MIFF 2012: Reviews of Shadow Dancer, The Ambassador and The Sapphires

Welcome to day seven of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day ThreeDay Four / Day Five / Day Six. Enjoy.

 

Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer

This IRA thriller from director James Marsh (Project Nim) is a slow burning and engrossing film that demonstrates the morally caustic nature of terrorism.

After her plot to plant a bomb on a London subway goes awry, Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is given a simple choice: become a spy for MI5 or spend the rest of her life in prison. Under the surveillance of a headstrong agent (Clive Owen), Colette heads back to Belfast and tries to suppress her traitorous guilt. Colette needs to find out what the next move of her IRA brothers is before the deal expires.

Shadow Dancer is a carefully controlled film. Languidly paced (though never boring), this film is in no rush to play its hand. As Colette interacts with her family and co-conspirators (which are often one and the same) we learn about the structure of this militant faction. Trust is key within their ranks and paranoia is rife. We quickly learn the stakes of Colette’s treasonous actions and the suspense is palpable – the brothers are far more dangerous than MI5.

This is a breakout film for Andrea Riseborough. Forged by indoctrination and tragedy, Colette is not the most accessible character, but Riseborough manages to show glimpses of humanity underneath a cold veneer and she effortless conveys the fear of someone forced into duality. Clive Owen is mostly relegated to bureaucratic activities in Shadow Dancer but he brings a fiery conviction to his role that elevates his desk-bound scenes from becoming banal.

Colette’s IRA compatriots are always (purposefully) kept on the periphery. It keeps us on our toes as we don’t know the characteristics (or more importantly, the capabilities) of these men. They are inhabited by great actors like Aiden Gillen (The Wire) and David Wilmot (The Guard) who are extremely effective despite having limited screentime.

Director James Marsh directs this film in a deliberate way. Large sections are mostly wordless and he has faith that the expressiveness of his actors will carry the film, and it works. Marketed as thriller, this is more of an engrossing character piece punctuated with a few jolts of violence. It may be too subdued for some viewers, but this is a film that rewards your patience.

Four Stars

 

***

The Ambassador

The Ambassador

This documentary by Danish journalist Mads Brüger is jaw dropping in its intent and result. Brüger sets out to expose corruption in The Central African Republic (CAR). He decides his best course of action is to pose as an African diplomat, using bribery and misinformation to achieve his goals. His ultimate aspiration? To get his hands on a suitcase full of blood diamonds.

Brüger is a ballsy man. This film is being marketed as a Baron Cohen-esque piece of satire, but the end product isn’t funny, it’s terrifying. Brüger rarely goes for laughs, but he often goes for the jugular. It is alarming how easily (and how far) Brüger disappears down the political rabbit hole.

Primarily shot on hidden cameras (and a stills camera that shot high def video) The Ambassador has a seriously voyeuristic feel – the audience is in on the joke, but the subjects are not. We often get chuckles from Brüger inhabiting his larger than life character, but he is often overshadowed by the greed of his subjects – corruption is the rule in the CAR, not the exception. The level of humour you find in this film may be influenced by your knowledge of African politics. If you are well versed, this will reiterate what you already know (or expect). But if you are a newcomer, little of this film is funny – instead, it is morbidly fascinating.

I was lucky enough to have Brüger in my audience and he talked about his approach. He is a journalist, not a comedian, so his primary goal was exposing the truth. He isn’t worried about reprisals against his subjects as they have diplomatic immunity,  but he also has little sympathy for them and described his blood diamond ‘business partner’ as a ‘true villain’. He stated that almost everyone involved in this documentary is furious and that he even had one of its subjects try to stop the world premiere.

If you expect to go into The Ambassador and laugh your arse off you will be sorely disappointed, but if you want to see a pure microcosm of political corruption, this is the right ticket. The Ambassador is a brilliant gimmick, but it is shy of being a brilliant film.

Three Stars

 ***

 

The Sapphires

The Sapphires

I had little hope for this film. Looking outwardly at its elements — racial prejudice, the Vietnam war, low budget Australian production — I assumed this would be a mawkish, heavy-handed misfire of a film. God, was I wrong. The Sapphires is a genuine crowd pleaser that is filled with great tunes, entertaining performances and heartfelt scenes. Cynically, I thought this film would win every local award sight unseen. As it turns out, it probably will: The Sapphires deserves every one of them.

Set in the late 1960s, The Sapphires tells the story of a group of Aboriginal songstresses who are raised in a remote community. The surrounding (white) towns refuse to acknowledge their talents, but when they meet an optimistic (and opportunistic) Irish musician called Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), the girls find themselves thrust headfirst into the music industry. Worried about the lack of local reception, Lovelace books the girls a steady, yet dangerous gig: playing for American troops in Vietnam.

Based on a true story, The Sapphires is an unashamedly broad film. This film often paints in broad strokes, but I was surprised by certain scenes that had a real moral ambiguity to them and didn’t offer easy answers. It would be disingenuous of me to claim that this is the definitive film on Aboriginal issues, but this isn’t as groan-worthy or heavy-handed as one might expect.

The girls are superb in this; they are all idiosyncratic having been written with a definitive trait. Deborah Mailman is the feisty mother hen, Gail, who is nigh unlikeable for a good portion of this film. It’s a testament to Mailman’s acting that we sympathise with her character’s arc. Shari Sebbens is the beautiful and romantic Kay. Kay is the light-skinned girl of the group, and as a result she is resented by the other girls. Newcomer Sebbens more than holds her own against the more seasoned performers. Miranda Tapsell has the most thankless role as the outspoken clown of the group, Cynthia. Tapsell is game, but many of her lines are blatant laugh-bait – yet few of them work e.g. ‘Wait ‘til they get a load of this full-blooded Koori chick!’ Groan. They belong in a different (worse) film. Jessica Mauboy is the real standout here: she is a megawatt talent. She has unarguably the best voice of the girls and when she unleashes on the stage The Sapphires soars.

As good as the girls are, Chris O’Dowd steals this film. He is funny, passionate and uncompromising as the over-ambitious Dave Lovelace. It is a charming, memorable performance and a far bigger breakthrough than his performance in Bridesmaids. The Sapphires‘ real success is how entertaining it is. There is rarely a dull moment in this film and the music is fantastic. This is a hugely enjoyable film and due to Wayne Blair’s inventive direction, you’d never know it was shot on a (relatively) shoestring budget. The comparable Dreamgirls had eighty times the budget of The Sapphires.

Four Stars

***

Tomorrow’s films: Bully and Faust.

MORE GOOD SHIT: