You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here is a mesmerising character study of a troubled man at the end of his tether, a new kind of action movie by Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsey, in which the story is told in impressionistic fragments and the audience has to make sense of them. It is both brutal and beautiful, with an extraordinary physical performance by Joaquin Phoenix, whose barely-contained suffering is matched by Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score.


Phoenix plays Joe, a grizzly bear-like enforcer, who seems to specialise in rescuing young women from the hellish New York underworld. He is hired by a State Senator to rescue his teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from a brothel specialising in underage girls. ‘I want you to hurt them,’ orders the Senator. There follows a trail of violence and anguish, as Joe struggles to do the right thing, and hold himself together.

Critics have noted the similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver (1976). Both contain unhinged war veteran anti-heroes who are on a mission to ‘wash the scum off the streets’ and both contain grainy shots of New York at night, as seen from a moving car. But Ramsey’s film is more meditative, has little dialogue, and only really gives us two shocking moments of violence. Unlike the lurid bloodbath at the end of Taxi Driver, most of the violence in her film happens off-screen or is glimpsed through the grey lens of a hotel’s CCTV system.


Any nastiness is made bearable by frequent zen-like pauses in which the camera lingers on buildings, rooms or inanimate objects. Ramsey, who started her career as a still photographer, brings an artistic sensibility to her first action movie, making it more interesting than its generic source material, Jonathan Ames’ pulp-fiction page-turner.

Joaquin Phoenix brings authenticity to the role, transforming himself into a grey-bearded beast in scuffed brown workboots, a man of few words, who suffers his own demons intensely, yet who is capable of tenderness and redemption. He is kind to girls, cats and his mum, helping her clean her bathroom and fridge (‘this cream cheese is from 1972’). But Joe is tormented by flashbacks to war horrors and the childhood abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of his father.


This psychic disturbance is soundtracked by Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, often sounding like a primary school music lesson – painful violin-slashing and out-of-time, out-of-tune guitar noodling, which nevertheless sounds great when a pulsing drum machine or synth line is added. Greenwood is a gifted musical ‘commentator’, adding aural drama to the visuals. This talent was clear from early Radiohead hit, Creep, in which guitarist Greenwood added a ‘nervous tic’ noise just before the confessional chorus. He made a good song great and he repeats the trick here.


Ramsey has described You Were Never Really Here as a character study of mid-life crisis, of a man who is ‘a bit like a ghost in his own life.’ She also sees it as a film ‘about now – about nothing being black and white anymore’. With its theme of trauma begetting more trauma, it has echoes of the recent award-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There is also an underwater scene that brings to mind Oscar-winner The Shape of Water.

Perhaps Ramsey, Phoenix and Greenwood will also be celebrating when the awards season comes around again next year.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is a widescreen treat, a satisfyingly rich and moving fairy tale fantasy that also works as spy thriller, love story or romantic comedy. Guillermo del Toro’s tale of a fish-man creature and the mute cleaner who befriends it features wonderful acting, terrific dialogue and a gorgeous design.

The film is set in 1962 Baltimore, but real world troubles do not often impinge. We glimpse footage from the Vietnam War and race riots on television sets, but the characters switch channels to old musicals. Both Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her best friend neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) live in apartments above a cinema and both are old-fashioned romantics. When Elisa is first shown leaving home, a building is on fire at the end of her block, but she doesn’t even seem to notice.


The Shape of Water is framed by an unknown narrator who tells us what to expect: ‘a tale of love and loss’ about a ‘princess without a voice’ and the ‘monster who tried to destroy it all.’ It has echoes of Beauty and the Beast or Free Willy, with the quirky charm of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film and a menacing baddie straight from Coen Brothers Scary Monsters casting.

Elisa works as a cleaner at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre, where she uses sign language (we get subtitles) to communicate with her chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When the facility takes delivery of a strange fish-man creature, caught in the Amazon, the white-coated scientists and their military bosses talk about using it to get ahead of the Soviets in the Space Race. Sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) wants to dissect it and a Russian spy is under orders to kill it (‘we want the Americans not to learn’).


Elisa, though, is strangely drawn to the fish-man. She engineers time alone with it and gradually falls in love. The feeling seems to be mutual. As dark forces conspire against the creature, Elisa must somehow rescue it, with the help of her friends. Her impassioned signing to Giles gets to the heart of what the film is about – the way we treat ‘otherness’. When he objects that ‘this thing isn’t even human’, Elisa signs in reply ‘and if we do nothing, neither are we.’

As ever, Sally Hawkins is excellent as Elisa, using her soulful eyes and expressive face to convey defiance and love. Here, she adds unselfconscious nude scenes to her repertoire, and does a nice line in synchronised seated tap dancing. She is fast becoming a national treasure.

