Review: The Pretty One

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The Pretty One, 2014.

DIR. Jenee LaMarque. Starring: Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, John Carroll Lynch, Ron Livingston, Shae D’lyn, Frankie Shaw, Sterling Beaumon

Upon reading the plot to this film – twin sisters Laurel and Audrey are involved in a car accident, whereupon Laurel takes the identity of her now-dead but more popular sister – you would be forgiven for giving it a miss on the basis of sheer ridiculous. Somehow, however, the film succeeds in pulling off this premise with relative aplomb.

I suspect this is in part down to the likeability of the lead actress who plays both sisters, Zoe Kazan.

After a sparkling breakout performance in Ruby Sparks, Kazan has cornered the market for slightly awkward, but adorable love interest. And The Pretty One is no exception.

audrey laurelWe meet Laurel first. As she’s losing her virginity. To the boy she used to babysit. Mousy, painfully shy and a penchant for wearing her dead mother’s dresses, she asks her male companion if their tryst makes them boyfriend and girlfriend. He laughs. She’s not joking. Unkempt, unconfident and underestimated, Laurel has settled for  helping her widowed father (John Carroll Lynch) with his painting-forgery business.

Audrey, meanwhile, exudes sexiness and self-assurance. Having fled the nest when their mother died, she has her own apartment, a job as a real estate broker selling “storybook houses,” and a sharp dress sense. It’s not hard to see why Laurel might want to switch places, a la Mary-Kate and Ashley in most of their films. A tragic car-crash becomes the perfect vehicle for this desire when the hospital confuses the twins and Laurel sets about adjusting to life as Audrey.

One of the reasons the film works despite this underlying implausibility (surely someone would realise?) is by acknowledging our doubts. When Laurel gets a haircut that exactly imitates Audrey’s wavy ombre do, Audrey’s reaction is believably aghast and irritated. Similarly, Laurel (as Audrey) is on the precipice of bean-spilling, but her family have nothing but put-downs and silence to offer about Laurel. Her stepmother even goes so far as to say ‘it’s better this way’. Though we might not agree with Laurel’s choice, her alternatives are slim.

Moving into her late sister’s apartment and taking over her job, Laurel covers up her odd behaviour and general lack of knowledge about her own life, by feigning post-traumatic amnesia. She soon discovers the flaws Audrey tried so hard to mask – an affair with an intense married man (Ron Livingston – his allure turned on full) and a feud with her next-door neighbour/tenant, whom she was about to evict – the awkward and roguishly charming Basel (Jake Johnson). Increasingly drawn to the latter, Laurel quickly finds herself in a pickle; falling in love with a man who is falling in love with her, as her twin.

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The screenplay contains contrivances that are to be expected when dealing with this kind of plot and director/writer Jenne LaMarque doesn’t entirely succeed in selling it. That being said, the screenplay exhibits some darkly comic and intelligent touches – Laurel attends a “Twins Without Twins” support group, a cover version of the Tootsie theme song plays during the end credits and as Laurel finally learns to be happy in her own skin, she quits art-imitation and starts to paint some originals.

theprettyone1That the film is so watchable is largely attributable to Kazan, who movingly conveys Laurel’s predicament and desperation to be more like Audrey. (Her wardrobe is also highly enviable). Also, praise-worthy are Johnson, of Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and New Girl fame, putting in another relaxed, likeable and comedic performance, whose warmth and charm convince Laurel to confront her façade. And Lynch, the father who struggles to come to terms with the loss of his two daughters, and exhibiting genuine pathos as he does so.

Verdict: At times laboured and contrived, this otherwise cute film transforms a dark (and potentially sociopathic) premise into a charismatic and heartfelt story of self-discovery.

 

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Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman, 2013. DIR. Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan

Despite being Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort, with himself starring as acclaimed novelist, philanthropist and public figure Charles Dickens, this is the story of how Nelly Ternan became his lover, and this is Felicity Jones’ film.

It is she that the film opens and closes with, as we find Nelly operating under a different name, working as a teacher and telling her husband Dickens was a childhood acquaintance. It is her anguish, isolation and desire that the Abi Morgan penned (based on Claire Tomalin’s novel) biopic explores and through her position as Dickens’ lover, muse and confidante that we discover the women that lived in the shadow of a national treasure.

From the moment we observe Nelly’s all-black ensemble, slightly aged face and brisk walking pace across a vast and empty beach, there is a sense of her being haunted by the past. Thus, when the film takes us back to Dickens’ and Nelly’s first meeting, there interaction thereafter is tainted with the torment and tragedy that is to follow.

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Felicity Jones turns in a mesmerising, heart-wrenching performance as the beguiling ingénue, who captivates the self-absorbed Dickens with her clarity and sensitivity. Her subtlety and sadness match the tone of the film perfectly, both saying more in glances stolen, and secrets untold.

The scenes between Nelly and Charles are refreshingly non-sexual, and focus on their intellectual compatibility rather than their bedroom antics. Indeed, one particular scene that sees Nelly torn between her love for Charles and her social reputation shows incredible restraint in not allowing the protagonists to kiss. The longing gazes and yearning caresses are tantalisingly painful to watch; the characters almost afraid to cross a line from which there is no turning back.

