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VALERIAN: CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017) dir: Luc Besson

20 Aug

“Star Wars meets the Care Bears” was my dad’s perspective of Valerian. He took me to the local cinema in Cumbria, which cost only six quid and had very comfortable seats. It’s not to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed Valerian. It was one of the most imaginative movies I’d seen in ages – if not ever, as I don’t usually watch fantasy movies. However, while I was in the cinema, I was considering putting it on pause and going out to buy an ice-cream. I don’t think the vibe was coming from the movie itself, but instead from the bored unimaginative adults in the audience.

The plot to the movie was somewhat tangled. In the opening sequence we were introduced to the vast leaps mankind will make in centuries to come. Alpha, a space station cast out from Earth’s gravity into deep space, the culmination of space sophistication. Next we arrived at a beautiful island paradise where the bald people sparkled and had long, slender, blue limbs. They were really into their pearls and had these little dragons which ate and shat pearls out in multitudes. Suddenly the utopia was disturbed by objects crashing through the atmosphere. A giant manmade-looking structure careered through the sky and sent a fireball that destroyed all living creatures. As she died, the Emperor’s daughter sent out a wave of energy from her body.

Valerian is lounging on a virtual beach simulation when he is struck by the energy from the pearl girl. She is appearing in his mind. In his reality, he has Cara Delevigne – playing Laureline, with an acquired American accent – and a computer simulated voice telling him it’s time to quit the beach simulation. I think the credibility of the reality Luc Besson presents to us dissolves with the beach. As Valerian and Laureline wrestle, they appear to barely know each other, plus not a drop is spilled from the cup they’re holding and passing back and forth. It’s Laureline’s birthday, Valerian has forgotten, and frankly nobody seems to care. If that cup of orange liquid had ended up all over one of the cardboard cut-out characters, we may have had a different movie.

Valerian and Laureline must fly their spacecraft to a planet and retrieve a converter. Before they set off from their sand vehicle, Valerian proposes marriage to Laureline. If some bloke in a bar has ever proposed marriage (it happens to me regularly), you’ll grasp the level of awkwardness. On the planet is a vast open space that contains ‘Big Market’. It exists on another dimension so not visible to the naked eye. With virtual reality glasses a million shops and stalls become apparent. With special gloves a human can pick things up and transport them back to this dimension via a box. The special effects are beautiful. All the strangest urban environments on Earth are converged into an imaginative fantasy world. They get the converter. It turns out to be one of the baby dragon creatures Valerian saw in his dream with the pearl girl. Valerian also secretly steals a pearl. They make it back to their vehicle but a variation of Jabba the Hut has sent his hench dinosaur to this dimension for a potential sequel. It chases the vehicle. The inhabitants of the vehicle all die just as Valerian and Laureline escape to their spacecraft. Can we return to this moment toward the end of the review, please?

Fast forward to Alpha: city of a thousand planets. Home to some interesting alien species. The beautiful special effects were incredible. The city is a series of habitats for the various fantastical creatures. At the centre of Alpha is a mysterious radioactive zone that will wipe out the entire space station within a year if not resolved. Nobody has returned from there alive.

Laureline gets to keep the converter for safe-keeping though everyone thinks the Commander has it. The sparkly long-limbed, bald, blue creatures from Valerian’s dream put everyone to sleep and take the Commander, so presumably they thought the Commander had the converter too. Valerian has discovered that the pearl came from Mül planet, which was destroyed thirty years earlier. Valerian and Laureline have also discovered that nobody knows anything about Mül. It’s classified information. Valerian sets off in search of the Commander. He runs into trouble as well as walls (but, as my father pointed out, he groans at the hard seat as he sits down). Laureline then shows an ounce of passion and jets off after him. Unfortunately, not long after their ‘stay with me’ moment of revival where she saves him, she grabs a butterfly bait and is reeled up to another level by these gross-looking monsters. Valerian has to follow to save her. My dad noticed that he shoots the monster whose fishing line he is dangling from above a deep precipice! Doh!

