Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)


Johnny Depp’s performances are entering into their most interesting stage at the same time as they move into their least lucrative. He’s not the unreal beauty he used to be and the sadness of that manifests itself in box office returns. Perhaps the hurt of betrayal, too, with pundits now wise to all those years that Tim Burton’s markeup department spent hiding his diminishing cheekbones. There’s still an unreality there, yes, but it comes from the quixotism of his grace wielding a body that ages, just like ours do.

In 2009’s Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s clinical digital precision avoided soft filter for the lie that it is, and we all saw the texture of Depp’s skin for the first time – lack of warts and all. He’s the most beautiful there, because it’s clear that it’s a human being who looks this good. But digital photography has brought cinema to a tipping point at which it’s still wobbling, because its capacity for resolute clarity calls attention to how immortal, or its opposite, the perfection of its represented objects might be. You could see Depp worrying about how much longer he’d be able to carry on the con.

Until now, it seems. Transcendence is not only a science fiction film; it’s also an epitaph for Depp’s once ageless beauty. This marks the first time, for example, that we’ve needed to be shown him signing autographs. The film is fraught with a panic that the old certainties of stardom might not apply. He’s shot with a bullet filled with polonium and contracts radiation poisoning, but this is only the beginning. Later, in the privacy of his own home, Depp looks in the mirror and he looks worse than ever. Naturally, they gloss over this section of the movie: ten minutes later and his consciousness has been uploaded into a computer in what seems to be a necessary expedient. Rebecca Hall gazes desperately at a blemish-free Depp avatar that looks about to take over the world, as if she’s decided to go back and watch Pirates of the Caribbean on Netflix instead. His subsequent avatar is creepy in its perfection, and it’s not only the blips of sporadic code that interrupt its transmission that cause us to pause. As the years go by, characters start to question the image’s motives and we realise that we were always so busy admiring the perfection up there on the screen that we never stopped to consider the extent to which the intelligence behind it was human. More fool us.

This is at the opposite end of the blockbuster spectrum to The Lone Ranger (which was a very good film, much better than this one), and Depp must be frustrated by the exclusivity of that middle space to superheroes. It was donkey’s years ago that audiences turned against the wide-open spaces of the western yet they don’t want to be reminded that they’re slaves to their smartphones now, either. Nevertheless, this is an intelligent science fiction tale with a matter-of-factness as it unpacks ideas. This is refreshingly at odds with the sledgehammer polemics that characterise the directorial work of its producer and patron Christopher Nolan, which are only really intent on bludgeoning us with how intelligently they’re being wielded. Here the ideas are intelligent enough not to tell us that they are. The exposition is frank but almost ashamed, the mechanics of plot spoken so quickly you might miss them – aside from the ending, where you really get the impression that Nolan was breathing down Pfister’s neck. I was also disappointed by a moment when a character who has purportedly transcended the limitations of human being-ness leaps five rungs up a ladder when he surely would have been able to surmount all ten. It reminded me of a moment in a dreamworld-set shootout in Inception when Tom Hardy tells Joseph Gordon Levitt to ‘dream bigger’ and pulls out a marginally bigger gun as a demonstration.

Like Noah, (and The Lone Ranger, for that matter) this is another recent movie that tells us we’re fucking up the planet, but it seems to be OK when that message comes down from High. When it derives from a person, even the narrative is quick to include the caveat that they might be playing God. But the ending of the film – and I guess that this constitutes a spoiler (even though nothing spoils a movie quicker than premature underestimation) – is remarkable in that it turns this assumption on its head. In its rejoinder that there are better things for heaven and earth than us, the film criticises us for our rashness and lack of imagination. At one moment Morgan Freeman (Or was it Paul Bettany? Everyone aside from Depp and Hall are underwritten to the point of interchangeability) assumes that Depp’s digital revenant is all intelligence and no soul. In this assertion that a computer could understand love and yet simultaneously comprehend a hatred for deeds committed by the object of that love, intelligence is presented as exclusive from emotion. In the film’s eventual overcoming of this bifurcation I was reminded of a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Crack Up: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

Transcendence functions, just about, and despite what critical consensus might have led you to believe the director hasn’t made a pfist of it. There are issues – the action’s messily staged and the pacing is slipshod, but this is a gorgeous film to look at in brilliantly crisp 4K, and digital effects enable a digital camera to travel at the speed of light through fibre optic cables and to differentiate between individual particles in a droplet of water. I wonder, then, whether things like spatial geography or narrative coherence even matter any more, or are they merely sentimental relics left over from a time when a star could sell a movie?



