peteg's blog

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

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nth time around with Gibson's classic debut. The ending is such a bust! — people in 2023 need to know what happens when one AI hostilely takes over another. I was planning to re-read the two semi-sequels to find out but I'll stop here.

Snatch (2000)

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More Guy Ritchie rewatching; possibly this is just my second time around with this one. He was so hot after Lock, Stock that everyone wanted to work with him. (By "everyone" I mean the alpha male stars of the era.) Alan Ford, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, Jason Flemyng (etc) return. Brad Pitt indelibly plays an invincible ... err ... Gaelic (?) traveller ... who has some aspects of Conor McGregor. He seems a lot smaller here than in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Benicio Del Toro has some fun. Ewen Bremner! I guess we could call this Stephen Graham's breakout movie. Somehow #119 in the IMDB top-250. There's so much going on that you're never bored, but also never really thinking or sinking into it. Overall it feels like a con.

Roger Ebert: two stars and "don't go to England". Stephanie Zacharek: patchy, schoolboy stuff. She prefers full-blooded American violence, not this polite English stuff. Elvis Mitchell: ah yes, that late-90s soundtrack. There's a moment when Massive Attack's Angel brings things to an absolute standstill. Peter Travers covers the other media of the time.

Deliverance (1972)

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Gestured at in Poker Face. Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds (who I only know as genial but seedy from Boogie Nights) are both bigger than the movie. Reynolds is in his rugged macho stage here, looking somewhat like a wooden Marlon Brando. Also Ned Beatty, solid as always in a salesman/victim role, and Ronny Cox as the righteous. Roughly the four under-prepared acquaintances canoe the rapids of the (fictional) last-wild-river-in-Georgia Cahulawassee before it's all submerged by a dam. They encounter some inbred (Appalachian) hillbillies — know them by their mad banjo skills, dancing, and lack of impulse control/deviant sexuality — some of whom help them with moving their cars downriver, others with spicing up the plot. There is some great cinematography of the boating; the rest not so much.

Adapted from a book by James Dickey. It reminded me mostly of Jindabyne and/or Short Cuts, both based on Raymond Carver's short story So Much Water So Close to Home from 1975: in other words, what we talk about when we talk about predation in the wilds. Maybe just stay home? Definitely don't get out of the car. Certainly don't get on the boat.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars, completely unimpressed. Vincent Canby. I was curious about the car that Reynolds drives; the internet says it's an International Harvester Scout. IMDB suggests it was a real he-man production.

Poker Face (2023)

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And yet more proof I'll still watch anything by Rian Johnson despite the abiding lack of returns over the last decade. Hats off once again to the marketers on this one, an Agatha Christie/Miss Marple/Hitchcock (?) confection in the style of Glass Onion.

This 10-free-standing-episode TV show has one conceit: the leading lady (Natasha Lyonne, who I now see was in American Pie) can always tell if someone is lying. The format is always the same (and signalled by Pulp Fiction on a TV): a scene gets set, then reset and retconned with her on the edge of the frames we were shown. The murder-mysteries are therefore a bit trying as the latter halves devolve into sorting out her epistemics; she mostly, implausibly, rapidly zooms straight in to whoever did it. Similarly her drinking, smoking and verbal ticks wear thin as we go along. Powerful and dangerous people allow her to bang on at length, and there is generally way too much exposition. I guess this is how you stretch limited footage/budget/concept to hour lengths. Most couples are mixed-race.

