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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (28/2/2020)

(Reviews of Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Waiting For Anya; True Story of the Kelly Gang; Villain; and Push)


Alfred Hitchcock never quite mastered the costume film. Having tried for frothy merriment in the misfiring musical, Waltzes From Vienna (1933), he sought to capture the atmosphere of post-Napoleonic Cornwall in Daphne Du Maurier's smuggling saga, Jamaica Inn (1938), and to recreate the stifling air of detachment and decorum in 1830s Australia in his first colour outing, an adaptation of Helen Simpson's potboiler, Under Capricorn (1949). In making Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma gives the Master of Suspense a lesson in how to concoct an historical melodrama by seeking inspiration from a contrasting pair of Hitchcockian studies of scrutinised women, Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), which were respectively based on books by Du Maurier and the French duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

The influence of Choderlos de Laclos's Dangerous Liaisons and Sarah Waters's Fingersmith can also be detected in this dramatic change of pace from Sciamma, after the contemporary triptych of Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), which would surely have won more major prizes had it not had the misfortune to come up against Bong Joon-ho's subtitled juggernaut, Parasite.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching art to a class of young ladies when one inquires about a painting at the back of the studio entitled, `Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire'. She is transported back to 1770 and the rowing boat taking her to the remote island home where Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) lives with her mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), and their maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Marianne had been forced to dive into the water to retrieve the wooden box containing her canvases and had been left to make her own way to the house by the boorish crew.

Arriving after dark, Marianne is shown to her room and strips off her wet clothes before smoking a pipe in front of the fire, while she dries out her canvases. Wandering into the kitchen for something to eat, she learns from Sophie that Héloïse had recently returned from a Benedictine convent after the sudden death of her sister, who had been promised in marriage to a Milanese gentleman. Sophie also reveals that a male artist had failed to paint the portrait that the suitor had requested in order to transfer his proposal to Héloïse and she is curious to know how Marianne is going to fulfil her commission.

Surprised to find a portrait without a face, Marianne is informed by the Countess that Héloïse has refused to co-operate because she is opposed to the marriage that her sister had spurned, As they talk, the Countess shows Marianne the bridal portrait that her father had painted and how it had always disconcerted her that her image had been hanging on a wall waiting for her to become the mistress of the house. She also confides that Héloïse has been told that Marianne is a companion who will accompany her on walks along the coast and that she must study her face without her noticing.

Taken aback by Sophie's assertion that Héloïse's sister had jumped off a cliff to avoid her fate, Marianne joins her on a walk along the headland. She rushes after her when Héloïse breaks into a run and is relieved when she reveals that she had longed to frolic during her time at the convent. As they take in the view, Marianne tries to snatch glances of Héloïse's profile and avoids eye contact when she turns to shoot her an accusing look. On returning to the house, Héloïse asks to borrow a book and Marianne keeps her at the door so she can fetch a volume from behind the curtain hiding her easel.

Closing her eyes to focus her thoughts, Marianne starts sketching an outline with charcoal. She also makes a quick study during their next walk when she notices how Héloïse crosses her hands when she sits. As it's a windy day, both women have their faces covered and Héloïse refuses to lower her scarf when they stop to discuss the possibility of bathing before Marianne leaves at the end of the week. Over supper, she confides in Sophie that the assignment is proving tricky and the maid suggests that she could try being witty in order to get Héloïse to smile.

During their next excursion, however, Marianne asks Héloïse if she thinks her sister committed suicide. She reveals that she had apologised in a letter for subjecting her to a fate she could not face and Héloïse admits that she is in no hurry to become a bride. Marianne also expresses a reluctance to marry and claims that she will be content to take over her father's business. Much to her relief, Héloïse doesn't pry any further, but she does let slip that she is able to draw and quickly has to insist that she is merely an amateur.

While briefing the Countess about her progress, Marianne suggests that Héloïse should be allowed out alone to give her more time to work without having to be on her guard. She admits that she is finding it difficult to get to know her daughter, but the Countess urges her to make Milan sound exciting and concedes that she is rather hoping to be able to relocate there herself. They speak Italian together and the Countess is relieved to laugh after her period of mourning.

Marianne tries on the green dress that Héloïse had been wearing while sitting for her predecessor and she is regarding its folds in a mirror when her subject knocks at the door. She has heard that Marianne has tobacco and they share a pipe, as Héloïse reveals that she misses the music and the sense of equality in the convent. When Marianne conveys the news that she will be allowed out on her own, Héloïse avers that she will go to mass to hear the organ and the choir. Her companion opines that the organ is a melancholic substitute for an orchestra and Héloïse is envious that Marianne has attended concerts. In an effort to show how much grander orchestral music sounds, Marianne plays the `Presto' from the `Summer' segment of Antonio Vivaldi's `The Four Seasons' on the harpsichord and Héloïse is impressed by her talent and confides that she had missed her presence in her solitude.

