Tag Archives: Lindsay Duncan

Going Hungry

A Banquet

by Hope Madden

From its unsettling opening moments, Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet sets a tone that never eases. Holly’s (Sienna Guillory) life is certainly never the same.

The event that kicks off the film puts a generational horror in motion that flirts with the supernatural, bringing allegorical focus to the rippling effects of trauma in a family. As a caregiver, Holly likely blames herself for what happened, which makes it harder for her to focus properly on mothering her two teenage daughters, Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) and Betsey (Jessica Alexander).

At first blush, it seems Betsey has the worst of things. Having witnessed the trauma, she’s been particularly needy of her mother’s affection. Or is she hoping to prove to her mother that, indeed, Mom’s love is the cure she’d hoped it might be? Is Betsey trying to prove that to herself?

Or is there some larger force at play, as Betsey claims when she stops eating?

Justin Bull’s screenplay braids ideas associated with this theme of trauma, from anorexia to neglect to guilt and grief and isolation. Details unfold slowly, uncovering lived-in resentments and traumas that heighten tensions.

Paxon sets these ideas loose among an exquisite cast. A brittle Guillory carries the unforgiving emotional complexity scene to scene with appropriate weariness. Alexander brings an enigmatic quality to the role, while Stokes mixes heartbreak with anger to surprising effect.

The great Lindsay Duncan, whose grandmother character haunts the first act and delivers a bracing presence throughout the second, is magnificent.

Paxon’s camera ogles food, which is a trigger in the film, both a tool for caregiving and for Betsey’s rebellion. There’s so much to like about A Banquet — which is why it’s such a frustrating film to watch.

Paxon can’t decide where to take things. She’s filled the screen with exceptional performances, each character exploring fascinating, dark emotional corners. The filmmaker flirts early with body horror, diverts quickly to something more psychological, dips deeply into family drama and never lands on a tone.

This same lack of clarity or commitment begins with Bull’s script, which builds slowly to an energetic if fizzling climax. For all it has going for it, A Banquet answers none of the questions it asks and leaves you wanting.

Family Matters


by Darren Tilby

Based on his own Danish-language film Silent Heart, writer Christian Torpe partners with director Roger Michell for the Anglo-American remake, Blackbird. You likely know the story already: an ailing matriarch invites her fractured family around to stay for one last weekend of joy and festivities before she plans to end her life through euthanasia. But, as is so often the case in films like this, everyone’s a long way from even pretending to play happy family.

Susan Sarandon stars as Lily, the head of the family unit. Sam Neill puts in a career-high as Paul, Lily’s husband, who proceeds with a stoic, removed air about his wife’s illness and impending self-death.

Kate Winslet’s Jennifer is the first to arrive, early, along with husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Johnathan (Anson Boon). Straight-laced and proud, Jennifer is the polar opposite of her younger sister, Anna (Mia Wasikowska); a flighty young woman who traipses in late, “looking like shit,” with girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow.

Completing the family unit is Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily’s oldest and dearest friend.

As you can probably tell, the film’s main attraction is its star-studded cast. A sea of riveting performances is what awaits us and Torpe’s well-written, character-establishing (and building) dialogue make these people come alive and feel genuine—even if some of their actions don’t. Indeed, Michell relies heavily on the strength of his actors to deliver the emotional clout the movie promises. There’s no denying the cast is up to the task, although other aspects of the film feeling like an afterthought.

The plot mechanics are hackneyed and unoriginal, while Peter Gregson’s score feels generic and uninspired. Mike Ely’s crystalline visuals, though, are an absolute delight, and effortlessly reflect the beauty and tragedy of both life and death.

It’s unoriginal, and it’s certainly not perfect, but this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking about the celebration of life, love and family, rather than the sadness of death and loss. And it brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

Girl with All the Gifts


by Hope Madden

A pensive charmer tries to raise a child prodigy on his own. Gifted offers a premise as rife with possibilities as it is weighed down by likely cliché and melodrama, and it strangely meanders somewhere between the two.

Chris Evans attempts the gruff everyman with some success, playing Uncle Frank, guardian to math genius Mary (Mckenna Grace – very solid). Against the advice of his landlord and Mary’s bestie Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary as a first grader in a local public school.

There Mary wows her good natured teacher (Jenny Slate), and draws the attention of her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who’s been MIA since Mary’s mother – another family genius – died when the girl was just a babe.

What’s the best way to care for a gifted child? This is the conundrum at the heart of the film. In rooting out the answer, writer Tom Flynn wisely keeps Mary at the center of the story. She’s an actual character, not a prop for evangelizing one course of action over another.

Luckily, Grace is up to the task, and her chemistry with Evans feels genuine enough to make you invest in their story.

