Goodbye Christopher Robin

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Biopics of any description can only ever be fragmentary, sketchy examinations of their subjects. Painting in broad strokes, as they inevitably do, it’s easy to cast aspersions or draw inferences about the lives of these historical figures whilst avoiding nuance and richness of detail. Does this render them incapable of insight and intelligence? Not necessarily, and in the case of Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a portrait of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher, there are certainly a handful of genuinely poignant moments in the screenplay by long-time Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan. The most notable of these honestly broach the darkest threads of Milne’s troubled life, including the initial struggles of anonymity, the curse of success and the terrible cost of both on an individual’s relationships.

Director Simon Curtis is no stranger to this realm of storytelling. His debut feature, after a length apprenticeship in TV, was My Week With Marilyn (2011) which focused on a very specific moment in the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Turning to a key figure in children’s literature of the 20th Century, Curtis has cast his film well, specifically in the case of Domhnall Gleeson as Milne, a man psychologically wounded by war and emotionally distant thereafter. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is gradually revealed as a frivolous, wretched creature whose attachment to Milne was only ever based on an assumption that he would continue to write and achieve the fame and notoriety that he eventually claimed, thus giving her social opportunities and the promise of a more lavish lifestyle. The arrival of their son Christopher Robin Milne (Wil Tilson and, in late scenes as an 18 year old, Alex Lawther), nicknamed Billy, was more an inconvenient aside than the culmination of a lifelong yearning.

Milne is an awkward parent who can’t relate the innocent child’s perspective of his son but everything changes when he’s thrust into duty during his lowest creative ebb. Having moved away from London to a ramshackle country retreat, he has been abandoned by Daphne, and with Christopher’s nanny Olive (the always superb Kelly Macdonald) called away to be with her ailing father, Milne must actively confront the full scope of his parental duties for the first time. A kind of bonding occurs and utilising his son’s stuffed toys he conjures up a series of adventures for them all in the surrounding woods. The toys become integrated into Milne’s suddenly re-charged creative process and act as the key figures in his stories of Winnie the Pooh, including Tigger, Donkey, Eeyore, Piglet and, of course, their wise human friend, ‘Christopher Robin’.

The score by Carter Burwell is yet another classy contribution from a composer more often associated with the Coen brothers but who never disappoints, delivering music attentively attuned to each project’s needs, whether darkly comic, sensitive or quirky. For Goodbye Christopher Robin he provides a near perfect score. At times it’s openly melodic in a restrained, pastoral English vein; in others, gently probing at the darker edges of Milne’s mental fragility, recollections of war duelling with the harshness and inadequateness of the world he’s returned to. Yet deploying a small orchestral ensemble Burwell always keeps his music in check, never tipping over into overt sentimentality. It’s this masterful control that distinguishes so much of his best work, including his masterpiece Carol (2015), written for Todd Haynes’s extraordinary feast for the senses.

There’s ultimately nothing ground-breaking about Curtis’s film. It follows a formula or template we’ve all subliminally memorised and could recognise in a heartbeat. Accept the ‘facts’ of real lives with a grain of salt, knowing that creative embellishments – outlandish ones even – are part and parcel of how these nostalgic reconstructive dramas are made more palatable, both in their conception and, ultimately, in their re-telling. Goodbye Christopher Robin proves to be a proficient, highly entertaining example, all reservations aside. The performances are strong, eliciting emotional reactions that have truthfulness attached to them in the film’s very best scenes. It may even inspire some to re-examine Milne’s life through his timeless work, not a bad thing at all, if it means finding the child inside of us all once again.

The Light Between Oceans

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From picturesque period romance to morose melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s very fine latest film is suffused with melancholy, regret, and torment as it depicts the ethical dilemma of a couple transformed by love. Beginning in 1918, returning soldier, war-scarred loner Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), is happy to fill the breach when a lighthouse keeper position becomes available off the Western Australian coast. Nursing psychological scars from his time abroad, he yearns for a kind of therapeutic isolation. The methodical approach needed to perform his daily duties on Janus also has its attractions. In the closest town, where his arrangements are made, he’s drawn to the daughter, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), of a prominent local, Bill Graysmark (Garry McDonald). Before ever admitting to their feelings face to face, the pair exchange correspondence of the course of many months. Eventually, on one of his breaks from the lighthouse, Tom summons the courage to ask Isabel’s hand in marriage.

