A Personal Apocalypse

Writer/director Stephen Fingleton discusses the making of his stunning debut, post-apocalyptic character study The Survivalist

Filmmakers have long been obsessed with the mechanics of humanity’s demise, from the dusty dystopia of Mad Max to the decaying wastelands of The Road. For first time Northern Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton, however, the apocalypse was a far more personal concept. “I saw a documentary by Chris Smith, called Collapse, about a very paranoid individual who had a convincing theory about how industrial civilisation would collapse,” Fingleton says. “I was so intrigued by it that I began imagining myself in that circumstance, considering different options for survival.”

The Survivalist: (L-R), Mia Goth, Stephen Fingleton, Martin McCann

The Survivalist: (L-R): Mia Goth, Stephen Fingleton, Martin McCann

The result is The Survivalist, which imagines the shifting dynamics between an isolated male survivor (played by Martin McGann) and the two women (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) who happen upon his forest farmstead. “I was interested in showing what happens after a calamity in a location we’ve not seen, which is a thriving forest depleted of people,” explains the filmmaker of his decision to keep the action in one location. “It’s much more effective if you imagine how devastated everything else will look and how that world has deformed the characters, rather than seeing how the world is deformed.”

In his exploration of post-apocalyptic psychology, Fingleton makes some striking observations about the nature of gender politics in a world stripped of societal rules. “When I began writing the film, I became very interested in depicting human sexuality when the vestiges of society are removed,” he says. “I thought the most interesting way to tell the story was to humanise a man who uses his position, in a way, to have sex. Because men exist in those positions in every facet of modern society and, to some extent, it’s almost a satire of modern sexual politics.”

Given these weighty themes, not to mention the sparsity of dialogue and absence of music, Fingleton knew he had to find a cast able to convey the drama and emotion of his story through performance alone. “Had there been a weak link it wouldn’t have worked, but it was alchemy,” he says of his exceptional trio of actors. “They knew what the truth of the scene was and they were very generous with each other. All three actors brought a huge amount to what is a very underwritten script, and there’s such dimensionality in their performances, and such individual styles.”

Individual is perhaps also the best word to describe The Survivalist itself, which is a strikingly uncompromising work for a first-time writer/director. “The script was very well liked,” Fingleton says of finding supporters who shared his vision, “and I worked with producers who believed in me. Northern Ireland Screen were also onboard, so the main job was to convince the BFI – and they took a lot of convincing. But that process, while challenging, was very useful because I made SLR and Magpie, both of which allowed me to refine elements of my style. When you’re making a film that nobody cares about until it’s made and seen, you have no choice but to try and make something great.”

The reactions of festival audiences and critics – not to mention the BIFA win and BAFTA nomination – would certainly suggest that Fingleton has achieved his goal, and it’s already opening up a wealth of opportunity. “I am working on a large scale US project that I can’t say very much about apart from the fact that it’s set in the future,” he reveals. “It’s a mainstream film with a very provocative idea at its core.” But while this progression from independent film to big budget movie is film-making’s Holy Grail, Fingleton remains pragmatic about the future. “I have a limited window of opportunity to try and realise my ambitions,” he grins, “and I hope to use it.”

 

The Survivalist is released on the 12th February 2016.

The Imitation Game – Review

THE IMITATION GAME

Released: November 14, 2014 (UK) / November 21, 2014 (USA)
Reviewed by: Nikki Baughan 

As outlandish premises go, it sounds like it’s been ripped from the pages of a graphic or science fiction novel. In a top-secret location in sleepy British suburbia, a crack team is assembled to break an unbreakable code and bring an end to one of the bloodiest global conflicts in history, utilising unimaginable technology to do so. Of course, this tale isn’t fantastic fiction but historical fact; a small group of masterminds really did unlock the secrets of the Nazi’s Enigma code machine during World War II, laying bare Hitler’s battle plans and helping Allied forces to victory.

Despite the global significance of this story, the focus here is on one man – the most important man – Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). A socially awkward, mathematical genius, Turing is (reluctantly) recruited by the military to take on a Nazi communication code that is not only completely random but resets every 24 hours. It’s a task that proves insurmountable until Turing invents and builds a machine that he is adamant will do the job… eventually.

In the title role, Cumberbatch is mesmerising. He is an expert at playing characters on the fringes of society (Sherlock, Khan, Julian Assange) and is perfectly cast as Turing, a man who may be able to decipher the most complicated of numerical problems but can’t decode the nuances of human behaviour. By turns Cumberbatch taps into the man’s blustering ego and emotional vulnerability, particularly where his barely concealed homosexuality, then considered a crime, is concerned. He brings a captivating intimacy to this epic story and, hyperbole aside, it is indeed an Oscar worthy performance.

While this may be Cumberbatch’s film, he is surrounded by an excellent cast. Keira Knightley is reminiscent of a fast-talking Howard Hawks heroine as fellow numerologist and Turning confidante Joan Clarke, whose refusal to let her gender stand in her way, despite the conventions of the day, is refreshing and understated. Matthew Goode is also excellent as mathematician Hugh Alexander, whose cerebral head-butting with Turing lends the film some of its more comedic moments.

Overseeing proceedings with a deft hand is Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), making his English-language debut. Just as screenwriter Graham Moore has turned in a well-balanced adaptation of Andrew Hodge’s book, Tyldum takes an equally measured approach, despite the bloody theatre of war in which the film plays out. He knows enough to let this remarkable story tell itself through the experience of its characters, thankfully never feeling the need to hammer its dramatic points – the Blitz, Turing’s homosexuality – into submission. And while the analogy that Turing himself is the biggest enigma of all may be somewhat overplayed, it never overwhelms.

