Parky At the Pictures (5/5/2023)
(Reviews of Cairo Conspiracy; Lakelands; Rodeo; and The Laureate)
Swede Tarik Saleh has come a long way since being one of the country's leading graffiti artists. Having turned director alongside Eric Gandini on the 2005 documentary, Gitmo, he has earned a reputation for carefully crafted thrillers with Metropia (2009), Tommy (2014), The Nile Hilton Incident (2017), and his English-language debut, The Contractor (2022).
However, his unflinching depiction of Egyptian society resulted in him being barred on pain of arrest in 2015. Consequently, having been inspired to make a Muslim variation on Umberto Eco's 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, Saleh was forced to shoot Cairo Conspiracy in Istanbul, with the Süleymanye Mosque standing in for Al-Azhar University, which he envisaged as a prison similat to the one in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (2009).
The son of a disciplinarian fisherman from Manzala, Adam Taha (Tawfeek Barhom) receives a scholarship to Al-Azhar, which is considered the hub of Islamic learning. Shortly after his arrival, however, the Grand Imam dies unexpectedly and General Al Sakran (Mohammad Bakri) orders Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) from State Security to ensure that the president's candidate wins the upcoming election, as Egypt can't have two pharaohs.
Ibrahim relies for his information from within the university on Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), an assistant to the influential blind teacher, Sheikh Negm (Makram Khoury). However, he is exposed and Ibrahim urges him to find him another `angel' before he stands down. As he has no compromising connections, Adam seems the ideal candidate. But Zizo is murdered before he can introduce him to Ibrahim, who is placed in charge of the investigation because Zizo was a foreign national.
Coaxing Adam into trusting him by offering to pay for his father's gallstone operation, Ibrahim asks him to find the names of those who attend the call to early prayer led by Soliman (Sherwan Haji). He is worried he is doing wrong and calls his imam back home, only for Ibrahim to remind him that he hears everything. Convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated Al-Azhar, Ibrahim gives Adam an illicit book on modern jihad to gain the group's confidence.
At a tea meeting, Solimon accuses the world of permitting the persecution of Muslims and vows that State Security will fail in its bid to intimidate the council into voting for its candidate for Grand Imam. But Adam's bunkmate, Raeeb (Ahmed Lassaoui), mocks him for going to the dark side and Ibrahim cautions Adam about doing anything that will lessen Solimon's trust.
During a recitation contest, Adam plants incriminating documents under Raeeb's mattress and Solimon beats him in the night. However, he still mistrusts Adam and takes him to the top of the minaret to daunt him. But Ibrahim comes to his rescue and bullies him into revealing that he takes orders from Sheikh Durani (Ramzi Choukair). On Ibrahim's instructions, Solimon calls Durani and suggests Adam as his successor.
Frustrated at being indebted to Ibrahim, Adam tries to avoid contact. But he is reminded that he is no one special and can be disposed of. So, he reveals that Durani has sent him to buy MacDonald's and a baby's teething ring. This leads Ibrahim to discover that the married Durani got a girl pregnant and made her his wife in secret to prevent a scandal. Adam is appalled by the hypocrisy, however, and informs rival Sheikh Omar (Jalal Altawil), who recognises the usefulness of such information, despite claiming to despise gossip.
Ibrahim is furious with Adam for getting cocky, but he watches with fascination, as he poses a question to a forum of candidates about secret marriage and sees Durani walk off the platform. He is also taken aback when Negm, who had given himself up as Zizo's killer, warns Ibrahim that the real culprit still has much to fear. Moreover, while Sobhy is delighted with the result, he rejects Ibrahim's report that Negm is the murderer and orders him to get rid of his angel.
Opting not to arrest Adam, Ibrahim tells him to return home and resume his old life. However, Raeed betrays him and he is thrown in jail, where Sobhy threatens to torture him in front of his father unless he confesses to killing Zizo. Sobhy also has Ibrahim arrested, but he warns him that Negm knows State Security committed the crime and has arranged for the truth to come out if anything happens to him in prison.
With his own and Sobhy's necks on the line, when the minister comes to berate them for putting the president in an invidious position, Ibrahim suggests that Adam talks Negm into retracting his confession, so they can walk free and the official report can conclude Zizo died in an accident. Showing how far Adam has come since his arrival, he draws on an example from the life of the Prophet to make Negm realise that there is nothing to be gained by sacrificing himself. The minister notes that power is a double-edge sword, as Adam leads the blind man away.
Returning home, he is welcomed by his father and brothers. When he calls at the mosque, the imam asks what he has learned and he ponders over his answer. A closing image shows Adam rowing the small boat out to sea with his father. He has come full circle, but is much the wiser for his experience.
Launched in competition for the Palme d'or at Cannes and the winner of the festival's Best Screenplay prize, this is a satisfying, if not always entirely convincing thriller. For all that it's likely that State Security would select a disposable patsy, it's inconceivable that such a ruthless agency would alight upon a freshman who is still so obviously finding his feet in an august institution in which he is very much an overwhelmed outsider. Clearly, the intention is to mirror Malik's progress in Brécourt, which was also a hotbed of allegiances. But his rise through the ranks is much too straightforward, while, solid as his performance is, Tawfeek Barhom lacks Tahir Rahim's screen presence, with the result that Adam starts thinking on his feet in tight corners far too early.
Saleh and production designer Roger Rosenberg succeed in making Süleymanye Mosque feel like a prison, with the juxtaposition between the cramped dormitories, the expansive courtyards, and the grand interiors emphasising just how alone and up against it Adam is. However, with the exception of Ibrahim, every other character is shorn of backstory and exists solely to serve their purpose within the scenario. This makes it difficult to gauge their significance or care much about their fate, as the political manoeuvring becomes increasingly complex.
Nevertheless, the support playing is adept, while the ever-excellent Fares Fares (in his fourth Saleh outing) feels as much at home as Toni Servillo does in the films of Paolo Sorrentino, as he limns a dishevelled perennial survivor who has long lost any sense of loyalty to anyone but himself. Pierre Aïm's cinematography, Theis Schmidt's editing, and Krister Linder's score all add to the viewing pleasure. Yet, for all its intricacy, this has little to say that we didn't already suspect about this particular House of Cards, even though no one has had the audacity to expose it on screen before. Moreover, Saleh seems too in thrall to the narrative ingenuity required to extricate Ibrahim and Adam from their respective predicaments to generate much jeopardy or tension.
As they remember it, lifelong friends Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney first met at Under-10s football training. This is apt, given the significance of Gaelic Football to their debut feature as writer-directors. Abandoning their respective careers in publicity and marketing and financial consultancy to make the shorts Angels Guard Thee (2018) and Drifting (2020), the duo make a promising start with Lakelands, which continues the recent fine run of Irish releases.
Up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows, Cian Reilly (Éanna Hardwicke) seeks escape from the grumbling of his farmer father, Diarmuid (Lorcan Cranitch), at the Gaelic Football Club in Granard, County Longford. Coach Bernie (Gary Lydon) warns Cian that he'll be off the team unless he cuts down on his drinking, but he can't resist a night in Cavan with pals Sparky (Dafhyd Flynn) and Doc (Oisin Robbins).
Following an altercation in the nightclub, Cian is beaten up in a back alley and can't shake the resulting grogginess. Local copper, McGovern (Dara Devaney) takes a statement and warns Cian about seeking revenge. But he insists he's okay, even though a dizzy spell prompts him to curtail a night's boozing to walk to the burger bar with Grace (Danielle Galligan), an old school friend who is now a nurse in England and is only back to check on her father, who has a serious liver complaint.
Still feeling woozy and suffering from headaches, Cian calls Grace, who suggests he might have a concussion and should see a specialist. Not wanting to lose face, with Diarmuid and Bernie questioning his commitment, he shrugs off the problem,
even though he throws up at the cattle market and Dr Kelly (Lesley Conroy) advises him to rest and not rush things. Grace echoes this when Cian takes her to a scenic spot beside the lake (and is disappointed to learn she has a doctor boyfriend). However, with Diarmuid goading him about pulling his weight around the farm and Bernie warning him that he'll lose his shirt, he tries to carry on as normal.