Superb support is provided by craggy veteran Jenkins, who adds witty, wistful gravitas and wisecracking Spencer, who gets the best one-liners, usually belittling her husband (sample: ‘it takes a lot of lies to keep a marriage going’). Michael Shannon (Mud, Midnight Special) makes the most of his ‘monster’ role, by turns chilling and ridiculous. After inflicting a nasty bit of torture he is fond of reading ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.


The Shape of Water is ravishing to look at, with teal green its dominant colour – cadillacs, chairs, lockers, baths and fish-man tanks are all a slightly queasy aquatic green, as if writer-director del Toro is saturating us. There is a lovely scene in which a post-coital Elisa watches the rain through a bus window, seeing two raindrops chase each other, before they join together as one.

Early Man

Early Man will delight fans of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep with its daft imagining of how cavemen invented football. As usual, Nick Park and his animation team ensure that the jokes and slapstick come thick and fast, wrapped up in Aardman’s trademark northern English warmth and DIY visual flair. Football fans, old and young, will best appreciate the many references to ‘the beautiful game’ in Early Man, but its plot and characters sometimes feel a bit tired and predictable.


The film opens in the Neo-Pleistocine Age (of course!). Near Manchester. Around lunchtime. Dinosaurs and cavemen are fighting amongst themselves when a meteorite lands on Earth. This cataclysmic event does away with the dinosaurs, but it also creates a molten football. When the cavemen discover it lying at the centre of a massive crater, they kick it around because it’s too hot to hold on to. Thus, a sport is born, inspiring Stonehenge goalposts and cave paintings.

‘A few ages later’, we meet Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of gormless rabbit-hunters, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), Treebor (Richard Ayoade) and Asbo (Johnny Vegas). Not forgetting Dug’s sidekick, Hobnob (Nick Park), a smarter-than-the-humans hog. They use new-fangled clothes pegs (mini crocodiles) and shavers (stag beetles), but football seems to be lost in the mists of time. ‘Our ancestors hunted little round beasts,’ the chief tells them. ‘I suppose they didn’t know how to draw rabbits back then.’


When Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston + dodgy French accent) and his Bronze Age army invade their idyllic valley, the ‘age of stone is over’ and the tribe are banished to the Badlands. The only way they can return home is by beating Nooth’s football team, Real Bronzio, in their huge arena. Dug enlists the help of the talented Goona (Maisie Williams), and they try to explain the rules to the rest: ‘if you kick the ball in the goal other men hug and kiss you’. But how can this ‘plucky band of knuckle-grazers’ beat the likes of blond bombshell Jurgen and Gonad the Gaul?

The play-off is great fun, featuring an inspired Instant Replay puppet show, with stick players recreating the action within a Punch and Judy booth. Elsewhere, there is a hilarious massage scene featuring a multi-tasking Hobnob, and the giant man-eating mallard is genius.

But overall Early Man is not vintage Aardman. It lacks the spark and drama of their last film, Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), which married retro and new, the country and the city, to giddy effect. Perhaps the problem lies with the subject matter. There seems to be a curse on most films set in the era of cavemen/dinosaurs (think The Flintstones movie or Disney’s tedious Dinosaur), and the same goes for football films (Escape to Victory, anyone?), with their predictable ‘triumph of the underdog’ storylines.

It is puzzling how Early Man earned a Parental Guidance (PG) certificate. It has one occurrence of the word ‘crap’ and some mooning bottoms painted on cave walls, but surely all Nick Park’s films deserve to be Universal (U)? There is a modern trend on the part of the Film Board of Censors to mark down violent films from 18 to 15 Certificate. To mark up children’s films from U to PG just seems plain daft.



Bursting with the colour, warmth and passion of Mexico, Coco is gorgeous to look at – a fiesta for the eyes. Pixar’s latest animated triumph has a richness of detail in characterisation and backgrounds to rival classic Studio Ghibli and Disney. It is a film for everyone, but this story about family and the power of music will perhaps be most appreciated by adults.


If you cried during the first five minutes of Up, prepare to be moved by Coco. The rest of the time you’ll be wonderstruck, as the screen is filled with astonishing animated images. Coco shares the same feeling of sunny delight as Pixar’s first film, Toy Story (1995), but advances in technology and ingenuity mean that its humans are now rendered in believably organic form. Great-grandmother Coco’s wrinkled face and veiny hands are works of art in themselves.


On a larger scale, the heavenly splendour of the Land of the Dead is almost too much – towers of multi-coloured buildings and tracks which seem to stretch to infinity and beyond, a million twinkling lights and the occasional flying tram. The tram station itself is also magnificent. This is the work of magicians using a master painter’s palette.