Initially their life on Janus is idyllic with location work at Cape Campbell in Marlborough, New Zealand providing a stunning, wind-blown backdrop. In time Isabel becomes pregnant. Their existence, though a secluded one, couldn’t be more filled with optimism. Naturally, though, a cruel twist of fate will irrevocably alter their lives when Isabel experiences difficulty at the end of her pregnancy and, isolated from Tom in the lighthouse during a massive storm, can’t get the help she needs to save her unborn child.

Based on Australian author M.L. Steadman’s novel, The Light Between Oceans (2016) is beautifully produced, beginning like a classic romantic epic before the bells of impending doom begin to sound. It’s at the midpoint that this key plot contrivance serves to completely alter the tone of the film. There’s no doubt that it’s a blatantly ludicrous event, but Cianfrance’s involving, earnest adaptation has already dragged us deep enough into its soulful clutches that audiences will likely overlook and forgive this unlikeliest of occurrences.

As he displayed with his last two features, firstly his anatomy-of-a-relationship-breakdown, Blue Valentine (2010) and then the ambitious but deeply flawed The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Cianfrance’s visual style is always noteworthy. With the aid of another brilliant Australian artist, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, they often use gritty, handheld work, regularly shooting the actors in telling close-up, an emphatic style leavened by non-artificial light. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox but striking approach to her Wuthering Heights (2011) adaptation, though not nearly as experimental. This intense scrutiny also accentuates Tom and Isabel’s harmonious but precarious relationship with their surroundings against which perspective can change quickly, putting a vastly different slant on the enormity of the natural world and the power it unconsciously wields.

Fassbender, especially, proves remarkable again for his ability to extract a deep well of emotional detail out of a few words or a glance. His presence is magnetic but never distractingly or overpoweringly so. At times there’s a picturesque emptiness to Vikander whose clearly lacks her co-star’s range but is still a believable embodiment of Isabel who undergoes quite a few emotionally- transformations. The introduction of the third main character, Hannah Roennfeldt, played typically with class and conviction by Rachel Weisz, is another positive.

Working in a realm in which he thrives and is now much sought after, composer Alexandre Desplat provides another classy score. It’s melodically sumptuous and yet a model of restraint, never allowing the emotional latitude of the narrative to inflect his themes with obvious, manipulative intent. Though there, is to some extent, a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, Cianfrance still has the ability to wring a few genuine emotional tugs of the heart out of us. In some ways The Light Between Oceans feels like a natural progression for him and perhaps his most mature work to date.

High-Rise

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J.G. Ballard’s seminal work, published in 1978, has long sat alongside a slew of equally influential novels that, upon first release, were deemed ‘unfilmable’. Prime examples include William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The former, a flawed curiosity piece, was shot in 1991 by David Cronenberg; the latter by Terry Gilliam without a shred of lucidity to keep it on the rails. Even Ballard’s own Crash fell into a similar category; again it was Cronenberg who finally took a shot at this ‘difficult’ novel, producing a fascinating but divisive mini-masterpiece of perversion in 1996. High-Rise has long remained in formidable defiance of adaptation attempts however the time has finally arrived. It’s now been audaciously brought to life by one of modern British cinema’s brightest lights, Ben Wheatley, and his partner and regular screenwriter Amy Jump.