Frustrated at not being able to generate much force with a fence pole driver, Cian revisits Dr Kelly, who informs him that tests have revealed his condition to be more serious than she had suspected. She cautions him that another head injury could have grave consequences, but he insists on going to training. Bernie ticks him off after he gets into a scuffle with a younger teammate, while Diarmuid informs him that he's taking on extra help so he can get a proper rest.
Grace lends a sympathetic ear over a glass of wine and a joint, but Cian makes light of his problems, as opening up is not the manly option. He reacts badly, however, when replacement Tomas (Naoise Dunbar) mistreats the lame Jersey heifer he dotes on and is angry when Diarmuid says it's heading to the abattoir soon anyway. Getting drunk after dismissing Grace's assertion that he should be grateful to get a second chance, Cian argues with Sparky before persuading Doc to drive him into Cavan to seek out the trio that attacked him.
McGovern intervenes before a ruckus can start and he takes Cian home. He slumps sobbing on to the kitchen floor and Diarmuid gives him a hug. Next morning, he breaks the news that Grace's father has died and he calls to offer his condolences. She's reluctant to see him, but confides that she had hoped her father would have apologised for his drunken ways before he passed. Cian recalls his last conversation with his mother and agrees to stick around and make tea during the wake.
Having crashed on Grace's bed, Cian heads home and is mucking out the cowshed when Bernie calls to offer him a coaching role. He promises to think about it, but knows it will never replace playing. At the funeral, he meets Grace's doctor beau and he realises that they're a firm item. He drops in to patch things up with Sparky and shares a glass with his father, who is sorry that things won't work out with Grace.
Calling at the club, Cian offers so tips to a kid practicing his kicking. He feels good about helping, but the truth suddenly dawns on him and he looks around with resignation. So, when Grace pops in en route to the airport, he's the one who stays strong, as they share what each suspects will be their last hug. Life goes on...
An admirably natural performance by Éanna Hardwicke holds this thoughtful picture together. Bristling with attitude, Cian retains a schoolboy's resistance to authority that infuriates both his father and his coach, who realise he has a self-destructive streak. But he also has a hedonistic charm that makes him a fun mate for those who share his belief that the wider world has nothing better to offer than home. However, such macho conviction makes him a poor patient, as he refuses to accept that a strapping fellow like himself could possibly become vulnerable or have his life irrevocably changed by a blow to the head.
Having Cian care for a lame cow feels contrived, but his affection reveals both his softer side and a failure to appreciate the harsh realities of farm life. Diarmuid is glad to have Cian around, when so many young people leave Granard. But their relationship has frayed since his mother died and it's interesting that there appear to be no other women in Cian's sphere before Grace returns after five years away. Again, Higgins and McGivney rather labour the point by having her come home to nurse a father who had essentially drunk himself to death. But they wisely resist the temptation to let romance intrude upon a friendship that had stalled after her departure.
Danielle Galligan plays Grace with girl next door warmth. However, she knows her horizons have widened and that staying for simply for Cian wouldn't benefit either of them. He grows up sufficiently to recognise this, too, and it's not as though he's been left without options, as he has a job that suits him, loyal friends, and the prospect of coaching at the football club. Perhaps he's even still got his favourite cow, as she's still able to wean calves in her own bit of pasture.
The land is lovingly photographed by Simon Crowe, who also makes adept use of close-ups and canted angles to convey Cian's dizzy spells. Daithi O'Dronai's score also reinforces his disorientation. But the co-directors otherwise avoid overt flourishes in both establishing a potent sense of the locale and the psyche of its inhabitants and concluding that, in Cian's case, there's no place like home.
