Arts & Books

Film review: Superb Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King to perfection

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King on a voting rights protest march

Cert 12a, 128 mins

Shamefully ignored entirely by Bafta and barely acknowledged in the Oscar nominations – is this the 12 Years a Slave backlash? – Selma is not only already one of the films of the year but also, on occasion, made this critic feel ashamed to be white.

It’s 1965 and with the reluctance of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to sign a Voting Rights Act, the African-American civil rights movement led by newly-created Nobel laureate Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) is fired into righteous action. The plan is to stage a march down the 50-mile highway between small-town Selma and the capital city of Montgomery in what’s effectively the police state of Alabama.

As if the local sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and his officers weren’t already snarling totems of institutional racism, there’s Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), malevolently keeping his beady, self-interested eye on the gathering storm.

The action, wonderfully well crafted by debutante feature director Ava DuVernay, sticks to a very tight timeframe, which creates its own hugely effective sense of claustrophobic action despite several tense big crowd scenes.

She also employs the clever device of punctuating many of the more intimate sequences with a pay-off caption indicating they’ve been secretly monitored by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

At the film’s centre is a marvellous performance by British actor Oyelowo, who seems to have captured the lilting Luther King tones perfectly, even if many of the heart-pounding original speeches have had to be amended because of some strange copyright situation. See it and weep.

Five stars

cert 15, 114 mins

After the temporary aberration that was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, British director Stephen Daldry returns triumphantly to form with his fifth feature Trash, scripted by the prolific Richard Curtis, using a setting far removed from the writer’s usual cosy upper middle-class milieu.

In this fast-moving adaptation of Andy Mulligan’s young adult novel, the setting is the favelas and garbage heaps of Rio de Janeiro for a story that might well have been pitched as “Slumdog Millionaire meets City of God”. If the end result doesn’t quite match either of those two remarkable films, then that hardly detracts from an entertainment which grips from tense beginning to life-affirming finale.

After discovering a bulky wallet full of potentially incriminating material in their refuse-strewn backyard, streetwise kids and fellow rubbish-pickers Raphael (Rickson Tevez) and Gardo (Eduardo Luis), soon joined by Rato (Gabriel Weinstein), find themselves painfully targeted by all manner of scary Brazilian villainy – from chillingly corrupt cops to unscrupulous politicians.

The only (slightly) false note comes with the frankly unnecessary cameo casting of a pair of established Hollywood stars, Martin Sheen as a good-hearted local priest and one time Dragon Tattoo girl Rooney Mara as a volunteer worker, presumably to give more mainstream audience appeal to what’s effectively a Foreign Language Film, as defined by its deserved Bafta nomination.

The real power is with the authentic locals, marshalled expertly by Daldry, while the suspense never lets up for a second thanks to atmospheric cinematography and dynamic editing.

Four stars

Inherent Vice
cert 15, 149 mins

If his last film, The Master, severely stretched the patience of many cinemagoers, including me, across its leisurely three hours, then Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up, Inherent Vice, from the 2009 novel by cult American writer Thomas Pynchon, is likely to compound the felony.

Pynchon’s turn-of-the-70s California tale of noir and narcotics has been lovingly adapted by Anderson himself with an occasional voice-over narration taken, I understand, directly from the revered book. A case, perhaps, of having your cake and eating it too.

We are in the drugged-out world of stoner private eye “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who has been asked by his ex-flame (Katherine Waterston) to check out whether her wealthy new lover, anxious to use his money for good causes, is being set up for committal to a mental facility by his greedy wife.

The only real acting standout is Josh Brolin, as a hilariously violent, hippy-hating LA cop nicknamed Bigfoot who positively revels in civil rights violations. Watching the result of this miasma of marijuana and (mostly) tiresomely quirky characters was, for me, the cinematic equivalent of having, in the lingo, a bad trip.

Two stars

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/1/15)