The early scenes of High-Rise (2016) are curiously off-putting and alienating, immersing us in a weird retro world with a colour scheme and production design that draw attention to themselves in unfortunate ways. Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose find interesting ways to negotiate us through the maze of this scaled-down, closed-off society in miniature but it takes half an hour before we’ve come to grips with the off-kilter aesthetics. Initially, the world contained within the high rise is very much commensurate with the pristine, idealistic conception of its creator Royal (Jeremy Irons) who inhabits a floor on his own, replete with full-scale garden and other outlandish features. But human nature has a horrifying way of insinuating itself into any perfect design and before long tiny indicators of trouble begin to emerge, the first cracks developing into monstrous apertures that leave no room for repair.

Anyone familiar with High-Rise will know that it’s notorious for detailing the grotesque devolution of our species, of stripping back – with acidic fervour – the veneer that separates humankind and our civilised façade with our baser instinct which, as Ballard posits, given a chance to sniff the air and investigate, will almost certainly run amok. The world into which Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is deposited has a self-contained, hyper-reality to it; the world beyond only appears, tangentially, like a mirage hovering on the horizon, removed and coldly distant.

Ballard’s story sounds a bleak and dire warning for our race; in providing a stark and defining metaphor for our propensity for a rapid descent into savagery, he only hints at emotional vestiges underlining the contamination beyond a generalised anger and outrage at the inequality of this mini-society’s striations. The excellent Hiddleston proves to be the most accurate approximation of Laing you could imagine; there’s nothing particularly sympathetic about the man, but then he was never intended to be anything but a contextualising presence. In essence he serves as the primary witness and eyes of the audience. As we’re greeted to the subversion of order, cordiality and civility, they bottom out and begin feeding the savage, autonomous tendrils that swarm and submerge the high-rise into a primitively recast system of privilege and attainment.

The many supporting roles are all superbly cast, with Luke Evans especially effective as Wilder, one of the devolution’s chief catalysts, an outsider whose quest for visceral thrills denied him by the respectability and civility of the high-rise are key to kick-starting the crossing of the line into barbarity. Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy and Peter Ferdinando are other standouts though Wheatley has assembled a genuinely flawless ensemble. Special mention should also be made of Clint Mansell’s mesmerising score which ranks amongst his very finest, perhaps even topping his work for Darren Aronofsky in the way it intelligently and intuitively taps into the darkly evolving psychological aspects of the high rise’s inhabitants and their gratuitous capitulation to disorder as the new order.

Almost out of necessity to serve the story’s essential truthfulness, the film provides a provocative spectacle, though the ugliness and contemptuousness of the increasingly outrageous violence will become unpalatable and too hard to stomach for many. However, for much of its length I revelled in the faithfulness of Wheatley’s vision and if it does drag on, even to repetitive excess, it’s ultimately a minor failing of what is a creatively daring attempt to cinematically render a story that has lost neither its appeal nor social relevance.

The Lady in the Van

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Alan Bennett’s adaptation of his own memoir is a bittersweet tale of how curiousness and mild affection transform a passing interaction with a stranger into a strangely evolving, burdensome 15 year relationship. In London’s Camden district, home to artists of all sorts, the cantankerous Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) becomes a familiar sight, usually seen ensconced in her easily identifiable van which seems to hone in a location in the street and then remain dormant for months at a time. The locals are chagrined, naturally, though they’re an admirably tolerant lot; they moan and complain half-heartedly but, more compelled by the pitiful human element of Miss Shepherd’s plight, they simply put up with her moaning, insolence and crotchety demeanor.

Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) tolerates her with more conviction, even allowing the lady in the van to take refuge in his driveway when new parking regulations put an end to her hopes of eternally revolving through the streets. Bennett is torn of course and one of the film’s cleverest conceits – skillfully handed by director Nicolas Hytner – is its physical portrayal of his creative divide, in which he’s represented by both sides of the instincts within. First, there’s the version of himself who appraises from afar, the writer, the fictionalist, searching for potent material to expand upon for his own purposes. Then there’s the ‘real’ Alan Bennett, doggedly passing through his own life alongside the tiresome, mundane realities of dealing with his creative flaws, the expectations and judgment of his friends, neighbours and peers and, most confrontingly, the grim reality of Miss Shepherd’s relentless permanency in his life.