I found the first three episodes to be mostly bust. (#1 has Noah Segan as a cop, #3 Danielle Macdonald from The Tourist as a Southern Lady Macbeth in a war on the war on woke.) Things picked up a bit with #4 (Chloë Sevigny as the weary lead singer and Nicholas Cirillo as a full-of-beans drummer in a metal band, a strong 17 minutes without Lyonne) and it became clear the template was to explore a different subgenre in each episode. #5 was a bit like Running on Empty: a hat-tip to the direct-action activism of the 1970s that is perhaps swinging back into fashion, set in an oldies home, cliche city. We're at the theatre in #6, go-karts/car racing in #7 (Tim Blake Nelson and a quickly-aborted romance for Lyonne). #8 ramps up the referentialism, parking lion-in-winter Nick Nolte in an old school manual special effects garage and Luis Guzmán in a basement with a busted plot; they should've stuck with Sidney Lumet. Finally Lyonne gets romanced properly in #9 though it doesn't last into the winter (good to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt as more-or-less SBF as things got a bit more Twin Peaks). The season finale does some epic retconning to clean things up for another go around.

Heavily marketed. Dana Stevens: more references, episode summaries, sometimes the clues are just too obvious/the plots too dumb.

Reuben, Reuben (1983)

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The other Tom Conti vehicle for 1983, the one that got him an Oscar nom. This tale of an entirely-cliched nonwriting, womanising, crapulent Scottish poet heading for middle age who discovers the rejuvenating powers of young American girls (specifically Top Gun-chick Kelly McGillis) in a small town (Woodsmoke, Connecticut) up the train line from NYC was written by Peter De Vries. Conti does OK with the thin material though sometimes his accent slides into over-the-top Sean Connery. Lois Smith has a few moments as her mother, and Kara Wilson as his ex-wife. The English sheepdog owned by her chicken-farming grandfather (Roberts Blossom) brings things to a merciful close. The only moral on offer is that if you sleep with a dentist's wife do not go to that dentist, which is somehow not entirely obvious to the scriptwriters.

Vincent Canby at the time. He noted the same thing about the dentist. Most of the fun here is in the witticisms.

Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre (2023)

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Vague Aubrey Plaza completism, vaguer interest in whether I'd missed anything by skipping most of Guy Ritchie's movies, and also the absence of anything (new) obviously better.

Well it's not great. The antecedents are legion; this is obviously Oceans ... 3 (?) and James Bond, probably drawing on some aspects of Kingsmen. The better bits are Team America. The exposition is execrable, with so much filler and so many scenes that do not work. Even allowing for the necessity of unnecessary meatspace action the plot did not make sense: it's like Fight Club — let's blow up the headquarters of credit card companies because, you know, in 1999 there was no cloud and those guys just didn't do offsite backups — and yet everyone still wants to be paid/refunded electronically. Who is the market for this? — surely the Millennials are too savvy and there's nothing knowing about the dumbness here. At least the Lock, Stock argot was amusing.

Acting-wise I was surprised to discover Eddie Marsan playing a high-level public servant. Plaza gets a new outfit in every scene and is tasked with dishing up some very flat single entendres. Jason Statham is serviceable as an all-purpose one man army but Arnie he and his one-liners are not. Hugh Grant has the most fun as a crass and uninspired dirty-old-man arms dealer.

Brandon Yu: just going through the motions.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

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Guy Ritchie has a new movie out, prompting another revisit of his break-out debut. Parked at #160 in the IMDB top-250. The cast is vast, the plot full of holes, and so many scenes don't work. It now strikes me as very derivative of Tarantino's early efforts.

Roger Ebert, three stars: like sanitised, juvenile Tarantino, an update of The Long Good Friday and Night and the City, at least it's not baby formula. Janet Maslin: Trainspotting, The Usual Suspects.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

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David Bowie acting completism; it was on the pile for quite a while. He does OK with what he's tasked with, which is to add some colour to what is a very bland P.O.W. movie; it reminded me of Changi the most, and somewhat less Stalag 17 — there are a few outliers from the herd here — and A Town Like Alice in that there's no escape attempt and it's tedious. Basically guerilla-warrior Bowie comes in from the Javanese jungle in a slouch hat to a prison camp where Tom Conti is trying to bridge the cultural gap between the Japanese gaolers and the English soldiers and officers in 1942. The Japanese actors are overly expressive, histrionic, unreal. Ryuichi Sakamoto plays the commandant and provides the tunes which sound a lot like the Vangelis classics of the era. (He later got a music Oscar alongside David Byrne and Cong Su for The Last Emperor.) IMDB tells me it was filmed in New Zealand and the Cook Islands; there are a few stray Kiwi accents. Jack Thompson provides the ham.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars. A clash of acting styles. Janet Maslin dug Bowie's efforts and not a lot else.

