On The Beach

It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.

Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.

The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.

In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.

In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.

Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.

Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.

I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”

That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.


The Second Book of Job

Most people are acquainted with the beginning and the end of the Biblical story of Job. They know about God letting the Accuser, Satan, test Job’s devotion through all manner of calamities. (The book reflects an earlier Hebrew understanding of Satan as a servant of God, before influences from cultures that conquered Israel turned it into an adversarial relationship.) Job passes the test and has all he’s lost restored to him plus more beside. In between, though, there are 36 chapters of dialogue between Job and three of his friends – though with friends like these you don’t need enemies. They’re convinced that Job has sinned, because why else would all these calamities happen to him, and they basically tag-team Job to get him to confess. Job resists and keeps his faith in God. In the end God re-enters the scene, puts everyone in their place, and honors Job’s faithfulness. In a way, you could think of the new movie The Shack, and the book on which it’s based, as a different version of Job. In this case the calamities have broken Job’s faith, and instead of facing unhelpful friends, Job goes directly to an encounter with the Trinitarian God to gain understanding of suffering and grace.

Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) grew up in the church, but it was a toxic relationship. His father, a church elder, was a closet drunk and wife-beater. Mack breaks his silence in the church to help his mother, but instead of receiving help he ends up being beaten himself by his father. A couple of decades later, the adult Mack is living in Oregon. He’s married to a wonderful woman, Nan (Radha Mitchell), and they have three beautiful children: Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe), and Missy (Amelie Eve). They attend church with their neighbor Willie (Tim McGraw), and Nan and the children have a close relationship with God, who Missy calls Papa. Then, while the kids are camping with Mack, Missy is kidnapped. The FBI believes she’s been taken by a predator who’s struck five times before. While canvassing the area, they find Missy’s dress and blood on the floor of a dilapidated shack, but her body’s never found.

By that winter, Mack is a shell of a man, devoured by his grief. Then a note appears in his mailbox, addressed to Mack only by name. It says they haven’t talked for a long time and if he’d like to meet, then come to the shack the next weekend. It’s signed Papa. Mack goes to the shack, wondering if it’s a ploy by the man who took Missy. Instead as he approaches the building he steps from winter into a beautiful summer day and finds the shack changed into a lakefront cottage. Inside are Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

It took ten years for this bestseller to make it to the screen. At one point Lionsgate was the primary production company, and Forest Whitaker was attached as director. Summit Entertainment took over for Lionsgate, though they’re still a distributor. Whitaker dropped out and Stuart Hazeldine was selected instead. Hazeldine was known mostly as a script doctor, having done uncredited rewrites for Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he’d also received good reviews for his debut feature, a psychological thriller entitled Exam. The Shack had a modest budget for a major US feature these days – $20 million – and Hazeldine makes it look like he had five times the money with which to work. The screenwriters – John Fusco (Hidalgo), Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham – created an adaptation that is remarkably faithful to the original book.

Worthington, Spencer, Mitchell, and McGraw are all well-known and bring a competency to the movie that is too often missing from what’s identified as Christian film. Often that’s used as an excuse: “It’s a good film for a Christian movie.” The Shack doesn’t need that qualifier; it’s a good film that happens to deal with Christianity (more on that later). Spencer is wonderful as the personification of God throughout most of the film, in particular for her ability to deliver witty zingers to Mack while still communicating deep love. I will note two minor quibbles with Worthington: early in the film, he shows Mack’s depression by speaking so softly you can hardly hear him; later, when emotions come out, so does a trace of his Australian accent. Otherwise, he was effective in a challenging role.

The film also features Graham Greene and Alice Braga in smaller roles, though they are integral to the story. A pleasant surprise was the performances of Avraham Aviv Alush and Sumire Matsubara as Jesus and the Holy Spirit respectively. (Sarayu, the name used for Matsubara’s character, is the Sanskrit word for “wind,” which is how the Spirit is described in the Bible.) Alush is an Israeli actor who’s blessedly natural in the role. He’s also not blond or blue-eyed, which is a large step toward authenticity in my humble opinion. Matsubara comes across at first as delicate and ephemeral, but later we also see her strength. Megan Charpentier is also excellent as the daughter who comes close to following her father’s path.

