Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Written by Anton Chekov

Directed by Ian Rickson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everything’s the same, but worse” – Uncle Vanya’s opening sentiments reflect a great many thoughts across the nation, as the ennui of our provincial lives shrink in perception as the world shutters itself inward. Ever since its debut in Moscow in 1899, Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya emerged as a staple of the theatrical and literary culture for its frankness in life’s pragmatic outlooks and pangs of romance. Now Ian Rickson returns to an empty Harold Pinter Theatre to create a film version of his production of Uncle Vanya, which opened at the beginning of the year, for the BBC.

Sensationally sentimental, Rickson’s direction and interpretation of the Russian classic takes an intoxicatingly personal approach to the volatile nature bureaucracy has on the lives of workers. The rub being, it’s too safe: too soppy in moments and he doesn’t sharpen the knife enough to hurt where it needs to. The lament of wasted time bites for some and every character in one way or another, lose something, be it a home or a loved one or their grip on the fleeting happiness they had.

The broken heart at the centre of this is, of course, Vanya and Toby Jones brings decisive delivery, once more demonstrating how utterly undervalued Jones is as a performer. His Vanya is not only a bag of histrionic nerves but has an earthy jovial charm which feels authentically rustic. This is a Vanya who carries the estate on his shoulders, and Jones emphasises the weight, but conveys the attitude and quips Vanya makes to ease some of the burdens effortlessly.

Jones has tremendous co-stars to work with, developing Vanya’s futility of life into a painful reminder that his wasted time is now steadily tightening around his neck – particularly his adoration for Yelena, which clashes with the uncomfortable force of Richard Armitage’s advances as Doctor Astrov. A lynchpin for the men surrounding her, Yelena becomes a catalyst of sorts, though understated, leaning into the humanity and stresses. Rosalind Eleazar centres herself of between the opposing forces.

Pandering, sycophantic and blind sighted, Roger Allam’s Serebryakov surrounds himself with the head-bobbers who would likely feel quite at home in the current Government cabinet. From the stoic, but the revolting upturned nose of Dearbhla Molloy to the simpering, but tragically poetic and engaging Aimee Lou Wood – Uncle Vanya, through these performances, unequivocally demonstrates the unparalleled ferocity in live performance.

Blending into the digital format, the decaying opulence of Rae Smith’s set and Bruno Poet’s lighting design proffers a creative mindset to fuse theatre and screen, though steadily as the production moves forward some shots come straight out of Albert SquareWalford with intense close-ups which oversaturate the melodrama (which in a Chekov play is remarkable). Taken for granted by the camera (the film director is Ross MacGibbon) is the lavishness of the settings, the tainted light capturing the mundaneness of the lives of the residents.

The parallels of the mindless elite sweeping the livelihoods of those around them for a small profit is the lowest of low hanging fruits these days, but Uncle Vanya takes a decidedly less obvious approach in the actions of the few to undermine the many. Instead, there’s a direction which works its way more into the underrunning narrative promoting conservation. Sickly sentimental, Rickson’s production is nonetheless a testament of the stage, and a more than welcome addition to homes across the country.

In selected cinemas from 26 October 2020

Review published for The Reviews Hub

Saint Maud – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed & Written by Rose Glass

UK / 2019 / 84mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a sold-out event for Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, horror seems to be the genre encouraging people back into the world of cinema. Rose Glass’ psychological thriller (a debut piece nonetheless) Saint Maud plummets the audience into the morose and obsessive mindscape of a young, seemingly good-natured nurse as she comes to care for a dying patient. With a redemptive mindset, Maud seeks not only to ease the woman’s suffering body but to care for her ailing spirit.

Full of ritualised obsession, Morfydd Clark’s performance of Maud is unsettling, yet it conjures grounded insecurities, and dare we say, even recognition. Embodying the horror staple of a lurking darkness beneath the unexpected or even mundane, Glass frames Maud as a doormat, complacent and bland.

There’s a rarity with Clark’s performance in so far as how remarkably unhabitual she dimensions herself as Maud. It’s a display of integration, rather than performance, carrying a desperate struggle as an otherwise kind young woman, grappling with severe mental issues. They say that Hell is paved with good intentions – well, Clark makes it so that the audience falls in line behind her choices at first.

Lampooning her career, life and religious intentions, much of the cast find Maud an oddity, but harmless. Perhaps most gravely, so too does her patient Amanda, a once sensational dancer succumbing to the end of her days. Jennifer Ehle’s booze-hounding party girl is a woman ensuring her final hours won’t be spent on medication and stagnation, but filled with frivolity, time with her female partner (Lily Frazer) and the luxury of sin.

And as much as Amanda toys with Maud’s lifestyle choices, the pair form a genuine sense of connection between them, as much as the spider has with its fly. Saint Maud demonstrates its deep-seated physicality and erotic ties with religious obsession and the intimacy of palliative care and nursing. The levels of complexity and warped beauty in Glass’ filmmaking demonstrate an unequivocal understanding of the brilliance in psychological horror.