When Marianne finishes the portrait, she burns the unfinished canvas and asks the Countess if she can show Héloïse, so that she knows the truth. She is nervous about revealing her perfidy, but is dismayed when Héloïse claims that the picture is too conventional and lacks insight into personality. Nettled by the truth of her remarks. Marianne smudges the face and the Countess is aghast. However, Héloïse offers to pose for a replacement and her mother gives them five days to make amends.

Wearing the green dress, Héloïse poses on a padded stool for Marianne to begin sketching. As she sits, she asks about Marianne's artistic experiences and whether she has ever made any nude studies or been permitted to paint a man. One night, Sophie confides that she is pregnant and Marianne helps her try to induce a miscarriage by running on the beach and making a potion from dune flowers. She reveals that she had once been in the same position and Héloïse is fascinated to know what it feels like to be in love. Work continues on the portrait and, when Marianne complains that Héloïse is proving elusive, she is surprised to learn that she also employs telltale gestures to hide her feelings. However, when they play cards with Sophie (who has her own talent for embroidery), Héloïse lets down her guard and Marianne is charmed to see her being natural for the first time.

They take Sophie to an outdoor gathering of women, where it's discovered that she is still pregnant. The women sing `Fugere non possum' (`We can't escape') and Héloïse becomes so entranced that she barely notices that the hem of her dress has caught fire. The voices remain on the soundtrack, as Marianne and Héloïse explore a cave the next morning and kiss. Returning to the house, they make love and they spend the night together. After taking Sophie to see a woman who prepares a termination potion, Marianne radically paints Héloïse ministering to Sophie in a similar pose. She also chides her for smiling while posing for the portrait and kisses her. They experiment with a drug that heightens pleasure, but Marianne is troubled by visions of Héloïse in her wedding dress after she reads aloud the story of Orpheus and Eurydice at the mouth of the Underworld.

Eventually, she tells her lover that she is disappointed that the picture is nearly finished and wishes she could destroy it to prolong their time together. But Héloïse accuses Marianne of blaming her for accepting her destiny and she rushes down to the beach to be alone. However, Sophie breaks the news that the Countess is returning the next day and Marianne rushes across the headland to find Héloïse sitting on a rock and they kiss passionately, as they know that their time is almost over.

With the portrait finished, Marianne sketches a miniature of Héloïse, who asks her to draw a self-portrait on page 28 of her book. She has her lover recline on a divan and props a mirror up against her groin to capture her expression as she gazes at Héloïse. Fighting sleep, they discuss the moments they will remember from their tryst and Héloïse confides that she had wanted to kiss Marianne from the moment she had revealed that she had known love. But they have no time together the next morning, as the Countess has already arrived. She approves the portrait and pays Marianne her fee. When she comes to say her goodbyes, she is appalled to see Héloïse in her wedding dress and she bolts for the door after a brief embrace. However, Héloïse urges her to look back and the image burns into Marianne's memory.

Back in her studio, Marianne tells her students that she only saw Héloïse twice more. The first time was at a salon at which she was exhibiting her own painting of Orpheus and Eurydice. While flicking through the catalogue, she noticed a portrait of Héloïse and her son and her eyes fill with tears when she notices that a book on her lap is open on p28. She saw her again at a concert, when Héloïse had been overcome with emotion at hearing the Vivaldi `Presto' that Marianne had played for her all those years ago.

Such is the focus on the central flashback in this exquisite film that we get little sense of what happens outside the time capsule formed in Marianne's memory. We never discover when she came to paint the picture that prompted the extended recollection. Nor, apart from the revelation that she submits items to the salon under her father's name, do we learn why Marianne is teaching a class of aristocratic young ladies. Moreover, while the salon portrait suggests that Héloïse has become a mother, we are left to speculate about what happened to Sophie's child and whether the Countess managed to make her own escape from the marital home. Does the French Revolution have any part to play in the women's ultimate fate?

These loose ends only add to the fascination of a tale told with insight and finesse by Céline Sciamma, who has acknowledged that Marianne and Héloïse emancipating and reciprocal collaboration was inspired by her own romance with Adèle Haenel. She has also spoken of the `Russian doll' effect of watching painter Hélène Delmaire producing a portrait of someone she had once loved being filmed by cinematographer Claire Mathon responding to her directions. This is clearly a billet doux to an erstwhile love, albeit one who remains a significant figure in Sciamma's creative life. But, it's also an important affirmation of the female gaze and. like Agnès Merlet's Artemisia (1997), this is also a treatise on the problems that women artists have faced down the centuries in being taken seriously by their male counterparts.

Haenel and Noémie Merlant excel, as Héloïse and Marianne sound each other out before taking the plunge to trust each other in passion and creativity. But Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino make valuable contributions, as two more women trapped in contrasting forms of servitude. The coast around Saint-Pierre-Quiberon and the château at La Chapelle-Gauthier in Seine-et-Marne also play key parts in proceedings, with Sciamma and sound designers Julien Sicart, Valérie de Loof and Daniel Sobrino exploiting the creaky interiors in a manner similar to William Oldroyd's use of Lambton Castle in Lady Macbeth (2016).

