- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (3/9/2021)
(Reviews of Annette; The Nest; The Champion of Auschwitz; and Handsome)
Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.
Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
The musical has always been a preposterous genre. It demands we suspend disbelief sufficiently to accept that people in everyday situations burst spontaneously into song and that everyone around them not only knows the words to the chorus, but also the harmonies and the steps to the dance interlude. In the hands of a master, such a conceit can turn the lightest-weigh story into joyous nonsense. But, in the hands of a provacateur like Leos Carax, a musical like Annette can not only make us question why the genre keeps defying the odds, but also why we laugh at comedy and even bother with cinema at all with all its trickery, artifices and contrivances.
Over a darkened screen, a theatre announcer addresses the audience: `We now ask for your complete attention. If you want to sing, laugh, clap, cry, yawn, boo or fart, please do it in your head, only in your head. You are now kindly requested to keep silent and to hold your breath until the very end of the show. Breathing will not be tolerated. So, please take a deep, last breath right now.'
The scene cuts to a recording studio, as a producer (Leos Carax) gives Sparks the nod to begin recording `So May We Start?' Just a few bars in, however, singer and keyboard player Russell and Ron Mael walk out into the street, where they are joined by stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), opera diva Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) and an accompanist (Simon Helberg), who proceed to march through the Los Angeles night to the motorbike and waiting car that respectively speed Henry and Ann away.
Nicknamed `The Ape of God', Henry has a reputation for edgy humour and he emerges on to the stage in a pair of black shorts that are covered only by a hooded green bathrobe. He toys with the audience about whether he can be bothered making them laugh and they respond to his tauntings in unison with the assistance of his backing quartet.
Intercut with this routine are snippets of Ann's performance, which establish that that she is also at the peak of her powers, albeit in the more rarefied world of classical music. There is genuine astonishment, therefore, when Henry picks up Ann at the stage door and they kiss in front of the assembled photographers. She smiles when he announces that he slayed his audience because she claims to have saved hers.
During a walk in the country, Henry and Ann sing `We Love Each Other So Much'. They continue to duet while making love, although song gives way to laughter, as he tickles her toes. Meanwhile, the Accompanist sits at the keyboard to reveal his devotion to Ann and his hope that he can become a conductor and take her success to even greater heights. As he plays for a concert song, in which Ann dies tragically in a bloodstained dress, which Henry watches from the wings with a mix of admiration and frustration that her art is taken more seriously than his own.
Show Bizz News host Connie O'Connor (Rebecca Sjöwall) follows her scoop about the marriage between Beauty and the Bastard by announcing the imminent arrival of a little girl. Encourage to breathe and push by some singing nurses, Ann gives birth to Annette and howls with laughter when Henry feigns shock at the fact she's completely naked. They agree she is out of this world, which is very much true, as Annette is an animatronic doll rather than a human baby and she remains in this puppet form until the closing scene. No one comments on the fact, as Henry babysits while Ann resumes her career and goes from strength to strength.
The chorus has its misgivings, however, as it senses something bad is going to happen. Ann also starts to feel uneasy and has a nightmare in the back of her car that six women have come forward to accuse Henry of violent sexual harassment. Each makes the same claim and, while worrying that Henry is going to harm her, Ann sits up abruptly to see a lorry careering towards her vehicle. But it's only a dream.
While Ann stays home to play mommy, Henry makes his debut in Las Vegas. Feeling uncomfortable with the dinner crowd, he mumbles a confession about killing his wife. As the audience heckles, he explains how he tickled her to death and turns aggressive when the catcalls rings out. He growls that he doesn't care what they think and declares that he is tired of trying to make people laugh.
Back home with Annette, Ann sings her a lullaby and tries to reassure her that everything will be fine. However, as the melody becomes jauntier, as she wanders beside the pool of their luxury home, Ann seems to be convincing herself that she's still happy and that there is nothing to fret about.
The couple go on a yachting holiday and Ann puts Annette to bed as she watches a storm start to swell through the porthole. She clambers on to the deck, where a drunken Henry seems oblivious to the danger they're in. They tussle as the vessel rolls and Ann pleads with him to take the wheel and steer them to safety. But he insists on waltzing on the slippery planks and Ann falls overboard.