After flamboyant, vivid turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Coriolanus, Fiennes demonstrates his versatility as both a director, and actor, who has accomplished restraint and delicacy in his treatment of this romantic partnership. His Charles’ is vexing, cruel, and narcissistic; a man who boards up half of his house to physically separate himself from his long-suffering wife Catherine, who admits he loves his audience more than his family. And yet, his passion, joie de vivre, and seemingly genuine interest in the welfare of the underclass, allows us to understand Nelly’s attraction to him. the-invisible-woman-2013-img01

Their relationship is at once paternalistic (a facet perhaps aided by the fact Fiennes and Jones played father and daughter in 2010’s Cemetery Junction) and tender. Conversations had by candlelight and secluded country walks cement a romanticism, rather than perversity to their pairing – she was 18, and he 45 when they met. And both actors bring these real people back to life with assurance, charm and poignancy.

Fantastic support is found in the performances of Kristin Scott-Thomas, as Nelly’s reluctantly complicit mother; Tom Hollander, as Dickens’ friend and colleague – himself living with a mistress and finally, and the astounding Joanna Scanlan as Dicken’s rejected wife. Her finest moment comes when she is forced to confront Nelly upon Charles’ order to deliver a present to her. Ouch, indeed.

The pacing of the film is almost irritatingly languid, with Fiennes choosing to focus a great deal more on their introduction and gradual getting to know one another, rather than their actual relationship – which is in fact boiled down to the denouement.

Nevertheless, the film manages to wonderfully capture the Victorian era, replete with 4am revelry, the poverty of the working class and the restrictions and shame that women were subjected to. And as with many period dramas that detail the difficult of a forbidden affair, potency is found in the moments and words left unsaid. Fiennes’ acknowledges this to devastating effect.

Verdict: Assured and sensitive, there are echoes of ‘Bright Star’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Fiennes’ painstakingly unravels the makings of a forgotten muse. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging, if not entirely pleasurable cinematic experience.

Review: Breathe In

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Breathe In (2013)

Directed by: Drake Doremus. Starring: Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan, Mackenzie Davis, Kyle MacLachlan

Director Drake Doremus reunites with the star of his film Like Crazy, Felicity Jones, to deliver another muted, melancholic portrait of transatlantic love.

kinopoisk.ruBreathe In seems like the slightly more mature, cynical successor to the wide-eyed naiveté of Like Crazy, yet similarly explores obstacles to a burgeoning relationship. This time Jones takes on the role of Sophie, a British exchange student who shifts the dynamic of her American host family. Guy Pearce is the musically-gifted, but creatively-stifled husband, increasingly suffocated by the dreary sameness of suburban family life (ringing American Beauty bells), whilst Amy Ryan plays the cookie-cutter, cookie-jar-collecting wife who yearns for a bigger house and all the charming perks of stability.

A softly spoken old soul, Sophie comes to America expecting the excitement and buzz of New York City. Instead she finds herself embroiled in high-school drama, repressed desire and middle-class, middle-aged anxieties. Over dinner-time conversation and awkward family occasions, Sophie finds herself drawn to cellist and music teacher Keith, whilst she reluctantly wows him with her performance of a Chopin piece in his class. From the moment Sophie enters the house, and Keith rifles curiously and somewhat intrusively through her luggage, to her doleful eyes watching his participation in the local orchestra, the sexual tension is rife.

However, Doremus prefers to unfurl and simmer, rather than erupt. Breathe In thrives on moments of emotional undercurrent and dormant artistic expression.

The characters tread carefully around one another. Suspicions and resentment brews, as daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) has her nose pushed out of joint by Sophie’s apparent popularity with the men in her life and Ryan’s Megan senses her husband’s weakness. Where the film succeeds is in not overplaying or over-complicating these moments. In one of its final scenes, Megan just shoots a withering stare to a distraught Sophie. Words are scarcely needed. Indeed the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is never truer than during a family photo, where Keith, Megan and Lauren paste on their smiles of familial happiness amid the betrayal and discontent.

And yet with each tender caress or desiring stare, I couldn’t decide whether the film felt subdued and subtle, or just plain smug. During a torrential downpour, with senses and emotions running high, Keith and Sophie interlace fingers over piano-playing. Chords and keys become the tapestry through which their affair is woven and though it makes for a sensual unravelling of romance, rather than an explosive or rushed bluster to the bedroom, there were times when it all got a bit too dour. Combined with the bleak, blueish-green colour palette and melodramatic musical score, unlike the Chopin piece, it all felt over-composed. Too orchestrated to feel natural. Besides Sophie and Keith, who are seemingly connected by underlying performance anxiety, the characters are hastily and stereotypically fleshed out. Lauren’s jealously is a subplot kept very much to the periphery, whilst Megan is alternatively dismissive or dubious throughout the entire runtime. The performances themselves are incredibly naturalistic and Jones and Pearce do well (as she does equally in The Invisible Woman) to convince us of their chemistry and attraction, despite the age gap. However, the contrivance eventually outweighs the sense of restraint and delicacy.

Felicity Jones and Guy Pearce in Breathe InBeneath the brooding tension of illicit romance and moments, or glances stolen, the narrative is smothered by a been-there, done-that familiarity. Keith and Sophie seek refuge from expectation and onlookers by escaping to a local lake, wherein amongst the foliage and nature, they share secrets, hopes and truths. It’s part heart rendering, part-overwhelming twee. And then it goes full-scale melodrama when the one person who can’t find out, stumbles into the same neck of the woods. What are the chances?! In a Doremus film, incredibly, incredibly high.

I wanted to like Breathe In a lot. Jones and Pearce carry the somewhat flawed narrative with a sensitivity and poignancy, so that, almost immorally, you do genuinely want this fledgling couple to find a way to make it work. But I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen, Doremus seems to be a glass half-empty kind of director…

Verdict: A patchy fifth-feature from Doremus. For all its sensuous slow-burning and talented acting, one can’t help but feel it has a lot in common with the wasted potential of its protagonist.