Monday, January 31, 2022

The North Water: Elemental Tragedy

Jack O'Connell and Stephen Graham in The North Water.

Set in the 1860s on an English whaling ship that meets disaster in Arctic waters, the limited series The North Water (on AMC+) finds extraordinary beauty in a staggeringly grim narrative. The writer-director is Andrew Haigh, one of the most gifted of the current crop of British filmmakers. Haigh helmed the half-hour HBO series Looking, about a trio of gay men living in San Francisco, which culminated in a very fine TV movie; for the big screen he’s directed 45 Years with Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, about a four-and-a-half-decade marriage that is disrupted by an unexpected remnant of the husband’s past, and Lean on Pete, perhaps the most unusual film I’ve ever seen about the relationship between a boy and a horse. His taste runs to the stark; even Lean on Pete falls into that category. And The North Water, which Haigh adapted from a 2016 novel by Ian McGuire, is truly brutal. The protagonist is Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), who signs on as ship’s surgeon after his military experience in India goes sour and wrecks a promising career in medicine. Sumner arrives on board haunted by nightmares as well carrying an opium jones, yet he turns out to be the most salvageable of the main characters. Both the captain, Brownlee (Stephen Graham), and the first mate, Cavendish (Sam Spruell), are privy to the scheme of the ship’s owner, Baxter (Courtenay), to take the ship, The Volunteer, into ice-bound northern waters with the aim of destroying it for the insurance. And Cavendish’s companion, Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), is a sadistic brute who rapes and kills the ship’s cabin boy (Stephen McMillan) and then frames a fellow sailor for his murder.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Exposure: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog, currently streaming on Netflix.

Reading the rapturous reviews of The Power of the Dog is a bit like talking to an anti-vaxxer. The experience is so disorienting – the depiction of reality so inverted – that after a while you begin to question your own sanity. I forced myself to sit through the movie a second time, just to be sure I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t. Jane Campion has made a pretentious, incoherent, excruciating adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. Many audience members may feel similarly, I suspect, but raising questions can invite gaslighting from critics ready to anoint the film. Witness Slate editor Jeffrey Bloomer, a self-described Campion fan, who found the viewing experience “absolutely miserable.” In response to his heresy, the poor man is led by reviewer Dana Stevens through some kind of struggle session to get him to recant his view and assent to the picture’s inscrutable wisdom. Watching them try to decode the movie like an ancient rune is disturbing. It seems every year brings us an empty art house film that the chattering classes adore. But The Power of the Dog has to rank near the top for eliciting such an Orwellian campaign of misinformation.