By the time he can do anything, Laureline is being dressed for dinner in the zone on the other side of the door, so he follows the instructions of the computer voice and goes to a neighbouring nightclub. Here he meets Rihanna who is a shape-shifting exotic dancer called Bubble. Bubble engulfs him and turns them together into one of the monsters. Undercover, they covertly enter the zone where Laureline is being held, and stand in a ritual of holding food to be offered to the ruler. When it gets to Laureline’s turn to offer food, the lemon she is holding on her tray turns out to be seasoning for her brains, about to be clipped out of her skull. Fortunately the monster is stupid and puts the lemon on her hair  – showing in the centre of a giant white hat – instead of her brains, therefore Bubble and Valerian can rescue her. They all escape but Bubble dies.

Next they meet the long-limbed graceful blue creatures who tell them that Valerian’s body is the home to their deceased daughter’s soul. They explain what happened with the planet Mül. They’re obviously very peaceful beings. Nobody likes the Commander much when he wants to kill them all. Valerian is reluctant to give them the converter because he’s a stickler for rules. He’s not supposed to give them government property (he wasn’t supposed to steal the pearl though, hey?). In the end, they give the creatures from Mül both the converter and the pearl. The converter then eats the pearl and shits out thousands of pearl replications, which can generate enough power to re-establish Mül. Happy ending? Not yet. There’s a bit of a war between K-tron robots and everyone else. With many people killed, Valerian and Laureline share a cringe-worthy kiss. Happy ending.

As much as I loved the wonderful Mül existence and will daydream about Alpha and the entire multi-dimensional scenario for several weeks, the movie fell short because the characters were far from multi-dimensional. They’ll survive in a two-dimensional universe but not three or more. They were flat outlines who’d eaten their script and shat out versions of it until Besson called it a wrap. The dialogue was forced like there was foreboding about it. I’m not sure the acting was terrible exactly but rapport was lacking like hot, damp, smelly breath on the eyelids. At the end there was a weird sense of time distortion. Gee, had it been Laureline’s birthday the whole day? Should we care? When the people in the vehicle were all killed, Laureline was excited by her swell converter pet. The psycho! However, when the bald blue beings were threatened with extermination, outrage, how terrible! They weren’t easy characters to make believable. The jarred script didn’t create the kind of hero that Valerian the man (Dane Dehaan) had potential to be. The movie could’ve been an incredible Goonies-style adventure. If only that orange liquid had drenched one of them as they wrestled in their initial scene together, we may have loved them. And our love might have grown for them more than their feigned love for one another.

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MINDHORN (2016) dir. Sean Foley

26 Jun

Back in the 1980s, a television programme called Bergerac staring John Nettles and set on Jersey island, was a household staple in the UK. The hero was a private detective solving the mysteries of Jersey. Closer to France than England, Jersey has brilliant blue skies, beautiful hedgerows, and is a kind of English, exotic, offshore tax haven paradise in the Channel.

There were numerous references to John Nettles in Mindhorn the movie. Set on the Isle of Man in the bleak Irish sea, Mindhorn was a popular television programme in the 1980s, apparently, when actor Richard Thorncroft played Detective Mindhorn, whose eye the Russians had replaced with a cybernetic one. In 2016 Richard Thorncroft advertises support socks and girdles for men. He lives in a flat in Walthamstow. He’s lost that ‘profile’ he needs to find himself cast in anything significant. He often mentions John Nettles.

His ex-costar and ex-girlfriend, Pat Deville, is now a reporter and living with his former stunt double in a big Manx house. His other co-stars are also still on the island and vengeful that he quit the show for Hollywood and thereby ended their careers. Thorncroft (played by Julian Barratt) decides to help out with a real-life murder case with the expectation he’ll be able to salvage something of his former glory.

Thorncroft will play Mindhorn once again in order to lure the suspect in. The Kestrel (the murder suspect pretends to be a kestrel) believes Mindhorn is real, you see.

About half way through the movie, Thorncroft is told he is ‘not only unemployed but unemployable’ by his agent, having epic failed with The Kestrel. The ferry comes to take him back to the mainland and then the action begins. Farcical undoubtedly, laugh-out-loud funny in places, Julian Barratt plays another variation of the boring geography teacher persona he’s well known for as Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh. 

