Film reviews round-up: Viceroy's House, Certain Women, Trespass Against Us, Fist Fight

A tale of the agonising birth of two nations, Kelly Reichardt's quiet portraiture, Michael Fassbender in a familial saga, and Charlie Day vs Ice Cube

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Viceroy’s House (12A)

★★★☆☆

Gurinder Chadha, 106 mins, starring: Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Hugh Bonneville, Manish Dayal, Simon Callow, Om Puri

Gurinder Chadha’s new drama takes on a massive subject – the partitioning of India in 1947 and how British civil servants, acting under the last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, settled “the fate of millions” (in the words of W.H. Auden’s poem on the subject). 

In the film, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the harassed lawyer tasked with drawing the line on the map between India and what became Pakistan, calls it “a monstrous responsibility for one man”. It’s a monstrous responsibility for one director too. Chadha has responded to the challenge by making a sprawling and vivid melodrama, full of humour and pointed social observation.

The downside is that the melodrama and the politics sit uncomfortably side by side. Given the convulsive events during partition itself, the conspiracies, backbiting, and love affairs in the Viceroy’s house seem just a little bit inconsequential.

Mountbatten is played in patrician fashion by Hugh Bonneville, who doesn’t look remotely like the real-life character but who projects a stolid, old-fashioned British decency. He very clearly wants to do the right thing (not to “let the side down”) but is in a situation in which every choice he makes is likely to rebound badly on him.

Viceroy's House - Trailer

Chadha opens the film with a famous quote by Churchill, “history is written by the victors”. In this case, identifying the victor isn’t straightforward. After all, the British are in retreat, even if they are determined to protect their interests against Stalin. England is all “slums and bomb sites” after the war and the Brits simply can’t afford India anymore. 

One of the strengths of the film is that it offers so many perspectives. This isn’t just a film about the “great men”, the leaders at the time of partition, Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi et al. Chadha is just as interested in the points of view of the Indian chefs in the kitchens downstairs, serving up English food to Mountbatten and his guests, the Hindu servants, and the women working in the Viceroy’s “house” (a palace so vast and magnificent that it makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow).

Early on, as Chadha tries to set the stage, some of the dialogue is schematic in the extreme. “Did you know that 92% of the population is illiterate,” is one of Edwina Mountbatten’s conversational gambits to her husband after they first arrive. Other characters make absurdly portentous remarks. In the course of everyday conversation, they will suddenly say something like, “new nations are rarely born in peace”, or “freedom, though longed for, is a fearful thing”. 

The English think the Indians are “slippery as eels” but British diplomat Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) is far more manipulative and duplicitous than any of the Indian leaders.

Gillian Anderson gives a fine performance as Edwina, playing her in a cut-glass voice that reminds us of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter but never lapsing into mannerism as she does so. Her Edwina is haughty, well-meaning, and very strong-willed and idealistic. Bonneville, meanwhile, is just as you expect him to be: cheery and eminently decent in his own woolly way.

Just as important to the film as the Mountbattens are Jeet (Manish Dayal), a Hindu servant, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), the bright young Muslim woman he wants to marry. Aalia has already been promised by her blind father (played by the redoubtable Om Puri in one of his final roles before his death earlier this year) to another man, a Muslim soldier who has been fighting for the British in the war.

Viceroy’s House is at its best when the pomp and circumstance is kept at bay and the film is allowed to capture the everyday reality of life in the palace just before the British leave. The Viceroy’s residence is a bit like Versailles on the eve of the French revolution. The splendour and extravagance are heightened just before they end for good.

Chadha signals how lavishly the British rulers live with a wonderful montage at the start of the film which shows hundreds of servants sweeping the tennis court, scrubbing every last surface in the palace, and shopping at the market for the huge amount of provisions needed so the British officials can eat their beef wellington.  

