Parky At the Pictures (4/2/2022)
(Reviews of The Souvenir: Part Two; Never Too Late; The Waning Mare; A Violent Man; and Belle)
Cinema-going may not be the most straightforward pastime at the moment. But it's possible to see the latest releases on the big screen, providing you meet the venue's admission criteria and have your mask and vaccination status at the ready.
If you prefer to avoid this rigmarole, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe.
THE SOUVENIR: PART II.
Following on from the traumatic conclusion to The Souvenir (2019), Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir: Part II is less a sequel than the other hinged half of a diptych. Indeed, this work of art is so connected that it's wise to revisit the 1980s relationship between Julie Harte (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her older beau, Anthony (Tom Burke), before seeing how the aspiring film-maker copes with loss of her partner to a heroin overdose, as this will make it evident that while Julie lost sight of herself in falling in love, she finds herself in coming to terms with her grief.
Following Anthony's unexpected death, Julie spends time in Norfolk with her parents, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) and William (James Spencer Ashworth), who try to offer sympathy over lunches and walks with the dogs without really understanding her bond with someone so far outside their own experience. She returns to the empty Knightsbridge flat and resumes her film school studies, with a shadow casting its pall over everything she does, including a visit to Anthony's parents (James Dodds and Barbara Peirson) to return the last of his belongings and listen to them agonise over the fact they knew so little of their son's secret life.
Keen to speak to classmate Patrick (Richard Ayoade) about Anthony, Julie drops into the soundstage, where he is working on his graduation project. As he tells an interviewer covering the shoot, he is bored with drizzly British realism and has decided to make a stylised musical, without making any compromises on the political content. Gathered in the commissary bus, Julie's friends joke about Patrick's flamboyance, with even leading man Jim (Charlie Heaton) admitting that he doesn't always know what his director is striving for.
One night, Jim turns up on Julie's doorstep and they have impetuous sex. Without a word, he departs with a moody backward glance, leaving her to launder the bedsheet stained with her menstrual blood. The red matches into the paintwork of a shiny sportscar that Garance (Ariane Lebed) is using for a scene in her sci-fi thriller. Julie takes photographs on the set and notes the confidence with which her French classmate deals with the crew (when she is so much more introverted).
Producer Marland (Jaygann Ayeh) is forever encouraging Julie to impose herself and conquer her self-doubts. He accompanies her on a visit to Anthony's dealer (Gala Botero) in a bid to try and find out how he spent his final hours, after she had been informed by a parapsychologist (Gail Ferguson) that he had decided to stop living after it became too difficult for him.
Time passes and Julie tries to get on with life. She has a meeting with her Raynham tutors to discuss her school project, as she has decided to ditch the Sunderland-set slice of social-realism that they had previously queried and now believe is a better option than her new proposal. Julie explains that she wants to show life as she imagines it rather than as it plays out in a facsimile of reality. However, the supervising foursome criticise the layout of her screenplay (down to its red ribbon) and refuse to support the film as it currently stands.
Frustrated, Julie heads for Norfolk, where she gets peevish when her parents try to understand film school politics. When she refuses to discuss her script, William draws attention to the sugar bowl that Rosalind has made at her pottery class. She makes excuses for the wonky handles, but declares that she plans to fill the house with artefacts.
When they're alone on the sofa, Julie asks Rosalind about her feelings on hearing about Anthony's death, after they had breakfasted together. She admits to having been shocked, although she felt more concerned about her daughter, despite being fond of Anthony. However, her insistence that she felt `through you' isn't what Julie had been hoping to hear. As she leaves, though, she asks her mother if she can borrow £10,000 to make her film.
Julie upsets her actress friend, Elisa (Alice McMillan), by casting Garance as her lead. She suggests Pete (Harris Dickinson) as her co-star and we see Julie discussing the characters and the deceptive behaviour that Pete will have to manifest as Anthony's on-screen equivalent. The shoot feels chaotic, however, with Julie making last-minute changes to camera positions and the cast and crew start to feel that she's not entirely in control and is too emotionally entangled in the material to make dispassionate artistic decisions.
After pulling an all-nighter in the modular office, Julie wanders on to the set to hear Garance and Pete expressing their disquiet. Although hurt at hearing a character based on herself being dismissed as fragile and naive, she avoids confrontation and appears equally on the defensive during a conversation with Pete, in which he concedes that it must be difficult for her to see someone else playing a loved one. However, he admits to finding it difficult to understand his character when Julie is being so evasive.