A masterclass in horror cinema, Ben Fordesman’s framing of the film is uncomfortable and intense. He seems determined to cause distress in the audience, pushing them into unfamiliar situations and angles. While you may suspect this aids in grounding Maud’s reality from her psychosis, the cinematography deftly blurs the line even more.

This blurring of reality is where grazing slip-ups happen, where the psychological nature of the film worries filmmakers that the audience will knot themselves in deciphering. A tiny let-down is that a vast portion of Saint Maud concerns Maud’s past, never divulging the truth and wishing the audience to put together a jigsaw which is sadistically missing a few components. Occasionally, the imagery stretches beyond the scope of the film, as the delusions Maud suffers eke themselves from the realms of believability and into a more schlocky horror aspect in reinforcing how unhinged from reality her obsessions are.

This said, the meticulously well-crafted palette lends itself so intensely into shadow manipulation that when the scenes set up tension, they delivers in subtle ways. It isn’t solely the eyes which are forced into uneasiness; Saint Maud’s soundtrack is a composition of hellscapes, written by angels. A slice of the film blends an end-of-days party album with distortions of divine opulence, scratching disc-jockeys and warped air-raid sirens. Disconcerting, Glass does all they can to leave the audience writhing as they watch the movie unfold.

A reformation of contemporary horror, Saint Maud is the unlikely saviour of the genre in testing times. Glass’ unwillingness to sully the film with cheap novelty, instead ingraining its twisting gnarled roots in a religious sub-text, make for a visually exquisite embrace of eroticised religion and a near-ideal eighty-minute horror classic. 

Screening at the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 9 Oct 2020

Review published for The Wee Review

I Am Samuel – BFI London Film Festival

Written by Ricardo Acosta & Peter Murimi

Directed by Peter Murimi

Rating: 3 out of 5.

While identifying as gay isn’t strictly illegal in Kenya, the act of engaging in a relationship with someone of the same gender or sex is. An openly honest account of a young gay man’s struggles with receiving the equality he deserves, I Am Samuel documents five years of Samuel’s life as he moves to steadily introduce his parents, his friends and hopefully, one day, his country into accepting who he is.

I Am Samuel’s unobtrusive verité-style maintains authenticity in how it delivers the truth across the film, refusing to pander to ideas of a manipulated narrative for dramatic effect. As director Peter Murimi gradually introduces the audience to Samuel, his partner Alex, and their subsequent friends and family, time is given to develop them as people, rather than encouraging snap judgements. This verité comes at a cost though, as the film’s flow stifles, and any seeking a form of closure will be pressed to find one given Kenya’s continued attitudes towards the love between two members of the same gender.

The longevity to create pays off for Murimi’s debut piece, filming over five years allows for a definitive picture and flow of narration. The established relationship guarantees an openness from Samuel, concerning his relationship with Alex, as a level of trust is paramount given the nature of their relationship in a country violently opposed to love in a form which some are regrettably still unfamiliar with.

Depictions of violence only make up a minuscule, but impactful, anchor point for the film. Those who mindlessly preach on how things are different or that homophobia isn’t as prevalent need only watch the film’s opening moments. Censored, but still visceral, a young man is between and assaulted as the perpetrators hurl abuse and, breath-snatchingly declare to ‘teach him a lesson’, instructing one another to get a knife.

I Am Samuel doesn’t garb itself in shocking imagery, though one distressing scene shows the scars a man bares after being mistaken for Samuel. The dedication to their visibility is extraordinarily respected by Murimi, who strives to allow everyone the chance to tell their story and experiences – obviously, chiefly that of Samuel and his partner Alex. Nothing is treated as inconsequential, as it all goes to building the image of who Samuel is as a person and his ambitions, despite the conformation and expectations men in his culture face.

A level of established trust is evident as the camera works its way into Samuel’s parent’s homes to unfold their thoughts on the revelations of their son’s ‘friend’ Alex. Redon and Rebecca consistently harp on at their son to find a wife to both help with the family farm work, and to continue a legacy. His father Redon, a pastor, in particular raises eyebrows to this ‘friendship’ with Alex, discussing with the camera his concerns, as equally does his mother but for wholly individual reasons and worries for his safety.

Clean, capitalising on the beauty of the region, the film’s visual direction of light and aerial shots capture the stage for Samuel’s story. Backdrops are never parts of the narrative, outside of location changes to and from his parents or grandmothers residence. What aesthetical shots used enrapture, but stick within the verité guidelines to reinforce the film’s authenticity, rather than bathe in spectacle.

Leaning into the rights of humanity to be recognised through the players in this film, as opposed to a direct political allegiance, Murimi succeeds in building I Am Samuel’s legitimacy as a short documentary feature which manages to divulge five years of a young gay man’s life into seventy minutes. Will the film essentially change the fundamental rights to care and love across Kenya? Not likely, but in putting across Samuel’s story – Murimi’s documentary protects the autonomy and determination a young man has to love, hopefully improving his future.