Mathon's camerawork, Thomas Grezaud's production design and Dorothée Guiraud's costumes are also striking, as is the hauntingly harmonious chant composed by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini. But the picture belongs to Sciamma, whose delicate analysis of the options open to women (then and now) and measured direction allow Marianne the time to accumulate fragmentary clues about Héloïse's image and personality and commit them to memory, as well as canvas. The sequence in which Héloïse accuses Marianne of painting her according to the objectifying `rules, conventions, ideas' laid down by the patriarchal art establishment is particularly telling in the challenge it throws down to other female film-makers to reclaim the representation of women on screen and start telling their stories from their own perspective.


Readers of a certain age will remember the European TV series that the BBC dubbed into English to fill its school holiday schedules during the 1960s. Among the most enduringly popular was Belle and Sebastian (1965), which was adapted from a bestselling novel by the writer and film-maker, Cécile Aubry. In 2013, Nicolas Vanier revived the story in Belle and Sebastian (2013), which was set on France's Alpine border with Italy in 1943 and introduced younger viewers to the concept of the Nazi Occupation and the efforts of the rural population to smuggle Jews facing deportation to the concentration camps into Switzerland.

Christian Duguay's Belle and Sebastian: The Adventure Continues (2015) touched upon the exploits of the Maquis in advancing the story to 1945. But films about the Second World War designed for younger viewers remain rare, with studies of children surviving the vicissitudes of the conflict like Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), Cate Shortland's Lore (2012), Amma Assante's Where Hands Touch (2018), Ross Clarke's The Birdcatcher and Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit (both 2019) being primarily aimed at grown-ups. All of which makes Ben Cookson's adaptation of Michael Murpurgo's 1990 novel, Waiting For Anya, all the more frustrating, as it tones down the hideous realities of the Holocaust in a manner that Steven Spielberg avoided in the depiction of life on the Western Front in his 2011 interpretation of Murpurgo's War Horse.

As captions explain that France was divided in two in 1942, with the northern section being occupied by German forces, we see Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt) slip away from the long line of Jews being herded aboard a train to entrust his young daughter, Anya (Dolma Raisson), to a passenger on a local service on the parallel track. Another caption reveals that life in the southern village of Lescun continues as it has done for centuries, as a narrator (Jean-François Balmer) introduces us to Jo Lalande (Noah Schnapp), a young shepherd who tends his flock high in the Pyrenees Mountains that border Spain with his loyal dog, Rouf.

When confronted by a bear, Jo abandons Rouf and the sheep to run back to the village to alert his grandfather, Henri (Jean Reno). He is hailed as a hero by Mayor Sarthol (Nicholas Rowe) and his mother. Lise, (Elsa Zylberstein) is proud of him. But, when Jo returns to the woods to find his dog, he is admonished by Benjamin for leaving the flock unattended and for causing the death of a mother bear merely trying to protect her cub. He orders Jo to tell no one of their meeting, but he is intrigued by the fact that the stranger is living in secret with his mother-in-law, Alice Horcada (Anjelica Huston), in a remote farm in the hills.

Feeling guilty about the cub, Jo takes it some milk and accidentally stumbles across Leah (Enola Izquierdo Cicuendez), a Jewish girl hiding in Alice's barn. She makes Jo swear not to tell anyone about what he has seen in explaining that Benjamin smuggles Jewish children across the border while hoping that Anya will one day find her way to her grandmother's. On returning to Lescun, however, Jo bumps into the German unit that has been dispatched to round up Jews and members of the Resistance and he is struck by the contrasting personalities of the snarling Lieutenant Weissmann (Tómas Lemarquis) and a kindly corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) when they announce a curfew and the former taunts the mayor's intellectually disabled son, Hubert (Declan Cole).

Desperate to warn Alice, Jo has to trek into the mountains in a storm to find Benjamin and Leah and discovers them sheltering in a shack after the former had turned his ankle. Such is her gratitude that Alice begins to trust Jo and has him run errands at the shop run by Madame Jollet (Sadie Frost). As he is also a country boy, the corporal takes an interest in Jo and offers to help him carry the heavy shopping bags. But, with six children in her care, Alice is worried that the Germans will become suspicious by the amount of groceries and asks Henri to buy her pigs and help Benjamin find away to get the youngsters into Spain after Weissmann conducts a search of her premises.

While Henri takes the fugitives to the cave that his grandfather had used to smuggle alcohol, Jo and Hubert spend time with the corporal, who takes them into the mountains to watch the eagles flying. However, Weissmann clamps down on such fraternisation and the corporal gives Hubert his binoculars as a parting gift in return for a carved ornament. But the return of his father, Georges (Gilles Mariini), after four years in a forced labour camp further complicates matters, as he disapproves of Henry associating with Alice and keeps breaching the curfew because he refuses to allow the Germans to tell him how to live in his own home. Indeed, he even accuses his son of being a collaborator until Henri reveals the truth.