Prior to co-directing the documentary featurette, Headshot: Roulette Russe (2020), with Antonia Buresi, Lola Quivoron had only directed the shorts, Stand (2014), Son of the Wolf (2015), and Au loin, Baltimore (2016). The latter had focussed on motocross and Quivoron expands upon the theme in Rodeo, which was co-written by Buresi, who also takes a supporting role within a cast of largely non-professional first-timers.
Fresh from stealing a motorbike by riding away from an Ebay seller's driveway, Julia (Julie Ledru) heads to the outskirts of Paris, where fellow motocross riders pop wheelies while zooming along a straight stretch of road. She cheekily cadges some fuel from Kaïs (Yannis Lafki), while Abra (Dave Nsaman) tries to teach her how to rear up on to her back wheel. Not everyone wants her there, though, even when she tends to Manel (Junior Correia) after he takes a spill.
Kaïs warns Julia that she needs to come in her own van because she won't always get a lift when the cops close in. He takes her back the garage where he works with Ben (Louis Sotton) in a chop shop belonging to Domino (Sébastien Schroeder), the jailed leader of the B-Mores. They learn from his Corsican wife, Ophélie (Antonia Buresi), that Abra is in a coma after his crash. When they gather for a memorial in RIP t-shirts after life support is withdrawn, Julia finds is too hard to stay and slips outside for a joint.
She has been thrown out of the flat by her Guadeloupean mother, but her brother still makes the calls for her to prise more bikes from online suckers. Hanging with the B-Mores under the name `Unknown', she's offered a stealing job by Domino and a bed at the garage. Ophélie is also grateful that she agrees to pick up the shopping, as looking after toddler son Kylian (Cody Schroeder) is so full on. Kaïs is glad Julia is part of the crew, but they have a bantering relationship rather than a romantic one, even though he clearly has a crush on her.
Kaïs drives the truck after Julia speeds off with another bike. On their way back to the garage, however, she shows him a blue dealership lorry that is often filled with bikes and she proposes a daring road raid to bust into the back and ride off into the night. He's impressed by the audacity of the plan, but Ben and Manel don't like having Julia around, as they think women need to show respect. Indeed, while she's wheeling a trolley of shopping back to Ophélie's place, Manel attacks her from behind in the darkness. But she catches sight of his jacket and vows vengeance, despite Ophélie urging her to be careful.
Domino is impressed by Julia's nerve and sends her out on another job. However, she's been spooked by Abra appearing in a dream and Kaïs is worried about her. He's still excited about the lorry heist, though, especially after she shows him online footage of a similar robbery at an outdoor party. Manel criticises her for lewd dancing, so Julia pounces on him while he's having a leak and steals his phone, after accusing him of attacking her. His pals rescue him and badmouth Julia to the others.
Realising that Ophélie and Kylian are virtual prisoners in their home, Julia takes them for a ride on her bike. They visit an old warehouse and play in a boat they find inside. Kylian enjoys being outside and Ophélie confides that Domino is the jealous type, who suspects something's wrong whenever she misses a visit. Julia feels sorry for her and spends an evening chatting. But Domino disapproves of the friendship and tells Julia to focus on the truck job, which he sanctions providing that Menel goes along, as he's the best trick rider.
Ben comes, too, and he chooses the moment Julia clambers into the back of the speeding truck to sexually assault her. She resists and Kaïs bellows at Ben to steal his bike and go. Unwilling to let it pass, Julia careers after him and kicks him off his bike at full speed. However, her machine catches fire and Kaïs looks on helplessly, as she becomes a fireball. Shortly after she is spirited away, Kylian finds the bag of cash she has been hiding in a toy quad bike at the garage. Ophélie sees a chance to disappear and live her own life.
Determined to plunge viewers into Julia's chaotically hardscrabble world, Quivoron has editor Rafael Torres Calderón dice Raphaël Vandenbussche's frantically kinetic handheld widescreen imagery in order to convey the struggle that she has to be taken seriously in a deeply misogynistic macho milieu. Yet such shock tactics only draw attention to themselves and away from the potent intensity of Julie Ledru's performance.