District 9 (2009)

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Sharlto Copley's IMDB page suggests it's been a while since he's been in anything worth watching and so it was a third time around with this Copley / Neill Blomkamp classic. Four Oscar noms: picture, writing, editing, and surely it would have won for visual effects if it wasn't the year of Avatar.

Roger Ebert: three stars: space opera and not science fiction. A critic's pick by A. O. Scott at the time.

Russell Marks: Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. (2022)

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Kindle. A follow up to and expansion of his earlier Crime and Punishment. The topic is vital but the book is lengthy, concussive and insufficiently focussed; it took me an age to get past chapter one and a lot of commitment to crawl through the second half. One minor annoyance are the footnotes; I'm used to inline citations and I learnt a long long time ago that if it's worth saying it goes in the main text, and if it's not you let it go. The kids today might consider that a part of killing their darlings.

I'm not a lawyer. What made Nicholas Cowderey's Getting Justice Wrong valuable to me was that he laid out the legal system to us non-specialists, and that he took an issue-based approach, pointing at particular antinomies of the system and using specific illustrative examples. Here (NT defence lawyer) Marks engages in extensive (excessive) cataloguing of court cases. I found this futile as readers of this book are likely to know that generally things are bad, the general shape of the badness, and the general stasis and backsliding. (See, for instance, Ben Abbatangelo at another Black Inc. venue; it's the era of choose-your-own-apocalypse.) Sometimes he pulls in a sociological, historical, economic or political angle (beyond his workaday legal frame) but not as successfully as Dean Ashenden. Take, for instance, this from Chapter 14 A New Beginning:

[Circa 1933, s]outh of the Murray, William Cooper — now in his seventies — was doing his own agitating. He began a letter-writing campaign, which soon led to the creation of the Australian Aborigines' League. Among its demands, the League wanted Canberra to take over the administration of Aboriginal affairs from the states (which was eventually achieved by referendum in 1967).

I was left wondering why Cooper thought the Feds would provide a better deal than the states, recalling that it was the Depression, the White Australia Policy was in force and the first and second World Wars close by. And just what did the 1967 referendum achieve anyway? I wanted the perspective that Marks brings to his (excellent) essays.

Ashenden observed the limits of the law as a mechanism for (social) justice, and in particular that issues of sovereignty are quite simply beyond the scope of every court in Australia, and moreover that petitioning the body that could adjudicate such issues — apparently the U.K.'s Privy Council — is not possible. (As a non-lawyer I felt Ashenden spelt that out clearly.) Marks seems to think that Western law has more universalism that it does, more scope for providing justice, even as he pummels us with endless counterexamples and decries the inveterate unwillingness of Australian Settler law to accommodate Indigenous law (or some practices). For instance (again from Chapter 14):

[I]n May 2020, a cave in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara was permanently destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto, despite multiple representations to the company by Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura heritage managers about its significance: archaeological evidence showed that the cave had been continuously occupied for 46,000 years, making it the oldest known inland site in Australia. Rio Tinto’s actions were entirely lawful under the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which had created an approvals process which favoured the destruction of sacred and significant sites. In the wake of the Juukan Gorge destruction – reported around the world – the Western Australian parliament replaced the Act entirely, though with a new piece of legislation which was opposed by Traditional Owners on the basis that it did not address the central flaws in the existing law.