Eventually, when Julie changes her mind about the lighting for a night-time interior scene, cinematographer Ben (Ben Hecking) loses patience and demands that she starts following schedules or the entire production will descend into chaos. The row continues in the minibus home, with Marland calling Ben's bluff about quitting, while Julie sits in discomfited silence, as she realises she is attempting the impossible in seeking to make art from unprocessed emotions.
During a visit home, Julie smashes Rosalind's precious sugar bowl and apologises profusely. William reassures her that her mother can easily make another Etruscan masterpiece, while Rosalind seems more concerned about the dogs getting splinters on their paws. Ultimately, no one says what they feel and the conversation passes on to some homemade cake.
Patrick shows Julie a cut of the big waterfront fight scene from his film. He gets cross when she says it excites her and he teeters on the verge of a tantrum, as he berates his producer and editor for letting him down. When he demands to know how the action makes Julie feel, she can only come up with platitudes and Patrick storms out, leaving the others to roll their eyes and joke that he's a bit tipsy, as well as temperamental.
On viewing her own rushes with editor Max (Joe Alwyn), Julie feels underwhelmed. However, he compliments her on the courage she has shown in undertaking such a deeply personal subject. He also urges her not to feel guilty about grieving differently from Anthony's parents and Julie is so grateful for his compassion and support that she invites him home for a drink. Letting her down gently, he smiles that he has promised to cook for his boyfriend, who hasn't been feeling well, and Julie hides her disappointment as she hugs Max with flustered embarrassment.
Shortly afterwards, Julie gets a call from Anthony's mother to inform her that his father has fallen ill. She offers to come and stay in a way that intimates that she doesn't want to. During her next therapy session, she admits to no longer being sure whether she misses Anthony more than the feeling of having an intimate companion. Told to go out and live, Julie heads to Norfolk, but avoids having a much-needed heart-to-heart with her mother.
Wandering through Soho, she bumps into Patrick. He is wearing a white fur coat and reveals that he has disowned his film after being barred from the editing room. Comparing himself to Orson Welles, he asks how Julie's memorial has turned out and hopes she's not been too obvious. She asks if he thinks Anthony genuinely worked for the Foreign Office, but he reminds her he was just a junkie and sends her on her way.
At the graduation screening, Julie dedicates `Souvenir' to absent friends. But, rather than seeing her film, we cut to a reverie inspired by both Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) and Hogg's own short, Caprice (1986). She steps into a postcard of a painting that Anthony had admired and passes through a classical temple and along a 1950s British noir street before entering a door. Finding herself in what could be a nightclub, she sees a man who resembles Anthony dancing with a woman in a red dress. Hearing echoing snippets of past conversations, Julie films the couple with a handheld camera and looks on as the man collapses.
She runs to kneel beside him, only to hurry away and discover herself in a gauze tunnel that gives out on to a stylised Venetian variation on the River Styx, with a gondola gliding across it. Holding a mask to her face, Julie enters a hall of mirrors akin to the one in Orson Welles's Lady From Shanghai (1947) and sees her parents among those reflected. Hurriedly retracing her steps, Julie tears through the backdrop and emerges in a field, where she runs as if to escape and finally head in her own direction.
Rosalind comes to the flat and is delighted when Julie gives her a cheque to pay back part of her loan. She is now making pop videos and is more in control of her sets. Shortly after sobbing at news footage of the Berlin Wall being breached, she hosts her 30th birthday party. Several of her college friends are in attendance and she takes a group photo, as the camera relocates outside the film set of the flat and dollies past the exposed back of the wooden structure to show the crew focussing on the scene. As the film ends, we hear Joanna Hogg herself calling, `Cut!'
Even those yet to be convinced that Joanna Hogg is a truly great film-maker will be forced to concede that the Souvenir dualogy is a masterwork. The finesse of Hogg's touch extends to every aspect of the films, with the insights she offers into her own life and experiences being particularly deftly handled. She's much indebted in this regard to Honor Swinton Byrne, who gives a performance of such integrity that the vulnerability and (eventual) courage of her character is sometimes too painfully raw to endure.
