Wolf Hall 2015

wolf-hall-mark-rylanceThis BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantell’s bestselling book is a history lesson, but it’s never dull. Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell, the man behind the man in the court of King Henry VIII (Damien Lewis). His position as an eminence grise is established through his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Price), but it’s the battle between Cromwell and the King that makes Wolf Hall such a gripping watch. Covering much of the same ground as A Man For All Seasons, Wolf Hall has a much more political view of historical events, complete with some wicked humour and freaky dream sequences. And Rylance’s performance is a huge achievement; good as he was in support in Bridge of Spies, this is acting as its very best.


A Man For All Seasons 1966


About as classy as a film can get, Fred Zinnermann’s 1966 film of Robert Bolt’s play exudes intelligence, telling in broad strokes the story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and his battle to reconcile his religious beliefs with his position of Lord Chancellor. When Henry VIIII (Robert Shaw) plans to marry again, More is not prepared to bow to his will and annul his previous marriage. More refuses to crumble in the face of the king’s persuasion and pressure, and his spirited legal defence of his position is a key text in understanding the nature of personal faith. Scofield and Shaw give magnetic performances, and support from Orson Welles and a very young John Hurt make this a historical epic that’s firmly grounded in the personal, and has a sensitivity for language that makes More’s arguments endlessly quotable.

Reds 1981


For Warren Beatty to take the life of John Reed, a key participant in the 1917 Russian revolution, and make it into a Gone With The Wind epic might seem like an act of Hollywood hubris; his 1981 film is anything but, a detailed, accessible and fascinating bio-pic, full of strong scenes and performances. Beatty plays Reed, who hooks up with Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and heads over to Russia to document the birth of communism, with a love triangle featuring Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) as counterpoint. Beatty doesn’t shy away from speeches, and even uses the International anthem for a stirring montage, but he also keeps a tight grip of audience sympathies, with a running joke about hitting heads of low lights typical of the crowd-pleasing film. Beatty and Keaton are both excellent, and Nicholson burns up the screen in his brief but telling cameo.

Becket 1964


Taking inspiration from Jean Anouihl’s play, Peter Glenville’s 1964 drama derives its story from one of the key clashes between church and state. Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has a great friendship with Thomas Beckett (Richard Burton); they enjoy a drink, and carousing with women, even though Thomas has leanings towards the church. Henry imagines that making his friend Archbishop will allow him to have his own behaviors rubber-stamped by the clergy, but he reckons without Thomas Becket’s strong beliefs, and the schism between the two men threatens to tear the roles of state and church apart. Becket as a film clearly plays fast and loose with historical detail, but the heavyweight performances, as well as a brief but impressive appearance from Sir John Gielgud, make for compelling viewing.

Thirteen Days 2000

thirteen days

Kevin Costner’s return to the Kennedy ethos didn’t make the same cultural impact as Oliver Stone’s JFK; nonetheless, Roger Donaldson’s evocation of White House drama during the Cuban missile crisis is one of cinema’s more reflective history lessons. The strangely accented Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) is caught up in the angst as JFK Bruce Greenwood) and RFK (Steven Culp) ague about the best course of action to take, with the future of the world at stake. Thirteen Days has a couple of well-stages action scenes involving U2 spy-planes, but it’s all the stronger for being a claustrophobic talkfest; it was diplomacy that resolves the Cold war issues, and Thirteen Days is a respectful and conscientious look at one of the most startling chapters of world history.

Immortals 2011


Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s previous films are a mixed bag; style over content doesn’t begin to describe the extravagances of 2001’s The Cell, a thriller so garish and gaudy that Ken Russell might have wanted to turn down the brightness. Singh is a good match for today’s CGI uproar, and 2011’s The Immortals gives him something worth chewing on; Greek mythology filtered through Hollywood moonshine. Henry Cavill does his usual cow-eyed shtick as Theseus, who seeks vengeance from Hyperion (Mickey Rourke in a jackal mask) for the murder of his mother, with sidekick Stavros (Stephen Dorff) along for the ride and live commentary from Old Man (John Hurt).  Any film that features Luke Evans as Zeus has a credibility issue, but Singh slathers the whole confection in eye-popping visuals a la 300, and the fight-scenes are as beautifully executed as most of the willing cast.


Good 1996


Adapted by John Wrahall from CP Talyor’s stage-play, Good is a strong historical drama that deals intelligently with the rise of the Nazi party and German nationalism. As the title suggests, definitions of good and bad are blurred by the story of John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) whose book on euthanasia is seized on by Hitler, and Halder finds himself commissioned to write a paper justifying the extermination of the Jews. Halder’s friendship with Gluckstein (Jason Isaacs) provides an obstacle to his career as an advisor to the Nazis, and his relationship with Ann (Jodie Whittaker) further complicates matters. Isaacs was also one of the executive producers on this worthy, but never dull film, and Mortensen’s immersion in the role of Halder is impressive. One of the few films to consider the complications of 1930’s German nationalism in depth, Good is worth seeking out for those interested in the human cost of war.