Regretting striking Jo across the face, Georges agrees to help take the seven Jewish children across the border and concocts a plan with Father Lasalle (William Abadie) and the schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Audap (Joséphine De La Baume), to have the German garrison attend a choral concert in the church so that Benjamin can disguise his charges as shepherds and take them into the mountains with the flocks. The ruse works, even though the corporal notices Jo's apprehension as the entire village gathers for the grand send off. Indeed, he takes a small patrol to Georges's shack and drops hints that he knows something is going on. But it still comes as a shock to Jo when Benjamin and Leah are captured and sent to the railway station by the lieutenant.

Barely able to hide his distress, Jo fetches a horse for Benjamin to ride and rushes home. Georges and Henri tell him how Benjamin had encountered a bear in the woods while leading the children to safety and it had seemed to recognise him and let him pass. But the Germans caught up with him and Benjamin was powerless to resist. Needing to be alone, Jo returns to the hill shack, where the corporal comes to apologise for not being able to help his friends and Jo realises that he had always known what was going on and that his silence had been an act of courage. However, he has nothing but contempt for Weissmann, who shoots Hubert for pointing a rifle at the retreating garrison, while the rest of the village celebrates its liberation.

One year later, Henri and Alice are married and Jo is delivering post and provision to the farm when he opens a telegram from Anya. She is due to arrive by bus and the film ends with Jo rushing across the meadow to greet her and a caption reminding the audience that 75,000 Jews were deported from France during the war and that, while some collaborators aided the Nazis, thousands more risked their lives to get 7500 fugitives into Spain.

For all its good intentions, this carefully made, if somewhat staid film lacks the suspense and spectacle to entice its target audience. It also offers too little historical insight to work as an educational tool, as it skirts the complexities of the arrangement that divided France into the Régime de Vichy and the Zone Libre and provides next to no context for the round-ups that started in earnest in the autumn of 1943, with the assistance of the Milice. Consequently, those already au fait with the French Holocaust will find the story simplistic, while those seeking elucidation will be left none the wiser.

This is a shame, as Cookson and co-scenarist Toby Torlesse tackle the topic with a sincerity that also informs the performances of Noah Schnapp and his esteemed co-stars. Frederick Schmidt is particularly effective as the heroic courier, while Thomas Kretschmann and Tómas Lemarquis capably reinforce the stereotypes of the Good German and the Fanatical Nazi. Anjelica Huston's French accent is a bit shaky, but at least she and Jean Reno are given more to do than the typically reliable Elsa Zylberstein and Sadie Frost, who is barely recognisable as the village shopkeeper.

Cinematographer Gerry Vasbenter overdoes the drone shots of the undeniably spectacular Pyreneean vistas, which are invariably accompanied by the soaring strings supplied by composer James Seymour Brett. But Laurence Brenguier's production design and Agnès Noden's costumes are admirable enough, even though there doesn't appear to be a justifiable reason for Jo having to sport a beret in almost every scene (even inside the church). As he cameos as a farmer, Michael Morpurgo clearly gave the production his blessing, but this feels like too big a sophomore leap for a director who had debuted with the rather tasteless STD romcom, Almost Married (2014).


November will see the 140th anniversary of the death of Ned Kelly, the notorious Australian bushranger whose exploits have been immortalised on film for well over a hundred years. Indeed, Charles Tait's The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) proved something of a cinematic landmark, as it is widely agreed to be the world's first feature film. Running 60 minutes, this ambitious production strove for authenticity by borrowing Joe Byrne's bulletproof armour and its success inspired Harry Southwell to make three films on the subject: The Kelly Gang (1920), When the Kellys Were Out (1923) and When the Kellys Rode (1934).

Four years after Southwell left A Message to Kelly (1947) unfinished, Rupert Kathner starred Aussie Rules footballer Bob Chitty as Ned Kelly in The Glenrowan Affair (1951). But Tony Richardson went one better by casting Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in the title role of Ned Kelly (1970), a frustratingly lacklustre reconstruction that failed even to achieve cult status after it was largely disowned by its makers. Following a couple of small-screen outings - John Gauci's The Trial of Ned Kelly (1977) and George T. Miller and Kevin Dobson's mini-series, The Last Outlaw (1980) - comedian Yahoo Serious riffed on the myth in his descendant romp, Reckless Kelly (1993), before 2003 saw the release of two contrasting versions of the story, Abe Forsythe's low-budget spoof, Ned, and Ned Kelly, Gregor Jordan's lavish, but disdained adaptation of Robert Drewe's book, Our Sunshine, which saw Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush and Naomi Watts provide sterling support to the charismatic, but anodyne Heath Ledger.