Henry and Annette are alone as they reach shore in an inflatable dinghy. Ann's ghost vows to haunt Henry for the rest of his life, but he can only hear Annette's beautiful singing, as she sits in a pool of pale moonlight. Surviving a musical police interrogation, Henry hastens home to purchase a star lamp, which he places beside Annette's bed. As soon as the shapes are cast on to the ceiling, the infant starts to sing and Henry becomes convinced that the world needs to hear his child's miraculous talent.
The Accompanist has fulfilled his ambition of becoming a conductor and he delivers a recitative from the podium in which he reveals that he was Ann's lover before Henry swept her off her feet. He suspects foul play aboard the yacht, but is even more convinced that he is Annette's father. At three points in his song, he asks the audience to excuse him while he guides the orchestra through a complex instrumental passage before resuming his aside.
When Henry asks the Conductor to join him on a world tour to show off Annette's gift, he protests at the exploitation of a child and wants nothing to do with the scheme. But Henry is broke and the Conductor reasons that Annette would be safer with him than anyone else. Indeed, during the ensuing `Bon Voyage' montage, the Conductor is carrying Annette on his luggage, while Henry strolls alongside lapping up the adulation.
He is troubled by a recurring dream, however, in which he deliberately kills Ann on the yacht and pleads with her for forgiveness. But success is addictive and Henry is soon off enjoying the high life, while the Conductor remains in the hotel room with Annette. One night, he teaches her `We Love Each Other So Much' and Henry is furious with him for stealing Ann's song. However, the Conductor reveals that he wrote it for Ann and confides his inkling that Annette is his daughter.
Suddenly afraid that he will not only lose Annette, but also her earning power, Henry lures the Conductor into the garden, where he drowns him in the icy pool. Aware that he has lost his musical arranger, Henry announces that Annette's appearance during the half-time show at the Hyper-Bowl will be her swan song. Unfortunately, she misses two cues and the stadium announcer (Colin Lainchbury-Brown) has to remind the booing crowd that Annette is still an infant and is probably nervous at performing in front of so many people. But she knows what she is doing and, when silence finally falls, she calmly declares, `Daddy kills people.'
Hands bang on the window of the van taking Henry to court, as the clamouring onlookers sing a their denunciation. Ann's spirit appears to warn Henry that she intends haunting his cell. He is convicted and sentenced and goes several years without seeing Annette. When she finally comes to the prison, she ceases to be a puppet and her human incarnation (Devlyn McDowell) refuses to show her father any sympathy. Indeed, she orders him not to love her and blames Ann for using her to avenge her death.
Henry pleads with Annette not to think badly of her mother. But her mind is made up and, having told Henry that she won't be coming back, she leaves the visiting room. He watches her disappear down the corridor and turns to see the Annette doll lying on the floor beside her favourite toy monkey.
As the credits start to roll, the black background is dotted by coloured lanterns, as the cast and crew march in a procession past the camera wishing `Goodnight to one and all.' It's the last flourish of a film filled with such musical and directorial gambits and it says much for both Carax and Sparks that they stick to their aesthetic guns throughout.
Initially contemplating a tourable concept album, the Maels approached the director with the project in 2014, but casting changes and Adam Driver's commitment to the Star Wars series delayed filming until the summer of 2019. Carax decided not to premiere the picture at the Covid Cannes and it finally reached an audience when it opened the 74th festival in the spring. Given that this is Carax's first feature since Holy Motors (2012) - and only his sixth after Boy Meets Girl (1984), Mauvais Sang (1986), Les Amants de Pont-Neuf (1991) and Pola X (1999) - it has to be concluded that the wait has been worthwhile. But, looking and sounding magnificent for all of its 141 minutes, it's more of a curio than a classic.
The storyline feels like something dredged up from a silent Lon Chaney melodrama, although many will compare it to the Star Is Born scenario with a tagged on subplot about a clockwork baby with the voice of an angel. Nothing bonkers about that at all. Indeed, it's surprising that we don't hear about more such cases in our age of rolling news and social media. But, after all, this is more Maels than Maysles.
