Catnip for the Black Swan audience, Bradley Corbett’s Vox Lux spins a familiar trope into something original and yet familiar; a backstage story of a nervous female performer straggling with the pressure of on-stage performance. It’s remarkable then, that Vox Lux captures something different from other films on the subject; driven by a huge performance by Natalie Portman, Corbett seems to be leaning specifically on the circumstances involving Ariana Grande and the Manchester bombing. Portman’s pop-singing diva originally came to prominence in the aftermath of a high-school shooting, depicted in jarring in-your-face visuals in the opening scenes. Vox Lux drifts some way from her original demure stage persona, and she is seen struggling with substance abuse, as well and questionable relationships with her family and her agent (Jude Law, embracing his sleaze in a Dom Hemingway style). Vox Lux could have gone in several melodramatic ways, but Corbett continually dials the narrative back, creating a grounded yet soaring finale that’s got a real edge. Not for the masses, Vox Lux is a deconstruction of pop and womanhood that observes a fragmenting subject with a keen, dispassionate eye. Songs by Sia.
After enduring an age of pretty-boy vehicles (Alfie), Jude Law has gained in intensity what he’s lost in looks. Law plays Robinson, a submarine expert in Kevin Macdonald’s serviceable action film, pulling together a mercenary crew in a search of hidden gold on an abandoned Nazi submarine. Something in the vein of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, right down to Scott McNairy in the Patrick McGoohan role of US interloper, Macdonald maintains a decent tension through a few tricky hairpins, which Michael Friend typically oily in support. Law’s accent is flawless, and if the action doesn’t have a big-budget for spectacle, the close-quarters action makes for a grown-up slice of derring-do.
A nice piece of casting, by having the 21st century’s most lauded online wit, Stephen Fry, play arguably the most acerbic man in history, Brian Gibson’s BBC film pulls off something of a coup. Based on Richard Ellman’s book, Wilde focuses less of Wilde’s writing career than on the series of personal relationships that cause him considerable torment; as a husband and father, Oscar Wilde finds himself at the sharp end of societal judgement when he embarks on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law). Orlando Bloom pops up as a rent boy, Tom Wilkinson turns up as the Marquess of Queensberry who prosecutes Wilde, and Martin Sheen and Ioan Gruffud add some British spit and polish. And at the centre, Fry gives a strong performance as Wilde, dealing with inner anguish and spitting out bon mots with considerable style.
Jude Law’s erratic career as a leading man gets a shot in the arm from Richard Shepard’s tough, abrasive gangster drama, featuring Law as Dom Hemingway. Introduced with a hypnotic monologue in prison, Hemingway springs out into the outside world with a vengeance, chasing after money he’s owed and prepared to administer beating after beating on the way.
Hemingway hooks up with his old pal Dickie (Richard E Grant, to find that the world has gone to the dogs while he’s been behind bars. Unable to smoke in pubs, his wife has gone and his daughter doesn’t want anything to do with him. Dom and Dickie head for the South of France to track down his missing money, and end up in a drugs, booze and sex romp that leaves Hemingway broke and vengeful.
Although the revenge narrative is more conventional, Law makes Hemingway a shockingly original force of nature, the opening scenes are wildly unpredictable as he faces up to various gangster types. And things are brought to a tense climax in an extended scene where Dom attempts to prove that he’s still got the skills to crack a safe, although the manner in which he does so it shocking and surprising. Law has the charisma of Michael Caine in the 1960’s in these scenes, puffed up, arrogant and yet with a few clear chinks in his personality.
Ignored in the UK, where gangster flick are ten-a-penny, Dom Hemingway is not for everyone; his attitudes to sex, money and women are decidedly retro. But he’s a fascinating, vital character, and Shepard’s film gives him plenty of opportunity to vent his spleen through a full-on performance from Law.
Wes Anderson’s eclectic films have sometimes seemed burdened by the cinema of the past; The Royal Tennenbaums recalls John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, while The Darjeeling Limited references Indian cinema. By looking back to the writings of Austrian humourist Stefan Zweig, whose The World of Yesterday is suffused by nostalgia, Anderson finds a common soul to work with, and the result is a complex, over-stuffed but frequently delightful film, at odds with modern fashions.
Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H, a concierge at a glamorous eastern-European hotel who takes an interest in a lobby-boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Gustave has a secret passion for the elderly Madame D (Tilda Swinton), but when she dies, an act of art-theft sets himself up as her killer, and Gustave and Zero break out of jail to attempt to clear his name.
Told through flashbacks between an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) and an interested writer (Jude Law), The Grand Budapest Hotel is busy even by Anderson’s standards, with cameos from Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Tom Wilkinson and a host of other familiar faces. The effect is charming, in that it evokes a past where character and style were omnipresent, contrasting nicely with the somewhat tatty setting of Zero’s recollection.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has lots of comic situations, and even if there are fewer laughs, the elaborate staging and cheerful air of anything-goes storytelling will ender it to a small but passionate group of cinema-goers. Fiennes wasn’t first choice for the role, but he plays it with gusto, and the whole cast seem to be in on the joke.
Although the play’s haunting ending is rather horribly botched, there’s plenty of acerbic comment on modern relationships in Mike Nichols’ 2004 drama, adapted from Patrick Marber’s hit play. Jude Law is the indecisive obituary writer Dan, whose relationships with Alice (Natalie Portman) puts the brakes on a relationship with photographer Ann (Julia Roberts). Dan sets Ann up on a blind date with Larry (Clive Owen) as an act of revenge, but it backfires spectacularly, leaving all four characters floundering. The way that the characters attempt to destroy each other gives a searing power to Closer, which is not the kind of film for people who want to root for lovable people; all Marber’s characters are cruel and selfish, and yet there’s identifiable pathos in their struggle to come out on top. Portman, Law, Owen and Roberts all deliver lacerating performances in the style of Nicola’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? making Closer one of the most accomplished dramas of modern cinema.