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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (10/3/2023)

(Reviews of The Middle Man; Charcoal; and My Sailor, My Love)


THE MIDDLE MAN.


Norwegian director Bent Hamer went on a bit of a run in the first decade of the new century, with Kitchen Stories (2003), Factotum (2005), and O'Horten (2008) all doing the rounds of UK arthouses. But only festival audiences will have caught Home For Christmas (2010) and 1001 Grams (2014) and Hamer seemed to be slowly sliding from view when he resurfaced in 2021 with The Middle Man.


Adapted from a novel by Lars Saabye Christensen and filmed in English on location in Canada and Germany with a largely Scandinavian-Canuck cast, this small-town American saga has plenty of the left-field deadpan one has come to expect from Hamer. But, in needing to tread warily in discussing themes like tragedy, loss, and grief, it lacks the absurdist edge that might have made this a dark delight.


In the remote American berg of Karmack, misfortune happens so regularly that the presiding commission of the Sheriff (Paul Gross), the Doctor (Don McKellar) and, the Pastor (Nicholas Bro) hire Frank Farrelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) to be the official bearer of bad news. Town hall receptionist Blenda Johnson (Tuva Novotny) is delighted that he beat ex-boyfriend Bob Spencer (Trond Fausa Aurvåg) to the post, while mechanic buddy Steve Miller (Rossif Sutherland) is pleased he's found work after losing his job when the railway station closed.


Butcher Bill (Jim Stark) is unimpressed when he cuts his hand halving the t-bone steak that Frank buys to celebrate, but mother (Nina Andresen-Borud) is proud of him, even though she's frustrated by the fact that he has signed a confidentiality agreement and can't discuss his work. This starts immediately, as he's no sooner order a new black suit from tailor John Stout (Bill Lake) than he has to shadow the sheriff as he breaks the news to John and his wife (Sheila McCarthy) that their soldier son has been killed in a car crash while heading home on leave.


But things go quiet for a while and, when Frank starts worrying he'll be fired unless there's an accident, Steve accuses him of becoming morbid. He thinks the middle man post is a waste of money and finds it ghoulish that Arthur Clintstone (Aksel Hennie) has set up a business to clean up accident scenes and wants Frank to put in a good word with the Commission.


When they go to a bar, Frank and Steve get baited by Bob, who takes exception to the latter kicking the jukebox when it fails to play the flirtatious Mrs Stout's request. They get into an argument and Bob puts Steve in a coma with a single punch. The sheriff is reluctant to press charges, but asks Frank to inform Steve's father, Martin (Kenneth Welsh), that his son has been permanently brain damaged.


Frank doesn't do a particularly good job and Martin snaps at him for being imprecise. But he softens as they drive to the hospital, as he knows how close he was to his son. As he's on duty, the already impassive Frank show's no emotion at Steve's bedside and he feels a little awkward as the cantankerous Martin breaks down and sobs. When Blenda offers her condolences, she tells Frank he's getting the hang of things, but wouldn't want him to bring his work home if they became an item.


They start dating and make a quaintly hesitant couple. When Bob tries to rile Frank, Blenda tells him to rise above it. She is touched by the way he keeps visiting Steve and avoids prying when he leaves early after their first night together and when he has to inform some parents (Christopher Buchholz and Jannike Schubert) that their teenage daughter has been hit while walking the railway tracks with her friend in the early hours of the morning. She is also in a coma and her mother adopts Martin's vigil routine.


Unfortunately, Martin dies and bequeaths Steve, the house, and the garage to Frank. He decides to pull the plug on Steve, with the agreement of the Commission (despite thinking he saw him move an eyelid), and invites Blenda to move out of the flat above her father's long-closed cinema. At the precise moment Steve passes, however, the teenager comes round and it becomes clear she has been misidentified. The Commission comes under criticism and they pick on Frank, who takes out his frustration on Blenda after she suggests doing up Steve's place as a summer home.


Angry with Bob for taunting him, Frank asks boss Arthur to knock him down, as his position won't allow him to. But Bob dies in the resulting skirmish and the pair don hazmat suits to incinerate his body at Martin's place. As the fire catches light, the jukebox from the bar starts to play. This spooks Frank, but it panics him when his mother informs him that Blenda had salvaged the machine from the bar and was cleaning up the house as a surprise.