Here the law is completely irrelevant; a priori decisive were capitalism (the financialisation of just about everything) and a centralised politics, which in his business manifests as privatised prisons and (as he observes) NAAJA (see Chapter 13 The Defenders), and afterwards it was blowback from public (specifically large shareholder) opinion that destroyed corporate reputations and placed the event into the category of never-again-not-until-the-next-time. Marks observes several times that every formal inquiry more-or-less reiterates what was determined and proposed by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 to 1991), which demonstrates that the critical thing that's missing is not epistemic ... so what is it? As Noel Pearson often observes, it's not just partisan politics: Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and at times Abbott all made attempts to bend history towards justice. Moreover Marks did sometimes observe that many issues he canvasses are also prevalent amongst non-Aboriginal people, opening the door a crack to a broader Amartya Sen-esque cross-sectional analysis/activism.

Finally, I've always been mystified how the systems of law could ever be reconciled. Take, for instance, the cultural impedance mismatch in this murder trial from 1976 described in Chapter 5 Bending:

According to Joseph's defence lawyer, Judy had repeatedly taunted and insulted Joseph by mentioning tribal secrets she shouldn't have known about. The open discussion of such secrets in court provided grounds, Wells concluded, to make an order banishing all women from the court, including from the jury. Joseph formally pled 'not guilty' to murder through an interpreter. (Unfortunately, that interpreter was uninitiated, and it emerged that Joseph, who was initiated, was unable to speak to him.)

Doesn't this suggest that almost all (actionable, evidentiary, ...) tribal law is beyond the ken of almost all Settlers? (Ashenden noted that Bill Stanner was initiated and provided with tribal secrets in the hope of influencing the state, but he wasn't a lawyer.) And of course tribal law may not be so big on blaming individuals.

Widely reviewed. Chris Cunneen came in for a caning in the book (I think, see Chapter 9 Debate) but is generous in his review. I did not find any that engaged with Marks's take on carceral feminism (see his Chapter 10 Women: How protection isn’t working much better this time around for First Nations women) which is entirely depressing.

The Hospital (1971)

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The last of Paddy Chayefsky's Oscared scripts for me to watch. This one looks like he thought he could improve on Altman's MASH. It's also a bit of a dry run for Network, though the farce is blacker here. George C. Scott leads as a world-weary middle-aged doctor who runs a Manhattan hospital. On the day we visit there are quite a few staff deaths, presented straight, until Diana Rigg (unrecognisable from Last Night in Soho) arrives and they have the night of his life. He vacillates over joining her in Mexico with her missionary father (a notional patient). At times I found it very amusing.

Roger Ebert: three stars. Vincent Canby.

Marty (1955)

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A Paddy Chayefsky jag from Network: the first of his Oscared writing efforts, apparently adapted from a TV show. Pitched as a sweet post-war it's-never-too-late love story in NYC, it got Oscared as best picture in 1956. Ernest Borgnine (Oscared, solid) is a thirty-four year old Italian butcher in the Bronx who meets school chemistry teacher Betsy Blair (unfathomably Oscar nominated) at a black-and-white dance hall and soon ditches his buddies. They solve each other's problems but in a way that seems to preclude future romance. I enjoyed the efforts of the old Italian ladies (mother Esther Minciotti and aunt Augusta Ciolli) the most as they layered on the pretence and unguardedness of family life. It's slight, dated, and now very non-P.C.

Bosley Crowther dug it at the time.

Stalag 17 (1953)

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A William Holden (Oscared) jag from Network. IMDB tells me this was a sympathy Oscar for him missing out for Sunset Boulevard, which Billy Wilder also co-wrote and directed. The opening voice over claims there haven't been (m)any POW movies before this one, but didn't the genre just explode. The Sergeant Schulz here (Sig Ruman) is a bit soft hearted and apparently soft headed, the other German soldiers often incompetent or too trusting, making it look like the template for Hogans Heroes. Otto Preminger plays the Commandant. It's mostly comedy/farce with a serious (tendentious) undercurrent: that it might be reprehensible but is certainly no sin to be a privateer/capitalist in wartime conditions; that a "stoolie" surely couldn't be a fellow American. I struggled to get into it.