Usually films dealing with Christianity or the Bible wind up at two ends of the spectrum:  faithful but amateur, or high-end mush. This can be seen in a couple recent releases. On the faithful amateur side there’s God’s Not Dead, with its stiff acting, cardboard characters, and a script that had the subtlety of a 2×4 to the head. (You could also include any film that Kirk Cameron’s done in the last two decades.) On the other side you have high-budget Hollywood pictures that make a complete mess of the story, like the Russell Crowe Noah or Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The satirical site the Babylon Bee recently ran a story that the Oscars would hand out an award for the least-offensive Christian movie this year. “Academy members reportedly sat through hours of grueling Christian films in an effort to select the one that was the least offensive in terms of quality, production value, writing, and acting.” As with all satire, it’s just a little bit past reality.

The Shack charts a different course by dealing realistically with problems that so many people face – problems that have driven people away from God. The old question that sums up the stumbling block for many people is, “How can God be a God of Love when He lets these horrible things happen?” The Shack confronts that question straight on, in a way that is both spiritually valid, and emotionally raw. The author has said that the shack is a metaphor for the soul.

The book was written by William P. Young as a way back from his own spiritual nadir. He’d been a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, living among the cannibal tribes until he was six and sent off to boarding school. At the school there was systematic abuse, a Protestant version of the Catholic priest scandals, and Young was a victim. While he was outwardly okay with a wife and family, inside he was broken and reached bottom after having an affair with one of this wife’s friends. He wrote “The Shack” over the course of six years as he struggled with the nature of God in light of what had happened to him. When he finished, he printed copies and gave them to his family as a literary mea culpa. Following that, he tried to get it published. Twenty-six publishers rejected it, so Young self-published. Word of mouth pushed it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback novels, with it selling over 4 million copies in a little over a year. Young now has an arrangement with the major publishing house Hachette.

While many have embraced the story, there has also been a strong negative reaction to it among Evangelical Christians. Some object to its portrayal of God as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as a mysterious asian woman; they claim it promotes feminism, or a form of goddess worship. Others say it’s just a novel or just a movie but it shouldn’t be taken in a theological way. A professor at a conservative Christian college in Portland wrote an article about the book calling it “the greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years.” His main problem with it is termed “universalism” which is the idea that all humanity can be saved by God. (It’s the same controversy that caused the Evangelical church to disown Rob Bell when he published “Love Wins.”)

There is a strong strain of paternalism in some branches of Christianity. The thought that God could exhibit female traits strikes them as heresy, even though in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says of the people of Jerusalem, “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” This insistence on the dominant male God has become a stumbling block for many today who, because of abuse or other family problems, cannot relate to the idea of God as a loving father. In fact, Papa explains to Mack that that’s the reason for her form. (Later in the movie, Octavia is replaced by Graham Greene for a sequence because, as Papa then tells Mack, “For what you face now you need a father.”) For me, my answer for this is: If you proclaim God as omnipotent – all powerful – then why limit God by your own prejudices?

While The Shack is written as a novel and presented as a film entertainment, that doesn’t negate it as a source of theological thought and reflection. For many, the novels of C.S. Lewis, such as the Narnia series or “The Screwtape Letters,” are as much theological commentary on life as they are novels. And it should be remembered that almost all of the popular imagery of heaven and hell comes not from the Bible but from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” written in 1320.