Considering the eccentric nature of the plot, the sketchiness of the characterisation and the whimsicality of the Sparks lyrics, the mismatched Driver and Marion Cotillard do well to enact it with such gravitas. This would be a nightmare film to see with an audience, as it would only take a single guffaw to shatter the illusion that this is to be taken any more seriously than something by those arch deadpanistes, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. How could anyone keep a straight face during the police interrogation, for example? It's wonderfully wacky and much funnier than the confessions of a tortured soul that Driver has to pretend are cutting-edge stand-up, as he swings his microphone around like Andy Kaufman pretending to be Roger Daltrey.
Simon Helberg also does a splendid job of his `excuse me' solo, while Cotillard does what she can with the awkward transitions between singing live in character in her own voice and lip-synching on stage to soprano, Catherine Trottmann. But the Maels don't make it easy for anyone with non-show tunes that flit between exposition and emotion in the twinkling of an eye. In some ways, it's a shame they couldn't have devised roles for themselves, although they would probably have become a distraction. One can only imagine how their mooted collaboration with Jacques Tati would have turned out!
In making the first film he hasn't scripted and his English-language debut, Carax's direction quirkily complements the soundtrack. Always an enigmatic visionary, he conspires with cinematographer Caroline Champetier to make the real world seem as stylised as the interiors designed by Florian Sanson and decorated by Marion Michel. The effect is to cocoon the audience inside a dark fairytale full of tragicomic twists that replaces the puppet who wants to be a real boy with a doll (designed and operated by Estelle Charlier and Romauld Collinet) who punishes her doomed parents by coming to life in the last reel. The effect is surreal, flawed, frustrating and disarmingly beautiful. But don't be surprised if it gives you nightmares.
Having concocted an unconventional horror story with Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Sean Durkin returns after a nine-year hiatus with an attempt to repeat the trick with The Nest. In the case of Durkin's debut, the cult under scrutiny was a commune in the Catskills. However, in his sophomore melodrama, the focus falls on the worship of money, while the high priest is a clay-footed 1980s father who is bent on exorcising his demons in a grand country mansion that may or may not be haunted.
Having quit the City to relocate to New York with his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), commodities broker Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) feels he has some unfinished business. Conning Allison into thinking he's been headhunted by old boss Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), he persuades her to abandon her riding school and move the family to a large period manor in Surrey. Rory not only pays a year's rent in advance, but he also enrols son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) in the nearby public school, while finding a place for stepdaughter Samantha (Oona Roche) in the local comprehensive. Reminded by her mother (Wendy Crewson) that it's a woman's duty to follow her husband wherever he leads, Allison arranges for her favourite stallion, Richmond, to be shipped across the Atlantic.
The children are intimidated by the rambling and largely unfurnished house and, being unimpressed that Led Zeppelin once stayed there while recording an album, they reach the conclusion that it must have ghosts. But Allison is taken by the space she'll have in the grounds to set up a new riding school and begins supervising the builders working on the stables. Meanwhile, Davis takes Rory to lunch with his best clients and lets him show off his knowledge of deregulated markets and how primed he is to make killings.
The kids find it hard to settle into their schools, with Sam being admonished by one teacher for her American accent, while Ben is bullied for being an outsider. Even Richmond struggles to acclimatise to his new surroundings and Allison has to ask the workmen to down tools while she's training him. However, she is glad to see Rory firing on all cylinders again and enjoys the fact that their love life has resumed.
Shortly after a pre-party quickie, however, she learns from a speech that Davis gives at a bash in Rory's honour that he had begged for a second chance with the firm and is furious that she has allowed herself to be duped into letting Rory have his own way. She decides to say nothing, as he is so certain he is on to a good thing, and even allows him to get away with little fibs about working on Saturday when he is really off to Highbury with workmate Steve (Adeel Akhtar).
While Rory tries to sell Davis on a game-changing merger with a Chicago-based natural gas company (for which he will get a whopping finder's fee), Allison discovers that the cheque he had given the builders has bounced and that his bank account is almost empty. She uses funds from an account she keeps hidden from her husband to ensure work resumes. But she shoots down his plans for a pied à terre in Mayfair and embarrasses him at a posh restaurant by drinking from the bottle when the waiter asks her to sample the wine.