It’s a strange attachment, and one he should, for all intents and purposes, be able to sever with ease, even if with a backward glance or two of remorse. But somehow, with the burden of his aged, ailing mother to contend with and lukewarm feedback from his recent plays weighing him down, he’s simply unable to take what would be increasingly drastic measures to legally move Miss Shepherd on. And on some level, he yearns to both dignify her and understand more about her past and the validity of her ‘story’ which, through conversational snippets, is as strewn about as the remaining detritus accumulated inside the stationary vessel that is her home.

Jennings embodies Bennett with a transformative role accompanied by a befitting accent and physically attuned nuances. Smith, too, is remarkable; hers is a brave performance as the ambiguous Miss Shepherd who makes every attempt to alienate every person or child who enters her periphery. Consequently she’s almost impossible to love but a yearning to make sense of her story means there’s a lingering intrigue as to how her unique journey unfolds and the role Bennett will play in generate moments of genuine human truth from sifting through what seems like a willfully arranged barrier to ensure self-preservation.

With Hytner’s regular composer George Fenton liberally borrowing from a classical catalogue to accentuate the drama’s droll, tender and absurd ebbs and flows, The Lady in the Van (2015) comes full circle, placing the film’s very first scene in context; we’re rewarded with a more levelly framed humanising of Miss Shepherd too whilst simultaneously being spared the usual, shallow appeal to a sentimental reflex.

 

Legend

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Director Brian Helgeland’s Legend presents a sweeping and entertaining if mostly frivolous recreation of the Kray brothers’ reign of terror on the streets of London in the 60’s. We see the twins, both portrayed by Tom Hardy – in what is a remarkable pair of performances – as possessing a number of contradictory aspects though the overall effect is distancing, not to mention misleading in attempting to roughly humanise men whose criminal endeavours were unconscionably marked by ruthlessness and brutality.

Hardy is the film’s obvious trump card; through it all, he brings an astonishing level of commitment to rendering the brothers with detail that Helgeland’s screenplay, superficially, doesn’t come close to providing. So much of what Hardy brings to these roles won’t be found on the page: the fluid, unpredictable demeanour of the Krays, their physical traits, their inflections of speech. Whilst expanding their influence on the city’s criminal underbelly, Reggie, the brainier of the pair and a ladies man, attempts to win the heart of the winsome Frances (Emily Browning), the younger sister of one of his henchmen. Ronnie on the other hand is openly gay and prone to rashness in his decision making, especially when his sibling isn’t around to keep him centred.

Helgeland has a less spotty record as a screenwriter than as, more recently, a director. His adaptations of heavyweight crime novels L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003) were first rate. But, behind the camera, his Point Blank (1967) remake and directorial debut Payback (1999) proved to be a botch job, whilst the over-the-top, speciously anachronistic A Knight’s Tale (2001) was close to unwatchable. On a positive note, Legend is eminently watchable right from the start even if it’s hard to take seriously. It seems to be have been deliberately crafted to fill some uncomfortable middle ground – neither a gritty, detailed biopic, hard-nosed drama, nor excessive black comedy but rather sitting somewhere uncomfortably in between.

All three aspects are served, though the comedic bent is the far more pervasive. This fact tends to cheapen a film that’s predominantly stripped of meaning without any strict adherence to a framework of intricately detailed facts. A succession of clichéd, generally awful songs from the era also kills the film’s more serious intents. Helgeland has never been a fan of subtlety and rather than sparingly use source music for genuine impact, the drenching effect only dilutes and compromises the excellent score by Carter Burwell.

In what marks a new adult dimension to her career, Browning is luminous as the fatefully betrothed Frances, whilst a strong supporting cast provide the background ensemble with all the necessary muscle, vacuity and believable accents. Yet they’re all subservient to Hardy, naturally enough, an actor whose range knows no bounds whether playing broadly identifiable, homegrown British characters like the Krays or slipping effortlessly into American roles. It’s a shame then that, despite its entertainment value, there hasn’t been a better attempt by Helgeland to provide real insight or psychological depth to his regurgitation of this infamous duo. Thus, Legend (2015), with its frustratingly conflicting tones, is unlikely to be remembered for much else other than as a future reference for Hardy completists.