Noah (Darren Aronofksy, 2014)


Noah isn’t as long or boring as you’d expect it to be. It isn’t one of today’s typically bloated epics – even if the marketing does showcase computer-generated legions of angry hoards being thuggishly glowered at by Russell Crowe. It’s weirder than that. What we seem to have here is an all-over-the-shop and really quite mad attempt to bellow a Biblical epic as loudly as possible, with Aronofsky shoehorning some Terry Malick into the cracks in the hope of keeping the damned thing from sinking under the weight of its own lack of irony. It’s a more successful kitchen sink than Black Swan was, though, and that’s because its theological scope gives it more justification in leaving the tap running.

There’s real ambition here, with Aronofsky’s bullishness dovetailing his protagonist’s. The fallen angels who once took pity on Adam and Eve and now help Noah out of a bind, for instance, are presented as cyclopean rocky crags. They’re voiced by Frank Langella and the already pretty gravelly Nick Nolte and beams of holy light pierce out through the antediluvian fissures riddling their ossified bodies. The sweeping overhead shots, where they’re shown knocking swathes of attackers led by Ray Winstone into digital oblivion have a kind of drunken relentlessness to them. They call to mind the perspective of a Dungeons and Dragons-themed edition of Risk held by the bored adolescent playing it, a kid who’s one turn past making up rules for the sheer hell of it and two turns away from throwing the board over in frustration at being told it’s time to go to bed. A sugar rush retelling of the Creation myth two thirds of the way through the movie functions as a kind of ‘Previously on Planet Earth’ prologue, breathless and inspired as it bellows that we should stop fucking up the planet because it was a lot better before we turned up.

It’s a loud and crass message, but you know what? There is something to it. In Noah’s certainty that humans ‘broke’ the planet and don’t deserve to survive the flood I was reminded of the character Walter in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom. He’s a secular descendent of Noah, an obsessive and self-righteous crank who spearheads a privately-funded initiative entitled ‘Enough Already’ to promote abstinence in the interest of reducing the world’s surplus population. Near the end of the novel, Walter eventually overdoses on drugs intended to calm his nerves before an important press conference and resultantly has a very public meltdown, screaming the following eco-sermon to his congregation:


That’s one of the few moments in which Franzen resorts to the upper case, but Aronofsky has the caps lock stuck on from the get-go – while this is to be expected, its somewhat surprising for the audience member to be introduced to Russell Crowe as a militant advocate for the vegetarian cause. After the rains and the flood do their dirty work about halfway through the film, the narrative’s central conflict revolves around the pressing question of whether or not humanity deserves to live on considering its past demeanours. This results in an elemental chamber melodrama, played out in the low light of flickering CG candles as Noah’s adoptive daughter Ila becomes grave with child and the patriarch promptly threatens – should the child turn out to be a girl – that things’ll get a hell of a lot graver. Crowe and Winstone wrestle about on the floor over the future of the human race, intercut with extreme close-ups of Emma Watson in labour pains and the viewer’s treated to the kind of frenzied, Griffithian montage that not many filmmakers have the lack of humility to get away with nowadays.

Crowe’s great here, presenting his lack of charm as his own painful burden to bear. Hopkins, as his grandfather Methuselah, is a lot of fun, and he’s never sounded so Welsh – you get the impression that preproduction discussions took place debating whether or not to computer-generate Richard Burton back into being for the prologue, with Lamech spinning home truths from the green green grass of home. Jennifer Connelly does her dedicated schtick again, stoically ceding two thirds of the frame to purportedly brilliant Russell Crowes. Though his billing after the title indicates his loss in the kiddy franchise war, erstwhile Percy Jackson star Logan Lerhamn does some charming stuff as Ham. He leaves the hamminess to Hermione, whose British accent is the least convincing in the movie.

There is a benefit to Watson’s inability to convince, though. After Noah is unable to kill the keys to continuing the human race, Ila tells him that he did the right thing in showing mercy and love. But her voice clips things up, and the film’s fundamental ambivalence reasserts itself. I was reminded of another line from Freedom, where Walter blames people’s desire for freedom for all mire or atrocities in which we’ve found ourselves: “the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” Humanity was spared, and Aronofksy was free to cast whomever he wanted to.