Perhaps more important is Duncan, a formidable talent who elevates a tough role. She, too, shares a warm chemistry with Evans, and it’s that kind of unexpected character layering that helps Gifted transcend its overcooked family dramedy leanings.

On occasion, Gifted is Little Man Tate without the pathos. At other times, it’s Good Will Hunting for first graders.

Strong performances help the film navigate sentimental trappings, but Flynn’s script veers off in too many underdeveloped and downright needless directions, and director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) can’t find a tone.

Gifted is warm without being too sweet. Though it knows the answer to the question it’s asking, the film resists oversimplification and never stoops to pitting one-dimensional characters against each other in service of a sermon.

Though the final decision about what’s best for Mary is really never in doubt, in getting to that revelation, the film acknowledges nuance in the choice.

That’s not to say Gifted avoids cliché altogether, or that it embraces understatement. It does not – on either count. But it does present an intriguing dilemma, populates its story with thoughtful, almost realistic characters, and refuses to condescend to its audience or its characters.


Look! Up in the Air!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

by Hope Madden

You’ve heard the buzz. It’s loud and merited. The sharp and beguiling Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) sees a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at the height of their creative powers.

Playful and dark, the film follows a washed up Hollywood actor best known for a superhero franchise (an Oscar bound Michael Keaton, who certainly resembles that description). Struggling to regain relevance, he writes, directs and stars in a Broadway play. Meta from the word go, Birdman’s incisive exploration of the entertainment industry and the compulsion to perform couldn’t be more spot-on or more imaginative.

Director/co-writer Alejandro González Inárritu and his fluid, stalking camera ask a great deal from this ensemble as together they dissect fame – its proof and its power – in the digital age. From first to last, they are up to the task and then some.

They clearly relish a script that has such an insider’s perspective, skewering the self-absorption, insecurity and need for attention that fill the business. The performers embody these weaknesses and still create a tenderness for their characters. The comedy isn’t mean, though it is dark and edgy.

Edward Norton is hilarious in a bit of a self-parody as the true talent who pushes boundaries and strives for honesty – on the stage, anyway. He’s hardly alone. The entire ensemble – Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan and Amy Ryan – impresses.

Each has his or her own story, conflict, world, and Inárritu allows that to enrich the world he creates, but it’s all in support of Keaton in the finest turn of his often underappreciated catalog of performances.

He never falls back on the ticks and gimmicks that mark most of his comedic turns – quirks that made efforts like Beetlejuice so enjoyable. This performance is volcanic and restrained, pitiful and triumphant. His desperation is palpable and his madness is glorious. That Keaton can hit these disparate levels sometimes simultaneously inspires awe. Keaton has long been a unique talent, and while this role seems almost awkwardly custom made for the former Batman, the performance still could not have been less expected.

Inárritu, master of beautiful tragedy (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), may be in impish humor with this effort, but Birdman is as dark and poetic as anything he’s created. Impeccably written, hauntingly filmed and superbly performed, Birdman is the first real contender Boyhood has faced for the best film of 2014.


Happy Anniversary, Now Shut Up!


Le Week-End

by George Wolf


When my brother and I were kids, we would quietly laugh anytime our grandparents traded caustic put-downs, which, the older they got, was often. Did they still even love each other? We didn’t think about that, we just thought that two old married people openly showing weary disgust was pretty funny.

It’s funny in Le Week-End as well, and made even more effective when balanced with the couple’s search for their long-lost romantic side.

Brits Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are celebrating their wedding anniversary with a weekend in Paris, the site of their honeymoon 30 years earlier. The finances are nearly as empty as their nest, and their love life……well, it’s been awhile.

Most times, you’d be able to fill in the rest of the blanks: Paris! Romance! Sex! Love! Happy!

Instead, director Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill/Hyde Park on Hudson) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette/Venus) explore plenty of dark side, giving us a couple at a crossroads in life that feels real, often heartbreakingly so.

As Nick, Broadbent is his usual sublime self, effortlessly bringing to life the quiet desperation described so succinctly by Pink Floyd as “the English way.” Broadbent’s performance is both funny and poignant, never letting us forget that Nick’s desperation over his golden years is rooted in the fear of losing his wife.

No wonder, as Duncan is glorious. In her hands, Meg is playful, hateful, and still plenty sexy. Most of all, she is an intelligent, accomplished woman with a yearning that she’s not quite sure how to satisfy.

Kureishi’s smart, snappy script doesn’t take sides or provide easy answers. Though a scene-stealing performance from Jeff Goldblum as an old friend of Nick’s shows a glimpse of the film’s hand, we’re trusted to be party guests capable of our own conclusions about this couple, the human condition, and our own lives.

How novel.

One or two convenient plot turns aside, Le Week-End is a treat that, while frequently sobering, remains ultimately inspiring.