At first, the relations between the rulers and their servants (who are drawn from every section of Indian society) seem cordial. We see Mountbatten instructing his manservants on just how to lay out his clothes and explaining to them the glory of the zip. The servants do as they are told. The most startling moment in the entire film comes when the stern Scottish butler-type Ewart (David Hayman) tells off the Indian servants as if they are kids and they suddenly turn on him. It’s here that we realise that the harmonious mood in the palace is illusory and that the violent tensions in the country are felt in its gilded corridors too.

The film ends with archive imagery which not only reveals Chadha’s own family’s experiences during partition but exposes the sheer human misery of an event which killed at least a million people and led to the displacement of more than 14 million others. This archive material is harrowing in a way that the movie itself generally isn’t. We finally realise that, for many, partition means a “bloody axe cleaving through their lives”.  

Chadha is an immensely lively storyteller with a great flair for character and humour and an obvious desire to expose injustice. She has spoken in interviews of wanting to give the film the same sweep as old David Lean widescreen epics. In spite of composer A. R. Rahman’s swirling, dramatic score, this isn’t something Viceroy’s House comes close to achieving.

Certain Women (12A)

★★★★☆

Kelly Reichardt, 107 mins, starring: Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois

Kelly Reichardt is one of contemporary American cinema’s most accomplished minimalists. That’s a high-flown way of saying not very much happens in her movies. They’re subtle, soulful, and very acutely observed. If there is action, her interest is always more in how the characters are affected than in the incidents themselves. Her latest feature Certain Women, set in wintry Montana, is utterly absorbing and has a surprising emotional impact in spite of its lack of obvious dramatic set-pieces.

The film consists of three loosely connected stories. In the first, Laura Dern plays a small town lawyer representing a belligerent but self-pitying client (Jared Harris) determined to sue his former employers after an accident at work. His chances of winning are negligible. It appears he was drinking at the time of the accident and he has already accepted compensation from the company but he won’t listen to his lawyer.

The second story is about a married woman (Michelle Williams) who hopes to build a new home outside of town. She and her husband have a meeting with an elderly man who has the rights to some sandstone she and her husband (James Le Gros) hope to use to build their house.

Completing the portmanteau is a story about a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) from a poor family who drives four hours to a small town to earn some extra money by giving legal lectures to teachers. Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who attends one of these lectures and becomes fascinated by the lawyer.

In its own slow-burning way, Certain Women touches on such subjects as infidelity, generational conflict, career disappointment, and the ennui of small-town life. The most resonant shots here are often big close ups of the puzzled and yearning women as they try to make sense of their situations and to work out why they are so frustrated and unhappy.

The performances are exceptional. Dern brings a long suffering patience and quiet humour to her role as the lawyer. Williams has relatively few lines but captures her character’s frustration with her husband and daughter as well as her nagging guilt. There’s a brilliant scene in the third segment at a diner in which Kristen Stewart tells the rapt young ranch hand about her family background and about the gruelling journey she has to make just to earn a few dollars through her lectures. 

There are no big climactic scenes of redemption or self-discovery here. Even so, watching the film, you feel a depth of understanding and sympathy for the characters that simply wouldn’t be there in a more conventional, plot-driven movie.

Trespass Against Us (15)

★★★☆☆

Adam Smith, 100 mins, starring: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Rory Kinnear, Sean Harris, Lyndsey Marshal

Trespass Against Us is a West Country crime drama/family saga – an unlikely cross between Scorsese and Thomas Hardy that plays out in the mean fields and dark forests of rural Gloucestershire. It has a compelling and charismatic performance from Michael Fassbender but suffers from an identity problem. 

At times the film, from debut feature director Adam Smith, plays like a realist British drama in the vein of Alan Clarke or Clio Barnard, small-scale and with an intense local focus. At the same time, the film is very stylised with its two stars, Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson, giving grandstanding performances, and every so often it cranks into full blown action movie mode.

The main characters are the Cutlers, travellers on the margins of society. They’re petty thieves and yet, when they put their minds to it, are capable of heists of extraordinary daring. The local Gloucestershire constabulary led by the hapless PC Lovage (Rory Kinnear) are bamboozled by them and continually left huffing and puffing in their wake in car chases and foot races.