Moving Pictures (Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, 2010)


Moving Pictures is a slim and small volume, though not slight. Set in the midst of Nazi-occupied Paris, Kathryn and Stuart Immonen’s comic (she wrote it, he drew it) centres on the wartime endurances of a Canadian woman called Ila Gardner, who describes herself as ‘a minor curator at a major museum’. She’s been enlisted by the French to catalogue paintings and sculptures, but she works for the Germans’ Military Art Commission too, freighting the categorising further. Her judgments of value are clearly final ones, resulting in train journeys, and the responsibilities of her role are thrown into disquieting contemporary analogy when she laments that her job does not really constitute of cataloguing; it’s more like sentencing. There’s war here, and death, and a love affair – the reader doesn’t necessarily see or read these things, but they’re there between the panels and it’s a messy gutter.* It’s a fascinating and mature work that considers the toll of political events on things that we value personally. In doing so, it dismantles the opposition between that last sentence’s adjective and adverb, leaving us to reflect on whether any judgement can be trusted if it is forced, or made under duress.

The account of Gardner’s personal and professional life in Haussmann’s Paris under the Occupation is framed and intercut by scenes of a later interrogation she undergoes later at the hands of officer Rolf Hauptmann. Rolf’s a German who has been hired to procure the artworks in question through any means necessary, and he knows more about Ila than the papers brought in for him could ever inform him. She knows him, too – there’s a mystery to the discussions that even later flashbacks won’t fully answer. She gives him some information, and we sense the reluctance, but she seems to be comporting herself more stoically on other points. There’s give and take here, a sense of compromise that has other people’s blood on it. The interrogation takes place in an inky black abyss of a room, with a single lamp cutting a triangle of white light through the sparse dark onto a table that props up a jug of water, two glasses and a culture’s future. There are no greys to this palette, so that the light shone on protagonist and antagonist discussing the latter is an abstract act, bifurcating the opposed parties harshly in a clash of white against shadow void. But this graphic violence is egalitarian in that the dark pollutes both figures. On many occasions the only visible trace we have of each is a striking forehead, or a halo of rebounded light against a pomade quaff. It’s Hergé by way of German expressionism, but the shadows are clearly winning. There’s a crime here, the drawings tell us, and the darkness that suffuses both shot and reverse shot insinuates that blame is diffuse. Even when the ink pools occasioned by the light that is being thrown on heavy brows briefly recede, these eyes are only dots. They give nothing away. Often shown in long shot, Ila and Rolf’s straight noses and sometimes-undrawn mouths give them the appearance of petrified hawks, fighting over scraps that should never find themselves in a nest.

(Spoilers follow. The comic’s sense of mystery is one of its strongest components and I would recommend reading it twice – the first time with no foreknowledge – but I suppose that something could be gained from reading it with a prior knowledge of the playing field [coming at it fresh, I did sometimes feel a little lost]. If you want to know nothing, then don’t read the blurb either – I did, and am of the opinion that the following spoilers are really no more ruinous than the type featured on the jacket.)

The flashbacks I mentioned before aren’t as saturated with spreading black – there’s more Tintiny period charm, but it’s still qualified to near mute. Flags and signs and the text of newspapers blown over the boulevard are blacked out in a kind of aesthetic secrets act, giving both the narrative and the characters’ actions a sense of front. There is something that isn’t being said, because saying it isn’t allowed. We are shown Ila packing her sister off out of Paris on a safe train, and her dealings with exhibitors and archivists. Many she encounters smoke in front of the artworks, even though Ila tells them not to. In another scene, we see her smoking in front of a painting whose provenance is not disclosed as she talks to herself about its value. Perhaps the decision she reaches regarding the latter is the reason that she feels she can do the former; the painting’s not considered of enough ‘worth’, so why not let the fumes at it? Not many people have really looked at it, not for long enough, even though Ila acknowledges to herself that ‘I guess no one has time to really look at everything’. As she puffs away the plumes of smoke that fill the panels not only jostle with the speech bubbles but also resemble them. They’re messier, less structured, and they overlap each other in ways that the speech bubbles connected by lignes claires never do, yes, but they still bespeak a kind of exhaled judgment that, given enough time to accumulate, destroys. Again, the analogy I alluded to earlier rears its disquieting head.