Dismissing Rory's claims that he has a bumper payday on the horizon, Allison refuses to lend him some petty cash and he sulks. That afternoon, Richmond collapses during a ride and Allison has to run to a neighbouring farm to ask Jim (Stephen McQuarrie) to put him down. She also accepts his offer of a part-time job and she gives Rory both barrels when he fails to come home after receiving the devastating news that Davis has nixed his big deal and given him a dressing down for failing to pay attention to the small print.
In fact, Rory had been visiting his estranged mother (Anne Reid), who lives in a council flat. She is surprised to see him after all this time and is dismayed to discover that she has a grandson. When he asks after his brother, she plays down his relationship difficulties and bridles at the suggestion that her own marriage had been less than perfect. Nettled by her taunt that he had failed Stateside, Rory boasts that he has come home to make it big and invites her to the mansion. But she pours cold water on the idea and he slopes away with his tail between his legs.
On arriving home late, Rory finds the family in a panic that somebody has been trying to break in. He is furious that Richmond has died because he paid a fortune for him and he's even more angry at Allison for having hired a JCB to bury him in the paddock. She accuses him of being a poor kid pretending to be rich and he bellows back that he deserves a taste of the good life after having had such a miserable childhood. Allison calls him delusional and he vows to make her eat her words.
Desperate to restore his reputation, Rory tries to hijack Steve's lead with a Norwegian fishery and coaxes Allison to attend a schmoozing supper. She is having a hard time with Sam, who has fallen in with a druggy crowd at school and uses the fact that her parents are in London to throw a wild party. During dinner, Allison takes every opportunity to belittle Rory in front of his guests before storming off into the night having left the fur coat he had bought her as a welcome gift with the cloakroom attendant at the restaurant.
While Allison goes to a pub and dances the night away, Rory tries to save face. However, Steve asks him to back away from the deal, as he's making the client nervous, and leaves him to find his own way home. Ditched in the middle of nowhere by a cabby who thinks he's a con artist, Rory has to walk home. Meanwhile, Allison has returned after sleeping in the car to find offensive graffiti daubed on the walls. She also has to console Ben, who has noticed Richmond's carcass pushing upwards through the soil because it's been improperly buried. Stroking the horse's neck, Allison sobs and is grateful to find that Sam and Ben have made her breakfast. Having been walking for miles, Rory bustles in with the suggestion that they find a smaller house and start again. He boasts that he has irons in the fire, but Allison tells him to shut up and Sam fetches him a chair so her tearful father can have some cold toast with his family.
Shrewd observers have noticed a similarity between this take of patriarchal meltdown and Stanley Kubrick's take on Stephen King's The Shining (1980). But there are no spectres haunting the corridor of the stately pile rented by Rory O'Hara in a desperate bid to reassert his manhood and replenish his coffers. Moreover, Jude Law's breakdown is far less hysterical than that of Jach Nicholson's Jack Torrance, but it still proves imperilling to his family, as they are plunged deeper into the misery he refuses to acknowledge.
Having been brought up in Britain and the United States in the 1980s, the Canadian-born Durkin has clearly been mulling over the culture clash ideas that moil beneath the surface of this elegant soap opera for quite some time. But, while it trades deftly on its period tropes, this exercise in the cinema of anxiety resonate in a world in which a backlash against toxic machismo coincides with a crisis in masculinity. Durkin offers no great insights into the then or the now, but uses Hungarian cinematographer Mátyás Erdély's long, static shots and slow zooms to draw the audience into the mire in which the increasingly isolated O'Haras are sinking.
Richard Reed Parry's insidious score reinforces the feeling that something ominous is in the offing. But Durkin stops short of providing either calamity or catharsis, with the result that the viewer can decide for themselves whether the family will weather the storm or drift apart on the swell. With Jude Law and Carrie Coon on this form, it would be fascinating to see how they deal with whatever comes next.
THE CHAMPION OF AUSCHWITZ.
