A recounting of a bizarre event that occurred as recently as 2018, exactly as the title says, “The Salisbury Poisonings” is as fresh as headlines. Indeed, usage of news footage unfurling the Russian nerve agent poisoning of two Soviet ex-spies in a peaceful British town is one of the devices employed dramatically by the directors and scriptwriters. Real-event dramas can readily leach narrative tension or flow, simply because the facts must be observed, but this four-part series manages to forestall that pitfall by focusing heavily on two core participants in the thick of things. Rafe Spall is flawless as a hapless police officer early on the scene, and, even more vital to the story, Ann-Marie Duff captures the horrid pressures on the key public safety official. Perhaps the echoing shape of Covid-19 invigorates the early episodes – I mean, this incredibly deadly toxin is creepily like the pandemic – but I found myself horrified at an event I’d barely followed at the time. The later episodes lose potency as a result, but the storyline artfully segues into a study of post-traumatic stress. The Salisbury Poisonings could have been a lame retelling using cutout performances overlaid by a dreary voice, instead it is a skillfully made, absorbing drama well worth your time.
Season 4 of “The Crown” covers the eighties, the Maggie Thatcher years, and after the slight dip of Season 3, represents a roaring return to form. Once again I find myself initially nonplussed: why am I, an anti-monarchist especially alienated from anything to do with Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, so taken with a ten-episode show in which they loom so often? The answer, as the answer has been for the three earlier seasons, is twofold: the plotting wizardry of Peter Morgan and the consummate acting. Sure, The Crown is consistently more than those two attributes. The staging and pacing are immaculate, the royal milieu is glorified sumptuously, the cinematography (many gloomy royal abode scenes, many English countryside panoramas, many riveting clos-up scenes) is first-rate, and the dialogue crackles. But the primary reason I find myself glued to the screen each and every episode, is Morgan’s nuanced intertwining of real and imagined events, intelligent and deep. If you then throw in Gillian Anderson’s unforgettable performance as Thatcher, Olivia Coleman’s brilliance as Her Royal Highness, and Emma Corrin’s amazing inhabitation of Diana (not forgetting many other stellar performances), my devotion to this series is understandable. Do not omit all four seasons of The Crown from your cultural roster, and in particular, bask in this fourth season.
A six-part series, “The Undoing” wields serious acting firepower, with the two key roles being that of a doctor involved in a brutal murder case (Hugh Grant does a superb, subtle job) and his psychologist wife (played by Nicole Kidman, who occupies most of the screen time and is occasionally unconvincing). Notable supporting role performances are delivered by Ismael Cruz Cordova and Donald Sutherland. The plot lurches between suspect reveals and does a fine job of generating suspense, ensuring that once you begin watching, you won’t dare stop, but ends up rather clunky. Direction is steady but sometimes painfully slow, and the New York scenery pales a little with repetition. The courtroom scenes are a highlight. In the end, The Undoing is a slightly off-kilter thriller that nonetheless makes for compelling viewing.
A short film clocking in at sixteen minutes, “Brolga” could be overlooked in the way that most short stories flit by. May I suggest you pay heed to this minor gem from Australia auteur Adrian Powers. Resurrecting an ancient indigenous origin story about a graceful dancer morphing into a graceful brolga, but placing the story into a dystopian world of ferals fleeing killers, Brolga offers a perfectly structured story within a sumptuous, brooding, post-civilization world lit up by Tim Tregoning’s cinematography and Matt Ruduck’s score. The leads are played memorably by James Saunders and Tarnie Coupland. Brolga may well be brief but it resonates and I, for one, cannot wait for the next creation of Adrian Powers.
“Rebecca” is the latest screen evocation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name. I must have read that classic in my early teens and I can still recall the terrifying mood of the Manderley estate and the vituperative housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Set in the 1920s, Rebecca is the tale of an initially anonymous young woman who is swept off her feet by Manderley’s young scion, Maxim de Winter. When Maxim takes her back to Manderley as the new Mrs. de Winter, she discovers he and the entire community seem to be mourning beautiful, formidable Rebecca, the previous wife, drowned recently. A Gothic drama, almost a thriller, Rebecca makes for enjoyable viewing simply because Daphne du Maurier’s plot is exemplary, full of twists and turns and drama. The bleak English countryside and the sumptuous estate are filmed wonderfully, and some of the supporting actors turn in impressive performances, but both key roles are rather miscast. Armie Hammer is serviceable but wooden as Maxim and Lily James’s portrayal of our heroine is never subtle enough. Overall, Rebecca makes for an enjoyable hour and a half of screen time but does not hold a candle to the novel.
