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The best-ever Bond baddie gives an acting masterclass: BRIAN VINER reviews The Roads Not Taken 


The Roads Not Taken (Cinemas, 15)

Rating:

Verdict: Powerful but gloomy 

The Broken Hearts Gallery (Cinemas, 12A)

Rating:

Verdict: Shrill, derivative rom com 

Waiting For The Barbarians (Digital download, 15) 

Rating:

Verdict: Flawed adaptation  

Javier Bardem is a hugely charismatic actor with a thrilling screen presence (I still think he was the best-ever Bond villain, in Skyfall) so it is disconcerting to see him in The Roads Not Taken as a shell of a man, assailed by early-onset dementia.

He plays the part brilliantly, of course, but even in the fairly frequent flashbacks to his old life, his character — Leo, a writer — is a sombre, troubled soul.

The film opens in a tatty Brooklyn apartment with Leo lying semi-comatose in bed and his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) desperately phoning him. She is due to take him to the dentist and then to have his eyes tested, and her challenging day with him provides the framework for the story, with sporadic tangents into his addled mind.

He keeps thinking back to experiences with his first wife (Salma Hayek) in his native Mexico, then to the early years of his second marriage, when he spent time in Greece away from his wife and baby Molly. Yet it gradually becomes clear, or clearish, that these digressions are not always accurate recollections but often fantasies of what might have been, had he made different choices… hence the title.

Javier Bardem is a hugely charismatic actor with a thrilling screen presence (I still think he was the best-ever Bond villain, in Skyfall) so it is disconcerting to see him in The Roads Not Taken (pictured) as a shell of a man, assailed by early-onset dementia

Javier Bardem is a hugely charismatic actor with a thrilling screen presence (I still think he was the best-ever Bond villain, in Skyfall) so it is disconcerting to see him in The Roads Not Taken (pictured) as a shell of a man, assailed by early-onset dementia

The film’s English writer-director, Sally Potter, had a brother with early-onset dementia, so this was an intensely personal project for her, which doesn’t equate to the easiest of rides for her audience.

Nevertheless, I can see it must be soothing to think of a beloved relative in the grip of such a horrible disease still being able to take vivid mental journeys.

The best reason to see the film is the acting. Bardem is as magnetic as ever and Fanning is heartbreakingly good as Molly, seemingly the only person, medical professionals included, who treats her father with any empathy. Why does everyone keep referring to him as ‘he’ and ‘him’, she rages, ‘as if he’s not here?’ ‘Well, is he?’ replies her unsympathetic mother (Laura Linney).

There are some powerful scenes as Molly dutifully but lovingly nursemaids her dad through his day at the expense of an important work opportunity. But it’s not what you’d call fun.

Then again, a film can work too hard to be fun — and The Broken Hearts Gallery, a debut feature written and directed by Natalie Krinsky, is such a film.

It stars the Australian actress Geraldine Viswanathan, who stood out from the pack in the raucous 2018 comedy Blockers, but here overdoes the kookiness by 25 per cent.

The script overdoes it, too. This is a romantic comedy set in New York that proclaims its debt to the TV series Sex And The City, and to various Noah Baumbach films, with shrill excitement.

Viswanathan plays Lucy, a gallery assistant reeling from a break-up who has the ‘bright’ idea of inviting people to leave mementos of broken relationships fixed to a wall, by way of closure. The wall she picks is in a half-built boutique hotel belonging to cash-strapped entrepreneur Nick (Dacre Montgomery), who is so obviously a perfect match for her that naturally she alone doesn’t see it.

The film has next to no originality, and the presence of Utkarsh Ambudkar as the rotter who breaks Lucy’s heart served only to remind me of a similarly themed, but infinitely wittier, movie in which he also appeared, last year’s charming Brittany Runs A Marathon.

Johnny Depp, somehow managing to be hammy while rarely troubling to rearrange his face into an actual expression in Waiting For The Barbarians (pictured)

Johnny Depp, somehow managing to be hammy while rarely troubling to rearrange his face into an actual expression in Waiting For The Barbarians (pictured)

There are rotters everywhere in Waiting For The Barbarians, a peculiar film based on the 1980 novel by J.M. Coetzee.

But among them is one man of transcendent, almost Christ-like goodness, nicely played by Mark Rylance.

We know him only as The Magistrate, the governor of a frontier garrison in an unnamed country, in an unspecified century.

Johnny Depp, somehow managing to be hammy while rarely troubling to rearrange his face into an actual expression, is the cruel police chief sent to oust him, in readiness for a predicted attack by the so-called barbarians.

The book, with its themes of paranoia and totalitarianism, was acclaimed as a masterpiece. But the film, which also stars Robert Pattinson and was adapted by Coetzee himself, doesn’t quite work.

Who Is that masked superstar-in-the-making?

This is the 77th and surely the strangest Venice Film Festival of all, even allowing for the years when Mussolini tried to turn it into a show of fascist might. 

The world’s oldest film festival is the first to take place since the pandemic struck, and the number of movie stars on the terrace of the swanky Excelsior Hotel is accordingly depleted. 

Even identifying the few who have come to the Venice Lido isn’t always easy, under their masks.

Behind the PPE: Vanessa Kirby

Behind the PPE: Vanessa Kirby

Still, everyone here is thrilled to be back, which may be why films are getting enthusiastic applause they don’t always deserve.

Two that resoundingly do feature Vanessa Kirby, the English actress who was such a revelation as the young Princess Margaret in the Netflix series The Crown, and is now well on her way to becoming a major star.

She plays Americans in both films, though one is set in modern-day Boston, the other in frontier territory in the 1850s.

In the former, Pieces Of A Woman, Kirby plays Martha, who is about to give birth for the first time — although by the end of a harrowing pre-title sequence, she has lost her baby. It is a home birth and the midwife (Molly Parker) appears to be at fault.

Criminal proceedings begin, but director Kornel Mundruczo’s film focuses on the impact of the tragedy on Martha’s relationships — above all with her construction-worker husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and her mother (Ellen Burstyn), who has always felt that Martha married beneath her. Burstyn, now 87, is magnificent. But this is Kirby’s film. It’s a spellbinding performance.

She is terrific, too, in Mona Fastvold’s The World To Come, a love story narrated through the diaries of Abigail (Katherine Waterston, also excellent), a downtrodden farmer’s wife who finds solace in the arms of a new neighbour, the more outgoing Tallie (Kirby).

I loved The Duke, an out-of-competition film telling the true story of the theft of Goya’s painting of the Duke of Wellington, which stars Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren; and also greatly admired the Festival’s opening film, the Italian-language Lacci (The Ties).

But the film I was looking forward to most, Regina King’s One Night In Miami, fictionalising the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s 1964 defeat of Sonny Liston, was poorly scripted, over-theatrical and a thumping disappointment.

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