Universalism flies in the face of conservative Christianity because of their strong focus on sin and repentance. It has its seed in the Protestant Reformation, which was partially the result of the Renaissance Popes monetarizing grace through the selling of indulgences – basically “Get out of Hell Free” cards. As happens, reactions can go far to the other side of the spectrum. Later in the Reformation some put forward the idea of predestination, that a person is formed as righteous or fallen before birth and there’s nothing they can do about it. That teaching has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, but some believers are offended at the idea that people they consider horrible sinners could still receive grace from God.

The Shack, though, features a sparkling explanation of grace and redemption through the course of the film. The answers it gives aren’t easy or simple, since the questions aren’t easy or simple either. But for those who bring up universalism as their complaint against the film, they should remember that after the rich young ruler went sorrowfully away in the gospel, the disciples wondered how anyone could be saved. Jesus’ response was. “For man some things are impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Again, we shouldn’t let our human understanding and prejudices shrink God down to our size.

So some Christians will be upset that The Shack doesn’t fit their notion of God. I heard someone created a meme with a picture of the shack along with every heresy they believe the story contains. Other Christians will find it illuminating and affirming (I’m one of those). The focus is on restoration and renewal of the relationship between Mack and Papa, and through that the restoration of the reader/viewer’s concept of God. Throughout the movie, the dialogue gives you plenty to think about, but it goes down like a cup of fresh, cold water.

But what if you feel like you are a Job, burdened and broken? What if you’ve lost any belief in God, or have turned away because God now seems to be the mascot of politics and of those who put condemnation before love or grace? What if you know your own shack is run down and hardly habitable, but you see no way to repair it? Then please do see this movie.

A Life In Three Pieces

On the face of it, the award-winning film Moonlight fits into that most stalwart of literary genres, the coming-of-age story. Whether it’s Great Expectations, The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, or A Separate Peace, the form deals with the passage from childhood to adulthood, and all the snares and traps along the way. It has also chronicled the Black experience with I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings, Black Boy, and Native Son. Moonlight, though, turns this into a coming-to-peace story, overcoming prejudice and hate.

It’s a story in three pieces, with three different actors portraying the central character. The movie’s poster beautifully conveys this – take a close look at it. Highlighting the trilogy, the main character’s name changes with each segment. Little (Alex Hibbert) is a painfully quiet boy living in the Daly City area of Miami. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict and Little is constantly bullied by neighborhood boys. He finds an unusual mentor in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer in the area. In High School, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still faces the bullying. He finds one moment of peace and acceptance with another boy in his school, only to have it destroyed. As an adult, Black (Trevante Rhodes) has followed a path that has him acting out the role of his mentor, Juan. Then a late-night call offers the chance for restoration.

Director Barry Jenkins had done short films and one micro-budgeted feature before, but Moonlight received support from production companies A24 and Plan B to the tune of $5 Million. Plan B is Brad Pitt’s company, and Pitt serves as an executive producer. That’s a long shoestring, but still a shoestring budget these days. Jenkins also wrote the screenplay based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s a movie where silence speaks eloquently. Hibbert as Little has maybe one paragraph’s worth of dialogue during his section of the movie, but his body language speaks volumes.

Harris is the only actor who appears in all three sections. Most people know her as Moneypenny in Skyfall, though I remember her from 28 Days Later. Here she steps it up several notches to offer a searing portrait that’s been rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar after also receiving nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG awards. It’s an extremely talented category this year with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams, but Harris is deserving of consideration. Mahershala Ali is also Oscar-nominated, and after his surprise win at the SAG awards he has momentum going for him. While physically imposing, he gives a restrained, even tender performance as Juan. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes combine for an indelible performance that blends perfectly. At the end of the film when Black takes center stage, you still feel Little and Chiron inside him, which makes it all the more emotionally impacting.

Along with the acting nominations, Jenkins has nominations for best director and adapted screenplay. The movie also received nods for cinematography, original score, editing, along with best picture of the year, for a total of 8. James Laxton’s cinematography is excellent, making you feel the heat of the sun-drenched days, though at night the world becomes rich and beautiful in the moonlight. Jenkins remembered when he was growing up in the Miami area how people’s skin glowed in the sun. Most movie makeup for Caucasian skin involves powder to dampen shine, but for Moonlight Jenkins used oil to capture the sheen he remembered.