The largely improvised dialogue occasionally rings hollow (as it has done throughout Hogg's career) and some of the more Altmanesque sequences in which everyone talks at once feel mannered. But Hogg refuses to take cheap shots at middle-class mores, even though she finds humour, as well as poignancy, in some of the exchanges between Julie and her devoted, if unworldly parents, most notably during the shattering pot sequence, which artfully treads the line between the metaphorical and melodramatic.
Tilda Swinton and gentleman farmer James Spencer Ashworth provide splendid support, while Richard Ayoade revels in the chance to play against type as the hissy Patrick (who brings out the best in costumier Grace Snell). The remainder of the bohemian film school cabal are less persuasive, however, with several being required merely to exhibit caricaturistics. Ariane Lebed and Harris Dickinson convey something of the ennui and confusion felt at trying to create a character without clear direction, but the soundstage squabbles are the least interesting part of the picture. Julie's excursion to Suzie's lair also feels forced, as her investigation into Anthony's murky past always seems a little half-hearted. How difficult would it be, for example, to write to the Foreign Office to inquire if he had ever worked there?
However, Hogg's most ambitious decision pays off triumphantly. The graduate showcase reverie is a brilliantly bold conceit that only makes one wish that Hogg would make Caprice available online, as those unfamiliar with it (and Tilda Swinton's remarkable performance) will be deprived of a vital aesthetic clue to understanding Julie and her initiator. But it breaks down the Fourth Wall and sets up the closing shot, which coerces us into recognising how often the lines blur between filmic fact and fiction.
This conceit wouldn't work so exhilaratingly without the exceptional contributions of production designer Stéphane Collonge and cinematographer David Raedeker. The latter also gets to create a series of sublime rustic pillow shots that contrast with the more abrupt cuts that editor Helle le Fevre uses to propel Julie between scenes.
Given the lack of support that Julie receives from the all-white male film school panel, it would be fascinating to know what role executive producer Martin Scorsese played in proceedings. But Hogg is very much the caller of her own shots and it will be intriguing to see how she fares in becoming the latest British woman director to venture into the horror genre, with her forthcoming ghost story, The Eternal Daughter.
NEVER TOO LATE.
If a film was constructed solely of clichés and contrivances, it would soon fall apart. Luckily for Australian director Mark Lamprell, Never Too Late is gaffer-taped with enough good intentions and solid ensemble performances to keep it hanging together, although it must come close to setting a record for the most wildly improbable plot points in a single feature.
Jack Bronson (James Cromwell) has decided to act on impulse and propose to Norma McCarthy (Jacki Weaver), the nurse he met while serving in the Vietnam War. She had married after he had been listed as missing in action, but they had corresponded for many years after he returned Stateside. Now, Jack suspects that Norma is losing her memory and he wants to marry her while she can still recognise him.
Rather than simply paying Norma a visit at the Hogan Hills Retirement Home for Returned Servicemen and Women, Jack pretends to be a stroke victim in order to become a resident. However, his ruse is discovered just as he learns that his beloved is about to be transferred to a specialist Alzheimer's unit for a three-month drug trial.
Before he can despair, however, Jack is recognised by Eliot (Zachary Wan), the teenage son of Nurse Kate (Ling Cooper Tang) who spends his after-school time at the home because he doesn't have any friends. He knows Jack because he had been the leader of the Chain Breakers, an élite quartet that had rescued hostages during the war and had escaped from the POW camp run by the notorious Nguyen Tan. Eliot informs Jack that the other three members of the corps just happen to live at the home and they are quickly rounded up.
Angus Wilson (Jack Thompson) is slowly succumbing to dementia, but he can still remember his Aussie Rules career with the Adelaide Crows. Despite being confined to a wheelchair after a life of crime, James Wendell (Roy Billing) only regrets becoming estranged from his son, Bruce (Shane Jacobson), who returns all of his letters unopened. Pom Jeremiah Caine (Dennis Waterman) is the home lothario, but he would much rather be sailing the sloop he bought just before his doctor sent him for the tests that landed him in Hogan.
No one questions why Jack had failed to keep in touch with his band of brothers and - in keeping with their motto, `No excuses, no regrets' - they readily fall in with his plan to break out of the home and wreak their revenge on Nguyen Tan, who is living in another care home across Adelaide. With Eliot lending his knowledge of the home's workings and eccentric veteran Hank (Max Cullen) offering to help in any way he can, the Chain Breakers finalise their plan of action.