Bosley Crowther dug it at the time. An adaptation of a stage play. IMDB suggests that Holden was as unimpressed as I was.

The Whale (2022)

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As I always say, I'm not a big fan of Aronofsky. Here he tries to do for (Oscar nom) Brendan Fraser what he did for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, so expect a small boom in Fraser pics followed by a long-tailed bust. In my defence Samantha Morton does star in a small role.

This is essentially a one-set theatre piece where an exaggeratedly obese and self-terminating online-English-lecturer/shut-in Fraser holds court for a rotating cast of family and friends. He's as good as the media have been saying, but the many and varied problems with the script and characters (so many busted exits, so much waffle, so much unearnt catharsis, the voyeurism) leaves an empty husk. (This is mystifying as the story is clearly quite important to writer Samuel D. Hunter.) Aronofsky always struck me as a reactionary (cf Requiem for a Dream and this penchant for reviving actors' careers), and here I could only discern the redemptive power of secular charity (saving the apocalyptic cult missionary via the power of social media), that gay love destroys the nuclear family, and the body shaming. It's as unrelenting a grind as most of Aronofsky's pictures are.

Morton does what she can in a thin role, as the flinty abandoned wife/mother; her brief scene is not going to get her an Oscar, unlike Beatrice Straight in Network. I found (Oscar nom) Hong Chau histrionically robotic; that worked better for her in The Menu. Daughter Sadie Sink has a few more years of hard-nosed bitch in her by the looks of things. Believer Ty Simpkins has all the open-faced charm and believability of a minor Marvel character.

Dana Stevens. A. O. Scott: ah yes, the clearly articulated moral of the story is "that people are incapable of not caring about one another." How could I forget. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Aronofsky recently. Roxane Gay on the politics (the fatphobia, the pointlessness, the flawed script).

Running on Empty (1988)

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More Sidney Lumet completism. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch play parents on the lam from the days when blowing up napalm factories for reasons of conscience (we wanted to bring an end to the Việt Nam war!) wasn't considered entirely beyond the pale. The main thread of the story focuses on River Phoenix, the older of their two boys, while the younger Jonas Abry seems more accident than spare. To an extent their lives felt familiar to me — moving on at short notice in that van, that pickup truck! — and perhaps because it's a classic 1980s sweet nuclear American family movie, a right of passage for many young blokes at the time (e.g. Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? etc.).

The plot as it were has Phoenix, at a difficult age, inevitably coming unstuck due to the unbearable weight of his massive (musical) talent, and, of course, a girl-woman who, being normatively-normal, just has to get into his pants. Politics is avoided as much as possible soas to avoid triggering those who are unsympathetic to direct action. (There's a subplot involving an ex boyfriend, a bank heist and summary justice to further placate that crowd and those pining for Dog Day Afternoon.) The main theme is generically universal: that kids escaping the nest is painful for all involved.

Hirsch got an Oscar nom for this portrayal of an old-school activist here, and more recently for playing an echo of it in The Fabelmans. He's sometimes quite funny, often effective, and just occasionally clunky. River Phoenix is opaque, a bit wooden, which is played up to be intentional but I had my doubts. Lahti just relaxes into it all.

Roger Ebert: four stars, one of the best films of the year. Janet Maslin wasn't as persuaded; she did not find Hirsch's character credible.

Q&A (1990)

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More Sidney Lumet completism. He co-wrote and directed this as a capstone to his NYC one-good-cop trilogy (alongside Prince of the City and Serpico). The "Q&A" of the title is apparently an interview by a prosecutor paired with dectectives — perhaps putting Australians in mind of the interview — but notably the subject can be the arresting officer.

Early on we're informed of who the bad and good guys are, and that no greys will be tolerated. The plot is often hard to follow, especially towards the end when things get apocalyptic. The romance side-story is feeble, unbelievable and unhelpful. It's wall-to-wall with racist invective (some creative but much of the yo-mumma genre, somewhat equal-opportunity) and the demimonde of gays and trans. It's not quite real and it's not quite a comic book — the lighting, acting etc. of the initial scene makes it feel like we're in for something confected — and so it's a bit unsettling.

