Parky At the Pictures (16/6/2023)
(Reviews of Greatest Days; You Can Live Forever; and Inland)
They may not be mentioned by name, but Take That are crucial to the success of Coky Giedroyc's jukebox musical, Greatest Days. Adapted by Tim Firth from his own stage play, The Band, this was the second show inspired by the quintet's songbook after Guy Jones and Ed Curtis's Never Forget (2007). Firth himself had penned the 2003 Madness spin-off, Our House, so he knows exactly how to crowbar the hits into a wafer-thin plot of tangible relevance.
Given that he had himself pillaged Queen and Rod Stewart's back catalogues for We Will Rock You (2002) and Tonight's the Night (2003), Ben Elton had something of a self-deprecating cheek in mocking the jukebox format in Upstart Crow (2016-18). Yet the warm welcome accorded Giedroyc's film reveals the extent to which a few nostalgic tunes can sway the critics, as there's little else to separate the storyline from Jules Williamson's Off the Rails (2021), which slipped a few Blondie tracks into a dramedy that was cruelly savaged, even though it was Kelly Preston's final outing.
Children's nurse Rachel O'Flynn (Aisling Bea) wins a competition on Radio Clitheroe to see her idols, The Boys, at a reunion gig. As she considers the three people to take on the all-expenses-paid trip to Athens, she flashes back to her younger self (Lara McDonnell) in 1993.
Desperate to watch Top of the Pops (rather than a Ceefax headline about Britain's rosy future in the European Union), Rachel creeps past her rowing parents. But her dad takes the TV out of her bedroom and Rachel is left to get younger brother, Ryan (George Cobell), while imagining that The Boys are serenading her around the house and inviting her into their beach video for `Pray'.
Next morning, she meets up with fellow fans Heather (Eliza Dobson), Zoe (Nandi Sawyers-Hudson), Claire (Carragon Guest), and Debbie (Jessie Mae Alonzo), and they discuss the video's Lord of the Flies undertones while walking through a street market where everyone is involved in a rendition of `Could It Be Magic'. Sagging off to see Claire compete in a diving competition, Rachel and Heather jump into the pool with her after she scores 10 (with the help of The Boys diving off neighbouring platforms in her imagination). The studious Zoe disowns them, but Rachel enjoys the prank and promises the musical Debbie that she will be her bridesmaid when she gets married.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Rachel is embarrassed when boyfriend Jeff (Marc Wootton) proposes for the seventh time in a caravan showroom. She turns him down and crushes him by revealing that she's not taking him to Athens. As she's not spoken to her school chums in 25 years, she's not sure who will be going with her and chickens out by getting the station to make the calls.
This seems unthinkable back in 1993, when the girls went to see The Boys for Debbie's 16th birthday present. They all got dolled up and slugged hooch and soda from bottles and cans before swooning through a medley of hits sung by their silhouetted icons on the stage. They need a loo break when Heather gets gum in her hair and feel let down when they miss the chaps at the stage door. However, a bus driver takes pity on them after they miss the last train and Debbie turns the top deck into a disco, as The Boys gyrate around her to `Relight My Fire'. Even the grumpy driver pulls over and dons a pretty red dress to join in the fun (if only he hadn't left Spandau Ballet).
Finding remembering difficult, Rachel takes the caravan north and blocks Jeff's schools. She also ignores The Boys when they keep popping up in backseats and sand dunes to sing the line, `This is the life you've been given', from `The Garden'. She thinks back to the five friends sitting on the hill overlooking their hometown and swearing on the wristbands that Debbie has procured for them never to lose touch, even if their dreams took them far away.
Jeff is hurt that Rachel wants to go to Athens with people from a distant past she never discusses. But she feels she's made the right decision when she hooks up with Heather Carter (Alice Lowe), Zoe Claymore (Amaka Okafor), and Claire Procter (Jayde Adams) at the airport and they find themselves caught up with an EasyJet plane and its crew in a Busby Berkeley homage to `Shine'.
She's given cause to pause, however, when the ticket checker asks if there's a fifth member of the group. But she throws herself into mixing the old cocktail and persuades the others to see Athens on motorised scooters. As passers-by sing `Greatest Day', the women see the sites and discover that Heather has a daughter with her wife before winding up paddling in a pool in front of a statue whose warrior-like gods come alive. Claire (who has put on weight since her diving days) takes some persuading to join her pals and she's not long taken the plunge before the fountain spouts up and the sodden foursome wind up in a police cell.
