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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The trailer for Alejandro Iñárritu's fourth film doesn't give much
away. Opening with a machine-gun montage of images set to a keening
note of tension, it seems to promise a frenetic, event-driven
narrative, heady with passion and with threat. There's just three lines
of dialogue, hinting at the protagonist's limited lifespan, and then a
second montage, shifting the tone to melancholy with lonely landscapes
and scenes of grief. It's a slightly jarring watch, a build up that
turns not to release but to a lengthened, protracted decay.
As trailers go, it's uncharacteristically honest. Biutiful is a film about decay, about the decline of both its main character and the society around him. Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a man diagnosed with prostate cancer and given two months to live. Even before this knowledge, though, he was living on the fringes of life, acting as a broker between illegal immigrants subsisting in squalor and those seeking to exploit their labour for profit. In addition, Uxbal can commune with the recently-dead, his 'gift' a bridge between the world he's in and the one he's soon to join.
This is not an easy film, nor a conventional one. In the hands of another director the supernatural conceit would likely have taken over, the familiar Sixth Sense narrative of a man struggling to cope with a dubious ability suffocating any other plot strands with lazy horror and predictable story arcs. Not here. It's some way into the film before Uxbal's skill is introduced, and it's never dwelled upon, lamented nor questioned. This is simply something he can do - presented to us through disquieting shots of bodies pressed into the corners of ceilings or shadows haunting the edges of the frame - and never the thing that defines him.
It's the cancer that does that. We see Uxbal go through the standard cycle, from denial to anger to final, grim acceptance, attempting to get his life in order before it falls apart. But far from a tale of self-pity, Biutiful is about carrying on in spite of the circumstances, making plans and helping others in whatever way possible. Only twice does Uxbal discuss his cancer openly, first with a fellow medium and then with a stranger, a girl he meets in a club. But he wears the weight of it upon his face, his features taut with resignation and regret.
Bardem does more than just play this character: he inhabits him, giving an immaculate, sustained performance as a man grinding down as he sees his own end, confronting his own mortality as he's seen that of so many around him. As with Benicio Del Toro's tortured patriarch in Iñárritu's 2003 film 21 Grams, Uxbal's home life is difficult, his estranged wife disintegrating under bi-polar disorder and her own promiscuous impulses and their young son becoming increasingly wayward (scenes of familial discord, particularly set within a mealtime context, will be familiar to fans of Iñárritu's previous work).
These personal traumas are written against a wider backdrop of contemporary Barcelona, a city ordinarily drenched in golden hues of Catalonian sun and lazy recourse to Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia. And sure, those shots are here, fleetingly. For the main though Iñárritu shoots it as a cluttered sprawl, industrial chimneys pockmarking streets that run with perennial rain, its inhabitants either desperate or indifferent.
This is a Barcelona of corrupt police and human traffickers, of deportations and deprivation. Women stitch together counterfeit goods in airless sweatshops for little reward, their husbands working jobs in construction that they aren't trained how to do. At night they sleep on concrete floors, their lives a constant fog of flu and fear and ultimately tragedy. This is a film comprised of tragic lives, every character broken in a society that lacks in empathy or care.
With some exceptions. Uxbal feels for these people, spending his last days doing what he can, even if his actions are unwittingly damaging. And it's clear that Iñárritu cares too, ultimately directing our sympathy not at Bardem's character but at the invisible, marginalised communities that are forced to the fringes. The plight of the Senegalese and Chinese immigrants is drawn with candour and restraint, never falling to sentimentalism but remaining tremendously affecting throughout. In a film not light on miseries it's theirs that leaves the scar, a moving counterpoint to the increasingly heartless xenophobia of much of our press.
It's certainly not an easy film. At 138 minutes of near-relentless hopelessness it's a fair challenge to endure, and there are few lighter scenes to leaven the tone. The performances are tremendous, though, lending a humanity to roles which could easily have become mere archetype (such as Uxbal's sleazy brother, seemingly bereft of any moral anchor). Maricel Alvarez deserves particular mention for her turn as Uxbal's wife Marambra, her downward spiral inescapable despite frantic attempts to keep herself together.