Macbeth

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Justin Kurzel has a single feature to his credit – Snowtown (2011), a harrowing, brutal, bleak retelling of an infamous Australian true crime case. Though hard to digest for some given the subject matter, it’s actually a remarkable and powerful film; in fact, it’s one of the finest this country has produced in recent times. For his second outing, Kurzel has made the audacious decision to move abroad to tackle a titan of English literature. But for Macbeth (2015) he’s surrounded himself with an A-list cast and some of the homegrown talent that contributed so heavily to Snowtown’s visceral impact, including cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and his brother and composer Jed Kurzel.

From its bloody opening battle, in which Macbeth pauses amidst the slaughter to ‘listen’ the supernatural prophecy of a trio of witches, to Macbeth’s final reckoning with his tortured mental capacities, Kurzel appropriates the gargantuan literary weight of Shakespearean tale-telling to birth a bold, cinematic statement. This new Macbeth seethes and rages; the instantly recognisable passages are all intact, passionately evoked with rage, despair and venom.  And it all feels fresh thanks to the extraordinary range of artists involved in bringing this literary titan to fruition. Arkapaw brought a bleak, ugly urban heartland to vivid life in Snowtown with remarkable, dead-eyed perception. Here he expands his range to make vivid this primordial, ancient world with its almost tangible cold, its haunted fields wreathed with creeping, misty fogs and both subtle and explicit, foreboding uses of red as a harbinger of bloodshed to come.

The performances are uniformly magnificent. Michael Fassbender is unquestionably one of the finest actor in cinema right now. He possesses exactly the kind of presence to bring an epic literary stalwart to life. The gravitas he brings to this interpretation of Macbeth and his turbulent journey from hero on the battlefield to shuddering, conscience-battered king is outstanding. Marion Cotillard is just as good as the venomous Lady Macbeth, her finest moment coming as Arkapaw’s camera hones in for a deep, penetrating gaze as she tearfully nears the end of her own manipulative reign. The deeply wrought emotional damage brought to bear on her is etched into every line and tear on her face.

The only negative of this aesthetically rich production? Subtitles might have been handy at times as due to some of the thick Scottish brogues and garbled enunciation, chunks are wonderful dialogue are often tattered and semi-indecipherable. This minor quibble aside, it’s the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes that bridge the centuries and colour the dramatic reverberations with a terrible kind of shimmering beauty. Everything rings true here – from the thought-provoking opacity of the thornier verbal patches through to the translucent motives of those drunk on the prospect of power – of fulfilling a destiny invented, protected and perverted within. Macbeth is one of the greatest of all literary works and though it’s tougher than ever to find an audience for something as weighty and challenging as this in today’s world, interpretations of timeless classic will always be of literary and cinematic value.

Mr. Holmes

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A sly, gently reflective backward glance at key moments in a life that might have been, Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (2015) trades ambition for modesty and heart, qualities that constantly keep it afloat, though a marvellous central performance by Ian McKellen doesn’t hurt the overall impression either. Bound to be seen by too few, this endearing flirtation with the fictitious enforced retirement of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, combines mildly diverting mystery alongside eccentric character detailing. Tending to his bees and generally irritating his latest housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), Holmes is a creaky, irritable old soul, haunted for decades by a case that forced him into a premature abandoning of his detective skills for the expanses of a quiet rural retreat.

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr. Holmes shares some of the rambling gait of Holmes himself, flittering between the old master’s interactions with Mrs. Munro’s young son Roger (Milo Parker) and buried recollections that occasionally swim to the surface of his conscious mind to tease and entice with their intimations of beauty and pain. The film feels awkwardly drawn along lines of anecdotal episodes whilst tempering these occasionally whimsical propensities with a mystery – involving a beautiful woman in distress unsurprisingly – that never develops into anything particularly riveting, even at its resolution. It’s all a bit tame, in other words, yet the film is nevertheless an almost constant delight.