However, they fail to reckon with Lin (Renee Lim), the director who runs the home with a rod of iron and who foils their schemes at every turn. Indeed, after Jack gets to the door of Norma's home after impersonating another patient and slipping away from a hospital appointment, Lin has him sedated and restrained to stop him causing more trouble. While he's under the influence, Norma pulls off her own escape and manages to get past Hogan's tight security. But, when Lin finds her holding Jack's hand, she can't remember who he is and she's dispatched back to her lodgings.
Dismayed at seeing their pal tamed, Jeremiah, James and Angus conspire with Elliot to change his medication and they devise a new gambit that will enable Angus to see his MVP medal at the Adelaide Oval, while James reconnects with Bruce during the game. Moreover, after Jack has proposed to Norma on the jetty, Jeremiah (who has been told he only has a few months to live) can sail away on his boat.
All depends on Hank feigning an emergency. But he dies on the morning of the escape and the foursome has to improvise by stealing the hearse in order to make their getaway. With Elliot along for the ride, they pick up a bewildered Bruce and head for the stadium, where father and son bond as Angus sets off an alarm while trying to touch his medal. Slipping away on a tram, they evade the police thanks to Jeremiah's gift of the gab and make it to the jetty just as Norma arrives for the home's daily exercise period.
Jack produces a ring and Jeremiah sets sail on his final voyage. But there's one last twist in the tale, as Lin reveals that her father had been the guard who had helped the Chain Breakers escape. He had been executed for his treachery and she had grown up in poverty before relocating to Australia and building a new life. As she is about to sedate Jack, he thanks her for her father's sacrifice and she bins the syringe.
Ending as cosily as one might expect, this creaky comedy somehow gets by on its geriatric charm. Just about every aspect of Luke Preston's scenario crumbles under the merest scrutiny, yet Lamprell manages to keep the audience onside as the specious plot lumbers forward. This is almost entirely down to the good-natured turns of James Cromwell and his confrères, who cleverly convince us to care for their stick figures.
Some viewers may be less forgiving, however, of the borderline xenophobic depiction of the home director. As played by Renee Lim, she is clearly supposed to be a variation Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But she is presented as a latterday prison guard, who is every bit as cruel and ruthless as those the veterans faced in South-East Asia. This is clearly problematic in itself, but Lim also looks too young to have lost a father in the war.
Cinematographer Peter Falk makes Adelaide and its environs look pleasant enough. But the usually dependable Angela Little's cloying score and Lior's feeble covers of `Catch the Wind', `The House of the Rising Sun', `Mad World' and `I Can See Clearly Now' reinforce the cheap sentiment in Preston's screenplay. Consequently, it comes as a surprise to see among the producorial credits the name of Antony I. Ginnane, who had played such a key role in the Ozploitation boom of the 1970s.
THE WANING MARE.
Debuting director Nicholas Ashe Bateman is very keen for us to know that he's had it tough since leaving his native Baltimore. He dropped out of college and was denied the chance to go to film school. Yet, he managed to develop the skills to make the shorts, The Circus Animals (2012) and The Fires, Howling (2014), and to work on the special effects for Benh Zeitlin's Wendy (2020) and David Lowery's The Green Knight (2021).
Moreover, thanks to crowdfunding, he has been able to spend five years working on the 500 visual effects that are so key to The Wanting Mare, which he had photographed in a New Jersey warehouse and on location in Nova Scotia. The ambition of this enterprise and the dedication required to achieve it are worthy of the highest praise. It's also deeply impressive that this distinctive vision is the product of a single imagination. Yet, for all its aesthetic intrepidity and technical ingenuity, this lacks the immersive narrative to transfix the audience.
Captions explain that the heat makes life uncomfortable in the city of Whithren, which lies to the north of Anmaere. The wild horses that roam along the coast are prized in the cooler southern settlement of Levithen and passages aboard the ship that annually transports the creatures are much coveted by all.
A dying mother tells her infant daughter that she is going to have the same dream every night of `the time before'. Years later, Moira (Jordan Monaghan) lives in a solitude that is relieved only by the recordings she has of her mother singing at a club. One night, she hears a commotion and finds Lawrence (Nicholas Ashe Bateman) bleeding from a gunshot wound. She takes him to her home on the rocky coastline and nurses him back to health.