An equally stellar cast has been assembled for Justin Kurzel's True History of the Kelly Gang, which has been adapted from Peter Carey's 2000 Booker Prize-winning novel. Owing more to the grit of Snowtown (2011) and Macbeth (2015) than the effects-strewn spectacle of Assassin's Creed (2016), this fierce and flagrantly flamboyant exercise in Outback Gothic is bound to divide opinion, as it seems more intent on making a splash by challenging generic convention than exploring historical fact or character psychology.

Following a yellow-on-black caption proclaiming `nothing you're about to see is true', we are taken back to Van Diemen's Land in 1867, as Ned Kelly (George MacKay) writes a letter to his son. He describes his hardscrabble existence with his Irish parents, Red (Ben Corbett) and Ellen (Essie Davis), and how his 12 year-old self (Orlando Schwerdt) came to detest the law after he discovered the true nature of his mother's association with Sergeant O'Neil (Charlie Hunnam) and the reasons why his father used to ride furiously on his white horse while wearing a red dress that he kept in a hiding place that was unearthed by Ned's sister, Kate (Winona Keegan).

When O'Neill seeks to frame Red for the killing of a cow, Ned tries to take the blame to spare his father prison time. But he is led away in chains behind the Geordie's horse and Ned knows who to blame when Red is found dead in his cell. O'Neill pleads his innocence and attempts to court Ellen. But outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe) also has designs on her and Ned warms to his generosity and the bawdy anti-colonial songs he sings along to his guitar. He is also struck by the wealth of the family of a boy he rescues from the river. But, when Mrs Shelton (Claudia Karvan) offers to pay for Ned's education, Ellen accuses the English of trying to brainwash her son and sends him, instead, on an excursion into the wilds with Power that's designed to turn her boy into a man.

At first, Ned enjoys the food at the small town hotel and is proud when Power writes about him in his memoirs. But he is scared when they hold up a coach in the snowy wilderness and flinches when the blood of the driver speckles his face after Power shoots him through the head. He is even more unnerved when Power bursts into O'Neill's room and orders Ned to shoot the constable's penis off. Trembling with the pistol in his hand, Ned wounds the officer in the leg before turning the pistol on Power, who kneels and presses the barrel against this forehead to show the boy his lack of fear.

Power is arrested shortly afterwards and O'Neill also comes for Ned, who has returned home to curse Ellen for selling him for £15. A decade later, he returns home with his pal, Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), with whom he has been making money as a prizefighter. Much to his dismay, Ned finds that Ellen has taken up with George King (Marlon Williams), an American who has taught Ned's brother, Dan (Earl Cave), and his pal Steve (Louis Hewison) to rustle and rear horses. Ned disapproves of the fact that Dan and Steve ride in frocks and he insists on returning them to the nearby bordello. Here, he meets Constable Alexander Fiztpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who has seen him box and treats him to a night with Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie) as a sign of trust.

However, Fitzpatrick has his eyes on Kate (Josephine Blazier) and he offers Ned a deal to let Dan off rustling charges if he consents to him courting his sister. All seems to be well, as Ned falls for Mary and devotes himself to her baby. But Ellen discovers that George has been frequenting the brothel and she throws him out after gunning down his horse. Moreover, when Fitzpatrick fails to persuade his superiors to drop the case against Dan, a furious row breaks out that culminates in Fitzpatrick being shot in the hand after he reveals that George is the father of Mary's child.

With his mother's contempt ringing in his ears, Ned is forced to flea with Byrne, Dan and Hart and he wonders in the letter to his son how differently his life might have turned out had not a pleasant family occasion descended into acrimonious violence. Doubling back, Ned offers to surrender to secure Ellen's release from prison. While they chat, Ned sees a framed blueprint of an ironclad American warship and threatens to kill Fitzpatrick and his wife for victimising his family. But the constable taunts Ned that he's still a boy who will never grow into the man his mother had hoped.

Ensconcing himself in Power's old shack, Ned organises his friends into the Kelly Gang and shows his strength by ambushing a police patrol at Stringybark Creek and cutting the ear off one of the victims to show Fitzpatrick that he means business. He gets word to Mary that he plans to break his mother out of jail and she pleads with Ellen to write to her son to stop him from doing something stupid. But Ellen refuses to come between Ned and his destiny and Mary despairs of ever having a normal life with the man she loves. That said, she refuses to betray his whereabouts to Fitzpatrick, even after he points a pistol at baby George, and Ned and his cross-dressing Sons of Sieve go on a bank robbing spree across Victoria, wearing their bulletproof helmets.

Confronting Fitzpatrick in his quarters, Ned sings him the mocking song that Power had taught him before killing him. Knowing he will be pursued, he writes more of his `Jerilderie' letter to George after taking hostages at the Glenrowan Inn. Among those with sacking bags on their heads is lame schoolteacher Thomas Curnow (Jacob Collins-Levy), who flatters Ned about his literary style and allows the troopers time to get into position for an assault on the tavern.

