An attractive adaption of a classic Russian play and a queasily compelling true crime thriller
When Chekhov first staged The Seagull in St Peterburgh in 1896, it was greeted with catcalls and the stricken author hid backstage rather take a bow. Apparently its audience was expecting a comedy – the sort that would have them rolling in the aisles, and that’s not the prolific writer’s style… About the most mirth anyone will get out this much-staged and now-classic tale of obsessive love and the tangled relationships of some seriously odd Russians is a few wry, melancholic smiles. Most of us though will go along to this latest version to see some of the finest actors currently working in film have the time of their lives with the acerbic dialogue and dry as dirt comic situations. For all director Michael Mayer has needed to do is assemble a sensational cast, put them in a sumptuous old estate on a glorious-looking lake, and tell them to get on with it.
The action kicks off after the haughty, narcissistic famous actress and owner of the estate Irina (Annette Bening) sneers at a pretentious play being staged by her insecure son Konstantine (Billy Howle), who is in a relationship with the lovely but naive Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Who in turn becomes obsessed with Irina’s lover, a callously clever writer called Boris (Corey Stoll), who seduces the girl just because he has nothing better to do, even though he knows his actions will destroy her. Meanwhile Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who pines for Konstantine, mopes about making sarcastic drunken comments about everyone and everything going on – wearing black because, as she announces, “I’m in mourning for my life.” Then there’s Irina’s brother (Brian Dennehy) – the one with the real problem. He actually is dying…
That sound like a comedy? It is, sort of, a caustic one for sure, but with that cast and that source material there was never any doubt the result would be as witty and entertaining as Woody Allen’s best work – an auteur who was always happy to acknowledge how much he borrowed from Chekhov. As in Allen’s comedies, all the characters comment directly on their feelings and the actions of others. Sure they may be in love, but it’s always with the wrong person. Yes they want to be artists or performers, but they don’t have any talent. Needless to say, nothing turns out as they hope and almost everyone ends up with a gnawing sense of betrayal and disappointment. Ahh, those hilarious Russians… Laugh? I nearly cried… M from Oct 4. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★
Right at the start writer/director Bart Layton announces he plans to play with us. “This is not based on a true story” the title’s declare, before the words “not based on” gradually fade away. Meaning that from now on, we’ll be struggling with the veracity of what we’re seeing. He’s taken a true 2004 story of four ordinary college kids who execute a heist of some extremely rare and priceless art books from a Kentucky University library, fused together drama and documentary in a boldly novel way, and then turned his spotlight on motivation, middle class entitlement and the nature of right and wrong. It’s a heady and intelligent mix for sure, and American Animals is an insightful, brainy meditation on what it means to “step over the line” and do something both criminal and stupid. As well it’s a tense, darkly funny and exhilarating heist story in its own right.
The dramatised section, which stars Evan Peters as the wild ringleader, and Barry Keoghan (the creepy kid from The Killing of the Sacred Deer) as the art student who conceived the plan just because he was a bit bored with his mundane prospects, is interspersed with compelling commentary from the real participants, their mortified parents and even the librarian (played by The Handmaid’s Tale Ann Dowd) who is held hostage and in real life, terrorised. They often contradict each other, dispute what we’ve just seen, and everyone has a slightly different version of what really happened. Sometimes the same scene is played twice reflecting the varying points of view. But none of the four participants try to sanitise the events, paint themselves in a positive light, or point the finger of blame to others. They know they stuffed up, and stuffed up badly.
It certainly disallows any notion that crime is a glamorous and thrilling business, and there’s no clever “ironic” twist at the end – the sort that are now compulsory in fictionalised heist movies. There are backhanded tributes to films like Oceans 11 and Reservoir Dogs though (who wants to be called Mr Pink? No one of course), which are not so much referencing those great films as straight-out blatant theft. But that’s the point of Layton’s sharp and smart film – everything is blurred, especially honesty, the truth and integrity… And as for that hackneyed notion of honour among thieves (and filmmakers?)– forget it! MA15+ from Oct 4. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★
Also opening this week
Sydney Film Festival fave, the gob-smacking, astonishing true story Three Identical Strangers is also getting a welcome re-run at Palace Central.
Reviews – Russell Edwards