Tired of being tormented by the dream of what the world was like before the apocalypse, Moira threatens to turn Lawrence in unless he gets her a ticket on the ship. They become lovers and he promises to do what he can about a ticket. Shortly after finding a baby girl on the beach, Lawerence goes into town to hook up with his old pals. He tells them about the night of the shooting and convinces them that there's a ticket hidden in the old nightclub. There's a ruckus and Lawrence survives in order to hand the baby to Moira before driving away.
Thirty-four years later, Eirah (Yasamin Keshtkar) has found herself a horse and she concludes a deal with Hadeon (Edmond Cofie) to keep it safe. He is the leader of a gang with a talent for procuring tickets and he cuts a deal to help Eirah. They make love and she tells him how she was found and raised and now wishes to make a fresh start. She claims to have no time for winter, but would be willing to sail south if Hadeon accompanies her.
A year later, Eilen (Maxine Muster) finds a battered and bruised Eirah in a warehouse with the horse. She carries her sister to a car and speeds to an isolated caravan, where she pleads with the occupier for help. He turns out to be Lawrence (Josh Clark), but he is unable to save Eirah. As he digs her grave, Eilen explains that she was supposed to be leaving on the ship that night with a companion, but something clearly went wrong.
Lawrence goes into town and finds Hadeon. He accuses him of killing Eirah, but Hadeon is crushed by the news. He had tickets for them both to leave, but now goes alone and uses the bridge telephone to call the number that Eirah had given him when they first met.
Moira (Christine Kellogg-Darrin) hears the ship's whistle and presumes that Eirah has secured her passage. She is surprised when Lawrence comes to see her and he withholds the truth about Eirah's fate, as she is so pleased that her troubled child has left Whithren in her search for salvation. They return to the old house and enter the blue-lit room playing the old 8-track songs. People are dancing and Lawrence is happy to see Moira reconnecting with her mother's voice. He goes to leave, but she chases after him and they kiss.
They make love, but Lawrence insists they will never see each other again. Moira sits on the stoop in her lover's shirt and finds a ticket in the pocket. She is burning it when Elien sits down beside her. As they survey the dark horizon, Eilen asks if Lawrence told her the news. When her mother looks puzzled, she decides not to say anything about her sister's death and Moira advises her daughter to embrace the dream and take solace from remembering a time when the world still contained some magic (and could do again).
The closing sequence shows Hadeon shivering on the deck, as a horse appears out of the icy mist and he feels Eirah's spirit envelope him. It's as gnomic an image as any that had preceded it. Yet, thanks to Aaron Boudreaux's sonorous score, it somehow feels both hopeful and melancholic. What it and anything that has come before it actually means, Bateman alone knows. But bafflement isn't always a negative response to a film, especially when it strives to do something different and on its own terms.
In this regard, The Waning Mare feels as singularly innovative as Alexei German's Hard to Be a God (2013) or Mark Jenkin's Bait (2019), at least in terms of its iconography. The storytelling is less accomplished, although Bateman could justifiably argue that he was not adhering to the rules of Hollywood classicism in striving for a Malickian dystopia. Doubtless, he has reasons for such opacity in creating what is essentially a tone poem. But he clearly carried his committed cast with him, even though they are often reduced to striking poses when not being required to growl out lines of florid dialogue.
The technical support is also admirable, with Cassandra Louise Baker's production design bringing mystery and intimacy to the expanses of the cavernous Paterson warehouse. Cinematographer David A. Ross also works wonders with the Nova Scotian coastline, while his lighting of the sets is highly evocative. Some of Bateman's editing is a bit flash, as he seeks to let elliptical snippets carry the narrative burden. But he is wholly in control of this eye-catching debut, which puts enormous pressure on him to deliver on a par second time out.
A VIOLENT MAN.
Cross a joke-free Porridge with Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos and stud it with Pinteresque pauses and you'll wind up with something similar to actor Ross McCall's directorial debut. Providing the imposing Craig Fairbrass with another functional vehicle to exhibit his limited, but effective wares, A Violent Man has similarities with Craig Viveiros's Ghosted (2011). But (presumably working on a low budget within Covid restrictions) McCall confines much of the action to a dimly lit cell that leaves the characters with nowhere to hide from the camera's relentlessly intrusive gaze.
Following the distorted depiction of a brutal stabbing, we see Governor Goodwillie (Ulrich Thomsen) informing maximum security lifer Steve Mackelson (Craig Fairbrass) that his aim is to rehabilitate rather than break him. To this end, he is billeting young gang member Marcus Wainright in his cell. (Stephen Odubola). He is also allowing social worker Claire Keats (Zoë Tapper) to explore the possibility of a meeting with the daughter from whom Steve has been estranged since he murdered her mother and her lover two decades earlier.