The support players are solid as a rock, especially Linney and youngster Parker as the inquisitive youngster attempting to help Holmes decode the intermittently regurgitated shards of memory. Meanwhile, holding it all together through his presence in every scene is McKellen who proves to be the perfect embodiment of the crotchety Holmes and whose dismissive gaze upon the world hides a deep-seated, ultimately very moving loneliness. Condon’s handling of the final scenes avoids any sentimentality and the film’s final image is all the more dignified for it, whilst composer Carter Burwell, whose done fine work for Condon in the past on films such as Gods and Monsters (1998) and especially Kinsey (2004), provides a low-key and measured contribution, replicating his signature style with typical class and restraint.

Black Sea

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Disgruntled Scot, Captain Robinson (Jude Law), is an embittered man with a chip on his shoulder. His main gripe is with the submarine haulage company that’s just heartlessly disposed of him after years of loyal service. His days of employment haven’t been especially kind: a lost wife and child attest to the fallout from his dedication. During a bitching session in a pub with mates, Robinson’s interest is sparked by a similarly offloaded mate who puts in motion a plan to exact some retribution by claiming a big pay day. It involves taking a punt on the possible existence of a long sunken cargo of Nazi gold off the Ukrainian coast. Heavy hitting financial backers are needed and Robinson is put in touch with a man in a suit, Daniels (Scoot McNairy), who’s able to open doors to the necessary investors. Soon Robinson and a select crew, half of which are Russians, are boarding a rusty old submarine of their own to set sail for vast and deep black waters in search of the ultimate payoff. Naturally the voyage will encounter severe hiccups along the way and not every crew member will have the necessary skills to survive.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s new film, written by Dennis Kelly, explores very familiar ideas of greed and redemption as it ramps up suspense and expectation in the claustrophobic confines of the sub. It does so with considerable conviction, however. Greed is an endlessly explored cinematic concept. Here the gold becomes the carrot luring our crew onwards into darker terrain, but human nature being what it is – corruptible, unsustainable and uncontainable – violence is guaranteed to rear its ugly head. Notions of equality and an equal distribution of wealth evaporate just as quickly. The underlying idea of greed consuming a mind, as in John Huston’s eternal classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), for example, leads as easily to madness as physical interference.

Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Law who’s able to project a resoluteness and intestinal fortitude with his surprisingly steely presence. Never once do you doubt his command of the mission, even as it threatens to run off the rails. The disturbed psychology of Ben Mendelsohn’s Fraser is offered as an early warning sign of trouble and though he’s given no depth of character into which to expand his range, Fraser’s presence at least acts as a transformer sparking perilous openings into which the narrative can sinuously progress.

McNairy has proven to be a chameleon since his breakout in Gareth Edwards’s brilliant Monsters (2010), often disappearing into roles both large and small, like Killing Them Softly (2012) and The Rover (2014). He was almost unrecognisable in Argo (2012), but turns that full circle here a variation on the type of corporate, out-of-his-depth straight man. He’s the kind of guy whose lofty ideals and loyalty to his employers see him doggedly attempting to turn the tide of increasing irrationality toward a sensible, cogent resolution – well beyond the point when, clearly, any such thing is possible. We’ve seen this archetype before of course, in films like Aliens (1986), as played by Paul Reiser.

Drawing on classic works attributable to the submarine sub-genre of suspense films like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), Tony Scott’s testosterone battle Crimson Tide (1995) and Jonathan Mostow’s underrated U-571 (2000), Macdonald’s latest does a fine job of building upon its solid premise. Though never forgetting to hit its spots with the requisite number of twists, the film makes us believe in the dynamics of the group and the stakes of survival whilst caring about the fate of a central character who, though never expressly positioned as a hero, displays credible heroic tendencies.

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Black Sea opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, April 9.