As he had expected the officers to have been killed in a train derailment that he had arranged, Ned is furious that someone inside the gang had betrayed the plan. He leads a rearguard against the advancing forces who seem lit up in the darkness. But, when Dan is hit and Joe slumps down. Ned dons his armour and marches out to face the foe alone. Felling by a bullet that knocks him over, Ned is captured and taken to Melbourne Gaol, where he is reunited with Ellen. She urges him to show no fear during his execution and his walk to the dropping spot on the prison gantry is romanticised by Curnow when he gives a lecture to a black tie audience about Australian turning a deranged outlaw into a national hero.

There's no doubt that Tony Richardson sought to present Ned Kelly as a rock'n'roll rebel in casting Mick Jagger and it's hard to escape the sense of regret that Justin Kurzel was unable to recruit Nick Cave in his pomp to portray his punk outlaw. He goes some way towards compensating by hiring Earl Cave to essay Dan Kelly and by asking George MacKay to play Ned as a 1870s precursor of Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop. It's a bold approach. But, like the use of strobe lighting and pseudo video games effects in the Glenrowan showdown, it doesn't quite come off.

Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant set the initial scene with considerable care, with Orlando Schwerdt excelling as the young Ned trying to fathom the domestic dynamics that are complicated by the presence of the lusty constable. However, the action becomes increasingly fragmented after the splendidly Falstaffian Russell Crowe takes Schwerdt on his rite of passage and only those fully conversant with the Kelly saga will be able to appreciate the significance of the Stringybark and Glenrowan incidents and the role played in the making of the myth by Thomas Curnow and the Jerilderie Letter. But even they will be puzzled by the allusions to Kelly's conflicted sexuality and the spurious comparison between the hooded hostages at the inn and those held in so many propaganda videos by Islamic fundamentalists.

Despite his wild-eyed intensity, MacKay makes a less interesting Ned than Schwerdt and he is frequently upstaged in their Oedipal exchanges by Essie Davis, as the mercurial Ellen, and in their homoerotic encounters by Nicholas Hoult, as the suavely conniving Fitzpatrick. But MacKay's performance isn't helped by Kurzel's gimmicky direction and the jittery close-ups framed by cinematographer Ari Wegner, whose aerial shots of the evocative countryside are markedly more effective.

In this regard, the film resembles Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale (2018), which similarly sought to subvert the conventions of the period epic. However, Kurzel's imagery is strikingly more experimental, thanks in no small measure to production designer Karen Murphy's use of armour motifs and costumier Alice Babidge's splashes of frilly colour. Jed Kurzel's score reinforces the off-kilter aura, although the musical highlight is the `Constable C**t' song that is sung with contrasting degrees of ferocity by Russell Crowe (who co-wrote it) and MacKay, whose Lydonesque malignancy would seem to make him a shoo-in for any forthcoming Sex Pistols biopic.


The gangland thriller is currently the most discredited genre in British cinema. Stuffed with Mockney geezers played by the same old mugs from a rogues' gallery of tough guys on day release from EastEnders, BritCrime has struggled to emerge from the clichés and caricatures foisted upon it by Guy Ritchie. There are moments in Villain when actor-turned-director Philip Barantini comes close to performing a salvage job. But, while it reins in the usual excesses, this still isn't a patch on Michael Tuchner's Villain (1971), which starred a snarling Richard Burton in one of his most commanding turns.

Shortly after getting roughed up and stripped to his pants in a field for non-payment of debts to siblings Roy (Robert Glenister) and Johnny Garrett (Tomi May), Sean Franks (George Russo) collects his older brother, Eddie (Craig Fairbrass), from prison after a 10-year stretch. Having snorted a line with girlfriend Rikki (Eloise Lovell Anderson), Sean takes Eddie on a sentimental tour around his old stomping ground before dropping in at the family boozer, The Green Man, where Eddie keeps a gun and a stash of cash under a floorboard in the upstairs flat.

He gets a warm welcome from Jean the barmaid (Stephanie Fayerman), but isn't impressed by either Rikki's erotic dance routine or the swaggering behaviour of Scouser Freddie Bagshot (Michael John Treanor). Sean warns Eddie to go easy, as Freddie works for the Garratts. But, when he refuses to honour an £800 tab when the pub is £15,000 in debt, Eddie insists on laying down a marker with a hammer.

The brothers give the bar a lick of paint and all seems to be well when the grand re-opening goes with a swing. But something is troubling Eddie, who keeps sitting in his car outside the flat that home to his estranged daughter, Chloe (Izuka Hoyle). However, her slamming the door in his face quickly proves to be the least of his problems after the Garretts drop in to inform Eddie that he will go down with Sean unless he pays for what he stole.