Steve discovers that Marcus isn't popular because the other inmates think he's a snitch. But, while he berates him for breaking the cell's toilet rule, Steve sees something of himself in Marcus and decides to stick up for him after he refuses to grass to SO Martins (Robin Laing) after he cuts the nose of Scotty (Michael Lindall) after Frank Gillespie (Jason Flemyng) tips him off that he resents Steve being placed on his wing.
Undaunted by a nocturnal beating by SO Brooks (Lloyd Everitt) and his crew, Steve keeps giving Marcus advice to help him steer clear of trouble. After they are both attacked in their cell, however, Goodwillie puts Steve into solitary for his own safety. However, Marcus is so scared of reprisals that barricades himself into the cell and tries to hang himself, as Steve is brought to the wing to try and talk him into surrendering.
Aware that Danny Wilson (Morgan Watkins) is angry with Marcus for dealing drugs on his patch, Steve asks him to cut the kid some slack. When he refuses and intimates that Steve is yesterday's man, he stabs him in the eye with a shiv and makes it look like self-defence before the screws arrive. Frank wonders why he's gone out on a limb for a stranger and Steve admits he just wants Marcus to have the chance that he never got.
He claims to be unconcerned that he will now be targeted by every young thug out to make a name for himself. But Steve is in reflective mood when he imagines a conversation with his younger self (Hector Bateman-Harden), in which he recalls feeling rage for the first time when some schoolmates trashed the body of a dead rabbit. He also receives a mental visit from his father, Luke (Ross McCall), who urges him to see his daughter so that the rest of the family can have a relationship with her.
Steve also warns Marcus to ditch the self-pity, as the only way he is going to survive his stretch (and ease the pressure on his family back on the estate) is to man up and earn the respect of his foes. This theme comes up in his conversation with Luke, as Steve curses the fact he's his father's son. But Steve isn't there to protect Marcus when he gets a visit from Dwayne Barstowe (Thomas Dominique) who threatens to set his gang on Marcus's grandmother unless he calls her to send him some cash. Marcus protests that he just wants to be left alone, but when Dwayne makes a move, he stabs him.
When he returns to the cell, Steve cautions Marcus that Dwayne's crew will come after him and his response will dictate how his stretch will go. For someone who claims to feel nothing when he lashes out, Steve is beginning to leave himself open and Claire reassures him, after he agrees to meet his daughter, that it is natural to feel scared at taking such a step into the unknown.
However, we get to see Steve at his most pitiless when he and Frank interrupt Morgan (Philip Barantini) and Greene (Roger Suubi) administering a punishment beaten to Marcus. Accusing them of disrespecting him by using his cell, Steve forces Greene into stomping on Morgan's arm, while Frank holds him down.
Shortly after Steve tells Marcus that he's being played for a mug by screws and inmates alike for dealing on the wing, the governor announces that Marcus is being transferred. He thanks Steve for trying to teach him the ropes and feels better equipped for coping with the fact he's now facing 10 years rather than four.
Goodwillie also orders Steve to meet Rebecca (Rosie Sheehy) and his face reflects on the glass as the camera holds her in close-up. She admits to having had reservations about coming and isn't sure what she hopes to get from the meeting. But she wants her father to know that she doesn't feel victim and believes herself to be beautiful, even though she came from such ugliness. Steve is pleased she's so strong and in touch with her emotions, but he has to admit that he has nothing to offer her because he's a bad father and a bad man.
That night, as Steve sleeps on the top bunk, someone enters the cell and slashes Marcus's throat. He whimpers, as he chokes on his blood, but doesn't wake Steve, who rolls over to face the wall.
Reinforcing the notion that prison is a dangerous place, with villains on either side of the thin blue line, this closing sequence typifies McColl's laudable effort to let his visuals do most of the storytelling. He owes much to cinematographer Stefan Ciupek's superbly controlled use of the light emanating from the door and the barred window to show how cocooned and inured Steve has become by both his environment and his emotions. Charles Whiteway's spartan setting proves equally key, as it forces friend and foe into a close proximity that exacerbates the tension, which is deftly sustained by Alex Fountain's measured editing.
