Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Moments in UK history: Tommy’s Honour & Their Finest

Oddly enough, I think Boston-area folks would have to go out to West Newton to see these as a double feature; though both slipped into theaters last weekend, they went to separate spots and bypassed Kendall Square, which is the first place you’d expect to find them. A pair of sedate, generally-cheerful British period pieces makes for a reasonable bit of counter-programming for The Fate of the Furious, but I don’t know how many people would even know about them; I don’t recall seeing any posters or trailers. I suppose Tommy’s Honour should consider itself lucky to be playing theaters at all; I can’t remember the last time I saw the Roadside Attractions logo before a movie without being followed by one for Amazon Studios.

Fortunately, it looks as if Their Finest is getting another week at the Coolidge, though likely in one of the smaller rooms, while I wouldn’t bet on Tommy’s Honour sticking around. I don’t know if it will wind up on any sort of favorites list were I the type to make those lists at the end of the year, but I’m kind of surprised it’s not getting a bigger push - STX/EuropaCorp have given bigger pushes to much less impressive pictures, and I’ve got to think you could cut a pretty good trailer for it. Heck, just the poster with a clapper reading “Dunkirk Movie” seems like something you could play with a bit more this year.

Tommy’s Honour

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Normally, the movies that make me wish I’d brought someone else with me for a different perspective are aimed at kids, but things like Tommy’s Honour have a similar effect. It’s an amiable enough sporting biography, sure enough, but what the filmmakers tackle is specific enough that, while it won’t leave us non-golfers confused or out of the loop, it may perhaps have more interest to my golfing friends than it does to me, and if they’d find its details more intriguing.

While golf has been played in Scotland for centuries, it in many ways attained its modern form and had its popularity explode in the 1860s, when Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) was the groundskeeper and chief caddy at Saint Andrew, a maker of clubs and balls, and until recently one of the best players in both the Open (the world’s first) and matches organized on behalf of the club’s patrons. His son and namesake Tommy (Jack Lowden), on the other hand, is a prodigy, as good as his father ever was at the age of 15. The son is also canny enough to see that the wealthy gentlemen at the club are exploiting them, and willing to press that point. His rebellious nature also ruffles feathers at home, as Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond), the serving-girl he falls for, is six years his senior and considered scandalous for other reasons.

How tightly the actual action of playing a sport is integrated into a film like this is always a judgment call for the makers, especially when, as is the case here, there’s a not-inconsequential gap between the modern game and the way it would be played by these characters. Here, it's certainly fun to watch the game scenes from a time when golf was not quite refined into its current form; there’s a roughness to the grounds, equipment, and tactics that don’t match today’s fields where the grass is a perfect sea of green with every blade the exact same height. The differences from the modern game make it a bit harder to recognize young Tommy Morris's brilliance, perhaps, but the improvised game played, and the sometimes even rowdy crowds, can be a real kick to watch. It doesn’t hurt that director Jason Connery and writers Kevin Cook (who also wrote the book the film was based upon) & Pamela Martin are mostly casual with how they depict how the Morrises evolve the game, and the moments that do feel like origin detours at least have amusing stories to go with them.

Full review on EFC.

Their Finest

* * * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2017 in Coolidge Corner Cinema #1 (first-run, DCP)

What a surprisingly delightful film. Their Finest is, to start with, about what you'd expect, a likable tale of Brits Doing Their Bit during WWII, cheekily aiming for the same sort of impossible mix of optimism and realism that the characters within are aiming for in order to keep spirits up. That would be quite enough, because it really is quite good on that count, but it’s got a level of self-awareness and ability to quietly be the sort of thing it venerates that makes it resonate all the more.

As the story starts, it’s 1940 and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is about to have a job interview. She thinks it’s for another secretarial position, but it turns out that someone at the Ministry of Information saw a comic strip for which she had stepped in to do the dialog because so many of the male copywriters were called up to serve; they want her to help punch of the women’s lines in widely-mocked propaganda shorts. This leads to work on a feature, which she’ll help Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) write, though the true story of heroism it’s based upon may be exaggerated. Making a movie isn’t easy in the best of times, of course, and with a war on, there are contradictory demands coming in even without considering reluctant co-star Ambrose HIlliard (Bill Nighy) or Cartin’s husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled artist and air-raid warden who feels threatened by her earning the rent money.

The films of the late 1930s and early 1940s had some rough edges, certainly, and can be an acquired taste three generations later, but there’s an earnestness to them that merits notice, and Their Finest is a loving tribute to British films of the period in all their methodical, mannered glory. Director Lone Scherfig and her cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov shoot the film in modern, realistic style, with widescreen compositions and charcoal grays that reflect Ellis’s paintings, but when we finally get to see the film-within-a-film (and even as Catrin imagines what it will be like), it recreates the films of the period perfectly: Square, with somewhat primitive effects work, fairly stationary camerawork, and jolting patches of color. The thing is, it’s done without the twee superiority of a Wes Anderson or any grinning irony, earning the live audiences show, even though (and in some ways because) they’ve been allowed behind the curtain.

Full review on EFC.

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