They catch up on each other's news and find that Heather is a fashionista, Zoe is an academic with four sons, and that Claire hadn't been in the water since timing out at the national championships. The Boys sing `Said It All' a side room, as the women take in how much they've changed. However, the police chief is a fan and they're allowed to leave. Catching the Metro to the venue, Claire gives some change to Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, and Howard Donald, who are busking `Shine' on the train.
They miss the gig, however, and Heather and Zoe's simmering rivalry sparks into a shouting match that leaves Rachel in despair because she knows that Debbie had held the group together and that it was her fault she was killed in a traffic accident the night after the Manchester concert because she asked her to walk her home. In her slo-mo reminiscence, `A Million Love Songs' plays as the remaining four attend the funeral. Rachel had wanted them to release white balloons from the last place they had all been together. But Zoe and Heather had bickered and Claire had burst her balloon by mistake, leaving Rachel as alone as she is now in the amphitheatre on Mount Lycabettus.
While making their way back to the hotel, the four women duet with their younger selves on `Back For Good', in a bid to make peace with the past and move on with their lives. Rachel makes a start when Jeff and Fred the dog meet her at the airport and he uses lyrics to promise never to propose to her again.
She goes back to the sick kiddies on her ward, where everyone adores her. Zoe enrols at university to do the degree her boys prevented her from doing, Claire encourages a timid girl to dive at the pool where she works, and Heather introduces her disapproving mother to her granddaughter at a jumble sale. They come back together to be bridesmaids after Rachel proposes to Jeff and she uses the lyrics of `Patience' for her wedding vows.
Wearing the wristbands from 25 years before, the women send up their balloons, as Debbie sits on a nearby rock singing `Rule the World'. Returning to town, they lead a procession of locals and characters from the story (as well as a brass band) through a mash-up of `Never Forget' and `Shine' that ends with Rachel cooing about how wonderful they all are.
One suspects that the majority of those who pay to see this feel-good frolic at the cinema will be tapping at their phones on the bus home to pre-order the DVD. Others, however, will feel as though they have been forcibly held under in a vat of syrup for 112 minutes. The performances are spirited, the choice of songs shrewd, and the choreography occasionally inspired. But could the plot have been any more mawkishly predictable or the characterisation any less crassly superficial?
Whose heart could be so petrified that they could not wish an NHS nurse anything other than a happy ever after? And the same for the friends who have all had to overcome their own personal struggles in the quarter century since they last gave each other a second thought? Aisling Bea and Lara McDonnell hold things together well as Rachel. But her relationship with Jeff scarcely rings true, despite the best efforts of Marc Wootton in a poorly written part. The feud between Alice Lowe and Amaka Okafor also comes out of nowhere, although the same can't be said for the Debbie bombshell, which is an inevitability from the moment the car is first seen careering around a corner.
On the technical side, Mike Eley's photography lacks the depth and kineticism one would expect in a musical, while Mark Davies's editing is prosaically rhythmic and cuts into too many close-ups during the dance routines. The Take That songs are cannily employed and Aaron Bryan, Mark Samaras, Joshua Jung, Jack Rolf, and Dalvin Cory capably capture mood and meaning without resorting to pastiche. Indeed, they are vital to the emotionality of Drew McOnie's witty choreography, notably in the O'Flynn household sequence and the camping segment.
The dance highlight, however, has to be the tarmac spectacular, while the nadir is the climactic parade in which the entire ensemble strains to convey the impression they're having the time of their lives. Markedly more effective is the subtly staged Athens octet, which imparts a note of genuine poignancy. Even the cornball train cameo works. But, while Giedroyc and Firth try every crowdpleasing trick in the book, the grown-up sections lack the credible heart to match the affecting teenage angst.
YOU CAN LIVE FOREVER
Having grown up gay in a Jehovah's Witness community in 1990s Canada, the debuting Sarah Watts is well placed to chronicle a bittersweet lesbian romance in You Can Live Forever, which she has co-written and directed with Mark Slutsky. Recent films about faith and same-sexuality have included Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience (2017) and Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), while Daniel Kokotajlo's Apostasy (2017) explored the tenets governing followers of the Truth. So, while this Québecois saga has little new to impart, it has a sincerity that gets it through its more awkward passages.