Remembering that Arthur claimed to have seen a light on, Frank fears the worst. However, he has to put up a front when the sheriff and doctor come to tell him about the fire and confide that there the suspicious circumstances will have to be investigated. Having eavesdropped, Frank's mother asks what he has done. He pleads innocence, but she says she can no longer turn a blind eye to his behaviour (as she had done when he had killed his father by pushing his ladder) and wants nothing more to do with him.


Venturing into Blenda's apartment, Frank sees that she has opened the door leading to the cinema. He finds her sitting in the auditorium, with her cheeks covered in soot. Nothing is said, but they take Martin's abandoned boat and sail off to see the ocean.


Enclosed in a towering ring of neon-lit industrial architecture, Karmack feels like a place in a dystopian fairytale. Rather like the Finnish village in Mikko Myllylahti's The Woodcutter Story, it bares comparison with

Twin Peaks or Fargo in that odd things keep happening and nobody bats an eyelid. The only outpourings of emotion in the whole of this peculiar film come from the grouchy Martin Miller and the mother who learns that her daughter has been buried while she has mistakenly been at the bedside of her disfigured friend. Yet, amidst all this, Hamer opts to say little about bad news, fate, or bereavement.


The script teasingly resists explaining the cause of social tension within a Rust Belt town like Karmack and presents its unconventional governance as a fait accompli. It also declines to dwell on why the only candidates for the post of middle man would be a loose cannon like ambulance cleaner Bob Spencer or a hangdog oddball like Frank, who has been unemployed for three years. Similarly, nothing is revealed about Blenda's attraction to them both, although Tuva Novotny's enigmatic performance is of the picture's strong points, s it's never quite determined whether she's too good to be true.


Pål Sverre Hagen is afforded room for even more nuanced manoeuvre as Frank, as it's only when his mother turns against him that we realise he may not be a put-upon victim after all. The excellent support playing also helps keep Frank's darker side hidden in plain sight, with Sheila McCarthy and Kenneth Welsh deftly confirming sheriff Paul Gross's contention that everyone grieves differently.


This is a slender message to take away from a film that keeps tilting at greater profundity. It looks splendid, with Diane Magnus's interiors being atmospherically lit by John Christian Rosenlund, who keeps the camera moving elegantly that Anders Refn's editing seems as effortlessly smooth as Jonathan Goldsmith's insouciantly sentimental score. Roy Andersson might have made this more amusing, while Claude Chabrol would have been more cutting. But Hamer appears content to leave the audience to take what they want from a tale that never quite finds its true tone.


CHARCOAL.


Having made her mark with the multi-award-winning short, The Orphan (2018), Brazilian director Carolina Markowicz makes an accomplished feature debut with Charcoal. Another tale about a cuckoo in the nest, this darkly suspenseful satire cannily conveys the vagaries of rural life and is played to knowing perfection by a largely non-professional cast.


Somewhere in the countryside of São Paulo state, Irene (Maeve Jinkings) lives in a tumbledown house with her husband, Jairo (Rômulo Braga), a charcoal-burner with a thirst. Their nine year-old son, Jean (Jean de Almeida Costa), shares a bunk bed with her ageing father, Firmino (Benedito Alvez), who is largely bedridden, apart his wheelchair trips to church on Sundays. Realising that the old man won't recover, new health centre nurse, Juracy (Aline Marta Maia), hints that Irene's problems would be halved if Firmino passed away. However, she has misgivings about switching off his oxygen cylinder and asks the priest about suffering before making up her mind.


Meanwhile, Argentinian crime boss Miguel (César Bordón) is busy staging his own death prior to making a dash across the border. He needs somewhere to lay low while the fuss dies down so he can relocate to a safe island and get on with his life. Juracy proposes to Irene that he stays in Firmino's bunk and offers a generous expenses package to sweeten the deal. Convincing herself that her father is better off out of this sordid world tosses him into the charcoal furnace and makes her guest welcome.


Miguel views his new lodgings with a grimace, although Jean is no more delighted to be sharing a bunk and bluntly demands to know if his new roommate is a paedophile. Jairo is also rude to Miguel and lays down the law that he is the head of the household. Irene is more conciliatory and peeps through the blinds as he dresses, as he is a handsome fellow. The view the other way, to a couple of cows in a yard, doesn't appeal to Miguel and he snorts cocaine in a bovine outline from Jean's toy blackboard to take the curse off.


Irene gives Jairo a lecture about taking a job with Sergio (Pedro Wagner), a friend from church who is cheating on his wife, Luciana (Camila Márdila). What she doesn't know is that he's sleeping with Jairo, who has to keep making excuses to slip out and meet him. Miguel would love to join him, as he resents being locked in the bedroom all day. Over lunch, Irene warns him that country people know everything about their neighbours and burst through doors without waiting knocking. He promises to stick by the rules, but sneaks out at night and Jean catches him dozing by the pond.