In another vignette we see Ila drinking a glass of water on her balcony, and an open-shirted Rolf comes up behind her from the bedroom and puts his hands on her shoulders. They are lovers of sorts, even if the harsh morning light chastises them for taking solace in that given off by a bedside lamp. Rolf, master of interrogations in the framing device, does not come off well in comparison. A frank conversation at the breakfast table (there’s a water jug on this one, too) considers the worth of others to lived experience. Rolf asks Ila why a woman ‘would enter into a relationship that wasn’t to her advantage in some way’ and Ila answer his question with another: ‘Is love always to one’s advantage?’ In cataloguing, this hangover vignette suggests, the curators have commodified not only the works, but also themselves. A world has been created where everything, and everyone, has a use value – and it can spell their end. This isn’t only true of the central couple: Marc, a charismatic member of the resistance, leaves Paris eventually, and the book’s closing series of pages transcribe his letters to Ila after departure. The transcriptions are flanked on the pages by images of her moral compromise. Words and images convey complimentary forms of capitulation in a cowardly fugue.

The book is a lament, and it’s a supremely skillful one. The Immonens’ website tells me the story was originally released as a web comic, one page a week. This perhaps speaks for its startling economy and subtlety of expression: the placement of figures in relation to the light and to each other is masterful and expresses more than characters’ words – or plumes of cigarette smoke – ever could. I’d have loved to have read it in that form, but I procured a copy from the local library and did admittedly benefit from the ability to flick (rather than click) back and forth; I appreciated the foreshadows and echoes that contributed to the story’s forceful whisper. Like Ila’s dialogue with the painting of the girl with red hair, the experience of reading Moving Pictures benefits from a prolonged exposure, reflection and self-dialogue. And like Ila at the breakfast table, it answers questions with questions, so that the reader may do the same. Chekhov said that a writer shouldn’t tell the reader that the moon is shining, but should rather show them the glint of light on broken glass. Moving Pictures is a rich and messy tapestry of those glints, and it’s bathed in the darkness left by the shards.

There’s one more formal strategy that I want to note. The morning after, Rolf asks Ila about the sound she was making in the kitchen that he could hear from bed. She was skipping, she tells him, and he asks her about the chant that she sang to accompany the act. She begrudgingly but wistfully catalogues the verses of an anthem of innocence and enjoyment, and then asks Rolf to make her some coffee. We see a detailed drawing of a painting (or is it a photograph?) showing young girls skipping, looming over the breakfast table like a ghost. Because the drawing is more detailed than the style that is typically deployed to represent people throughout, and because it shows joy shared amongst many, there is an implicit criticism of the small souls at the bottom of the panel and the lonely joylessness their behaviour as adults has brought about. Rolf gets up, says ‘There, you see? You do want something from me’ and the following panels offer closer views of the preceding image, so close that the details take on near-indecipherable significance. I was reminded of the way that W.G. Sebald sometimes provides microscopic views of archived photographs dotted throughout his text, exposing the paradoxical distance that forensic attention to an image can bring. The panel that follows this interrogation shows unread sheets of paper blown down an empty street, where children skip no more. It’s an unsettling moment, full of portent.

There are other elements to the narrative I’ve not touched upon: a purloined watch; a small painting that we’re told measures forty-five centimeters square but signifies something a lot bigger; and a woman who’s described as ‘the kind of person who can’t hold on to their papers.’ Like Ila, the reader is never quite given the whole story, and has to make to do with fragments. All that’s certain is that, catalogued or not, something has been lost.


*Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics informs me that the term ‘gutter’ refers to the space between panels in comics, and the term is a particularly apt one for a tale where what is left unseen is often that which characters have purposefully discarded, or indifferently considered as waste.

Prisoners (Dennis Villeneuve, U.S., 2013)


It’s Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, so Keller and Holly Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) take their kids to spend the day at their friends’, Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis Terrence Howard). Their kids play together and the adults get slowly sloshed on red in a sequence shot so slowly and deliberately that it teeters on the edge of boredom – as if the viewer is occupying the mindset of the two young girls who ask to go outside and play instead of suffering parental diversion. But intercut with scenes from this clinically dull sequence are forebodingly long tracking shots trailing a decrepit RV that’s prowling around the neighbourhood. At least, we assume it’s prowling – the movie’s called Prisoners, after all. It may just be out for a drive. The film depends on that doubt for its effect.