The surprises are no surprise and the plot twists are no surprise, but Mindhorn is basic British humour in its element. Cheap like the Chuckle Brothers and absurd like Faulty Towers, complete with a traditional village fete, the corporate base and offshore tax haven that is the Isle of Man hasn’t seen such publicity since Joey Dunlop won yet another TT race.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1990) dir. Jud Taylor

17 Oct

Do you have any fleeting memories of films that you saw and enjoyed as a child? There are two that stand out for me: in one, people are on an island crossing rope bridges over a steady lava flow, while in another a man has caught a fish that grows and grows, pulling him out to sea. It was in search of the latter that I stumbled upon The Old Man and the Sea, a television movie made in 1990, starring Anthony Quinn.

Without checking the 1958 version, I can’t be sure that this is the film from that afternoon at my grandparents house, although the man wrestling with a giant marlin out at sea was a familiar shot. The movie is based upon the Ernest Hemingway story of 1952 and had previously been dramatized starring Spencer Tracey. At this moment, I’ve neither read the story nor watched the other movie, so can’t draw any comparisons or analyze too much the symbolism that the director was trying to give the viewer a sniff of.

The plot is that an Cuban old man, Santiago, has gone 84 days without a catch on his line. The other fisherman are saying he is unlucky and to stay away from him. A boy, Manolo, remains loyal. His daughter is trying to persuade him to give up fishing and move to Havana to live with her. Meanwhile, a American couple – a writer and his wife – are in the village, asking questions about the old man.

The old man goes fishing alone. He is gone for three days. The giant marlin that he eventually reels in – tied to the side of the boat – gets eaten by sharks. He returns with the skeletal remains attached to the boat. There is the strong impression that it all means something more than what is presented on the surface. It has the quality of a parable.

The deeper symbolism is hinted at by the director during a cheesy retrospective of the man’s life as he drifts out at sea. As a young man, he sneaks off with his newly wed wife: “This morning, at our wedding, I gave you my heart and now I give you…”. Cut back to the old man talking to himself about fish, dedicating himself to fish, giving his life to fish. What’s a fish about, huh?

Like all great made-for-TV movies, there is the cheese-factor, you know, lines that are way too rehearsed, acting that isn’t really acting rather ego jutting out here and there from behind a casual newspaper, wobbly walls and feigned surprise. My favorite of these cringe-worthy moments is the boy talking about Mr and Mrs Marlin to the American tourists. It’s so bad it’s brilliant. The way the woman pulls her face away from the camera when she asks how long the male fish stayed by the boat with the female fish on it and the boy replies “until she was butchered”. It’s a cinematic classic!

DJANGO UNCHAINED dir. Quentin Tarantino (2012)

7 Feb

 What Quentin Tarantino does well in a movie is create the feeling of mythology, a kind of significance, building the slightest action into what seems like the grandest gesture. I suspect during filming he gives his actors clear instructions about exactly what he sees working and gets them to do it again and again until there are enough takes to choose from. But that’s what directors do. So what else does Tarantino do?

For a start Django Unchained could equally nobly be titled just Django, like the original 60’s western. But Django Unchained gives insight into the over-emphasis so typical of the director. In fact, after I came out of the Curzon on Shaftesbury Avenue, the thought of having seen Django Unchained was enough in itself to cause a supressed laugh.

Django (Jamie Foxx) we don’t know as a slave, other than for a minute at the start, naked and chained, about to be freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter posed as dentist. Django has the info that will help Dr. Schultz locate a band of badmen. Together they arrive at the plantation in time to witness a flogging. Of course, Django is black, thereby raising some eyebrows riding his own horse while wearing fancy silks. But when he dismounts, spies the wanted men and rescues a girl strung for whipping, it’s more than eyebrows that are raised. He takes the men out, one by one, with venom, securing his revenge.

Before watching Django Unchained, statements on facebook that Tarantino is past it left me intrigued, but even more so once I’d seen it. It’s not the best of his films but it’s not at all bad. As brutal as the rest, Jackie Brown is my favorite Tarantino movie; a crisp white shirt packs a slick punch that no amount of punching can pack. Django Unchained, from the moonlit forest opening, would appear to be on par. A spin on a parody of the classic spaghetti western genre, the detail, the significance, the subtle force that leaves the viewer mesmerised and wondering how the effect was achieved – wanting to unpack the punch so to speak – it was just right. Incidentally, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker agrees (you can read his review here). He spells the downturn of the film out as the word Mississippi sprawling across the screen halfway through, the cutting point, beyond which the pace changes.