Getting her hair done in the hope Miguel will compliment her, Irene also buys some perfume and skimpy undies. Yet he fails to notice when she offers him some wine and it's only when he's having a kickabout after dark with the filter-free Jean that he learns his hostess is trying to catch his eye. Unmoved, Miguel uses the picture of Irene as Miss Werewolf that she had stuck above Jean's bed to snort a line.


As they are being well paid for their hospitality, Jean is able to buy snacks for his pals at school and Jairo is able to buy Sergio a motorbike in return for services rendered. But this makes Luciana more unhappy and she comes to visit Irene and keeps inquiring about Firmino. She insists on staying for coffee and biscuits and Irene wonders if she's feeling guilty because she has disposed of her own ailing mother.


Fed up with being fenced in, Miguel asks Juracy to speed up his next move. But she assures him it's too dangerous and only allows him to keep the last of his cocaine stash if he promises to bide his time. Having broken his bed, however, Miguel is at the end of his tether and he declines to participate when a drunken Jairo comes home with a big blue cake to celebrate what would have been Firmino's 89th birthday. He also refuses to apologise when Jean is caught trying to buy cocaine at school and the principal reports him to social services.


Before any visit can happen, however, Miguel finds a note in the blinds saying `I know', which forces Juracy to hasten his departure. He compliments Irene's cooking during his last supper and hugs Jean, who gives him his slate and offers to become his assistant in the future because he isn't afraid of anything. As Miguel hugs Irene, however, Jairo pounces to pull a plastic bag over his head and suffocate him to death.


Everyone stands around with the body on the kitchen table until Jairo dumps it in the charcoal furnace and smokes it up. Jean tosses the note into the flames, as well as the notebook the page came from. With the house empty, they announce Firmino's death and Irene's conscience is pricked by the sermon. But she still asks Jean to snoop when he goes to play with Luciana's soon, as she suspects her holier than thou friend has a fugitive of her own in her mother's room.


It's one of the wonders of cinema that camera-ready moppets keep popping up across the globe to steal scenes for fun in films like Charcoal. Maeve Jinkings and César Bordón couldn't be better, as the mismatched landlady and tenant, while Rômulo Braga is flesh-crawlingly convincing as the feckless husband. But they are upstaged at every turn by Jean de Almeida Costa, who picks up adult behaviour so quickly that he goes from inquisitive chatterbox to master manipulator in a matter of weeks. There's nothing obvious about Jean's transformation, however, and therein lies the genius of Master Costa's performance.


Much of this, of course, is down to Carolina Markowicz's skilled direction, as she ensures her spirited first-timer remains on pitch. But her writing is also astute, as it treads the line between thriller and farce to keep the audience guessing about who to support and who to mistrust. Some of her social commentary is a bit blatant. But, the asides on toxic masculinity, complacent Catholicism, and the corrupting power of money are spot on, while the joke about nine year-olds and marijuana is very sharp. Moreover, we never quite get to grips with the layout and make-up of the community in which Irene and Jairo live. Nor do we learn much about Juracy and how a provincial Brazilian nurse got to be so trusted by an Argentine crimelord's family. But this all adds to the intrigue, as Irene wrestles with her conscience and a need to be appreciated as a woman, Jairo indulges his weak-willed whims, Jean discovers what he wants to be when he grows up, and Miguel goes stir crazy.


Splendidly designed by Maninés Mencio to convey the cramped chaos of the shack and its livestock-strewn environs, this is photographed by Pepe Mendes with a mischievous eye for detail and small gestures and expressions. It's also punchily edited by Lautaro Colace and rattles along so enticingly that one wouldn't be surprised to learn that there's a Hollywood remake in the pipeline. More interesting, however, will be to see what Markowicz does next.


MY SAILOR, MY LOVE.


While Martin McDonagh was on one side of the island of Achill off the Mayo coast making The Banshees of Inisherin, Finn Klaus Härö was on the other shooting his English-language debut, My Sailor, My Love. Best known in this country for the historical drama, The Fencer (2015), Härö is a thoughtful film-maker and his nuanced domestic saga has been received more warmly in Ireland by those unconvinced by the clichés and caricatures in the nine-time Oscar nominee.