Austin Wintory's score presses a few too many buttons, while some of the support playing (too much of which is mumblingly unintelligible) is Mockney 101. Demonstrating intensity if not interiority, Fairbrass adopts a simmering stillness that he modulates in order to convey menace or melancholy. But we are only allowed glimpses of the man beneath the hard man facade that has been honed to protect Steve from others and himself.
Despite exploring the idea that prison breeds criminals rather than reforming them, McColl seems less interested in the socio-political aspects of the system than in exploiting them for melodramatic purposes. Nevertheless, this is an unexpectedly involving study of a deeply damaged individual who is suddenly forced to deal with the feelings he has spent a lifetime suppressing.
Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) has struggled to connect with her father (Kôji Yakusho) since her mother's death. They live in a large house outside the town in Köchi Prefecture, where Suzu goes to school. She is pals with the bespectacled Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), but wishes she was more like class princess Luka (Tina Tamashiro) or had the devil may care attitude of Shinobu (Ryô Narita), who had proposed to her when they were six.
As a child, Suzu had been devoted to her mother, who had encouraged her to sing. But she had lost her voice after her mother had drowned while saving a young girl from a raging river and Suzu had struggled to forgive her. Indeed, not even the ladies who make up the local choir - Yoshitani (Ryôko Moriyama), Kita (Michiko Shimizu), Okumoto (Fuyumi Sakamoto), Nakai (Yoshimi Iwasaki) and Hatanaka (Sachiyo Nakao) - could coax her into singing again.
One night, however, after being dragged into a karaoke room by her classmates, Suzu had tried to sing one of her own compositions on the bridge near her home. But she had crumpled in the snow and seemed set to remain desolate until she discovered the virtual online platform called `U'. Logging on as `Belle' and adding freckles to an image of Luka to create her pink-haired avatar, Suzu discovers she can sing the moment she emerges into the U-niverse. Floating past in the realm seemingly made up of motherboards and pixels, the other users pass comments on Belle's look and sound. By the next day, she's a sensation and rivalling diva de jour, Peggie Sue (Ermhoi).
Hiroka is thrilled by the development, as she has helped shape Belle's image. But Suzu is unnerved by all the attention, as her follower numbers go through the roof, because she can't cope with the amount of negativity her avatar receives. However, Belle's next concert is interrupted when a martial arts fighter named the Dragon bursts into the arena. He resists capture by Justian (Toshiyuki Morikawa), the leader of the Judges who maintain order in U. He threatens to unveil the Dragon for his disruptive actions, but he manages to escape.
Belle is transfixed by this rogue avatar and Suzu joins with Hiroka in trying to find out who owns the account. They ask the Dragon's battle opponents pry into the backstories of Jelinek (Kenjirô Tsuda), an avant-garde artist whose paintings ape the bruises on the Dragon's body; Fox (Mitsuru Miyamoto), a baseball player with a fabled temper who covers the bruises on his back; and Swan (Mami Koyama), a woman posing as an ideal housewife, whose entire profile is made up of stock images.
Hiroka tells Suzu not to give up the search and she returns to U alone to find the Dragon's remote castle. She gains entrance and is shown a garden of rare roses before the Dragon tries to scare her away. But she is touched by his affection for one of his elfin assistants and wonders whether his ferocity is a front to hide pain.
Back at school, a rumour circulates that Suzu asked Shinobu on a date and she is overwhelmed by the hate mail she receives. Hiroka helps put out the fire, but Suzu gets upset when Shinobu asks if she's okay and she can't summon the courage to tell him what's on her mind. She's also put out when Shinobu reacts snarkily to her congratulating class outsider Kamishin (Shota Sometani) for qualifying for a national canoeing competition.
On her next visit to U, Belle returns to the castle and is making her way back to the central zone after being frightened away when Justian stops to ask where she's been. When she refuses to answer, he threatens to unveil her and she is relieved when the Dragon plucks her out of the air and outstrips Justian and his cohorts to return to his lair. He accepts that she cares for him and allows her to touch his heart. They dance and she sings `Lend Me Your Voice' as they waltz out of the ballroom into the heavens.
As Fox and Jelinek demonstrate why they couldn't be the Dragon, Belle is captured by Justian. He threatens to expose her true identity unless she betrays her beloved. But she is rescued by Hiroka and the Dragon's airborne minions, but she remains troubled and Suzu's father grows increasingly concerned about her. Luka also checks up on her and reveals that she has a secret crush on Kamishin.