So the girls go missing, but there’s a hope in hell: their older siblings saw the RV, and a vehicle fitting its description is stopped by the police and investigated by Police Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The RV’s driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is brought into custody and questioned. Loki discovers that Jones has the intellectual quotient of a ten-year-old, so he is released despite Keller’s protestations. Keller kidnaps Jones and holes him up in his dead father’s abandoned apartment block, torturing him in the confidence that Jones will confess where he has hidden his daughter and her friend. So Loki is now working on two cases, both involving prisoners, even if he doesn’t quite know it.

The first half of  the film, with its scenes of torture and domesticity torn asunder by child abduction, is uncomfortable enough to suggest that staying at home might have been a better idea on the part of the cinemagoer. The film’s shots are always taken from slightly too far away from the action, insinuating a distance that keeps us questioning both what we are seeing and what it might mean. There are moments when the moral quagmires the films present pull us along such comfortable patterns of allegiance that it is hard to tell who we want to turn up trumps: the prisoner, the imprisoned, both, or neither. Good becomes relative, though nastiness appears ubiquitous.

The second half of the film becomes more bearable and ostensibly less interesting as it descends into more a conventional thriller-mystery mode, recalling The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Bone Collector (1999) in its emphasis on the detection of pyschotic kinks and loopholes. There’s more suspense involved too, but it’s a fun tension based on a steadily growing impression that things might turn out alright in the end. This allows us to take time to enjoy the film’s performances. They’re intensely detailed and layered, giving mystery to people who are ostensibly as uncomplicated as apple pie. But they’re never less than transparent either: the anger and confusion in their bulbous eyes forces empathy and consideration of what we would do in situations that no sane person would ever want to consider. Some of the haircuts are as grotesquely ridiculous as a purportedly realist text will allow (although Gyllenhaal’s is rather natty), but the actors’ conviction pulls them off.

Prisoners, then, devolves into whodunnitry, but it does so ingeniously. And its discomfiture lasts well after the closing credit crawl, leaving  behind an unease that keeps us guessing in ways we’d really rather not but perhaps should: we’ve been asked to care whether or not the children are released, but the irreversible implications of their imprisonment is a more pressing concern. Without giving too much away, we are privy to examples.

The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, U.S., 1998)

zorro image

This film functions as a sequel to and a reconfirmation of the Zorro legend. It is much more successful in this regard than The Legend of Zorro (2005), its tired and flatulent sequel. The Zorro who was created by Johnston McCulley in 1919’s pulp story The Curse of Capistrano and who featured in multiple stories, serials and films throughout the twentieth century is here played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s a Californio nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega, who puts on a black mask to outfox venal despots and help out the little man. A prologue, set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence, shows him doling out retribution and humiliation to the Spanish colonial authorities. Their leader, Don Raphael (played by Stuart Wilson and his preening sneer) takes revenge by arresting him. But Raphael’s attempt is a botch job: Diego’s wife, with whom Raphael also happened to be in love, is murdered. So Raphael puts Diego in the dock and raises his baby daughter Elena as his own. Elena will eventually grow up to be played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and be reunited with Hopkins in a two-thesped attempt to convince audiences that Wales is pretty much Hispanic.

For the majority of the running time, it is not de la Vega, but his protégé, Alejandro Murrieta, who will don the mask and cowl. Murietta’s a scruffy ruffian with really big hair played by Antonio Banderas in a goofy, charming performance that I enjoyed a great deal (he’s more Cary Grant than Tyrone Power, adroit at flitting between suavity and haplessness without sacrificing star wattage). Raphael’s stooge Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher, dressed up like Custer and just as hard to like) murders Murietta’s brother Joaquin, and pickles his head in a jar of liquor. Murrieta hits the booze (no pickle) and is happed upon by the recently-escaped de la Vega in a no-hope taverna. The latter tells him that when the pupil is ready the master will appear, and hey ho, here he is. So Anthony trains Antonio in the ways of vengeance, swordsmanship, and social grace in order that the two of them might finally take their revenge on their wrongdoers and so that – not to forget Elena – the Cymric diaspora can finally be reunited. It turns out that Raphael and Love are also imprisoning and enslaving members of the public (including priests and children!) in a fraudulent gold-mining operation, so de la Vega and Murrietta’s actions not only make good on vendettas but also throw a public service into the bargain.