Three decades have passed since the death of Tadeusz Pietrzykowski, the Polish bantamweight who became a national hero after using his boxing skills to survive the Second World War in a series of death camps. His story was originally told on screen in Peter Solan's Czechoslovakian biopic, The Boxer and Death (1962). Now, debuting Pole Maciej Barczewski has produced a highly selective, but hugely effective account of his selfless exploits in The Champion of Auschwitz.
Twenty-three year-old Tadeusz Pietrzykowski arrived in Auschwitz on 14 June 1940 after being apprehended on the border between Hungary and Yugoslavia. The film, however, shows `Teddy' (Piotr Glowacki) being arrested at his home following a punch bag session in the sun-dappled garden of his pleasant home. He is given the number 77 and informed that he will spend the three months he is expected to survive restoring the barracks at the camp in the Polish countryside.
Taking under his wing the teenaged Janek (Jan Szydlowski) after he has his soup stolen by a bully, Teddy keeps his head down, while remaining ever vigilant. When someone dies on the rock pile, he takes the newspaper he had stuffed up his blue-striped tunic to keep him warm. But when an old man mentions an escape plan beneath the infamous `Arbeit Macht Frei' sign, Teddy resists the urge to retaliate when the speaker's skull is caved in with a spade by one of the cruellest Kapos, Bruno (Marcin Czarnik).
While delivering a chair to the home of the Rapportführer (Grzegorz Malecki), Teddy steals a couple of apples from a bowl in the hall. However, six men from his work detail are marched into a courtyard and made to stand with an apple on their head to be executed. Janek impresses the Rapportführer by quoting Friedrich Schiller's poem about William Tell and Teddy is also spared, although they are given 25 lashes. As he watches the punishment being administered, the German takes a cuddly toy out of a box of confiscated belongings and gives it to his young son, Rudi (Milosz Kwiecien), who is obsessed with boxing.
That night, the first trainload of Jews are herded into the showers and the officer on duty urges his men to make a noise to cover the screams of distress. The next day, Bruno amuses himself by making two of the forced labourers fight over a piece of sausage. Eventually, Teddy intervenes and Bruno is about to punish him when he finds the newspaper when he is stopped by Walter (Piotr Witkowski), a former German boxer who is now a senior Kapo. He is impressed by the way in which Teddy evades his punches and orders Bruno to back off after he lands a jab on his nose.
Returning to the barracks with a loaf of bread, Teddy realises that he will be able to help his fellow prisoners if he can fight for rewards. Walter puts the idea to the Lagerführer (Marcin Bosak), who sneeringly agrees to stage a bout to keep his soldiers from getting drunk in the village. Following a doughty performance against a stronger Kapo, Teddy is given work in the stable and allowed access to the SS ambulatory, where he befriends nurse Maria (Anna Krotoska) and secures a job for Janek, who promptly falls for the pretty assistant, Helcia (Marianna Pawlisz).
Now also fighting for medicine for the sick, Teddy explains to Janek that he ducks and weaves to buy time to assess his opponent's strengths and weaknesses. When he has a plan of attack, he makes his move. But he stresses the importance of fighting fair and respecting one's foe. Against the backdrop of more Zyklon-B killings, a montage shows Teddy using the stable as a gym to build up his muscles. However, the Lagerführer is wary about him becoming a hero to the other prisoners and tries to find opponents capable of defeating him.
Meanwhile, Rudi dies of typhoid and the Rapportführer is distraught. Janek carves a wooden angel as a gift for Helcia, only for her to be caught smuggling food. When she's dragged into the yard, she manages to snatch a guard's gun and shoot him. But she is gunned down and the Rapportführer goes to the ambulatory for a tetanus shot after he is spattered with her blood. No longer bothered whether he lives or dies, he forces Janek to administer the jab and almost chides him for failing to take the opportunity to kill him.
Determined to get Janek released, Teddy asks the Lagerführer if he can fight a thuggish German soldier named Hammerschlag (Michal Plustok). He agrees, but one of the other officers warns the commandant that Teddy's success is encouraging a spirit of resistance among the prisoners. While musing on the fact that the flakes in a swastika snow globe are made from human bones, he agrees to bring him down a peg or two after the fight.