Mississippi is where Django and Dr. Schultz gain the trust of Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), a Francophile slave dealer specialising in fights, who happens to own Django’s wife Boomhilda (Kerry Washington). Violence in the second half of the film appears thrown in for the horror of it. It keeps the pace ticking over: a stick of dynamite here, flesh beaten to pulp there. Is this cause for contempt towards Tarantino’s style? Or reason for celebrating it? It certainly raised a laugh amongst the crowd. Plus the director made a cameo or three.

Django escapes from the film unscathed, fresh faced, with his woman by his side, glowing and ready for the sequel, should there be the need to make further comment on shadows of the past. And if there were it would be a bolder, grander, larger, brighter, intenser and more tactile, more marvellous, more superlative comment than anything else.

LOOPER (2012) directed and written by Rian Johnson

30 Sep

Starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, Looper was an entertaining way to have spent the evening. Joe exists in 2072 and 2042 simultaneously. The younger Joe works for a man called Abe, who is from the future, living in 2042. The majority of the film is set in this year with one short sequence explaining what happens to Joe in the thirty year interim.

I’m scanning my mind back to this flashing glimpse of a man’s life.

In 2042, Joe is a hitman – a ‘looper’ – who has signed up to Abe’s gang who are concurrently operating in 2072. By then time-travel is invented and available. But the lawlessness of everything means that it’s highly illegal. Victims are sent back in time bagged and bound, and assignated by loopers.

A bizarre part of the employment contract of a looper states that when the risk to the gang’s operations becomes too great, the looper will be sent back in time to the barrel of his own gun, to close the loop by death. By way of recognition, the payment is gold bullion strapped to the victim on these occaisons, rather than silver. From this moment the looper is granted thirty years left to live as a free man.

However, Joe returns to himself and escapes. By not killing his future self he has put both their life-united in danger. He continues to try to track himself down in the hope of appeasing his mistake. What happens is that they meet, the older Joe is madly in love with his wife, and wants to change 2042 so that he can live to see 2080 with her.

The younger Joe and the gang fail to kill the older Joe. But the gang also fails to kill the younger Joe. Before the older one flees he passes the details of the gang leader in 2072 on to his younger self. It turns out to be a little boy who lives on a farm. This is where they meet again.

Rian Johnson’s vision of a future is depressingly believeable: a world filled with poverty and extortionate wealth. The tragic story reminded me of The Door in the Wall by HG Wells. All the characters are trying to find something that has already found them.

On the surface not that much was different about the future to 2012 but the detail was blackandwhite better version of our technology. Keeping sets as they are today but more extreme was a touch of class. It will ripen as a film I expect. There is plenty to think about beyond the end; not everything is immediately crystal clear.

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) dir. Lotte Reiniger

15 Aug

When the Aubin Cinema in Shoreditch first opened, back in May 2010, it felt like a special secret. Luxurious, with some of the best acoustics to be found in a cinema, grey velvet sofas and wine coolers, yet to be discovered by a horde. The Adventures of Prince Achmed screened one Saturday morning. There was nobody else in the audience to behold its wonders but one small boy and his father.

 I hadn’t read any blurb about it, just happened upon it (so to speak), becoming utterly captivated by the quality of the animation. It’s lush! In fact, the only thing more beautiful that I’ve seen in a cinema was Voyage de la Lune, with a score by Air, restored in colour. That made me cry, it was incredible, the hairs on my neck stood on end, my whole self trembled. Still, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was thoroughly awe imposing, a sublime endeavour to encounter in the cinema. At the time I knew nothing about it; I supposed it to be a new release.

It’s possible to watch it from the comfort of your laptop via China. I tried it before embarking upon writing this. It’s better to find a copy with the subtitles translated into English (unless you speak German). Otherwise, expect the experience to be lovely and moving but also confusing, like visiting the ballet without first reading the programme, or playing poker without learning the rules. It’s the kind of film a young child might enjoy but you would have to talk them through it. “Now what’s happening? The sorcerer and the witch are fighting each other. Now they’ve turned into a lion and a snake,” catch my drift? (Watch out for the harem scene).

