In the last three weeks I have visited our local cinema (Empire, Walthamstow) to see three very different films (it’s those half price Tuesdays that are so attractive!). I wanted to reflect here on these three major films.
Hacksaw Ridge I saw alone one afternoon as I knew I wouldn’t be able to persuade my wife to go with me. Mel Gibson has very efficiently constructed a story that effectively elicits a succession of emotional responses: to the PTSD still being suffered in 1944 by a World War One veteran; to the military’s physical and mental abuse of the conscientious objector volunteer; to his selfless courage; to the subsequent repentance for their actions by fellow servicemen and officers. The narrative in this respect follows a very conventional arc- the hero’s background and makeup, his challenges, his struggle to overcome unjust obstacles, his threatened love affair; the vindication of his principles- but it does all of this briskly and well. A good half of the film is the battle for Okinawa and this was perhaps the most impressive and surprising part: Mel Gibson- wittingly or not- has made a powerful anti-war statement. The sheer noise, violence and confusion is intensely realistic and overwhelming; the horror and fear are palpable. The Japanese troops, by and large, are reduced to a banzai-yelling ‘asiatic horde’ which, in its depersonalisation, detracts somewhat, but most war films will take one side and exclude sympathy for the other. Comparison might be made with the recent Fury. This was an entertaining story of tank combat, but by its nature it isolated the Sherman crew from everyone else- not just the German troops but most of their comrades too- and the violence had greater CGI spectacle without the sense of terror and destruction that Hacksaw Ridge so successfully invokes. This film is a strong statement on the mental as well as physical damage that war may inflict.
I approached Trainspotting 2 with a good deal of trepidation. I had admired the original Trainspotting, but its moments of humour were tempered by its unflinching representation of the degradation and destructiveness of heroin addiction. It’s hard to forget the toilet (and duvet) full of shit or the dead baby crawling across the ceiling. It was brilliant- but bleak. Although the professional critics have rated the new film less highly than the first, I actually preferred it. It was funnier, a lot funnier; it was visually and aurally exciting; it was more inventive and it was more hopeful. Trainspotting 2 has a lot of really splendid moments and scenarios, but I particularly enjoyed the song in the Unionist pub: ‘No more Catholics left.’ I didn’t expect to leave the cinema smiling and singing (Lust for life, actually) but I was very agreeably surprised. I have the video (yes, video) of Trainspotting and in truth I’ve watched it maybe two or three times in the last two decades. I can imagine re-watching and continually enjoying the DVD of Trainspotting 2 for many years to come. Go and see it!
Then there was La La Land, as complete a contrast as it may be possible to find. This is an excellent film- uplifting, entertaining, visually gorgeous. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone give great believability to the story by the simple fact that neither of them are professional singers or dancers- they are competent at both- and the story is better for that lack of polish; it is real people expressing their feelings through words and music. This sense of a complex, painful reality is reinforced by the ending: it is not completely ‘happily ever after’ (unlike the hero at long last justified, recognised and respected in Hacksaw Ridge) and there is a glimpse of the ‘might have been’ which, courageously, the film does not give us. The conclusion is more nuanced, more authentic and, for me, it is another strength of the story. Some of the songs are great; the opening dance routine is stunning- and I even started to tolerate the jazz! Highly recommended.
I’d recommend all these films as good entertainment and good stories. They all, I think, have a common narrative trajectory that is a key element in a satisfying story: there is in each an account of human spirit and creativity overcoming challenges. Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge is despised and condemned for his beliefs, but proves their worth in the face of blows, bombs and bullets; Spud in Trainspotting renounces heroin and discovers his artistic potential and is on the verge of becoming a writer by the close of the film; in La La Land the two lovers pursue their dreams, surmount obstacles and achieve their goals. This is why, in their different ways, these three films all have something to say to us.