Infuriated by his pluck, the Lagerführer slips Teddy a drugged drink between rounds and watches with a sly smile as he throws up in the makeshift outdoor ring. Intent on humiliating him further, he orders Teddy to fight Janek. When the boy refuses to throw a punch and the Rapportführer hesitates to pull his trigger, Bruno grabs a rifle and fells Janek with a single bullet. Teddy is punished by being stripped to the waist and chained with his arms above his head in front of the gas chamber. The next morning, the Rapportführer cuts him free and tells him to get on with his work.
Wishing only to die, Teddy lies down in one of the mass graves on the periphery of the camp. However, he spots the angel that Janek had carved for Helcia and summons the strength to keep resisting. He staggers into the gym, where the head of the Neuengamme concentration camp (Martin Hugh Henley) recognises him and shames the Lagerführer into allowing them to fight, with the visitor placing his bet on the Pole. Biding his time amidst a beating, Teddy strikes when the German damages his wrist and he earns himself a transfer to Neuengamme. Before he leaves, the Rapportführer gives him Rudi's boxing scrapbook and a closing shot shows Teddy teaching young boys and girls to box in a Warsaw gym after the war.
Given what actually happened to Tadeusz Pietrzykowski in Auschwitz, it seems odd that Barczewski should rely on fictional episodes and characters that focus primarily on the audience-friendly notion of the Auschwitz boxing champion. There's no mention, for example, of Wiltord Pilecki and the ZOW resistance movement that recruited Teddy to play a key role in the attempted assassination of the detested camp commandant Rudolf Höss. Similarly, Barczewski opts to ignore Teddy's encounter with Maximilian Kolbe, the canonised Catholic priest who was played by Edward Zentara in Krzysztof Zanussi's Life For Life: Maximilian Kolbe (1991).
Instead, we get a sentimental friendship with a vulnerable boy who gets a crush on an unattainable girl. We also decent Kapo to go with the Good(ish) German, whose attitude to the value of life changes when his young son dies of a disease that was almost certainly transmitted through a stolen toy. Barczewski also ensures were have a hissably Nazi whose callous sadism is used to highlight Teddy's selfless altruism. Fortunately, both Grzegorz Malecki and Marcin Bosak stop clear of stock villainy, although the same can't be said for Marcin Czarnik's pitiless Kapo, who feels more like a caricature.
Despite being 17 years too old for the role, Piotr Glowacki exudes courage, dignity and compassion as the `multiweight champion', as he keeps a careful watch on his opponents inside and outside of the ring. His fight sequences are credibly choreographed and steadily edited by Leszek Starzynski. Utilising a limited colour palette, cinematographer Witold Plóciennik and production designer Ewa Skoczkowska capture the chilling grimness of Auschwitz in its early days of construction and operation. However, the debuting Barczewski might have been advised to avoid some of the more overt Catholic symbolism and do more to explain the make-up of the camp's non-Jewish contingent.
Brothers Luke and Ed White and Nicholas and Alex Bourne go back a long way. Since the youthful family holidays spent in France, Nick has acted in the 2017 thriller, Blood Money, which the Whites made for their Boxclever Media company. At his mother's suggestion, Nick approached the film-makers to shoot a documentary about what it's like to be the sibling of someone with Down's syndrome.
Heading off to Cornwall in a rented 1970s VW camper van, the Bournes meet Molly and Charlie Somers, who live at the family's well-appointed home. Charlie has his own annexe and Molly praises his cooking and teases him about his spelling, as the foursome get to know each other. Despite their obvious love for Alex and Charlie, Nick and Molly have a tendency to talk over them and they merely become extras in a heart-to-heart about how tough it is to be a caring sibling while trying to lead a normal life.
This is a valid point to raise, with the focus of studies about carers usually falling on the parents who make the sacrifices. In this instance, Charlie's mother has decided that the `D word' is never to be mentioned around him because he has been encouraged to see himself as being no different to anyone else. Worthy though this is, the use of tactful fibs to justify why he's not allowed to drive or go to university raises Nick's eyebrows. Moreover, the way in which legitimate and understandable frustrations can come across as self-centred carping causes a distressed Molly to call Nick in the middle of the night to question whether she wants to be in the film saying things she clearly regrets or wishes she had phrased differently.