The film plays with historical affairs with a knowledgeable irreverence. Wikipedia tells me there really was a Captain Harry Love, that he did pickle body parts of the people he killed, and that he did put an end to a bandit called Joaquin Murrieta – but then that happened ten years after this film purports (Murrieta never had a brother, either – especially one whose horse doubled as a Batmobile). So this is history, but it’s movie history. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio cut their lucrative teeth with their script for this film, and they seem to have had a quill in pretty much every blockbuster where bickering jostles for space with special effects since (including the critical and commercial [and unwarranted] failure of The Lone Ranger [2013], which bespoke audience’s fatigue with the model). Their characteristically smudging play with past events yolks affects dramatically promising connections, working as a sort of historical fan fiction. This trait reaches  inaccurate apogee in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-2011), which are about as historically accurate as Star Wars (1977), no matter that the ships are incapable of reaching lightspeed. Like Zorro, the Pirates films represent a historically indebted but distracted attention to what actually happened – as if Ted and Terry were listening in history class to their teacher talking about the East India Company but were so busy daydreaming about wisecracking swashbucklers that they wrote it down as the East India Trading Company (Any classmate who noticed this gaffe, you can imagine them thinking, was probably a worse kind of dweeb than they were).

There are exploited masses and greedy plutocrats, so that the film parries to left in its politics – but that’s about as nimbly choreographed as its message gets. The height of costumes’ necklines is probably the most indicative guage of a character’s social position and moral standing; while Raphael struggles to splenete over the heights of his collar Alejandro and Diego open up their shirts like latin lovers down on the shore. The film deals with the history of California (the opening legend tells us as such), then, but it primarily does so as an excuse for action and melodrama. The melodrama works, and the action, thankfully, flies. Campbell here and in his James Bonds shows off a perfunctory perfection, suiting him ideally to swordfights and horses chases. He knows exactly to put a camera during an action sequence so that the characters can lunge into, out of and through the images. Furthermore, he ensures that these images have a clear geographical relationship to each other. This flatters the viewer, suggesting that they’ve bought the best seats in the house. The fight’s a dance, and the camera knows the steps.

Returning to Elliott and Rossio for a moment, I think it’s notable here that there’s a great preoccupation with characters’ allegiances, goals, and their ability to dissemble as to the first two elements. The first three Pirates films are all concerned with deception, the protagonists lying about their disparate intentions to the extent that it quickly becomes difficult to ken what anybody actually wants until they admit they’ve been lying by muttering the word ‘pirate’. The Pirates are the heroes in those films because they understand the productive and altruistic qualities of the lie, whereas the thieving East India Trading Company never acknowledge the self-serving deception their moniker contains.

Consider the amount of play-acting and performativity in this film and how often the script is dependent upon twists where characters exploit villains’ inability to see through deception. There’s de la Vega turning up at Raphael’s party, disguised as a herald, assured that his daughter’s kidnapper won’t recognise him because he would never deign to look a servant in the eyes. There’s impoverished drunk Alejandro turning up at the same party, capable of playing the landed gentry after a lesson from de la Vega in ‘charm’. The mask of Zorro itself serves as the film’s ultimate charm, a kind of supernatural totem. It’s a talisman that swaps hands, allowing whoever dons it to play the elusively acrobatic trickster. Alejandro whispers, ‘You know Zorro – he could be anywhere’ – but he can be anyone too, wielding the mask’s obfuscatory power to bequeath right wrongdoers guilty of treacherous shams. The melodramatic elements of the narrative confirm this hypothesis. Zorro has been many men, we’re told, but he has loved – and, as we see, helped – Elena as all of them. But consider Don Raphael, who never wears anything over his face other than a twirly moustache. His lies, both personal and political, are pure exploitation and deceit, serving himself at the expense of others. He’s the polar opposite of Zorro, who never lies for himself.

The Bletchley Circle (ITV, U.K., 2012)


The Bletchley Circle concerns four women who worked as code breakers for Britain’s decryption establishment during the Second World War at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. But now it’s 1952, and despite her coworkers admonishments to never become “‘normal’, Susan Gray (Anna Maxwell Martin) finds herself leading a grey old life, shacked up as a housewife to a gentle, unimaginative man who works for the Department of Transport and mother to two moppets – whose names the programme either does not tell you or is not particularly interested in you remembering. She yearns for a brief encounter with the challenge to her intellect that characterised her time at Bletchley, and finds her newfound normality stifling. This suffocation is exacerbated by the overwhelming amount of patronising sexism and mansplaining she is now subjected to. Because she signed the Official Secrets Act, she can’t tell her husband that she also played a role in the War, can’t tell him why he should shove it. He’s lucky enough to have a limp that proves his wartime heroism, but the handicap patriarchy has dealt Susan and her gender continues unacknowledged.

