to work with is Jim Parsons; he essentially gets stuck with playing an angrier, more racist version of Sheldon Cooper and spends 90% of his scenes seething in the corner and giving Henson some serious stink-eye.

A peachy keen crowd-pleaser that is hard not to like, Hidden Figures is the plucky upstart in this awards race. A raft of wonderful performances give this remarkable true story an effervescent fizziness that everyone from ages 8 to 80 will appreciate.

Hidden Figures is available in Australian cinemas from February 16

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Review – Fences

If you’re looking for light and frivolous entertainment – this ain’t it. Tackling a broad spectrum of themes including race, responsibility, love, betrayal, sacrifice and pride, Fences is mighty heavy viewing, but the outstanding craftsmanship from all involved makes the long slug worth it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Cherie Wheeler

On the surface, Fences may seem like a simple film; set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, it follows the everyday trials and tribulations of an African American working class family. But rather than casting a wide net over the era, Fences instead chooses to drill down on its subject matter by placing its characters under a microscope. The result? A highly complex film that will leave you emotionally exhausted.

Predominantly contained to a single setting and driven almost entirely by dialogue, it’s easy to recognise the origin of the source material. Based on the 1983 play of the same name by August Wilson, the film adaptation has been a long time coming, with Wilson having penned most of the screenplay before his death in 2005. His masterpiece has been left in safe hands, however, with heavyweights Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the lead roles, and Washington also handling directing duties.

Having previously brought to life the characters of Troy and Rose Maxson in a 2010 reprisal of the play, Washington and Davis slip on their respective roles like a second skin. If I could describe their performances in one word it would be authentic. Raw emotion explodes across the screen with utmost sincerity, especially from Davis. Not once did I find myself questioning these characters, their actions or their motives – everything is gut-wrenchingly believable. At times, I felt as though the screen had dissolved away entirely and I was actually standing alongside them in the backyard of their quaint little suburban home.

While the film’s authenticity is largely owed to this dynamic duo, there is a lot of support from the remaining cast members. Youngest performer Saniyya Sidney is a revelation, as is Mykleti Williamson, who plays Troy’s tender-hearted, yet mentally damaged brother with perfect finesse. Even during moments when members of the ensemble are not the focus of the drama at hand, each of them are still actively engaged in the scene. From the slightest glance or facial inflection, each performer communicates the exact thoughts and feelings of their character toward the situation, adding further tension to the conflict.

Backing up these powerful players is the stunning production design from David Gropman (The Hundred- Foot Journey, Life of Pi). From the textures of the costumes, to the attention to detail in the set – every inanimate object bears the signs of hosting this fractured family and witnessing their interactions over the years. Much like the characters, every element is battered and beaten up; frayed at the edges and falling apart, yet somehow surviving. There’s a beauty in the peeling paint, the weathered bricks and the gnarled, lopsided trees, just like the flawed people who inhabit this home.

Speaking of imperfections, my one quibble with this film is its inability to transform into a truly cinematic experience. Wilson’s hand in both the original script for the stage and the adapted screenplay is a bit of a double-edged sword. While he’s preserved his material, he hasn’t allowed it to evolve for the screen and the result is a film that walks and talks like a play.

With an unnecessarily long runtime (2 hours and 19 minutes), Fences can become a bit of a strain to sit through, especially with so much dialogue. Denzel’s fast-paced deluge of words roll off his tongue like a boxer pounding at a punching bag, and it can all become a bit overwhelming. This works in a way, as words are Troy’s weapon of choice, and in rarely leaving the dilapidated Maxson home, you’re able to experience the oppression felt by these characters, but overall it makes for tough viewing.

Fences is available in Australian cinemas from February 9

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Movie Review – Fifty Shades Darker

The people behind this series wouldn’t know kinky if it strapped them to a bed, gagged them and spanked them with a wooden paddle.

Corey Hogan

A short while after Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) left him for his controlling, sadistic behaviour, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) forces himself back into her life, promising no more rules or punishments if the two resume their relationship. Ana is resistant at first, but is soon seduced back into his world of high-class luxury, extravagant recreation, and of course submissive sexual relations. But trouble is always brewing in paradise, and soon re-emerging figures from Christian’s past and Christian’s own struggle to contain his violent nature threaten the reconvened relationship.