Featuring the voices of an all-Latino cast for the first time in a big-budget American film, Coco celebrates Mexican folklore and culture on the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos), ‘the one night of the year when our ancestors can visit us’. 12 year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) and his extended family join many others in paying their respects at the local cemetery.


Much of the film’s comedy is provided by Miguel’s clumsy canine companion, Dante, a gloriously daft hairless Mexican mutt (Xoloitzcuintli), who ‘looks like a sausage someone dropped in a barber shop’. But like his master, Dante has hidden talents.

Since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather disappeared one day with his guitar, music has been banned from the house because ‘it tore the family apart’. But Miguel dreams of playing his guitar like Ernesto de la Cruz, a pop star from the past. He has a tree house hideaway where he plays along to videos and the animators make sure that his fingers form the right chord shapes and pick the correct strings to the song on the soundtrack.


When he discovers Ernesto’s famous white guitar in a family photo, Miguel concludes that he is Ernesto’s descendent and is more determined than ever to enter a talent show for the Day of the Dead. But when he takes the pop star’s guitar from the wall of a mausoleum and plays a chord Miguel becomes invisible to everyone except his dog and his skeletal dead relatives.

Coco follows Miguel’s quest in the Land of the Dead, where he must break the curse by receiving his ancestors’ blessing. In this magical place he uncovers a shocking family secret, as the film builds towards a dazzling action finale.


In the process, Pixar break a couple of Disney’s normal rules: girls in the audience might wonder why there are no young female characters in the story; its’ filmmakers also subvert the familiar Disney theme of chasing your dream. Here, family responsibility is shown to come first, and ‘seizing the day’ will just have to wait.

The film’s title is an odd one, too, considering that Miguel’s relative Coco hardly features in it. Perhaps it was meant as a message to the audience: cherish the older members of your family and keep their memory alive.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy this black comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), which shares their taste for cacklingly funny dialogue and memorable violence, as well as regular leading lady Frances McDormand and composer Carter Burwell. But this tale of grief-stricken anger begetting anger keeps a lid on the Coens’ more cinematic excesses, becoming instead a moving human drama played out by an impressive supporting cast.

As the cops, Woody Harrelson extends his glowing indie CV and Sam Rothwell shows his range, going from dumb to dignified in the course of the film. Caleb Landry Jones proves his onscreen charisma once again after playing the brother in Get Out. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) is a delight as Mildred’s unlikely dinner date and Clarke Peters (The Wire) lends his customary gravitas.


But it is Frances McDormand’s powerhouse performance that dominates Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and her role was written specifically with McDormand in mind. She certainly makes the most of it. Bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, wearing an old boiler suit, bandanna and pursed lips, is as tough as old bovver boots. Rude, sweary and whiplash smart, Mildred is on a no-nonsense one-woman mission to find justice for her murdered daughter.

Seven months after teenager Angela’s horrific murder the police force of smalltown Ebbing have drawn a blank. To shame them into action Mildred rents out the three billboards of the film’s title, pasting the following messages in quick succession: RAPED WHILE DYING; AND STILL NO ARRESTS?; HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?


Mildred’s action shakes things up, but it also aggravates the townsfolk and makes life more difficult for her long-suffering son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea). Chief Willoughby himself (Harrelson) has more urgent personal problems to contend with than the ‘war’ sparked by Mildred, and his own decisive actions will have far-reaching consequences.

When we first meet Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) he seems to be the opposite of his Chief: a none-too-bright drunken and racist hillbilly. But even he is dragged into the 21st century and forced to change his ways. ‘So how’s it going in the nigger-torturing business?’ asks Mildred when she is hauled down to the police station. ‘Actually, it’s persons of colour torturing now’, replies Dixon.

McDonagh has blackly comic fun with the film’s message, which a minor character has read on a bookmark: ‘anger begets greater anger’. But he also shows us that there is hope beyond the violence, that love can move in mysterious ways and shine a light on even the most hopeless cases. Dixon’s transformation from dimwit to detective is the most extreme example of this and could be criticised as unconvincing, but his redemption is welcomed by the audience.

Mildred herself is told that she ‘never smiles or has a good word to say about anybody’, but McDormand show us a softer side under her cockroach carapace. She might have based her character on Western hard man John Wayne, but Mildred is kind to animals. She gently puts right an overturned beetle and reserves her tenderness for a chance encounter with a deer. In McDonagh’s hands, though, even the cute animal stuff is barbed: ‘I got some Doritos’, offers Mildred, ‘but they might kill you ’cause they’re kinda pointy’.



The Man Who Invented Christmas

This entertaining account of how Charles Dickens brought A Christmas Carol to life is as warming as a glass of mulled wine. A top-notch British cast make the familiar festive story go with a swing and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) plays ‘the Shakespeare of the novel’ with energetic charm.


