Lawless is okay, I guess

Nestled at the foot of the Appalachian mountains is Franklin County, Virginia, home to a modest 30,000 people during the 1920s. At the height of America’s prohibition, this diminutive rural community was producing illegal booze on a vast scale. It was estimated that perhaps as much as 99% of the residents of the self-styled “Moonshine Capital Of The World” were involved in the illegal liquor trade in some way. It’s surprising, given America’s fondness for navel-gazing mythologising into its frontier past, it’s taken this long for Franklin’s story to be told: first in a book called The Wettest County In The World and now in Lawless, a half-decent film adaptation of that book, which details the tribulations between three hooch-cookin’ brothers and John Q Law’s attempt to stop them.

First, the good: it looks nice and the acting is great. Director John Hillcoat has assembled a fine ensemble (Shia LaBoeuf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska) and there’s not a weak link among them. I particularly enjoyed Gary Oldman’s appearance in what basically amounts to a cameo: as big shot gangster Floyd Banner, his opening appearance provides the best scene of the film. He screeches into town, lets a million bullets from a tommy gun rip into an old Model T Ford (á la Bonnie & Clyde), chews a cocktail stick beneath a pencil moustache and winks, slyly. So cool are these brief thirty seconds, they all but confirm, if confirmation were really needed, that Gaz need only stick his head round the corner of a film set and the film is his.

Shia LaBoeuf is impressive too, continuing his World Tour Of Arthouse so as to atone for his heinous franchise crimes. (We will next be seeing Mr LaBoeuef having full sex with a lady in Lars Von Trier’s mad art bonkathon Nymphomaniac.) It takes guts and self-effacement for an A-lister to play, as one character names him, “the runt of the litter”, and he shows more commitment, grace and range in 90 minutes than he did in three Transformers films, boding sort-of positively for his burgeoning career as a ‘serious actor’.

And Lawless sure looks purdy, too, with a careful devotion to period and a consistently beautiful palette through Benoît Delhomme’s carefully trained lens. But Hillcoat, along with scribe/soundtracker Nick Cave, fall into the trap of many a neo-western, wrongly assuming that a pretty country vista and a wistful voiceover from  good ol’ time boy are all the ingredients needed. In fact, they skittishly throw in another element: some Tarantino-esque try-not-to-look-away violence, which crops up now and then in an uneven, misplaced fashion.

It makes for a bumpy ride. Lawless shows occasional promise, but it is a film no smarter than its own bullish, red-blooded lead characters, grumbling along rather mindlessly like Tom Hardy’s apparently indestructible grunting moonshiner. Chalk it down to laziness, studio interference, inexperience, whatever, but this shoot-first, ask-questions-about-plot-and-character-later strategy doesn’t swing it with me. You need only observe how bluntly written the measly afterthought female characters are, or how Guy Pearce’s oil-slick villain bears cartoonish similarities to Dr Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to see what I’m talking about. As Prohibition-era yarns go, Lawless ain’t got nothing on Boardwalk Empire.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Just in time for me to be appropriately irked by the inevitable Oscar snub on Sunday, I finally watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last night.  Reactions I’d encountered about the John Le Carré spy adaptation ranged from “film of the year!” to “the dullest two hours of my entire existence”, and thus I prepared myself for a singularly boring masterpiece – a little like those gruelling Andrei Tarkovsky films you’re supposed to like.

Ultimately, I found it somewhere in between – almost a masterpiece, but certainly not boring, and surprisingly thrilling.  As a depiction of the oft-misrepresented world of espionage, as a delicate snapshot of London in the seventies, and as an exercise in magisterial pace, I thought it was superb.

It seems some detractors have made the fatal error of confusing ‘boring’ with ‘slow’.  Many critics, most notably the Daily Mail’s Peter Hitchens (who spends an impressive 2,300 words fanboyishly whinging about how the film deviates from the book, having apparently never previously seen a film-to-book transfer that changed any minor details), lambasted the filmmakers for their unwillingness to make a more nakedly action-packed film.  “I cannot for the life of me work out why the director has removed all the drama,” the eminent film academic Hitchens moaned.  But surely: unhurried ≠ undramatic.

And that such a deep study of Englishness should come from Johnny Foreigner! Despite working on his first umlaut-free script, Swedish-born Tomas Alfredson has somehow crafted a film more British than any native has managed in years. Every inch of every frame oozes Britishness, presenting an England familiar even to those not around in the seventies.  It’s not the UK of floppy haired West London cads, Union Flags or Big Bens (although the famous clock tower does appear once, gingerly in the background); rather the country of drab, utilitarian colours, of round-faced, balding Oxbridge graduates, of a country facing an imminent winter of discontent.  The pessimistic palette of fabulously named cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema piles on the foreboding, summoning tension with the slightest of touches.

In Tinker Tailor…, less is undeniably more. Alfredson invites us to read between the lines, and like Nicolas Winding Refn in last year’s excellent Drive, expects the audience to derive their own interpretation from silences, pauses, and lulls.  The approach is even more apt here, the endless quietness befitting our notoriously inhibitive British reserve. When George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and Control (John Hurt) leave their offices at the opening of the film, forced into early retirement, they look at each other wearily, staring at one another with silent acknowledgement. Nothing and everything is said in moments like these.

And as everyone has correctly noted, Oldman is top notch.  I can’t think of a greater performance in a career already greedily stuffed with great ones.  He is beautifully pitched, his character a knot of morality and torment behind a mask of reticence (and a pair of moon-round plate-glass NHS-issue glasses).  Oldman is model of restraint – and this from the actor who, in the nineties, was typecast as Hollywood’s shouty bad guy? Thank God BAFTA saw sense to honour him. Plus, as fine an ensemble cast as you’ll ever see. Any half-decent British actor not in Tinker Tailor… ought to fire their agent.

John le Carré wrote George Smiley as the ‘anti-Bond’, aiming away from the alpha male fantasy and for a more realistic, bureaucratic spy, a muted hero, and Gary Oldman’s cinematic Smiley is certainly everything Roger Moore’s Bond isn’t. Here’s hoping new Bond director Sam Mendes has seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and will be taking a leaf out of its book – it’s proof, as stone-carved proof as ever there was, that gripping drama needn’t necessarily be formed of bloated, uninterrupted explosions but careful, deliberate nuance. More please.

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