Yes there is a sorcerer and a witch and – in case that wasn’t magic enough –  Aladdin and a goddess called Pari Banu. Outrageous! I probably shouldn’t confess it but the shadowy Achmed is hot! He has a flying horse; it makes me go shivery. Every girl wants to be Pari Banu, let’s face it, she’s the best dressed silloette, even if her clothes resemble creepy doilies. It’s possible to imagine how opulent she would be if she were out of her world and not on top of a light box. Of course, Achmed and Aladdin win in the end. They get the ensorcered lamp back, everyone gets married, but Pari Banu, the shady figurine, has bird-power and settles for nothing less. No pleasing some.

It was a surprise to learn that The Adventures of Prince Achmed is ancient. It has an eternal quality that too few films ever have. Perhaps it is the most timeless film of all time (if some things are more timeless than others). Lotte Reiniger based the story on 1001 Arabian Nights. She worked on the film with other well known avant-garde animators. It was filmed frame by frame. To date it remains the oldest surviving animation. It is remarkable. A more electronic score would probably be of  benefit to the modern ear but the original is fine. The hues of the background linger on the palate with synthesia, sinister characters live on long inside our hearts with exquisite elegance, sixty-five minutes of mystery, silent visual poetry.

DARK SHADOWS (2012) dir. Tim Burton

15 Aug

Johnny Depp in serious role shocker! Not really. This time he plays Barnabas Collins, a vampire over 200 years old, who has come to the rescue of the current Collins family led by Michelle Pfeiffer. Barnabas belongs to a time where women had ‘good birthing hips’. His eccentricities no more and no less the idiosyncrasies of Depp’s particular style. Barnabas Collins is as equally as likeable (fanciable) as any other character that the actor has played.

It’s similar to Sleepy Hollow, a 1999 Burton/Depp movie, although with more darkness. Sleepy Hollow was essentially bright with sinister places dark for contrast but Dark Shadows is sultry, gloomy and mysterious. Shots of quaint fishing boats bobbing about during the day appear creepy.

Set in 1972, my favorite thing about the film was Pfeiffer’s hairstyles. Quasi-early seventies beauty styling is hot! Alice Cooper gets a cameo and the rest of the soundtrack contains The Carpenters, Deep Purple, Iggy Pop and Elton John. Chloe Moretz, playing teenage daughter Carolyn, is proving herself to be an incredibly gifted young actress, even if this is the least dynamic role she has been cast in up until now, sulking in her room with its cosy rugs, geometric patterns and lava lamp.

The Prologue to the film explains that 200 years ago the Collins family emigrated from Liverpool. As the family board the vessel that will bring them across the Atlantic, a young girl stood staring, is told to avert her eyes; when they arrive in America she becomes the servant of the Collins family. The girl, Angelique, is a witch. She murders Barnabas’ sucessful parents using her magic. Barnabas then sets out to master the dark arts. When he falls in love with another woman, Angelique puts a spell on her, prompting her to take her own life, simulateously evoking a curse on Barnabas to become immortal, to become a vampire. She accomodates revenge by arranging for him to be buried deep in the ground where he will not die: a fate worse than death.

Centuries later the coffin is accidentally dug up. Barnabas sets out in search of his distant Collins descendants, who still live in spooky Collinswood Manor, doing very little. David, a young boy who sees ghosts, is refusing to accept his mother’s death. His father is putrid. His live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham-Carter) is an alcoholic. His newly arrived governess, Victoria, a mystery. The family fishing empire was long since superceded by another company: a company run by a certain Angelique.

Barnabas reveals his true identity to the head of the family, Elizabeth (Pfeiffer). She makes him promise to keep his freakiness a secret, leaving room for plenty of farce with misunderstandings of twentieth-century life, associating the signature MacDonalds ‘M’ with Mephisopheles (helper of the Devil); avoiding sunlight; drinking blood via murder; wanting to court a woman ‘in these times… er… places’. There were no great surprises to the plot, no dramatic revelations, all was as gothic, charming and enchanted as expected.

