Movie reviews: Rosewater, The Canal, Top Five

The Daily Show host Jon Stewart makes the leap from small to big screen as writer-director of Rosewater (15A), a political drama about the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian election. 

Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) travels to Teheran to cover the election for Newsweek, but gets caught up in the widespread protests that follow a deeply suspect, landslide victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Arrested as a Western spy – the evidence in part provided by a comedy sketch Bahari took part in for The Daily Show – the journalist is subjected to months of psychological torture, solitary confinement and mock execution.

The claustrophobic nature of Bahari’s confinement means that Rosewater is not a film that affords much by way of cinematic flair, but Jon Stewart displays a deft touch for storytelling as he documents Bahari’s attempts to remain sane in an increasingly bizarre incarceration.

The relationship between Bahari and his ‘specialist’ interrogator Javadi (Kim Bodnia, in excellent form as the conflicted torturer) is a nuanced one, and brings to mind Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), but the burden of the storytelling rests on Bernal’s shoulders and he responds with a superb performance that incorporates both superhuman mental fortitude and entirely forgivable lapses of spiritual strength.

Leavened by moments of wry humour, the film also functions as an examination of intransigence of all hues, as Bahari engages in combative ‘conversations’ with his dead father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), both of whom died as martyrs to their political beliefs.

Film archivist David (Rupert Evans) should be a happy man as The Canal (16s) opens. Married to the beautiful Alice (Hannah Hoekstra), with a bubbly little boy Billy (Calum Williams), the family lives in a fabulous old house sited on a Dublin canal.

But David suspects that Alice is having an affair with her work colleague Alex (Carl Shaaban), and his sense of unease about marital infidelity is amplified when his own colleague, Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), gives him old film footage detailing a gruesome murder that took place in their home over a century previously.

Edgy and paranoid, David is frantic when Alice disappears one night, but his state of mind takes a further turn into the realms of nightmare when the police decide that he is the lead suspect in her murder. Written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, The Canal is a deeply unsettling horror.

Evans and Hoekstra are excellent in the early stages as a couple growing quickly stilted, their relationship drained of passion and love, and Evans is superb throughout as David struggles to retain a sense of normality for the sake of his son Billy, all the while experiencing visitations that could be ghostly presences or the feverish hallucinations of a damaged mind.

The story stumbles across a number of clichés, it’s true, particularly the cynical investigating police detective, but the supernatural elements are deliciously spooky as David sets out to discover if he truly did kill Alice, eventually, (a neat touch from Ivan Kavanagh), coming to rely more upon the bizarre film footage than his own disordered mind as he tries to establish the truth.

Top Five (15A) stars Chris Rock as Andre Allen, a recovering alcoholic and hugely successful comic actor who is desperate to be reassessed as a serious actor.

Unfortunately, Andre is due to marry his TV reality star fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union) just as his hard-hitting movie of a slave revolution in Haiti is due to arrive, and all his fans and the media want to hear about is the televised wedding.

Interviewed by New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) on the day before his wedding, Andre grows increasingly bitter and honest about his life as he travels around New York visiting his old haunts.

Top Five is written and directed by Chris Rock, a phenomenally successful stand-up comedian and comic actor, and the temptation is to consider it at least partly autobiographical.

Certainly the actor appears to be rather appropriately stilted in the early stages as he pretends to play along with the farce his life has become, and only starts to fully inhabit his role when Andre begins to spew bile about his frustrations.

Either way, Rock is enthralling in the lead role, and he quickly establishes a strong chemistry with Rosario Dawson, playing the equally cynical and thwarted Chelsea.

The story does meander during its middle section, as Rock encounters a host of old friends (including cameos from Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld), but overall it’s a hugely entertaining tale.

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