And if at times the sheer abundance of personal dilemma - repressed homosexuality! marital infidelity! - threatens to turn the film to soap opera, the beauty of its cinematography steers it back to safety. This is urban decline shot with a documentary maker's eye for detail, and if nothing else it stands as an essential antidote to the tourist snapshot of Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona. Whilst Biutiful might not be making it into Spanish holiday brochures anytime soon, it's certainly more than worthy of our time, and it would be a foolish Oscar panel that overlooks Bardem's performance come February 27th.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
We are, most of us, pretty familiar with dystopia. An outsider, or
group of outsiders, rises up in opposition of some malignant,
controlling force. Sometimes they overthrow it, or at least register
some level of victory, however ambiguous, as with Children of Men.
Sometimes, as in 1984, the system consumes them. But always - always -
there is the fight, the struggle to overturn whatever dark elements
have taken hold.
There is no fight within Never Let Me Go. There is no conflict, no resistance, no tiny, token victory. The fate of the protagonists is chillingly accepted, their passivity devastating.
The film, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, weaves an understated hopelessness through a well-worn science-fiction concept, telling the story of a group of clones created so their organs could be harvested for medical purposes. Taking place in an alternate Britain in the late twentieth century, where life-expectancy has risen to over 100 years, we first meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as children at Hailsham, a country boarding school. At first their lives seem idyllic, sunset hues and natural imagery creating a sense of a privileged rural seclusion, but the edges are frayed with tension. A new teacher, Miss Lucy, questions the children as to why they seem afraid to leave the grounds: their replies, as with The Village, hint at rumours and misinformation that have distorted their sense of reality.
The initial impressions of privilege are quickly worn down by the faded interiors, the dorm rooms sparse and colourless, the classroom desks worn and cracked. The students collect mismatched tokens to exchange for junk, their uncontrolled excitement at odds with ragged castoffs on display. Visitors to the school shudder visibly as they enter.
For the children, of course, this all goes unnoticed. We're led to assume that they've experienced nothing else, and whilst we're drawing dark conclusions they're growing up, and falling in love. Kathy and Tommy's growing affection for each other is tracked from early concern to backward glances in assembly, shared mealtimes and thoughtful gifts, until finally he's stolen from her by a jealous Ruth. It's a love triangle that dominates the rest of the film, as they leave Hailsham for a group of farmhouses shared with people from other institutions similar to their own. Food and supplies are delivered regularly in a van marked National Donor Programme, but otherwise they're pretty much unsupervised.
Which makes their inaction all the more awful. They each know what awaits them, each fully aware of the various stages mapped out until their 'completion' not long hence, but they do nothing to prevent it. At no point is there even the suggestion of escape. Many, many questions are raised regarding the extent of surveillance and control that they are under - wristbands clock their return home, their arms mechanically waving them to the sensor - but none are answered, and nothing is challenged. But that's the point: these are people - creatures, as they're referred to at one point - who have known no other life, for whom the idea of challenge would be incomprehensible. They're unable, even, to order food in a seaside restaurant, so far from their experience is it.
As a story it's horrifying, our gradual awareness of their circumstance - more clearly signposted than in the prose - quickly turning to frustration at the hopelessness of it. To be sure this is not an easy watch, and not one easily shrugged off or recovered from. All of the leads are excellent, Carey Mulligan particularly so but Andrew Garfield the most affecting, his hope the last to fade like embers dying in his eyes.
Technically it's quietly beautiful, long takes and nostalgic palettes suffusing every frame with an aching, undisguised sadness, ever-present and at times overwhelming. The soundtrack is simple, a recurring motif echoing both the melancholy themes and the character's calm acceptance of their tragedy. This is low-key filmmaking, certainly, but no less confident for it: Mark Romanek has done menace, in One Hour Photo, and here he's nailing pathos.
Is it Oscar-baiting? Possibly: it's certainly been timed to hit awards season, but it definitely deserves some recognition. Whether it gets it is another question: the trailers don't sell the film right, and there will be many who dislike the slow, measured pace and the lack of clear exposition. But Never Let Me Go isn't a story about answers, nor even, really, about clones - it's about our own powerlessness in the face of larger forces. And we can shout and scream and rage and try our hardest to break those forces down, but ultimately the true measure of our lives is in the relationships we form, however they may end.