Tricia Youlden

★★★★ M

Australian Jonathan Teplitzky’s film is both a gripping account of the four days leading up to D-Day, and a revealing study of Winston Churchill, a man only too aware of the horrors and bloodshed of war.

In the opening scene, as he stands on a deserted beach looking out across the English Channel, Churchill (Brian Cox) is plagued by the image of the sea foam turning red with blood, as he had witnessed at Gallipoli in World War I. His determination to avoid this ever happening again sets him at loggerheads with Generals Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and Eisenhower (John Slattery), who are in the final phase of planning the imminent Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

Although Churchill has to heed the advice of his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), and King George VI (James Purefoy) to step back, he remains highly emotional and anxious. Writer Alex von Tunzelmann’s insight into these tense few days is fascinating, both as a narrative and as a study of key characters. Key speeches resonate with Shakespearean eloquence, none more so than Churchill’s heartfelt prayer beseeching God to “not let it happen again”.

As usual with Teplitzky’s films, Churchill looks stunning, thanks to cinematographer David Higgs, production designer Chris Roope and his team. Churchill describes his bleak moods as feeling like "the colour draining from the picture". The subdued autumnal palette chosen by the designers is appropriate to the bleakness of Churchill and the times.

20th Century Women
★★★ M

Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women

Writer-director Mike Mills, whose film about his father coming out at 70 garnered an Oscar for Christopher Plummer, has now made a film inspired by his mother. The central character in 20th Century Women is 55-year-old Dorothea (Annette Bening), single mother of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).

They live in a gloriously dilapidated old mansion, which one of their two boarders, William (Billy Crudup), is helping Dorothea to renovate, or at least keep habitable. Their other boarder, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), is a photographer who fled from New York to Santa Barbara after being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Sporting bright "manic panic" hair, punk Abbie is only too aware of her own mortality.

Despite her personal and professional competence, Dorothea feels ill-equipped to bring up her teenage son in the rapidly-changing world of 1979. She seeks assistance from Abbie and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s closest friend, who regularly spends the night in his bed, just sleeping and talking with him. Both women take their role in Jamie’s upbringing very seriously and, although laidback, promiscuous William is hardly the most responsible role model around, he also looks out for the boy.

Mills shows us the significant moments in Jamie’s coming of age in a time of uncertainty. Occasional narration provides not only information about the various characters’ pasts but about what the future holds: the rise of neoconservative politics, advances in technology, AIDS and more.

Throughout the film, the characters discuss and debate a wide variety of sexual, political and moral issues. A defining archival clip is President Jimmy Carter’s downbeat "Malaise" speech and the screenplay is laced with gentle humour such as Jamie’s creative absence notes (“He was doing volunteer work for the Sandinistas”) and Julie behaving like her psychoanalyst mother, despite herself.

Like the performances, the film’s production values are uniformly strong. This accessible and entertaining film should especially resonate with those who were adolescents or young adults in 1979.

★★★ MA

Pablo Larrain's rather whimsical film about Pablo Neruda's escape from Chile in 1948, after President Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) has ordered his arrest, paints a society full of contradictions. Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a dedicated Communist, yet he and his artist wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran) are wealthy and privileged. He does not seem to comprehend, let alone appreciate, the risks the working class Communist party members take on their behalf, helping them to evade Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose mission it is to capture the poet.

Neruda is portrayed as an egotistical hedonist who toys with Peluchonneau, leaving "detective novel" clues behind as the increasingly obsessed policeman closes in on him. At one stage in his pursuit of the poet through the Chilean countryside and towns, Peluchonneau has a moment of existential introspection as he ponders whether he is real or merely a fictional conceit. Bernal plays Peluchonneau with an endearing seriousness, even when he is travelling in a sidecar looking like a comic version of his character in The Motorcycle Diaries. At other times, clad in trenchcoat and fedora, he bears a passing resemblance to Inspector Clouseau.

Just as Guillermo Calderon’s screenplay often takes an irreverent look at Neruda, so too Sergio Armstrong and production designer Estefania Larrain provide some absurdly comical sights. Neruda may look like Alfred Hitchcock with a dyed black comb-over, yet the words of his poems are as beautiful as the countryside through which he journeys. Scenes of the poet’s entourage being chased on horseback through deep snow over the Andes mountains are especially breathtaking. And the clothes and cars are gorgeous.

The Sense of an Ending
★★★ M

The Sense of an Ending

Jim Broadbent stars in Nick Payne’s film adaptation of the Booker Prize- winning novel by Julian Barnes. Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired, long divorced from QC Margaret (Harriet Walter) and not particularly close to their daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery). He’s taken aback to learn that their nickname for him, "Mudge", comes from "curmudgeon", which aptly describes his grumpy demeanour.

Two non-related events occur that force Tony to re-evaluate his behaviour, past and present. Margaret has broken her leg, so he has to assume the role of birth supporter for heavily pregnant Susie. Awkward though the initial ante-natal class is, it serves to help father and daughter re-connect.

The second event is a legal letter informing Tony that Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), the late mother of his former girlfriend, Veronica (Freya Mavor), has left him a package. When he is informed that Veronica, as executor of her mother’s estate, is withholding the package, Tony seeks advice from Margaret. Just as he has probably never told her how proud he is of her QC status, Tony has never told his ex-wife about Sarah.

Margaret learns that his lifelong passion for Leica cameras had come from Sarah, who gave him his first Leica. Not one to revisit the past, Tony’s memories of his youth are selectively sketchy but impel him to clarify one particularly painful memory. He looks up old friends from school and university days, whose own recollections of the same events and characters provide sufficient detail for them to track down Veronica (Charlotte Rampling).

Brief though their subsequent encounters are, they provide Tony with sufficient pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to understand the significance of his bequest. In clarifying the details of a past tragedy it releases him from the burden of doubt and guilt.

Meanwhile, Susie’s baby threatens to arrive, which reminds Tony and Margaret that they do still have a common bond. In fact, they probably are now able to speak more openly and honestly with one another than when they were married.

Director Ritesh Batra deftly interweaves glimpses of the past with the present. This is enhanced by the physical and facial similarities between the actors playing the characters as young people and their older counterparts. Similar attention to detail is echoed throughout the film in many small ways that show us what the characters can’t tell one another.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School