The power of film is to put the audience into situations – and into skins – that are on the surface different from their own experiences. In doing so it makes those situations and people understandable and relatable. When it does its work right, those feelings persist so the understanding remains long after the lights in the theater come up. Moonlight accomplishes that with devastating power, but also in the end with hope.

On the Other Hand

I recently decided to stream a 2014 movie based on a well-received YA novel. I’d thought about seeing it in the theater on its first run but the word of mouth on it wasn’t great. So it took me a while to give If I Stay a chance. It starred Chloe Grace Moretz whom I enjoyed in Kick-Ass, Hugo, and Let Me In. On the negative side there was the remake of Carrie, though that misfire all wasn’t her fault.

The movie was the first fiction feature for R.J.Cutler, who is more known as a TV producer (Nashville, Flip That House) and a documentary maker (1993’s The War Room, The World According to Dick Cheney). The novel by Gayle Foreman was adapted by Shauna Cross, who’d done the screenplays for Whip It and What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Foreman did write a sequel  for “If I Stay” called “Where She Went” which kind of answers the original novel’s title right off the bat.

The caught-between-life-and-after-life genre has some good movies in it, but it also has some stinkers. The production is dealing with a universal moment for all humans; simply put, none of us gets out of here alive. You can’t get away from the profundity of the situation, even though it can be handled with humor. What you don’t want is a casual feel since, to use the cliché, this is a matter of life and death. You want to get down and dirty and struggle with the theme. The biggest problem with If I Stay is it keeps its hands clean.

The movie adaptation is straightforward, following the structure of the book. Mia (Moretz) is a 17-year-old High School senior who’s a talented cellist. She’s auditioned for Juilliard and is waiting to hear from them, and she’s also dealing with the end of a relationship with rock band frontman Adam (Jamie Blackley). On a drive with her mother Kat (Mireille Enos), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) and young brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), an oncoming car comes into their lane and hits them head-on.

Mia awakens on the snow-covered road with emergency service vehicles all around her. She sees what’s left of the family car, which isn’t much, and then she sees EMTs working on her body. She’s transported to the hospital where she watches the surgeons work on her body, but she slips into a coma and no one is sure if she’ll awaken. The movie flips back and forth from the hospital to events to show her family life, her development as a cellist, and her relationship with Adam. At the hospital, friends and family gather, including her grandfather (Stacy Keach), her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato), and Adam.

The best parts of the movie are the depiction of the relationship between Mia and her parents and family. Enos is luminous as Kat, and was likely happy to do a much more passionate role after the two seasons of the AMC series The Killing. Keach is restrained and effective as he switches between stoicism when around others and emotional vulnerability when alone with his comatose granddaughter.

While it has a promising beginning, the love story of Adam and Mia fails to be compelling because of clunky writing that slips into clichés so badly you’re pretty sure you’ve already seen their scenes before. Adam is on the cusp of success in his rock band while Mia’s hero is Beethoven. The story plays up the difference in styles rather than understanding how they blend. The writers apparently nere listened to the Beatles (“Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” in particular), almost any Harry Chapin song, or Damien Rice’s “Volcano” among a host of others. For a movie that centers on music, its poor understanding of the art form is like a flapping flat tire as the story’s progresses.

If I Stay suffers in comparison to other YA book adaptations, especially The Fault in Our Stars, which came out a few months before If I Stay. With Fault the audience was drawn in completely to the relationship of Hazel and Gus, and the story went in surprising directions. With Mia and Adam, you don’t really care about them, so you also don’t care if Mia stays or passes on. For a fantasy like this, that’s a fatal flaw.

