It’s a rare thing for a director to make nothing but masterpieces; a film like Insomnia would be the crowing glory of most director’s careers, but for Christopher Nolan, it’s just a rehearsal. Films like Memento, The Following, Interstellar and Inception have established Nolan as a brand name that can attract an audience just on his reputation; Dunkirk shows him at the height of his powers. There are plenty of films dealing with the mechanics of war; Nolan’s summer blockbuster has the mind-set of a student film, splitting three narratives (elementally themed as air, sea and water) and sculpting in time to bring them together as the British army looks for any way home from the beaches of Dunkirk as the Germans close it. Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot has the biggest wow factor, even if his face is largely obscured, while Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles from One Direction wait anxiously to be rescued. Dunkirk is a challenging and original war film that reaches for the mythic rather than the practical; it’s a stunning demonstration that a big, popular movie can have brains as well as brawn.
The story of Hugo Glass has been told before, Richard Harris stepped up to the plate as part of the 70’s boom of survivalist epics in Man In the Wilderness. Alejandro G. Iñárritu manages to create something more intense and epic in this 2016 version, with Leonardo DiCaprio under layers of animal skin as the man who comes back from the dead to revenge his son. His pursuit of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is long, deliberately drawn out and peppered with bursts of frenetic, violent action. But it’s the downtime of Glass’s journey that’s so memorable, with huge expanses of wild territory to traverse and occasional dreams of spiritual import. The Revenant might be a straight-forward revenge thriller in disguise, but careful treatment elevates it to the status of high art.
George Miller’s rethinking/reboot/rebirth of the Australian Road warrior previously played by Mel Gibson really does merit the description ‘one long chase’. Tom Hardy fills the leathers well, sharing the duties as lead with Charlize Theron. The feminist subtext, completely missing from previous incarnations, feels surprisingly organic, with seeds and water the new currency in a world where gasoline is only used for local warfare, and wise women and concubines making up the manifest of Max’s group of escapees from the Toecutter and his gang. A model of how a reboot can move with the times and gain more depth, Fury Road picks up nicely where Mad Max 2; The Road Warrior left off.
Adapted from a novel called Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, Paul McGuigan;’s 2002 takes its central notion from Hamlet; after a murder, a staged reconstruction of the crime by actors is used to figure out who the killer is. Set in 14th century England, Paul Bettany stars as a priest who ducks his vows and goes on the run with a dubious troupe of actors, led by the eternally sinister Willem Dafoe. The Reckoning is a metaphysical murder mystery, a medieval movie with brains as well as an unusual setting and one which would make a good double-bill with The Name of the Rose. It’s directed with his customary flair by McGuigan. and featuring a remarkable supporting cast including Simon Pegg, Tom Hardy and Brian Cox.
John le Carre’s spy novels are something of an institution in the UK, where the television series featuring Alec Guinness as George Smiley are a cultural cornerstone. Thomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) was a surprising choice to helm this reboot of the Smiley franchise, but he pulls off the dingy British 70’s feel with style. Gary Oldman plays Smiley, with John Hurt as his boss (Control) and Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham and Toby Stephens amongst the agents who may, or may not, be in the pocket of Smiley’s Russian counterpart Karla. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy packs a complex, nuanced narrative into a dense two hours of crosses and double crosses, but there’s a wry humour about Alfredson’s view of the game; using music as diverse as George Formby’s Mr Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now, Dana’s All Kinds of Everything and a triumphant live recording of La Mer by Julio Iglesias, he scores Smiley’s investigation with surprising counterpoints, and creates a text worth repeated viewings, even if the action rarely rises above covert conversations.
Tom Hardy’s career breakthrough came in Nicolas Winding Refn’s muscular film about Charles Bronson, one of the UK’s most notorious criminals, and his 34 year stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. With his shaved head and pumped-up body, Hardy’s hard man is contextualized in a high-art series of face-off again prison bosses. Refn brings a lively theatricality to a tale that could have been told in a more gritty, straightforward tabloid-style, and he garnishes the result with the unpredictable burst of extreme violence that peppered Drive and Only God Forgives. Bronson doesn’t glamorize its hero, but presents him as an obsessed, troubled individual, with Hardy rising to the challenge of putting flesh on Bronson’s bones.