When Eddie confronts Sean, he swears that the cocaine he had stashed in the family garage was nicked by the Garretts to frame him and force him to stump up £80,000 for the missing merchandise. He is certain that neither Rikki nor petty dealer Jason (Taz Skylar) was involved, but Sean suspects everyone and orders Sean to keep his head down while he calls in some favours. Having sold a watch for £4000, he manages to borrow another £20,000 from old mucker Michael Till (Mark Monero), who has gone straight and now lives in a big house in the Essex countryside with his wife, Carla (Jennifer Matter), and young son, Jacob (Lautaro Tull).

Being an old school East End crook, Eddie hopes that the Garretts will take a £25,000 down payment. But Johnny glasses his arm before Roy warns him that he has a week to come up with £100,000 or he and Sean will lose The Green Man and their lives. Needing to think, Eddie moves into the flat above the bar and tries to make up for lost time with Chloe. She has an infant son and she lets Eddie hold him and accepts a snapshot of the family together, even though she can't forgive him for leaving her mother for a girl half his age.

Having punished Jason for splitting Chloe's lip, Eddie hooks up with Michael to raid the pawnshop that had once belonged to an old pal. But he loses his nerve and comes up with an alternative plan that involves he and Sean meeting up with the Garretts at the pub. He lulls them into a false sense of security by handing over the deeds and keys to the premises before accusing them of being fifth-rate thugs who are detested by everyone in their manor. When Johnny lurches at him. Eddie pulls his gun and wrestles Roy to the ground. He needs Sean's help to shoot Johnny in the back and the pair don white protective suits and haul the corpses into the toilets to hack them into pieces and bury them in bin bags in the woods.

Unable to cope with the pressure, Sean rats to the cops and Eddie manages to do a bunk from an upper window befoe DCI Higgins (Hester Ruoff) and an armed unit can raid the pub. Michael picks him up after Eddie calls Sean from a paybox to check whether he has squealed. He arranges him a passage abroad, but Eddie needs £6000 and accidentally shoots a have-a-go assistant during a robbery at the pawnshop. Despite needing to get to Folkestone for his boat, Eddie insists on saying goodbye to Chloe in a café and giving baby Francis one last hug. But the delay gives Jason the time to find him and gun him and Michael down from the back of a motorbike. Rushing up to the car, Chloe falls to her knees and sobs for the father she had never really known.

Until its climactic descent into (soap) operatic contrivance, George Russo and Greg Hall's screenplay feels passably plausible, largely because of the restraint imposed by the debuting Philip Barantini. But Eddie run out of options just as the writers run out of ideas and he is forced blunderingly to slay his way towards a tragic demise that seems inevitable from the moment he produces a canister of pepper spray.

To give Craig Fairbrass his due, he plays the underworld underdog better than most and he brings a whiff of nobility to Eddie's decline and fall. However, as we never learn why he was inside, it's impossible to gauge how much he is reining in his natural viciousness or whether he's a decent bloke who's been pushed beyond his limits. The other characters are much more identikit, however, although Robert Glenister and Tomi May revel in their one-note villainy and Russo makes a suitably weasely sibling. Izuka Hoyle and Eloise Lovell Anderson also show well in the underwritten and entirely formulaic roles of the conflicted daughter and the junkie stripper. But being bored doesn't feel like a good enough reason for Mark Monero's loyal oppo to risk his family's future.

Editor Alex Fountain struggles to disguise the clumsiness of the flashbacks that dot the action, but is more assured in handling the periodic eruptions of brutal violence. Matthew Lewis's photography also tends towards the functional. But David Ridley and Aaron May contribute a nimble score that manages to generate palpable senses of menace and pathos.


Following a series of studies about construction in his home city of Malmö, Swedish documentarist Fredrik Gertten came to wider public notice when he criticised the Dole food company's activities in Nicaragua in Bananas!* (2009). When the American corporation sued Gertten for his supposed negative depiction, he countered with Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (2012) and has since examined green transport issues and the career of footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Bikes vs Cars (2015) and Becoming Zlatan (2016). Now, he turns his attention to the world housing shortage in Push.

Leilani Farha works for the United Nations as its Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She is concerned that the combination of stagnant wages and a lack of affordability is creating a crisis in urban living. Since the 1990s, house prices in Toronto have increased by 425%, while family income have only risen by 133%. On a visit to Valparaiso in Chile, Farha meet working-class tenants who are being evicted from their homes in order to make way for a condominium complex. Academic Saskia Sassen points out that such developments are rarely intended for existing populations, who are being driven into the suburbs and beyond.

Having encountered a Harlem man who spends 90% of his monthly income on rent, Farha makes for Notting Hill, where residents wax lyrical about the community vibe and how the area has become increasingly trendy since the 1999 film. However, an unnamed contributor declares that the area has been taken over by a kleptocracy whose secretive members purchase buildings and does nothing with them. A map shows the number of foreign-owned properties in Central London and claims that 80% of them are empty and Sassen reveals that they are deliberately left in this condition, as it makes it easier to trade them.