It’s a surprise to see Dickens portrayed as a dashing young man with matinee idol blue eyes, but in real life he didn’t always look like a stern Airedale terrier.  An early portrait shows a foppish dandy sporting a raffish cravat, and this is the look that Stevens goes for.  As the film starts, the author is caught up in the noisy adulation of his sensational 1842 American reading tour, and we are reminded that Dickens was the first literary rock star.

Back in London a year later, the comedown is sobering. Dickens has writer’s block. After three flops in a row his publishers need another bestseller. But he is haunted by ghosts of Christmas past: his father being arrested and carted off to debtor’s prison; the horrors of working at the age of 12 in Warrens Blacking factory. ‘Debt is an ogre,’ he tells his wife Kate, ‘if you’re not careful, it will eat you up.’ With a fifth child on the way (‘not another little stranger!’), the pressure is on.

Director Bharat Nalluri shows Dickens wrestling with his own dark side as he accumulates the material that will become A Christmas Carol. The author’s prodigious energy is what has made him great, but it also makes him difficult to live with.  ‘Slow down, Charles,’ his sensible best friend John Forster (the excellent Justin Edwards) tells him, ‘you move at railway speed.’

What makes The Man Who Invented Christmas worth watching are the nicely-judged performances from old-timers such as Christopher Plummer (Scrooge), Jonathan Pryce (Dickens’ dad) and Donald Sumpter (Jacob Marley), as well as relative newcomers Stevens and Edwards. In the fictional world of Dickens’ grotesques and larger-than-life characters, they are remarkably understated. As Mrs. Fisk, the usually reliably Dickensian Miriam Margolyes is strangely muted.


This ‘film within a film’ requires a delicate balancing act and, to his credit, Nalluri swerves both the excesses of heritage or realist adaptations. The screenplay is adapted from the 2007 book by Les Standiford, a specialist in historical narrative non-fiction.  The Man Who Invented Christmas sometimes feels a bit small screen but the film is admirably old-fashioned in its charm and, except for one London vista, avoids CGI altogether, which means that we concentrate on the human drama. When visual delights come our way, they are those produced by magic lantern, Punch and Judy show, or Pollock’s Theatre.

Did Dickens really invent Christmas? Before the publication of A Christmas Carol Christmas as we know it today was a ‘minor holiday’, one which his publishers doubted many people celebrated anymore, forcing Dickens to self-publish his classic story. There certainly wasn’t a market for Christmas books before 1843, and the film shows the Dickens household taking delivery of their first Tannenbaum tree, as made fashionable by Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert.

Perhaps the greatest impact A Christmas Carol had was on donations to charity, which soared after it was published. ‘In the season of hope,’ wrote its author, ‘we will shut out nothing from our firesides, and everyone will be welcome.’

Volunteering at Wandlebury Country Park

Last week a group of us from ProQuest used one of our Volunteer Days to help the rangers with conservation tasks at nearby Wandlebury Country Park. We have been coming here for a few years now and it is always a welcome change from the workaday grind of computer screens and meeting rooms. Fresh air and exercise! Getting back to nature! Getting bitten by annoying gnats …


This time we joined members of the public in removing unwanted ash and sycamore trees. Some of these showed signs of the dreaded ash dieback disease (blackened buds); others had been planted too close to one another, blocking the light and preventing more biodiversity at ground level.

We also did a bit of coppicing of hazel and lime trees. According to the noticeboard, “Coppicing is a type of woodland management practised in Britain for centuries, and is a sustainable way of harvesting wood without harming the tree. By cutting close to the base of the tree, leaving ‘stools’, it will encourage regeneration and sprout a number of fast-growing shoots.”


The increased light created by coppicing aids the growth of new flora, which attracts insects and birds. To illustrate this, ranger Andy asked us to listen. Silence. No birdsong or birdcalls. He explained that this habitat offered no cover for smaller birds, who were easy prey for the native sparrowhawks. The only bird sounds we heard all day were the high-pitched ‘sss, sss, sss’ of a flock of long-tailed tits.

And the only wildlife we saw were clouds of gnats, brought out by the mild November weather. Getting bitten on the eyelid got Andy onto the subject of insect bites. Horsefly bites were bad, he conceded, but the worst were the burrowing and parasitic bot files that made cows buck with pain.


Visits to Wandlebury are always educational when the rangers are on hand. We were shown a ‘bonsai’ beech tree that was 80 years old. We learned that female sparrowhawks are bolder than their male counterparts, that thrushes mimic other birdcalls and car alarms, and that tractors are computerised nowadays. Ranger Ed said the old days were more fun, when you tied rope around the steering wheel and jumped off and on again.


[Photos by Heather Daniels and Nick Walker]