A caper series based around the conceit of imitating the famous French escapologist/burglar Arsène Lupin, “Lupin” is imperfect but shines brightly where it most counts. Assane Diop, a Senagelese in Paris, is out to unravel and avenge the prison death of his father when he was a boy, and to do that, he needs to invade the world of a sleazy, powerful businessman (played wonderfully by Hervé Pierre). The first episode (of five) involves a jewel heist in the Louvre, very much in the Mission Impossible style (but, it has to be said, less hi-tech), and each episode involves deception, misdirection and trickery a la the legendary Lupin. The series is plotted tightly and directed in workmanlike fashion, but the series stands or falls with Omar Sy’s larger-than-life portrayal of both Assane, the wronged boy grown up, and Assan the incarnation of Lupin. And here I found myself wavering. Omar Sy’s huge frame and handsome smile often seemed to render him as shallow, yet at crucial times, usually in the midst of mayhem and action, his acting revved up a notch. The caper machinery of Lupin could have come across as cliched, instead it is fresh and enjoyable, and towards the end, what lifts this season above the ruck is the nuanced performance of Ludovine Sagnier as Claire, Assane’s on-again-off-again partner. The interplay between Assane and Claire elevates the inevitable cliffhanger finale into something rather special. Lupin ends up more affecting than its parts.
An oddball documentary by documentary maker Kirsten Johnson, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” chronicles the final days of her avuncular father. Dick, seemingly graced with a never-ending childlike smile, is already suffering from dementia (which, poignantly, his wife expired from) when the movie kicks off, and over the course of the film he relocates from Seattle to New York. Perhaps as an act of grace toward his beloved daughter, Dick acquiesces to participating in an outlandish set of mortal what-if scenes: what if he tripped down stairs, what if an air conditioner fell from on high onto him, etc., etc. Is this series of scripted, performed scenes meant to prepare the father for death? Or the daughter? Kirsten Johnson reveals little, even as she escalates the imaginary events into post-death scenes in heaven. All of this makes for a vaudevillian smorgasbord interspersed with footage of the father declining, and the juxtaposition can seem a little unfocused. But the inevitable climax is truly moving, and as centered in reality as the rest of the movie is in flights of fancy. Overall, Dick Johnson Is Dead is not for everyone, but for the questing, cerebral moviegoer, it might prove to be a viewing highlight.
Are you baffled by or fascinated by or despairing of the human capacity for hatred and violence? Ever since reading about the Holocaust as a young boy, I have been. So “Why We Hate,” written by the prolific and redoubtable Alex Gibney and directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard, attracted me. The six-part documentary surely chimes with our times. I became thoroughly engrossed. The first five episodes delve into hatred, covering evolutionary clues, tribalism, incitement playbooks, the role of ideology, and hatred’s ultimate conclusion of genocide. Artfully directed as a blend of footage and brilliant talking heads, each episode offers insights. Particularly impressive was International criminal lawyer Patricia Viseur Sellers talking about meting justice against perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The final episode of Why We Hate enlists a neuroscientist to offer hope derived from the plasticity of the human brain. Perhaps that dose of positivity struck me as a mere glimmer, leaving me as unclear as ever about why, indeed, we hate and what we can do, but overall this is another vital Gibney moral record.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a passionate, semi-autobiographical examination of creative calling in the life of New York playwright Radha Blank, hailed at age thirty but almost a has-been at age forty. Reshaping herself, almost on a whim, as rapper RhadaMUSPrime, she embarks on a journey of artistic choice between twisting a play to fit a white audience or embracing scorching rapping from scratch. Radha Blank’s self-deprecating script fizzes with life and oscillates between intelligent dialogue, fiery performances, and funny situations. Directed by Blank, the film seems assured and mature, and while her own central performance occasionally (in my view) seems forced, some brilliant performances around her (just soak up Peter Kim and Oswin Benjamin) more than compensate. No rap fan, I nonetheless swooned at the rap scenes. A fresh take on a theme close to my heart, The Forty-Year-Old Version captivated me.
Another week, another robot soldier military sci-fi thriller. Set in a near-future somewhere in Ukraine, “Outside the Wire” posits a disgraced drone pilot being mysteriously teamed up with an android officer on a quest to quash nuclear Armageddon. The two leads are handsomely and authoritatively played by Damson Idris and Anthony Mackie respectively, with most of the bit players just plot fodder. Cracking action scenes are a strong feature of the film and the brooding wasteland ambience is well captured. Individual scenes, especially the tense interplay between the two heroes, are well written and directed. At one level, one can surrender to a ho-hum action movie, but the intriguing storyline begs for more skill. Unfortunately, not only is the setup of Outside the Wire cursed by silliness, a sequence of plot twists, clearly intended to be dramatic and unexpected, leaves one shaking one’s head with incredulity. Overall, acceptable entertainment that might have shone.