At the train station, they bump into Kamishin and Luka lets slip her feelings. He is so embarrassed that Suzu has to stop him running away and tells him to start a conversation. They discuss his canoe racing and Luka promises to cheer him on at the finals. Tiptoeing away, Suzu spots Shinobu across the street. He shouts above the passing cars that he knows she is Belle and she runs away in horror because she doesn't want to lie to him. But she also wishes to protect her secret and runs sobbing to the riverbank.
Her misery is interrupted by a call from Hiroka alerting her to a crisis in U. Justian has found the castle and is about to torch it after smashing it up. The AI minions are all hurt in trying to protect the Dragon, who refuses to let Belle help him and jumps off the parapet into the abyss below.
Rushing to her old elementary school, Suzu finds Hiroka scanning the U site for clues to the Dragon's identity. Luka, Kamishin and Shinobu follow and eavesdrop as Suzu recognises the song she sang to the Dragon. Clicking through the online users, Hiroka finds the webcam of Tomo (Hana), who is shielded from his angry father by Kei (Takeru Satoh), whom Suzu immediately recognises as the Dragon.
She also realises that the picture she saw on the wall of the castle was his late mother and their mutual loss was what must have inspired their bond. Impetuously, she calls his face time number and reveals herself as Belle. But Kei is furious with her for thinking she can help where so many others have failed and he scorns her pity before disconnecting.
Suzu is crushed at not being able to support Kei. But Shinobu urges her to return to U and force Justian into unveiling Belle so that she can sing as herself to win back Kei's trust. The onlookers are amazed that she would want to out herself, but Peggie Sue joins the chorus when Suzu begins to sing and the emotional wave she creates causes Justian's brand sponsors to desert him and Suzu transforms back into Belle on the back of a giant whale that glides through the air over the heads of the cheering throng.
Frustrated that she can't help Kei and Tomu, Suzu turns to see that the middle-aged ladies who have tried to get her to join their choir have also appeared in the classroom. They see Kei restore the connection, only for his furious father (Ken Ishiguro) to cut the power after damning Belle for interfering in his family's affairs. Suzu wishes she could help the boys and is amazed when Hiroka magnifies the view through the bedroom window and Kamishin recognises the twin towers as being part of the Kawasaki skyline.
The choristers run Suzu to the station and she catches the train to Kanagawa Prefecture. She texts her father, who is proud of her for being her mother's daughter. Tomu and Kei spot Suzu wandering along their street in the rain and rush out to embrace her. Their father tries to pull them apart and scratches Suzu's cheek, which starts to bleed. He falls to the ground and scurries away, as Kei thanks Suzu for coming and delivering them from their ordeal.
Arriving back home, Suzu is met at the station by her father. Her classmates join them for a walk by the river and Shinobu hopes he can now be Suzu's friend rather than her protector. The choir ladies persuade her to join them in a song, as the credits roll.
Anime maestro Mamoru Hosoda already has such notable works as Digimon: The Movie (2000), Summer Wars (2009), Wolf Children (2012), The Boy and the Beast (2015), and the Oscar-nominated Mirai (2018) to his credit. But this musical, which deftly shifts graphic style to contrast Suzu and Belle's milieux, may just be his most accessible work, especially as comparisons with Jared Bush and Byron Howard's Encanto reinforces the Disney link with Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's Beauty and the Beast (1991).
There's actually another Disney connection, as the U-niverse envisaged by Hosoda bears comparison with the digital web world depicted in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston's Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018). Moreover, Belle was designed by veteran Disney animator Jin Kim to ensure she had that trademark `princess' feel.
Hosoda's script alights on such topics as adolescent angst, being yourself and the pros and cons of online anonymity and assumed identities. But, while he alludes to trolling, self-esteem issues relating to virtual profiles and the more malicious aspects of cancel culture, he doesn't delve too deeply, as there is plenty of story to work into the two-hour running time. More importantly, however, he has some stunning visuals to share, with the interior of the Dragon's castle feeling as old-fashionedly fairytalesque as the U core seems gleamingly modern.
While Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bando's score coruscates along with the action, Belle's songs are performed with heart by singer Kaho Nakamura, who largely avoids the anime trait of shouting much of her dialogue (unlike Lilas Ikuta). For all the slickness, however, the question remains - what is U's USP and what do people actually get from it? More to the point, are the Five Voices who created it really the choir quintet?