Still Powerful

I recently watched Atonement again for the first time since I saw it in the theater when it was released in 2007. I’d found it devastatingly powerful the first time I viewed it, and that power was still just as potent nine years after its release.

The movie is based on the award-winning 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. The adaptation by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, The Quiet American) is remarkably faithful to the book. The one major change is the epilogue to the story, and Hampton improves on the book by making it more suitable for film. The story plays with perceptions and misconceptions, folding back on events to view them from different angles. It’s not exactly the untrustworthy narrator that’s recently gained popularity in books and movies like Gone Girl. If anything, it has some of the blood of Rashomon flowing through its veins.

The first part of the story takes place on a beautiful summer’s day in 1935 at the Tallis country estate in England. The central focus is on the precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer and has prepared a play for her visiting cousins to help her perform after dinner that evening. Briony’s older sister Cecilia is home from Cambridge, as is the housekeeper’s son Robbie, whose way is being paid by the Tallis family. Briony sees what she believes to be an argument take place between Cecilia and Robbie, and later intercepts a note that leads her to believe Robbie is a perverse sex maniac. When Briony’s cousin Lola is attacked that night, Briony denounces Robbie as the attacker and he’s arrested.

The remainder of the film deals with the repercussions from that event. For Robbie they include joining the army as a way out of prison, which finds him in Dunkirk with the retreating British Expeditionary Force in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940. He’d seen Cecilia before he was deployed, and now his focus is to make it back to England for her. Briony is older and wiser now, but testimony against Robbie has caused a complete break with Cecilia. She puts her education on hold to work as a nurse when the war breaks out, though she continues writing. Her great hope, though, is to be reconciled with Cecilia and Robbie.

The excellence of the casting has improved with age. Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy star as the star-crossed lovers. Knightly was well established by this point, having done Bend It Like Beckham five years earlier, followed by Love Actually and Pride and Prejudice. She’d also done the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, finishing it just before Atonement. It likely felt like returning to her roots after the temporary transplant to Hollywood. McAvoy was starting to make a name for himself in films after a decade in British television, including a role in the original English version of “Shameless.” He’d gained notice in 2005’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and then broke out with The Last King of Scotland the next year. There’s a definite, understated chemistry between the two that makes the story work.

The pivotal role is Briony as a child, and here the production lucked out by casting Saoirse Ronan in her first major role. She’s pitch perfect as the too-mature-but-not-mature-enough Briony, and the performance was impressive enough to earn her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She had a couple of missteps on her way to becoming a lead actress with The Lovely Bones and Hanna, two movies that weren’t so much bad as could have been a lot better, and we’ll forget about The Host (as most everyone has by now). With Brooklyn she showed her mature power as a performer, and I look forward to what she will do in the future.

The casting director, Jina Jay, found some excellent actors for supporting roles who’ve continued on giving fine performances. Brenda Blethyn was well known already and had an Oscar nomination for Secrets and Lies. She played Robbie’s servant mother, after having just recently played Kiera Knightly’s mother in Pride and Prejudice. There were three actors who were pretty much unknowns at the time of filming who have gone on to bigger careers. Juno Temple, who played Briony’s cousin Lola, hasn’t made as big a splash as she deserves, despite good work in films such as The Brass Teapot and Horns. A small role as a servant was played by Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones” and was recently in John Wick. But the biggest casting coup was that of candy magnate Paul Marshall, a guess of the Tallises that fateful night, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who’d already worked with Knightly on Pride and Prejudice and would work with both Knightly and Ronan again, on Anna Karenina and Hanna respectively. He carefully moves his camera to capture scenes from different angles, first putting you into Briony’s mind, then changing the view. When Robbie gets to Dunkirk, Wright has his camera flow in one continuous five-minute long take that winds through the confusion and fortitude of the British awaiting rescue on the beach. It’s a tour-de-force shot with a thousand extras that was shot over two days – one day for rehearsal, the other for five takes of which the third was used.