The miniseries endeavours to acknowledge this social violence against women through juxtaposing it with a physical one. It turns out a man is kidnapping, killing and raping young women (in that order). He’s clever at not being caught, pinning it on various people dotted about England with mental health issues that he hopes will make them likely suspects. Susan goes to the police, suggests that they have put away the wrong person, but they mock the notion; in this, the institutional establishment is shown to  be immensely comfortable in whatever damning assumptions it feels expedient to make regarding anybody who isn’t a ‘respectable’ and mentally ‘healthy’ man.

Susan gets back in touch with her fellow code breakers, Jean (Julie Graham), Lucy (Sophie Rundle) and Millie (Rachael Stirling). We were introduced to them in a nifty little opening, set at Bletchley in wartime, as the four of them brought their special skills to the table and kenned Nazi encrypted tactics. Bringing them back together means that Susan plays something similar to the role of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) in Ocean’s Eleven – each character is brought on for a specific skillset that will be integral to pulling off the plan.

This isn’t as lighthearted as those star-studded romps, however. I said above that its violences, social and physical, are juxtaposed against one another – but that’s not quite the case.  Asserting that dichotomy overlooks the source of the show’s power, and the ways in which it deploys tropes from the slasher film genre to insinuate a continuum between these violences rather than a juxtaposition. At one point, the circle stand on a train platform, trying to suss out the kind of person to blame for the murders. Lucy asks her cohorts, ‘Why do men do it?’, and there follows a montage of everyday gentlemen throughout the station boarding and alighting in their daily commute. These are the same kind of people, so sure in their established position, who poo-poohed Susan’s much more intelligent attempts to save innocent women’s lives purely because she is not one of these men. Later, the circle will use Lucy as ‘bait’ to ensnare the killer, putting her on one of these trains to ensnare the suspect. The plan seems to work, and she’s soon being chatted up in a carriage, just like the circle thought she would be. Alas, it’s not the killer. It’s just another of these men, slavish to the system that aggrandises them as masters, who brings her into a storage carriage and tries to rape her.

The Bletchley Circle, then, is a fine feminist show. It uncompromisingly confronts the establishment’s entrenched unwillingness to take anyone who isn’t a gentleman seriously, and warns that there’s nothing gentle about it.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2009)


Certified Copy is a sensitive and interrogative film about originality, authenticity, and the possibility/impossibility of achieving those hallowed states. It’s an inquiry into inquiry, a search for an answer as to whether one can achieve or search for a state that should predate achievement and the search for it. It details the conversation between two individuals, walking through the streets of a Tuscan town, about art and what constitutes it. Is a copy of the artwork as valid as the original, is the artwork defined by its originality, and if so, what constitutes that originality? A relationship is a kind of artwork, it tentatively suggests – if it’s done properly. One that requires upkeep and care  – as much diligence as the required to maintain  a centuries’ old sculpture – or for that matter, a reproduction of one. There’s the question of worth: how much does something matter to us, no matter its provenance.

As the couple get to know one another, they begin to settle into the patter of a relationship. In some regards the film recalls Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, with a couple feeling each other out with their minds and attitudes to the lives they’ve led separately. The first two films took place in ‘real’ time. Ish. One evening was condensed into two hours, and that’s good enough for someone watching in the dark who ins’t keen on contracting deep vein thrombosis. The third was different: the couple have been together for nine years and we have to fill in the gaps based on embittered testimony. That franchise represented an intellectual and emotional play with time that shifted for the third act, and that’s the case here too (I’m going on about time again). At one point, Certified Copy pulls a magical realist switcheroo, so that real time retrospectively becomes film time: these people, who only met forty five minutes ago (we saw them meet, or at least we thought we did), begin to act like they’ve been together for fifteen years, arguing about events in the past that we never saw. It’s possible that this is all a game of make-believe, of playing house – but then, the film asks, what’s to differentiate playing house from making a home?

Maybe the film asks this, but then perhaps it’s only the spectator who does so. It gives us the time and the tools, though, to arrive at those questions. It’s a testament to the film’s intelligence that it realises arriving at answers is a different matter entirely.