I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.
Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.
From the hamfisted title to the Victorian-era plot machinations, The Light Between Oceans has rich potential to be the kind of insane project that might possibly turn into something great. Consider the elements: Derek Cianfrance, the passionate indie filmmaker who helmed the frowning Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, adapts a 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. The story’s twists and turns might make a romance novelist hesitate, but Cianfrance embraces them like the bold swain on a paperback cover. He casts two exceptional actors and strands them together at a remote New Zealand lighthouse during the shoot, encouraging improvisation and identification with their roles (sure enough, the actors began a relationship that continues to this day). The whole endeavor is neither commercial nor hip. Surely something intriguing must come out of this stew?
There is a longstanding correlation between an actor’s likelihood of winning an Academy Award and the amount of effort visible on screen. That’s why Leonardo DiCaprio is the odds-on favorite this year for The Revenant—the poor guy works so hard he looks as though he’s actually breaking bones for the cause. Eddie Redmayne, who won last year for his TheTheory of Everything role as Stephen Hawking, is not taking this challenge lying down. Here he plays Einar Wegener, a Danish painter who underwent sex-reassignment surgery to become a woman, newly christened Lili Elbe. This true story happened in the early years of the 20th century, which makes it prime fodder for the period-decoration approach of director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech).
So dull, so respectable, so full of nice touches and pretty things: Testament of Youth seems like just the kind of film the real Vera Brittain would have no patience for. Produced in a well-mannered and fully costumed way by BBC Films, this is an adaptation of Brittain’s celebrated 1933 memoir. We follow Vera (Alicia Vikander), a feisty and brainy young woman, as she rebels against her family’s ideas of pre-suffrage femininity and enrolls at Oxford, hoping to become a writer. Her education coincides with the beginning of World War I; her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her beau Roland (Kit Harington), and two close friends ship off to the front. Vera suspends her study to serve as a nurse near the trenches.
Director Nikolaj Arcel and writer Rasmus Heisterberg (The King’s Game, the Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, et al.) again join forces to mount a handsome period piece about hot times in the 18th-century court of Denmark. Such a revolutionary era, plus a scandal that rocked all of Europe, should have fueled A Royal Affair with high-octane dramatic juice: oversize personalities, royal adultery, intellectual ferment, dynastic intrigue. But Affair is disappointingly conventional, much too decorous and, at two hours-plus, sometimes just plain dull. Narrated in voice-over from some date in a tragic future, the story’s robbed of immediacy and color.
Worse, the lack of any directorial point of view makes it an even more tepid Affair. There are many ways to come at historical melodrama, from the hipster revisionism of Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette) to the voluptuously stylized sado-masochism of Josef Von Sternberg (The Scarlet Empress). Arcel, Heisterberg and lenser Rasmus Videbaek bring little that’s exciting or notably enlightening to the way they frame these volatile times and characters.
Fifteen-year-old Caroline Mathilde, sister of a future king of England (pretty Alicia Vikander, also appearing in Anna Karenina), arrives in Denmark in 1766 resolved to be a good and dutiful wife to young Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Unfortunately, hubby’s an unstable, debauched boor given to giggling maniacally and insulting his talented teen wife publicly. After Caroline manages to birth an heir, she bars the royal spouse from her bed.