In order to help her mother get over the death of her father, 1992 teenager Jaime Buckley (Anwen O'Driscoll) goes to stay with her Aunt Beth (Liane Balaban) and Uncle Jean-François (Antoine Yared) in small town Québec. As they are Jehovah's Witnesses, she is compelled to don a dowdy floral dress and attend meetings. However, she soon strikes up a friendship with Marike (June Laporte), whose father, Frank (Tim Campbell), asks her and sister Amanda (Deragh Campbell) to consider their disfellowshipped mother to be dead.
Although Marike attends the same school, Jaime also likes hanging out with Nathan (Hasani Freeman), a Black kid with his own basement games room and issues with his neglectful parents. They smoke dope together on a bridge on the outskirts of town and he sympathises with her frustrations with congregational life. Nevertheless, Jaime begins spending more time with Marike, playing piano in her room and dreaming about trips to Europe. They also visit the Cyclorama of Jerusalem, where Marike tells Jaime about the concept of paradise on a restored Earth.
After a few dinners at Marike's house, Jaime is invited to sleep over and she feels a tingle when Marike puts an arm around her when they share a bed. As Jean-François is ambitious within the community, he encourages the friendship, while Frank is pleased his daughter has someone to do fieldwork with. Jaime is sceptical about knocking on doors and offering magazines, but is happy to spend time with Marike, even though she has a boyfriend, Marc-Oliver (Xavier Roberge). While Jaime accepts this situation, Marike is jealous of Nate and tries to convey her feelings through a drawing of the tree-topped Guinigi Tower in the Italian city of Lucca that Jaime had longed to visit with her father.
After Amanda catches Marike and Jaime giggling during a meeting and then sees the latter celebrating her birthday with Nate (a no-no for Jehovah's Witnesses), she decides Jaime is a bad influence on her sister and persuades Frank to limit their contact to Bible study groups. Jaime is furious with Beth and Jean-François for going along with the measure, but is in no hurry to return home after her mother calls to say she's feeling stronger.
Jaime is thrilled when Marike gives her a small piece of meteorite and kisses her on the walk home from a Bible session. She is even more delighted when a double cinema date with Marc-Olivier and his friend Simon (Lenni-Kim Lalande) includes a cuddle in a washroom cubicle and a passionate goodnight kiss. Consequently, they bunk off school the next day and hold a mock baptism ceremony in a bathtub. As they lie in bed, however, Marike is hurt by the revelation that Jaime has already had a girlfriend. She tries to reassure Marike that she has nothing to worry about, but Jean-François sees them kissing and informs Frank.
Despite her promise to smooth things over with her father and move to Ontario with Jaime, Marike agrees to marry Marc-Oliver. When Jaime confronts her, she insists that this is just an earthly convenience to ensure they can be together forever in paradise. But Jaime doesn't share her beliefs and returns to the city to enter a relationship with a woman at college. On visiting Beth, however, she bumps into Marike, who now has a toddler son named Luca. They admit to having missed each other and Jaime feels conflicted when the deeply unhappy Marike reveals that she has read all of the postcards that she had sent Beth from Europe and clasps her hand with a desperate vow never to let go.
There isn't an unexpected moment in this sweet, but safe love story. Even Jaime's Walkman falling into the river soon after she arrives in the dullest town in Québec feels contrived, as it gives her nowhere to hide and forces her to open up to Nate and Marike. The friendship with the former rings more truly than the romance, although it's frustrating that nothing about Nate's parental problems is revealed, as this makes Jaime seem more self-obsessed than she already is.
She has a right to protect herself, of course, having just lost her beloved father and been deemed surplus to immediate requirements by her grieving mother. But Watts and Slutsky convey little sense of her bond with her aunt or Marike's relationships with her sister and father. Her boyfriend is one of many ciphers tossed into the mix, even though he proves crucial to two major plot twists. Such complacent storytelling doesn't spoil the performances of Anwen O'Driscoll and June Laporte, however, who ably judge the rather opaque Jaime and archly naive Marike's slow drift from companionship to passion.
Michael `CfCf' Silver's score provides an evocative soundtrack to the emotional shifts, while Gayle Ye's views of the lakeland scenery and the play of sunlight on the wet sand at the coast are often enchanting. Otherwise, however, the production values are as vanilla as the dialogue and the direction, as Watts and Slutsky do little to establish the cloistered 1990s setting. Indeed, the whole scenario feels very contemporary, which is perhaps the point, as being gay within a religious context remains problematic for so many people. But the
co-directors commendably resist demonising the devotees and bravely refuse to give the audience any reassurance that everything will work out in the end.