After dropping in on an Occupy Belgravia squat, we meet a couple of survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire that claimed 72 lives and learn that this social housing block in the middle of an affluent borough had maintenance issues long before the blaze on 14 June 2017. Farha considers this tragedy to be emblematic of a global problem that leads to the working poor being marginalised and neglected in areas that have undergone gentrification. She concedes that there is nothing wrong with capitalism per se. But she cannot understand or tolerate the grasping avarice that places society's more vulnerable people in jeopardy.

In the Swedish city of Uppsala, Farha meets affordable housing specialist Stig Westerdahl, who claims that the private equity company, Blackstone, is involved in hoovering up vacant apartments to renovate before hiking their rents. Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz explains how such operations set up trading assets known as securities and sell shares in them in return for a cut of the residential rents accrued by the buildings in a particular bundle. But such an arrangement creates a disconnect between the owners and the tenants and this means that problems aren't always addressed.

A caption informs us that Blackstone first entered the Swedish property market in 2014 and, within four years, it had become the biggest private owner of low-income property in the country. In defending conventional banking for providing a valuable service. Sassen compares such financial organisations to mining companies that extract what they want and care nothing about the damage left behind when they withdraw. She also points out that property assets currently amount to $217 trillion, which is 2.7 times larger than the aggregate of every nation's GDP, and Stiglitz echoes Farha in blaming governments for failing to recognise the agenda of bodies like Blackstone, which profited from the 2008 credit crunch crisis by buying foreclosed properties at bargain prices and then renting them out at inflated rates.

Farha heads back to London to visit the site of the Heygate Estate that had housed 3000 people before its demolition in 2014. She is told by an activist that many of the properties in the replacement Elephant Park complex are empty because they were sold as investments in Singapore and Hong Kong. She meets people under strain in Toronto and Barcelona, who are being pushed towards the exit by anonymous landlords and consults a tenancy group in New York after being granted access to Blackstone, whose CEO, John Gray, can be seen boasting about his company's acuity in exploiting George W. Bush's response to the 2008 emergency by spending $9.6 billion on lost properties.

Following a trip to Kreuzberg in Berlin, where a plan is afoot to resist the rent rises that threaten to put a friendly baker out of business, Farha returns to London to meet with Grenfell survivors who are being offered alternative accommodation that is miles from the community in which they had invested. She also travels to Milan to talk to Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah, who is living under a death threat for revealing the secrets of organised crime. He explains the role that tax havens play in enabling crooked and legitimate concerns alike to squirrel away money and, in some cases, launder it. Saviano also denounces the multinationals that avoid taxes and lay the burden on the ordinary people they already prey upon for their profits.

Stiglitz blames Milton Friedman for encouraging the system of deregulation and tax cuts that has consistently proved dysfunctional since the failure of the earliest `greed is good' experiment in Augusto Pinochet's Chile. He despairs of the lack of morality and pragmatism among the 1%, who persist in believing that there is nothing wrong with making money by destroying the planet and its people. But Farha has had enough and she enlists the help of Barcelona's mayor, Ada Colau, to launch an initiative called `The Shift' to redress the balance.

She takes the fight to Seoul in South Korea, which has a poor record of upholding human rights in relation to housing issues, and challenges pension companies to investigate more thoroughly the nature of the companies in which they invest. Moreover, she organises a conference with mayors from some of the world's major cities, which reaches an agreement to restrict private property purchases and monitor the activities of newcomers like Airbnb.

Ending with a beginning, Gertten leaves us with a sense that the fightback against the financial big-hitters is underway. But countries have long been ignoring the basic right to adequate housing that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. If anyone can make a dent in the Big Money bastion it will be Leilani Farha, a 5ft 2in fiftysomething mother of two from Ottawa, who comes across in a manner similar to Ilhan Omar in Norah Shapiro's Time for Ilhan (2018). But Gertten never actually defines the powers at her disposal in seeming more focused on the problem in its various forms than any potential solutions.

While the globe-trotting Farha proves to be Gertten's eyes on the ground, sociologist Saskia Sassen, economist Joseph Stiglitz and journalist Roberto Saviano provide accessible insights into the complex financial concepts underpinning a pernicious system. But the frequent flitting and the failure to identify the victims of rack-renting makes it difficult to identify with them as individuals. Consequently, viewers can feel a little bombarded with case studies and jargon, while also being aware that they are only hearing half of the story, as no one from Blackstone (and its ilk) is afforded screen time.

We also hear little from the people in power who could (and, indeed, should) be taking these companies to task and implementing more stringent purchasing policies. As a clarion call, however, this thought-provoking documentary does its job with an old-fashioned humanist mixture of compassion, moral outrage and wit. But the last word should go to Joseph Stiglitz, who passes the following verdict on a dysfunctional system that allows companies to take rather than create wealth: `You can make money by destroying the world and there's something wrong with that.'

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