Her presence in the final cut leads one to assume that her conscience was assuaged, as Nick and Alex jet off to New York to meet Amber and Armond Maillard. We see the Bournes strutting around Central Park and enjoying a game of baseball in the snow before hooking up with the African American duo, who also come from a well-to-do background.
Armond lives with his parents in the suburbs during the week and stays with his sister in the city whenever he can. They evidently adore each other and Nick is aware that Armond (like Charlie, who is fond of a stroll to the local pub) appears more erudite and independent than Alex. However, Amber, who can't be sure that her brother fully understands his situation, has concerns about where their paths will take them and how many compromises she will have to make if she finds a partner and wants to settle down.
She also ponders the prospect of Armond meeting someone. Back at their hotel, Nick trawls through Alex's iPad to quiz him about all the pictures of pretty girls he has downloaded. He coaxes him into admitting that he likes `boobies' and makes him point out which member of Little Mix he fancies most.
On landing in India, the wealth and privilege of Krish and Sachit Matreja becomes apparent the moment Nick suggests they take a stroll in the slums of Mumbai. We see little of Sachit and Alex is left to tag along, as Krish shruggingly admits that living in a grand apartment block overlooking scenes of degradation and poverty can be disconcerting. He also acknowledges that little is done for those with Down's and similar conditions, as there simply isn't the economic incentive for poor families to care for those who can't make a contribution to the household coffers.
An awkward digression shows Alex wandering naked around the hotel room after having suffered a toilet mishap. In narration, Nick groans about the annoyance of seeing his brother take small steps forward, only to fail to accomplish such everyday basics and he wonders how he will cope when he's not there to protect him. In frustration, he asks the 24 year-old when he's going to start acting like a man. Naturally, Alex has no idea how to reply.
Nick suddenly has a graver issue to contend with, however, as the pair fly into Vietnam. He has read online about a hospital where those with special needs are kept behind bars and subjected to beatings. He finds the compound, which has supposedly defied fact-finders from the United Nations, but fails to gain admittance. A woman at a café tells him that Vietnamese people believe that things like Down's syndrome are a curse on wrong-doers and he goes in search of the phony faith-healers who claim to be able to cure the afflicted for large sums of money.
Having followed a monk to a temple for a free prayer session, the Bournes stumble across a cult leader and pretend to be interested in curing Alex in order to lure him into exposing his chicanery. Fortunately, this amateur (and clumsily misjudged) Therouxishness is quickly abandoned, as Nick encounters Nam and Viet Thành at a day centre run by a local charity. Rather churlishly, Nick doubts whether Viet really has Down's, but he finds a kindred spirit in Nam, who explains that his ambition to become a policeman is being jeopardised by the need to care for his sibling. He even finds it hard to get a girlfriend because nobody wants to associate with `cursed' families.
Being with Nam convinces Nick that he has to make a break and start living his own life. He will always be there for Alex, but he feels he has a right to happiness and the film cuts rather abruptly on his decision, without giving viewers any inkling as to where this bombshell will leave Alex. Perhaps he had sensed it coming, as his refusal to co-operate in Hanoi suggests that he had started to grow tired of being his sibling's silent stooge.
Such words may sound harsh and they are no meant in any way to question the sincerity of those before or behind the camera. But this isn't an easy film to engage with, as it stumbles around in search of significance without broaching its subject with any revelatory depth. For all his limelight-hogging, Nick Bourne is clearly a decent fellow doing his best, as are the four siblings he tracks down via methods that are not explained on screen. But an air of self-pity seeps into several interviews, as the speakers strive to achieve a balance between compassion for doting brothers and a desire to strike out alone without feeling guilty.
Shooting around 11 hours in each location, White doesn't always manage to avoid the suspicion that certain scenes have been pre-constructed. It's also not entirely clear to what extent he is merely following the Bournes or participating in their itinerary. This lack of clarity reinforces the air of superficiality that pervades some of the increasingly naive Asian sequences. Supposedly taking tonal cues from Jonathan Drayton and Valerie Faris's Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz's The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), White obviously wants to present his friends in the best possible light. It's just a shame that in Handsome he doesn't always succeed in doing so.