To most people, Howard (James Cosmo) is a bluff old sea dog who enjoys scaring children at the pub with tales of escaped gorillas on his ship. Daughter Grace (Catherine Walker) finds him harder work, as he doesn't appreciate anything that she tries to do for him. He is rude to new housekeeper Annie (Brid Brennan) after she gets his old tunic dry cleaned and she asks if he's a man who enjoys humiliating women when he comes to the pub where she lives with daughter Kelly (Nora-Jane Noone) to apologise with a bunch of flowers.


After Howard insists that Annie shares the next meal she cooks for him (after having tried to spy on her from his mower), the pair begin to get on. Annie's granddaughters help collect the apple harvest and they are yarning around a brazier when Grace arrives for the weekend. Already stressed with her nursing duties and husband Martin (Aidan O'Hare) requesting a conversation about their future, she is furious that her father has said nothing about her coming. She reminds Annie that she pays her wages and expects her to behave like an employee.


When Grace confides that she is making plans to put Howard in a home, Annie tells him behind her back and he invites her to move in as his companion. She's nervous about such a big step after recently burying a husband who had mistreated her and her daughters. Howard is also widowed, although he felt estranged from the wife who had drowned several years earlier.


Grace is also starting to feel detached from Martin, who has been offered a new job in Germany and has invited an estate agent to value their house. Her mood darkens when she loses her job and travels to spend Christmas with her father, only to find the immaculately decorated house filled with Annie's relatives. Howard snaps at Grace when she's rude at the dinner table, but Annie is concerned by the way her treats his own flesh and blood.


Crushed by Martin leaving and selling the house from under her, Grace asks Howard if she can move in. He refuses and she sends Annie a letter warning that he is manipulating her in the same selfish way he did with her mother. Hearing at her new hospital that they plan to marry, Grace informs Annie (after Howard blacks out at the wheel) that he left her at 14 to care for her clinically depressed mother and blamed her when she drowned. She also tells her that Howard had been banned from driving five years ago after being forced to retire following a stroke. Hurt that Howard has hidden so much from her, Annie flees.


She has moved out by the time he gets home and he's devastated that she refuses his calls. He hears her when she tries to visit and falls to his knees sobbing. But Grace holds firm until he's rushed back into hospital after another collapse. Annie gets to see him at a convalescent home and gives him a photo of them dancing before accepting his marriage proposal. But Howard dies and Grace learns they were together when it happened. She finds Annie on the beach and thanks her with a tearful hug. As she closes up the house, she takes down a childhood picture with her father and sets off to pick up her pieces.


Tastefully discreet in its discussion of some thorny issues, this is a meticulously made film with some engaging performances and a lovely piano score by Michelino Bisceglia. But it's also unashamedly melodramatic, with Jimmy Karlsson and Kirsi Vikman's seeding the action with potential crises that arrive just in time to give the narrative some fresh conflict or impetus. Howard's decision to withhold his fragility from the woman he has asked to share his life raises some pressing questions. But none are addressed, as the spate of medical emergencies enables emotionality to take over and ensure that nothing further is said about Grace's traumatic youth or Annie's feelings at losing the man she had hoped might have atoned for her unhappy marriage.


Brid Brennan and Catherine Walker do remarkably well with sketchily drawn characters and their scenes together crackle with (mostly unexplored) tension. But we see too little of Annie or Grace's lives outside their contact with Howard. The latter's marital strife is clumsily handled, while the group therapy interludes are so poorly integrated as to be pointless, when they could have been used to highlight methods of male cruelty. We also learn little of Annie's relationship with Kelly and how she and Howard fit into a community that is - if Grace's fellow nurses are to be believed - agog with the quaint oldsters who have fallen in twilight love.


The estimable James Cosmo has even less to work with as Howard, as the script is so bent on giving everyone the benefit of every doubt that he merely simply switches between being gruff or grandfatherly. If five years have elapsed since his stroke at sea, why has it taken Grace so long to find him a carer when he clearly can't cope around the house. This is also pretty remote and, if his car has long been in a garage, how does he get groceries and other supplies. Conveying life as it's lived on screen is all about the details and Härö seems largely disinterested in them, in spite of John Hand's excellent production design.


Robert Nordström's lighting of the interiors is also adept, with the scene in which Grace picks her way along a hall bedecked with fairylights being particularly atmospheric and meaningful. But the ramifications of her discovery that Howard and Annie are an item are brushed aside, as the seemingly street smart Annie is swept along by a romance that, in truth, always feels like a screenwriter's conceit.


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