INCENDIES (2010) dir. Denis Villeneuve

15 Aug

During a recent trip I had nothing better to do than lounge around watching films online. The blurb ‘Staggering… feels like a mighty film in our midst,’ which features on the poster and is taken from a review in Time Out New York, was, if I’m honest, off-putting. It couldn’t be that good surely. It’s in French.
   Yet Incendies is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages. It’s a long time since I’ve seen anything quite as gripping. Literally, it was a voyage. For this reason, I want to say only a minimal amount about the story.
   A mother, a troubled mother, has passed away leaving her children a letter each to give to someone else. One written for a brother they didn’t know they had; the other for the father they didn’t know existed. With nothing more to go on than a fragment of an old photograph, the daughter sets out to the Middle East in search of her mother’s past. If you’re a fan of great stories, what she uncovers will stay with you for a while once you’ve finished watching. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.  
  Directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted from the play by Wadji Mouawad, Incendies reverts from shots of Lubna Azabal playing the mother as a girl and her later life in Canada, to the daughter’s (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) struggle to understand her mother’s troubled relationship with her family in the desert decades earlier. The acting is superb. The character who brings it all together so smoothly is the son (Maxim Gaudette). He arrives in the distant land disinterested, trying to stop his sister from wasting her time, thinking her flights of fancy will lead to nowhere but disappointment and heartbreak, only to find his own role in the drama ever more involved.
 Incendies is a thriller, mysterious, it’s dark, it’s political, and in places it is heavy. The dusty and verdant contrasting imagery, shimmering heat, piercing gazes, the sense of a happy ending emerging round every new corner will make you smile and your heart lighten its load, whilst at the same time you weep.

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The Dead 4/9/2010

15 Aug

The excitement began before the film – dashing across London on Bank Holiday public transport – I made it just in time, panting and breathless from running up Leicester Square escalators.
Having never before attended a film premiere, I was sorry to have missed the directors introduction to The Dead, showing for the first time as part of Film4 Frightfest, a horror frenzy weekend.
The Ford brothers have produced a remarkable movie, the tale of a man stranded in zombie infested Africa – zombie infested world – and the ensuing ‘doing something when not sure what to do’ situation which follows.
It’s not the script that makes this film great. When the script is lame, it sucks, majorly. The lines are delivered without irony. But what zombie film would be quite right without the dodgy script?
Casting (the very) native Africans as zombies is a touch of class. I expect it’s not just in Dalston that these people walk so slow. There is something intrinsically right about stealthy natives out-pacing steadily.
The African scenery of some small country behind Ghana bodering with Sahara – the name of which is completely evading, it’s two words – BURKINA FASO, is shot with awesome integrity. The colours are gems and every shot looks as if it lept straight out of ‘The Earth from the Air’. Every shot has a suitablity. It shows that Jon Ford usually works in advertising.
The most amazing scene is the “O My did I just watch that!” gut puking moment where we see a human skull full-on run over by a jeep. If you think about it for maybe ten seconds you’ll realise that the entire special effects department is something else in this film. Zombies? wax wounds? wax body parts? fake blood? Africa. Sun. Melting heat.
If you like zombie films, you might want to see The Dead. If you like photgraphic landscapes, you might like it too. There isn’t much running in it, so if you’re looking for action or hype, look elsewhere.

Papillion 26/8/2010

15 Aug

The BFI has a Steve McQueen moment at the moment and not knowing what to do on Friday night, I stumbled happily into Papillion. I once read the first hundred or so pages of the book and thought it was one of the most amazing stories,(although I believe there are even better tales of men on rafts surviving out at sea). It was the kind of book I almost wished I’d stolen to finish.
Papillion the film (on 35mm). The burnished hues, the smells. I wanted the book. I wanted to get inside Papillion’s head during the work camp, during the 2 year stint in isolation when he was caught escaping. I wondered how he felt when he reached Honaduras. I wondered how he felt when he was returned to 5 years in isolation. I wondered. I long to know.
Papillion the film has some great moments of acting. McQueen’s characterisation and progression of character in the film as the eponymous hero is splendid. Hoffmans portrayal of Dega as a warmly illuminating character is genius. By the end you have an impression of strength. You have a hint.
A classic escapee film, still stands out.