The cast is vast and often good to excellent. Nick Nolte leads in his canonical full-on bent mode. Timothy Hutton is a baby-faced sorta semi-innocent Tom Hanks fresh DA. Armand Assante stole a few scenes (and previously the woman) before sliding into cliche. I'd like to think he did what he could. Luis Guzmán is mostly solid in a modulated performance, as is Charles S. Dutton (Cookie's Fortune). And so on.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars: he wanted to believe. Vincent Canby thought that NYC is somehow all of "urban America".

Prince of the City (1981)

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Sidney Lumet completism. It's a bit like a sophistication of his earlier Serpico — one breaking-good NYC cop against the rest — but more like Once Upon a Time in America in that the band of brothers comes undone at great length. I found it a bit airless, perhaps because Treat Williams is no Al Pacino or James Wood or Robert De Niro, and his histrionics are often a bit too much. Or perhaps it was the endless hand wringing of the lawyers (Lance Henriksen and many others) who take him for all he's got and more. The vast cast is well used and it is extremely well constructed, though there are a few bits here and there that I didn't get, such as why Jerry Orbach's Detective Gus Levy got set up in a garment sweatshop, and what options the unit had once the Feds got involved.

Roger Ebert: four stars, based on a book about a true story. Janet Maslin.

Network (1976)

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Second time around with this Sidney Lumet classic. A jag via Peter Finch (Oscared) from A Town Like Alice, and via Vincent Canby, The Running Man. Invariant at #219 in the IMDB top-250. I enjoyed Faye Dunaway (Oscared) a lot more this time around. William Holden represents something long gone now.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time (almost a doco!) and another four stars in 2000 as a "Great Movie" ("like prophecy"). Perhaps the arc of inconclusively losing control was (Oscared) writer Paddy Chayefsky's way of mirroring the times. Vincent Canby.

A Town Like Alice (1956)

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A black-and-white "based on a true" story about some English women-and-children in Japanese-occupied Malaya in World War II, adapted from the Nevil Shute novel of the same name. In essence it's a long walk, tedious and trying for all, including the audience, and unlike Rabbit Proof Fence (for instance) the cinematography is mostly stodgy and there's no cracker soundtrack. Wikipedia suggests the book is a bit Great Expectations.

The plot has lead English Rose Virginia McKenna meet Australian mechanic Peter Finch (later Oscared for Network) and fall into histrionics. I wasn't persuaded by her: she's no Julie Christie. The novel's narrative is (apparently) greatly truncated (where did her money come from? how did they get repatriated? what has the title got to do with anything? etc. etc.) with what remains going in obvious directions. There is some brief archive footage of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek late in the piece. Alongside this is the thoroughgoing and oblivious classism, racism and mostly one-sided storytelling (the Japanese have little interiority, only Maureen Swanson is subject to sexual exploitation, and only then with her consent, etc. etc.) of the imperial sunset.

A. H. Weiler at the New York Times. Ozmovies observes it's not much of an Oz movie. Later given the Bryan Brown treatment at length in 1981.

Dreaming of Joseph Lees (1999)

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More Samantha Morton completism. Here she is one corner of a 1950s love triangle in rural England. She's fine and does provide the odd moment of light. In contrast the blokes are blank slates (Rupert Graves as Joseph Lees), moppets (Lee Ross) and irascible cliches like her stodgy father (Frank Finlay). Holly Aird has the most fun as a mostly fancy-free sister/friend, with precocious sister/almost daughter Lauren Richardson close behind. It just sort of chugs along until it evaporates in artifice and inevitable female self sacrifice.

Janet Maslin: Morton as the new Sarah Miles! She wasn't convinced. Charles Taylor reckoned this was Morton's best vehicle hitherto. Madeleine North.