Chad (Fassbender) can barely read or write but he behaves like a rustic version of Steve McQueen in The Getaway. He’s a reckless, very calm driver, who will stop at a garage mid-chase to buy himself some cigarettes. He’s happily married to Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and is bringing up his kids to be as defiant and suspicious of all authority as he is. His weakness is that he can’t stand up to his father, Colby (Gleeson).

Trespass Against Us - Trailer

Gleeson is sinister and imposing as the family patriarch. He wears a track suit and medallion and sits in state outside the caravans on his easy chair. He’s intensely religious but interprets the bible in his own, very idiosyncratic way. “You’ve got to stand up against the c**ts so they don’t trespass against us”, is his philosophy. He regards Jesus as a patron saint of thieves and fugitives.

Alastair Siddons’ screenplay pulls in many different and sometimes contradictory directions. It both celebrates the carefree lives of its traveller heroes and portrays them as victims, caught in a cycle of crime and deprivation they can't escape. It pleas for sympathy for Chad, who never had the chance to go to school and has always been in the shadow of his father, and yet also portrays him as a roistering jack the lad, having a whale of a time racing cars cross country and climbing trees to keep ahead of the dim witted police. 

Certain themes are touched on and then simply not developed any further. The dark, Oedipal side of the story is soon glossed over. Chad's loathing of the delinquent hanger-on (Sean Harris) is continually foregrounded – but again there is no particular pay off other than a very cruel scene in which the hanger-on is doused in blue paint.

We are made aware of the tensions in Chad's marriage and of Kelly's extreme distrust of her father-in-law. Everything seems to be boiling up toward an explosion that simply never comes. There are fitful references to the prejudice against the travelling community but this isn't explored in any depth. Nor are we given much sense of the Cutlers' roots or of their relationship with relatives and associates.

Instead of the film progressing toward a logical conclusion, it keeps on heading off down unlikely rural byways. For example, much of the final reel is given over to Chad’s quest to procure a pet puppy for his son's birthday. This entails taking even more risks than when he is driving cars through the windows of country houses during reckless burglaries. 

The filmmakers have obvious visual flair. An early car chase through a council estate has plenty of oomph. There are cleverly filmed sequences of Fassbender on the run, using trees and pylons to hide himself from the helicopter overhead and even seeking refuge under a cow's udders. Unfortunately, Trespass Against Us has no clearer sense of where it is headed than Chad's son does when he is sitting on his dad's lap, driving blindfold through a field.

Fist Fight (15)

★☆☆☆☆

Richie Keen, 91 mnis, starring: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Christina Hendricks, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Dennis Haysbert

Fist Fight is a crude and foul-mouthed comedy whose most notable feature is its utter pessimism about the American high school system. The film clearly isn’t intended as social commentary but you can’t help but notice the astonishingly grim and cynical portrayal of students and teachers alike. The former are delinquents who vandalise school property and play elaborate, goofy pranks on the authorities. The latter are demoralised, underpaid and convinced they’re all going to be sacked anyway.

It’s the last day of school at Roosevelt High (where "losing is a tradition” as the sports coach likes to boast) and the kids have taken over the establishment, covering the school buildings with graffiti and laying elaborate booby traps. The puny, weak-willed English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) has a pregnant wife and can’t afford to lose his job. The ultra-macho history teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) has extreme anger management issues and flies off the handle whenever the kids misbehave.

Fist Fight - Trailer

A few plot twists and masturbation gags later, Ron falls out with Andy and challenges him to a fist fight. “Settle this in the parking lot, the primitive way!” Andy, a coward and a wimp, wants to duck out but realises that won’t be possible. 

The performances aren’t the problem. Ice Cube looks even meaner and more furious here than in his gangsta rap days while Charlie Day knows just how to play the nebbish nerd type. The fight itself, when it finally takes place, is surprisingly brutal. What makes the film such dispiriting viewing, though, is the witless prurience of the screenplay. If the kids seem dumb, they don’t have anything on the filmmakers.

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