It’s a bit of an injustice that Wright wasn’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar, even though he did received nominations for both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards. Atonement received a Best Picture nod, and along with Saoirse Ronan’s nomination the picture received seven. It only won one, for Dario Marianelli’s score that incorporates typewriter strokes like drum beats.

In the novel the epilogue is a 1999 letter from Briony as the author of the piece. Hampton changes it to a television interview with her on the occasion of the book’s publication, her 20th novel. Briony is now played by Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s interviewed by the late writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), who passed away the year after Atonement was released. The brief, memorable scene explains the name of the film, and it will stay with you long after you see this magnificent film.

The Long Crawl Home

It’s Oscar Sunday, and in a couple of hours the odds are that Leonardo DiCaprio will finally receive a Best Actor Oscar on his fourth try. He’s also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor when he was a child actor (for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and he was in line for a Best Picture Oscar as a producer of The Wolf of Wall Street, but he’s O for 6 as I write this. It’s not the longest drought – Peter O’Toole was nominated 8 times in a span to over 40 years and never won. Paul Newman was on his seventh nomination before he finally won for, oddly enough, reprising a character he’d performed 25 years earlier for which he received his second nomination – “Fast Eddie” Felson (in The Hustler and The Color of Money). If DiCaprio does win, he will have something else in common with Newman, for his performance in The Revenant is not his best.

Revenant means someone who has returned from the dead, and the movie is loosely based on Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and guide who was mauled by a bear while on an expedition in 1823 in the territory that became the Dakotas. Glass was left for dead but managed to survive and make his way 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa. This isn’t the first major film to tell the story. 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris and John Houston, was also based on Glass, though in the film his first name is changed to Zachary.

The Revenant began development in 2001, when producer Akiva Goldman bought the rights to Michael Punke’s book before it was published. As often happens, it was caught in limbo for many years with different versions of the screenplay and different actors attached to the project, including Christian Bale and Samuel L. Jackson. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu came on board in 2011, after directing Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy signed on around that time as well. However, some of the financing fell through which caused the film to be put on hold. Inarritu instead did Birdman as his next film, which took several Oscars last year, including 3 for Inarritu (Picture, Directing, and Editing).

When the financing finally came together, Inarritu began filming in Canada, but a mild winter necessitated a move to the southern tip of South America. Inarritu eschewed filming with green screen, so the scenes had to be filmed in pristine wilderness. In the end the original budget of around the $65 million range had more than doubled, but the scenery in the film is spectacular.

What isn’t as spectacular is the screenplay which drifts over the course of the film’s 2 ½ hour running time. It’s the polar opposite of Birdman, which had some of the sharpest dialogue that’s been put on film. Large stretches of The Revenant take place with no dialogue at all. DiCaprio’s Glass is presented as a haunted man whose Pawnee wife was killed and who is now dedicated to his son Hawk (Forest Goodluck). When hostile Arikara warriors attack the expedition, the men are forced to abandon their boat and make for Fort Kiowa by land. Inarritu’s filming of the attack is a high-point for the film, capturing the confusion and brutality of battle in one long stylish shot with the camera doing 360 degree pans as the action flows around it.

The leader of the group, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), has the group hide the pelts they’ve caught and then set out for the fort. Glass is scouting away from the others when he’s set upon by a Grizzly. It is an extended, brutal scene with Glass fighting for his life. The others find Glass clinging to life and try to carry him with them, but the terrain is too difficult. Henry asks for volunteers to stay with Glass to bury him when he passes. Hawk stays, along with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).

Hardy disappears into his character as usual, and he is mesmerizing in the role. Poulter plays Bridger as youthful and inexperienced, which is historically correct. While Jim Bridger became a legendary mountain man who helped explore the West and was one of the first to describe what became Yellowstone Park, at the time of Glass’ attack he was 19 and new to the territory.