Discovered by the director on Instagram, she gives as good as she gets from the naysayers in the B-Mores clique. But she also impresses in the rare quieter moments, when her guard comes down and her vulnerability is exposed by the warning from Abra's ghost and the gratitude that Ophéle expresses for their illicit day out. Comparisons have rightly been made between Ledru and Karidja Touré in Céline Sciamma's Girlhood (2014) and Sasha Lane in Andrea Arnold's American Honey (2016). But echoes can also be heard from Léa Seydoux's electrifying turn in Rebecca Zlotowski's debut feature, Belle Épine (2010), which uses the bike races on the Rungis as a backdrop.
Yannis Lafki offers intriguing support, as the tough guy with a soft centre who dreams of taking Julia and his mother from their drudgery, while Antonia Buresi shifts persuasively between maternal scolding and spousal resentment and dread before allowing herself to be drawn to the one person who shows her genuine kindness. The remaining characters are ciphers, which makes Menel and Ben's violence feel more like a plot ploy than something drawn from Dardennesque daily life. Nevertheless, accompanied by Dominican Kelman Duran's pugnacious reggaeton-inflected score, this is a fine first feature and it will be interesting to see where Quivoron goes next.
In the guise of Jonathan Broadbent, Robert Graves appeared on the periphery of Terence Davies's Benediction (2021), which co-starred Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi as fellow Great War poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Now Sassoon is a minor figures in William Nunez's The Laureate, an account of the literary ménage à quatre that changed the course of Graves's life in the 1920s.
Suffering from writer's block and shell shock, Robert Graves (Tom Hughes) lives at World's End, a cottage in the Oxfordshire village of Islip, with his wife, Nancy Nicholson (Laura Haddock), and their daughter, Catherine (Indica Watson). Fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (Timothy Renouf ) tries to talk him out of taking up a teaching post at Charterhouse, but he needs money and feels he has no place alongside modernist writers like T.S. Eliot (Christien Anholt).
Having been reported dead on his 21st birthday after being wounded on the Somme in 1916, Robert had met Nancy when she illustrated his children's stories. She considers them a team and welcomes the idea of him collaborating with Laura Riding (Dianna Agron), an emerging American writer who accepts an invitation to stay at World's End and tutor Catherine. However, Robert's parents, Alfred (Julian Glover) and Amy (Patricia Hodge), have misgivings and a supper table row causes Robert to have a turn.
As a kindred feminist, Laura is amused by the way Nancy rebels against Robert's god-fearing parents. But she also encourages her to wear make-up and dress up for their shopping trips. However, she also flirts with Robert while painting her bedroom and points out that there is plenty of room in the tub when she bathes before the fire. He bashfully resists, but succumbs after she comes to his moonlit study and coaxes him into extemporising some verse.
In a letter that runs throughout the film, Nancy confesses that she didn't know what to think when she found her husband and her house guest together the following morning. But she had also fallen under Laura's spell and become her lover. Even Catherine succumbs, as steps on to an upper-storey window ledge after Laura had convinced her that a staircase would appear if she believed sufficiently. Grabbing the child back, Laura urges her to say nothing of their secret magic.
Still troubled by night terrors, Robert raves in the garden about being placed in a hearse with some fallen comrades and Nancy tends to the frightened Catherine, as Laura puts Robert to bed. She also accompanies him on a trip to London and overhears Sassoon and Eliot gossiping about her with Edmund Blunden (Edwin Thomas). Eliot asks to read some of her work, but Robert persuades Jonathan Cape (Edward Bennett) to publish The Close Chaplet in return for him writing a biography of his old friend, T.E. Lawrence.
The research necessitates a move to London, which Nancy accepts, as she is so swept away by their modern living arrangements. However, she feels pangs on seeing Robert and Laura together and at realising that she was not only now his muse, but also his salvation, as he was no longer so prone to his post-traumatic terrors.