Ah, the boldness of youth. Fridtjof Ryder was only 20 when he directed Inland in his home city of Gloucester in 2020. He managed to secure funding through an Indigogo campaign and persuaded Trudie Styler to join the production team. Perhaps most audaciously, he posted the screenplay through Mark Rylance's letterbox and not only received the backing of his Shakespeare Road company, but also convinced him to take a key role.
Several years after calling for his missing Romani mother, Eliza Herron (Kathryn Hunter), in the depths of the Forest of Dean, The Man (Rory Alexander) is released from an institution, despite complaining that his skin feels tight. Having killed an owl on a country road, he calls on Dunleavy (Mark Rylance), a father figure who calls him a `Silly Billy' and offers him a place to stay and work at his backstreet garage.
Nothing is said about Eliza or Toby (Sebastian Orozco), whom The Man had hospitalised before going away. However, he feels restless at bedtime and goes for a drive, only returning as John (Shaun Dingwall) arrives for work. He invites The Man for a night out with Tom (Alexander Lincoln) and Cillian (Jake Gwilliam) at a brothel called The Faerie Queene.
The women sit behind curtains guarded by stone statues that remind The Man of the figure he saw in the woods on the day Eliza disappeared. We hear her voice reminiscing about his birth and how they bonded, as The Man hesitantly passes through a curtain and is helped out of his shirt by The Mother (Eleanor Holliday). Disturbed by memories, he drives around before sleeping in the car.
Dunleavy checks on his well-being and offers The Man the sofa. Amused that he has taped Eliza's picture to the passenger windscreen, he recalls his time with her and how she could disconcert him with her black eyes. The Man drops in on Daisy (Nell Williams), who hugs him and gives him tea. He chats through the door to a boy named Ralph and the Green Man and the Green Knight crop up in their conversation, never to be mentioned again.
Following another visit to The Mother, The Man spends the night gazing over the lights of the city. He's still miles away at work next day and has a row with Toby on the road. Still smarting after the beating, he tells The Man to stay away from Daisy before taunting him that Eliza would probably be with some Romani caravan off her head on drugs. Dunleavy tells The Man to give it time and hold himself together.
Instead, he goes to The Faerie Queene and asks The Mother to go with him because he can help her. His head seems to be filled with voices and raging emotions and he butts the wall to control them. But The Mother simply tells him to leave and he feels foolish. He retreats to the garage, where Dunleavy talks about ageing over a joint and, as The Man starts to sob, he reassures that he will always be there for him.
Next morning, The Man leaves Dunleavy his gold tooth and drives off to the forest. After taking a last look at Gloucester, he places the owl in the long grass and strips. Completely naked, he stares hard into the lens and disappears into the embrace of Mother Nature.
Only David Lynch makes properly Lynchian films. Everyone else produces pale imitations and the German-British Fridtjof Ryder is the latest to join the ranks of short-falling devotees. He and production designer Ian Blackwell borrow liberally from the Lynch canon, with cinematogapher Ravi Doubleday lighting the Faerie Queene interior like something out of Twin Peaks. Dominika Latusek and Christopher Wilson's enveloping sound design and Bartholomew Mason's atmospheric score are similarly derived from the Lynchiverse. But style - no matter how slickly it has been accomplished - invariably feels empty when it so completely overwhelms the content and that is very much the case here.
Laying aside the facts that releasing a feature at such a young age is a phenomenal achievement and that Ryder shows plenty of visual promise, this is a work of capricious obfuscation and mumbled ambiguity that never comes close to connecting the viewer with The Man, his mother, or his emotional trauma. This is frustrating, as Rory Alexander gives a creditably enigmatic performance amidst his sullenly taciturn nocturnal prowlings and he is generously (if somewhat manneredly) supported by Mark Rylance, as the onetime protector who feels powerless to help. But the secondary characters are pointlessly sketchy, while Kathryn Hunter's raspy voiceover adds little but artifice to the confusion.
Editors Joe Walton and Lincoln Witter ably flit between boyhood reveries, realist interludes, and attempts to convey The Man's suffering, as his mind throbs and his body creaks like a tree. But, for all the Freudian subterfuge, it's never clear what Ryder is trying to say, as he allows any originality that his story might have to be subsumed by slavish pastiche. Let's hope for better things next time, as the talent is readily evident.