Tyldum is ably assisted by a team of expert craftsmen, including cinematographer Oscar Faura (Julia’s Eyes, The Impossible) and production designer Maria Djurkovic (Mamma Mia!, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) who bring the period setting to vivid life, the rich colours and messy energy of life at the cloistered Bletchley Park contrasting starkly with the shell-shocked, smouldering hues of blitzed London. And composer Alexandre Desplat’s string-heavy music underscores the increasingly panicked urgency of Turing and team’s endeavours.

True, the film doesn’t delve much into Turing’s life outside of the Enigma project, save the narrative bookends of his arrest for homosexual indecency and pre-credits titles explaining his huge contributions to society that went way beyond the war effort, and the devastating personal toll of his sexual persecution. Cinematic constraints also mean that dramatic license has undoubtedly been taken with timelines, characters and certain scenarios. Regardless, as a portrait of an inimitable man at a unique moment in time, The Imitation Game’s focus is clear and compelling; a masterful telling of a fascinating story, it’s an awards season must-see.

5 stars

The Imitation Game screened in the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Interstellar – Review

INTERSTELLAR

Released: November 7, 2014
Reviewed by: Nikki Baughan

In Christoper and Jonathan Nolans’ vision, the end of days won’t come in the blinding flash of light of an errant asteroid or the relentless march of plague. In their imagined near-future, the Earth’s death rattle is long and pitiful; our resources drained, and blight making our crops extinct, we will simply starve. The technology that we’ve come to rely on cannot save us; ‘We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food,’’ says David Oyelowo’s school principal. It’s an apocalypse without fanfare, and chilling in its low-key devastation.

Of course, we will not go gently into that dark night – as we are reminded by frequent recitations of Dylan Thomas’s famous refrain – and so it is that, by way of a storyline that to explain would be to spoil, former pilot turned reluctant farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) finds himself recruited by what’s left of NASA to find humanity a viable new home. Together with scientists Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), plus a couple of wise-cracking monolithic robot co-pilots – the homage to Kubrick very much intended – Coop finds himself pushing the limits of human endeavour to reach those galaxies (very) far, far away. Coop assures his two young children that he will return, but, as his journey through space and time becomes increasingly dangerous, he soon realises it’s a promise that will be difficult to keep.

As the film follows Coop from the smallest, dustiest corner of the dying Midwest to the furthest reaches of space, he becomes a vessel; not just for the hopes of a doomed mankind, but also for our understanding of the truly mind-boggling themes being explored. Refreshingly and bravely for such a big-budget event film, Interstellar’s plot relies heavily on complicated scientific theories, involving the manipulation of time and gravity. As Coop has been brought on board for his flying skills he is, like most of us, a newcomer to these concepts and so needs things to be explained, clearly and often. These expositional conversations between Coop and his colleagues can be clunky, but are certainly effective for ensuring the audience keeps up; no mean feat, given the huge wormholes of astrophysics and relativity theory that we are sent hurtling through at every turn. But, fundamentally, Coops’ naivety is essential to this story; as he absorbs increasing amounts of information, his perception of the world and his place within it evolves and, by the film’s brain-bending climax, presents us with a far-reaching view of mankind and our possible future.

It’s a challenging role to shoulder, and McConaughey brings to it his trademark down home charm. While he may never fully convince as a space traveller, perhaps that is exactly the point; he is an everyman, a representative of and for us, and who wouldn’t falter under the pressure of such enormous responsibility? The scientists who surround him are equally as fallible: Amelia, for example – a supremely intelligent biologist, played with cool-headed resourcefulness by a sterling Hathaway – is also forced to confront her own emotional weaknesses which threaten to put the entire mission in jeopardy.

Indeed, this collision of science and emotion is at the heart of Interstellar. The Nolan brothers have always been adept at delving into the grey areas of the human experience and, while some of the film’s scenes may be dripping with sentiment – Amelia waxing lyrical about the power of love transcending time and space is perhaps a poetic step too far – demonstrate the same expert touch here. Just as Batman’s superheroics are motivated by grief for his parents, and Cobb’s need to be reunited with his family crucial to his actions in Inception, here Coop’s love for his children is a powerful driving force. While he physically explores the great vastness and unlimited possibilities of space, his thoughts are always with them, grieving for the lives that he is missing.

Without revealing too much, Coop’s daughter Murphy (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by Jessica Chastain) is crucial to this story’s resolution; she is, despite the eventual light years between them, her father’s compass, his tether to home and the key that unlocks the greatest of his revelations. She’s a fantastic character, and it’s just a shame that we didn’t spend more time exploring her journey to understanding; her story is sped up through video messages and brief flashes back down to Earth. Still, their eventual reunion is deeply moving, at once underscoring the true cost of Coop’s quest and the ravaging effects of time that are felt by us all. And this is Interstellar’s great truth; while the theories and mechanics that drive us forwards may be challenging, the motivation behind them – love, loss, family – are personal, intimate and universally recognisable. It’s a surprisingly simple, optimistic message; when it comes to our happiness, both present and future, we are our own best hope.

Visually speaking, Interstellar is a masterpiece. Nolan and his team, including cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, have worked absolute wonders, bringing vivid life not just the universe we know but also that which remains a mystery; wormholes, black holes and distant planets rendered breathtakingly beautiful and believable.  

“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,” laments Cooper about the lack of human exploration in a world that can’t afford to waste precious resources on such efforts. He could very well be talking about the stagnation of modern filmmaking, where big money is spent but attention is focused on the bottom line rather than on artistic expression, and the subtext is surely intentional. It would be difficult to not see Interstellar, like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity before it, as a renewed clarion call for a return to more ambitious filmmaking, to the pioneer spirit that bred the likes of Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg and Nolan himself. And when a film is ambitious, intelligent and moving on this scale, you can’t help but be awed.

5 stars