After the Arikara and the bear, the story focuses on Glass’ long struggle to get back, and that’s where the movie turns into a bit of a long slog for the audience. It would have been a physically taxing shoot for DiCaprio, and that has appealed to the voters this award season. Actors who play roles where the character dies or has a physical handicap have always had an advantage in the Oscar race, and DiCaprio has both of those covered in a sense. He is also deserving for his whole body of work, and that is considered by voters as well. But I wouldn’t rate this as his best performance. (I confess to a soft spot for The Aviator and The Departed, while others would choose The Wolf of Wall Street or one of his other memorable roles.)

The film has been nominated for 12 Oscars, mostly because it fits the place of a blockbuster with its scope. Different from, say, Titanic, it may not capture the majority of those categories. But I wouldn’t bet against Leo.

Rising Above

The old cliché is that a movie’s story was “ripped from the headlines,” the predecessor of “based on a true story.” Oftentimes those “ripped” stories involved a prurient element or a sensational slant, and the movies were the B pics of the 1950s, the exploitation films of the 1970s, or the latest offering on Lifetime Channel today. However, movies can rise above that level. Instead of waving around a black-and-white ripped picture, they can create an oil painting that’s richly colored and textured with the nuance of light and shadow. Room is such a picture.

While there have been stories in the papers about situations similar to the one in Room, this film carries no “based on a true story” line. Instead it was based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue, and Donoghue also did the screenplay for the film. It’s not easy to capture the complexity of a novel well on the screen – another too-often true cliché is that the book’s better than the movie – but Donoghue has done a sterling job.

Room is essentially told from the viewpoint of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who is about to have his 5th birthday. To him, the room where he lives with Ma (Brie Larson) is his world; to start his day he walks around and greets the bed, the wardrobe, the stove, and the other elements of the room as if they are fellow inhabitants. There’s no window, only a skylight, and while they have a television Ma has told him that the programs are all made up things, not real. She created the fiction to hide the truth from Jack that for 7 years she has been imprisoned by a man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). For the first part of the night, Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, so he can’t see what happens when Old Nick comes into the room. As time goes by, though, Ma begins to fear that Old Nick may intend to harm Jack. She devises a plan to get them out, but first she must destroy the fantasy world she’s created for Jack.

Normally for a “ripped from the headlines” movie, it would end with the escape. With Room it’s only the first half of the film. Just as compelling – in some ways even more powerful – is the struggle of both Ma and Jack to integrate into the world outside of Room. Donoghue looks at how Ma’s parents Robert and Nancy (William H. Macy and Joan Allen), whose marriage dissolved after Ma’s abduction at 17, deal with both her return as well as having a new grandson under those circumstances. Where does Nancy’s new husband Leo (Tom McCamus) fit in with these dynamics?

Brie Larson had done an excellent job earlier in 2015 as Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck, but that was just an hor d’oeuvre while Room is a seven course meal. She has to flow through a massive range of emotions within multiple scenes and she nails it each time. It is a fierce performance, and last weekend Larson won the SAG award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for the performance, beating out both Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, among others. It was richly deserved.

Even more vital to the success of the movie, though, is Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack. It is without artifice, wonderfully natural. There are times he’s harsh and judgmental, just like a normal child can be, but you also see the indelible bond between Ma and Jack. Room may be their physical world, but emotionally they are each other’s world.

Director Lenny Abrahamson has mostly worked in his native Ireland in independent films and television. He guides the story with a fine sense of balance and understanding of the characters. Filming inside the room so that the audience feels the claustrophobic world would have been a challenge for any director, but Abrahamson also imbues the filming with Jack’s sense of wonder and innocence.

Room has been nominated for Best Picture, and also was tagged for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress. This is an incredibly powerful, raw, and in the end life-affirming film. It goes beyond the surface of the horrifying situation and refuses to sensationalize it. Instead you care for Ma and Jack as people, not plot points. In the end this is a story of human resiliency, and also of grace.