Whooping it up in Hammersmith, Laura enjoys being the centre of a social and literary circle. At a party, she upsets Sassoon by deeming his poetry unfit for the Seizin Press imprint she is going to start with Robert. She also lures Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fra Fee) into her orbit, as well as a Russian secretary, Elfriede (Meriel Hinsching), whom she pushes at Robert so she can seduce the newcomer.
He is soon sharing their bed, although Robert is less engaged than he was back in Islip. Nancy is also disappointed to be rejected by Laura when she pays a visit. Rather than return home, however, Nancy leases a houseboat on the Thames and receives regular visits from a smitten Geoffrey, who has become tired of Laura's manipulation. She sees them together and furiously accuses Nancy of destroying their Holy Circle. Robert is too besotted to criticise Laura's behaviour and castigates both Geoffrey and Nancy during a heated argument thaat culminates in Laura jumping from a window and Robert following after being confronted with memories of his ordeal on the Somme.
He escapes with minor injuries, but Laura requires surgery and lengthy convalescence. Geoffrey persuades Nancy to let him help her raise Catherine and she leaves Robert a rag doll to remind him of his daughter. Despite repairing his bond with his fellow poets, Graves remains in love with Laura and channels recent events into his war memoir, Goodbye to All That, which is published to great acclaim.
Nancy's letter concludes by wondering if the cost was truly worth the heartache before captions reveal that Graves and Riding settled in Deià in Mallorca, where he wrote I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and The White Goddess, which was inspired by Laura. They remained together until 1940, six years after Nancy and Geoffrey separated. Nicholson became a celebrated fabric designer, dying in 1977. Graves survived her by eight years.
Having slogged through the tawdry melodramatics served up as biographical insight, it comes as no surprise to read in the closing caption that the memorial to 16 Great War poets is in St Paul's Cathedral, when it's actually in Westminster Abbey. Can you imagine the expression on the face of Julian Glover (who just happens to be Graves's godson) on seeing such a careless slip? What's more even more damning is that The Laureate (whose title makes no sense because Graves never received that particular honour) was released in 2021 - which means that nobody has been sufficiently bothered to correct the mistake in the interim.
In interviews, William Nunez has explained that he felt compelled to tell Graves's story because a number of friends had returned from tours of duty in the so-called War on Terror suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Indeed, one even committed suicide. Such a noble intention should not be dismissed lightly. But, despite the polish imparted by cinematographer Adam Barnett, production designer Natalie O'Connor, and costumier Helen Beaumont, this is a frustratingly imprecise and ineffectual film.
Shot in just 26 days on a modest budget, it just about captures the shifting social and cultural attitudes of the Roaring Twenties. But Nunez's screenplay struggles to convey the daring dynamism of the Bright Young Things relishing the fact that they could challenge formal convention after having survived the War to End All Wars. More enervatingly, he also fails to establish the nature of the relationship between Graves and Nicholson before permitting Riding to come between them like a cross between Zelda Fitzgerald and Cruelle de Vil. He can be excused for erasing three of the couple's four children and for suggesting that Tom Hughes play Graves like a Jazz Age John Lennon being prised apart from his homely Cynthia Powell by the avant-garde exoticism of Riding's Yoko Ono. But his depiction of Sassoon, Eliot, and Blunden as a kind of Faber Four just doesn't work. The sudden introduction of Geoffrey Phibbs is also exceedingly clumsy, as is the hackneyed scene with Graves's disapproving mother and the Mrs Danvers-like encounter between Laura and Catherine.
Battling some ripe Downtonesque dialogue, Dianna Agron tries hard to present Riding as a reckless enigma rather than merely a flamboyant flapper, while Laura Haddock capably conveys Nicholson's confusion, as she's let down by her free-spirited liberal ideals. But Hughes's foppish display is wholly unpersuasive, as he deports himself like a floppy haired Brideshead bit player, whose mumbled utterances are supposed to accentuate his tortured genius. He's better at the dark night of the soul sequences than those designed to suggest Graves's artistic sensibilities. But that's to be expected of this emotionally earnest, but intellectually shallow enterprise.