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Film Reviews: All of Us Strangers & Wonka

Arts Review2024-1-5By: Marc Glassman

 

A New Year Full of Fantasy

All of Us Strangers & Wonka

By Marc Glassman

 

All of Us Strangers

Andrew Haigh, director & script based on the book by Taichi Yamada

Starring: Andrew Scott (Adam), Paul Mescal (Harry), Jamie Bell (Adam’s father), Claire Foy (Adam’s mother)

A delicate romantic fantasy, All of Us Strangers is a challenging work that some people will embrace passionately while others may find it to be, as the Brits used to say, “not their cup of tea.” Set-in modern-day London, it demands your emotional engagement, which is more than sufficiently rewarded if you go with its premise. To put it bluntly—hardly the film’s fragile aesthetic stance–All of Us Strangers is a ghost story, though the viewer encounters no horrifying shocks or terrifying spectral sightings throughout the drama.

The film focuses on the lonely attractive figure of Adam (Andrew Scott), a scriptwriter living alone in a new apartment building, which is only beginning to be occupied. One night, another dweller, Harry (Paul Mescal) unexpectedly knocks on Adam’s door and drunkenly tries to pick him up. Despite Harry being undeniably sexy and vulnerable, the startled Adam rejects him. The next day, Adam decides to visit his old hometown, which is only a short train ride from London, and while there, he sees his father (Jamie Bell), who gestures to him to follow him home. There, he is embraced by his mother (Claire Foy), who warmly invites him inside for a visit. Sounds normal? It isn’t—Adam’s parents died in a car crash when he was a boy. 

All of Us Strangers invites us into a strange but compelling world where the dead can quietly become a part of our daily lives. Adam and Harry become involved when next they meet; soon, they are having a passionate love affair. Meanwhile, quite often, Adam goes home to spend time with his parents, who gradually accept the revelation that he’s grown up to be a gay writer. When he isn’t involved with intimate relationships, Adam wrestles with his script and tries to keep agents and producers happy.

Eventually, Adam’s emotional terrain wears thin. Harry wants to meet Adam’s parents, who, in turn, are concerned that their son seems to be unhappy. All good things must end, even ghost stories. Suffice it to say that All of Us Strangers offers us a startling revelation at the end of this poetic chamber piece. 

The film’s director and scriptwriter Andrew Haigh is wonderful at extracting fine performances in his films, and this one is no exception. Zoomer viewers may recall his terrific work with Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, an award-winner about a revelation that upsets a couple who have been married for over four decades. You won’t find better actors than Jamie Bell, Claire Foy, Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott but it still takes an excellent director to get the most out of them, especially in a film that is so interior and exquisite. It’s clear that Haigh is an auteur of the highest calibre and that this film is a testament to his ability to create something truly unique.

Can I recommend All of Us Strangers? Yes, but only to those who are willing to give themselves totally to an odd and extraordinary film. 

 

Wonka

Paul King, director & co-script w/Simon Farnaby

Based on characters by Roald Dahl

Music by Joby Talbot & Neil Hannon

Starring: Timothée Chalamet (Willy Wonka), Calah Lane (Noodle), Keegan-Michael Kay (Chief of Police), Olivia Colman (Mrs. Scrubitt), Hugh Grant (Lofty), Sally Hawkins (Willy Wonka’s mother) Paterson Joseph (Arthur Slugworth), Rowan Atkinson (Father Julius), Tom Davis (Bleacher), Jim Carter (Abacus Crunch)

Long live the musical! If one thing has been proven by the holiday season’s box office results, it’s that people are eager to, once again, go to the cinema to enjoy songs while watching stories unfold on the screen. Two of the biggest hits, The Color Purple and Wonka, were advertised in advance to the public with barely a mention of the fact that there was music in them. Studios were afraid that audiences would stay away from the two pictures—and it turns out they were wrong. As of New Year’s, The Color Purple had already cleared $98 million at the box office while Wonka’s gross in North America is $140 million. Those are astonishing numbers.

It isn’t the music alone that has attracted audiences to Wonka, though it is appealingly funny and artful. The attraction for audiences comes not just from the very clever music by Neil Hannon of the sophisticated Irish pop group The Divine Comedy and contemporary classical composer Joby Talbot but from a combination of the star presence of Timothée Chalamet and the directorial acumen of Paul King. Having scored notable successes with his Paddington films, King clearly understands how to make a film that appeals to kids while being clever and satirical enough to entertain adults. In other words, Wonka is properly calculated to be a family film, perfect for the holidays.

The big attraction to filmgoers young and old is Chalamet, who is developing into a reliable Hollywood star. He’s attractive, sexy in a nice way, and, it turns out, quite charming. His charisma is apparent throughout the film: the camera loves him and so does everyone else except of course, the requisite villains. Chalamet plays the young Willy Wonka—this is a prequel to his later incarnation as the eccentric owner of a chocolate factory—as a naïve lad with a magical touch but no clue when it comes to dealing with the calculations of the Chocolate Cartel. 

Though we’re interested in how Chalamet’s Wonka will beat his nefarious foes, the real appeal is in his friendship with Noodle, a young woman from a diverse and mysterious background, who decides to wise him up, including teaching him to read. (Yes, young Wonka is illiterate, which makes him far more vulnerable to the machinations of the kind of big business operators that King condemns). Chalamet’s open, heartfelt relationship to breakthrough performer Callah Lane’s Noodle is at the core of Wonka; their camaraderie is what makes an audience care about the film. 

Chalamet is still coming to his peak as an actor so it’s no surprise that many of his best scenes are with accomplished performers. Olivia Colman is hilarious as the manipulative Mrs. Scrubitt, the terrible landlady who consigns Chalamet’s Wonka to a life of servitude, since he can’t read the small print (or, indeed, any print) in his rental agreement. Chalamet is content to look befuddled and feed her lines, allowing Colman to have a great time playing an imperious but less murderous version of Mrs. Lovett (from Sweeney Todd). The young star is required to do a bit more when dealing with Hugh Grant, looking profoundly exasperated as the Oompa Loompa Lofty, who wants to get back his cocoa beans and doesn’t mind taking advantage of Wonka in doing so. There’s more of a to-and-fro between Wonka and Lofty, though it must be said that Grant, like Colman, dominates his interactions with Chalamet. 

Wonka does have a classic storyline. It’s the tale of a young man from the country who initially is defeated by evil in the big city, finds great friends who fight with him against all odds and eventually triumphs over his enemies, making all right in the world. If you’re going to play out that plot, you better have a charming (or sexy) hero, funny friends and colourful villains, and an interesting locale (in this case, London) in which to play out the story. Thanks to Paul King, Timothée Chalamet, a fine cast and a good score, the film has taken one of Roald Dahl’s key characters and made something worth seeing. Wonka is a deserved success.

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