The second “highly-anticipated” adaptation of E.L. James’ poorly-written erotica for the menopausal is, as anyone with half a brain would expect, just as bad, if not worse than its moronic predecessor Fifty Shades of Grey. And yet the titillating premise, once famous for coaxing a blush or a giggle out of the schoolgirl in everyone, has now become an unstoppable money-printing force like the sparkly-vampire nonsense from which it (unsurprisingly) drew inspiration.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan return to their acting graveyard, and their chemistry is still as absent as their sense of dignity must have been when they signed on to these roles. But the lack of spark really stems from the greater problem that these are non-characters they’re forced to inhabit, and try as they might, they just can’t make them interesting. Johnson gets off easy (heh); being the surrogate role for audiences to imagine themselves in, she just has to look doe-eyed, ask questions and do whatever Christian says. Still, it’s disappointing to see her back in this void of charisma, undoing the chops she proved herself capable of in A Bigger Splash and Black Mass.

Dornan, however, is forced to embody an incredibly exaggerated and unrealistic female fantasy, and once again this delusion comes at the expense of any shred of consistency and believability to his character. In an embarrassing attempt to give reason to his sadistic side, we’re shown flashbacks of him witnessing his crack-addict mother dying as a boy (huh?). It’s as clear as mud. One minute he’s stalking Ana and threatening any guy who looks twice at her, the next he’s taking her on boat rides and stuffing metal pleasure balls inside her. It’s so ridiculous he may as well have “damaged” tattooed across his forehead.

Between the eye-rolling and, again, much-too-tame sex scenes, the rest of the overly long runtime is padded out with melodrama that even the least subtle daytime soap opera would shake its head at. The bland script and dialogue soon segue from unintentionally hilarious to utterly mundane; never once delivering the “Darker” promised by the title.

This series knows it has a fan base, and there’s nothing on this earth that will be able to stop it from being a box office smash. It’s peculiar; in a world now so adamant on pushing strong female characters and empowering women and their independence, something’s amiss when the most popular series for women fantasizes a rich, handsome man to take care of every need and desire, and have total authority and control over everything – and that extends much further than just the bedroom. It begs the question… what do women want, really?

Fifty Shades Darker is available in Australian cinemas from February 9th 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Movie Review – Silence

After five decades of magnificent films, Scorsese finally delivers his truest, most inward-looking epic of all.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Silence is a prolonged, laborious hike up the foothills of religion, and in the hands of any other director, it would have become far too difficult to complete. But Martin Scorsese is a master, and in his care the movie becomes something of a spiritual ordeal – a call to the faithful as well as a savage reflection on prejudice and suppression. It’s easily one of his finest works.

Andrew Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, a young enthusiastic Jesuit priest from Portugal who has come to the far reaches of Asia to spread the word of God. After hearing of his teacher’s disappearance in Nagasaki, Japan, he joins a colleague, Father Garupe (Adam Driver), in a quest to find him.

The largely Buddhist Japanese shogunate of the 17th Century aimed to purge the nation of foreign beliefs using methods akin to the Crusaders and the Spanish Inquisition. But their aim was not so singular. Instead of trying to convert believers, they resorted to mass killings, personal humiliation and the breaking of spirits. Scorsese lays all this terror out for us to witness, in scenes that play out in agonising patience, almost as if for us to acknowledge our own guilt. Christians are crucified on the shore and made to drown in the rising tide, or wrapped in bamboo and burnt alive or thrown into the ocean. Scorsese doesn’t aim to disgust us; he wants to open up a dialogue, a chance for us to evaluate the power of the human spirit in the face of severe oppression.

On this level, Silence is a wondrous achievement. Scorsese’s films often deal with flawed characters seeking redemption. This was true of Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Henry Hill, Edward Daniels and even Georges Méliès. Silence finally acts as their anti-salvation, a troubling idea that redemption does not exist. That no matter how hard you try, how steadfast your faith, you can be broken in more ways than one.

The movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shûsaku Endô, and Scorsese spent 25 years trying to bring it to the big screen. In terms of aesthetics and themes, it reminds me of the powerful Roland Joffé film, The Mission (1986), in which Robert De Niro played an ex-con who repents his way into the Christian monastery. But that movie was made in a heartbeat; it doesn’t bear the labour of passion Scorsese brings to Silence, a film so rich in personal conviction it stands to be compared to the intimacy of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Though not as harrowing as Spielberg’s masterpiece, Scorsese asks the same questions about humanity and leaves the answers blowing in the wind.

Yes, Silence may be too long for many viewers and not gory enough for Scorsese’s diehard fanatics, but it enters a place few of his films do: the soul. And with any good movie, it’s not always about what you see on screen but about the discussions you have with yourself as you leave the cinema.

Silence is available in Australian cinemas from February 16

Image courtesy of Transmission Films