I spent most of yesterday afternoon and late evening watching two very different films: The Book Thief, and Gravity. Here, then, are my impressions – be aware that there are spoilers, so, if you don’t want to know what happens, please read the following with your eyes shut.
I was taken by Crox Minor to see The Book Thief at our local enormoplex. It’s based on the terrific if rather eccentric novel by Markus Zusak, which was one of my top ten reads of 2013. The action takes place in a small town in Germany between 1938 and 1945, the adoptive home of a small girl called Liesel. Wrenched by the Nazis from her communist parents, Liesel is sent to live with Herr and Frau Hubermann – he, a friendly-yet-cynical sometime house painter who has never quite got round to joining the Nazi party (yes, the irony is right there); she, a foul-mouthed shrew.
Liesel is illiterate but soon learns to read through a small and random selection of books – found, stolen and strayed. The home is filled further by Max, a young Jewish refugee, housed by the Hubermanns to redeem a debt incurred when Max’s father gave his life to save Papa Hubermann in the Great War. Her best friend is her classmate Rudi Steiner, a blond-haired athlete who – to his parents’ chagrin – blacks himself up in homage to his hero Jesse Owens, star of the ’36 Berlin Olympiad.
It’s all there, then: the persecution of Jews, communists and anyone who looks in any way odd; Kristallnacht; the burning of un-Aryan books; the pervading atmosphere of oppression; the stench of fear; of secrets whose revelation would mean death. Given such powerful ingredients, then, the movie is emotionally bland. Perhaps it’s because the story is essentially from a child’s point-of-view; or because it’s hard to write a screenplay from a highly nonlinear book whose narrator is Death. Yes, that’s him – cowl, scythe, salmon mousse. Though here he prefers a plain, dark suit.
Not that the film isn’t beautifully shot: it’s gorgeous, and so is the music, by the ubiquitous John Williams. It’s the acting. Sophie Nélisse (Liesel) could have traded some of her Shirley-Temple looks for more fluidity; Emily Watson is perhaps too nice as the spiky Frau Hubermann. For me, the whole piece is carried by Geoffrey Rush (Herr Hubermann), who conveys more in a shrug or a wink than most actors do in a whole movie.
Oh yes, that, and the dialogue. Now, everyone in the film with a speaking part is German. Some of the German (propaganda songs, political speeches) actually is in German, with subtitles. So why do the actors all speak English with German accents, and always say nein when they mean ‘no’? To be fair, the book does the same thing, and both book and film are constrained to do so by the frequent use (by Frau Hubermann) of hard-to-translate insults; Saukerl, Saumensch and so on. But these are hardly Schadenfreude or Weltanschauung, and the overall effect is a bit ‘Allo ‘Allo.
I’d heard good things about Gravity, but as nobody chez Crox wanted to see it except me, I downloaded it last night on iTunes and watched it in HD on my 24″ computer screen – which, to be fair, is only slightly smaller than Screen 4 at the Cromer Enormoplex where we’d enjoyed The Book Thief.
The action of Gravity takes place almost entirely in low-Earth orbit, and in zero gravity. It opens with astronauts contentedly at work fixing things around the Space Shuttle. It’s the first time in space for engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), whose nerves and nausea are genially soothed by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) for whom this routine mission is his last.
But things turn rapidly for the worse when some Russian satellites smash into one another, initiating a chain-reaction in which most of Earth’s satellites are wiped out, sending a rain of space debris whizzing round the planet at 50,000 mph. The lethally hard rain turns the Space Shuttle into so much half-chewed weetabix, marooning Stone and Kowalski in space, and that’s when it gets really exciting.
The technical achievement of this film almost disguises the fact that this is essentially a one-woman show. The only actors we see are Bullock and Clooney, and Clooney for only about half the film. Good-time George walks it, doing what he does best, which is wisecracking gently while oozing a quiet, masculine authority (he’s less than a year older than me, the cur.) It’s Bullock who is the revelation. I’d always had her down as more rom-com fluffy than all-action toughie, but in Gravity she outdoes Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise for thrawn, flinty and pragmatic competence, yet adding an emotional core essential for her character’s development.
The quality of her acting makes the credits, when they roll after a perfectly judged ninety minutes, seem all the more surprising – where we see only two actors (we hear a few more) the technical credits roll, and, having rolled, keep on rolling: stunt performers, CGI artists, motion capturers, matte painters,
coypu handlers, animators of every kind, all of whose immense illusioneering contrives to make near-Earth space look and feel absolutely real.
But the best scene is the last, on Earth, and almost effects-free, when Bullock, having splashed down in a remote lake, crawls ashore, floundering in the mud like the first creature ever to have emerged onto land from the primeval ooze. That’s when we feel the weight of the gravity in which we live, and which Bullock has learned to live without, and against which terrific force Bullock rises on tottering limbs, as victorious as a new-born lamb.
Or, maybe, the second-best. Midway through the film there’s a brief moment of peace after Bullock reaches the sanctuary of a spacecraft, and, shedding her space-suit, floats fetally in the circular womb of the airlock, the cabling in the background umbilically placed – recalling, for me, the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in whose mighty company Gravity, as a serious movie about space exploration, assuredly belongs.