Movie Reviews: Bridge of Spies, Carol, Black Mass

The Cold War is heading for deep freeze as Bridge of Spies (12A) opens in 1957 with the capture of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in New York. 

Movie Reviews: Bridge of Spies, Carol, Black Mass

Abel’s trial, conviction and execution is a foregone conclusion, at least until high-profile insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a veteran of the Nuremburg Trials, is appointed to defend him — Donovan insists that it is the fairness of American justice, and not Rudolf Abel, that will be on trial in the world’s eyes.

It’s a complex scenario, but things get even more complicated when Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over Russia, is shot down and captured. Can Donovan, operating unofficially in the labyrinthine world of East Berlin, engineer a swap — Abel for Powers — with the Russian authorities?

Written by Ethan and Joel Coen, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies — adapted from James Donovan’s own account of the events — is an unusually mature spy movie. Rather than the conventional tropes of gunplay and dalliances with libidinous femme fatales, the story is far more interested in exploring the realpolitik of espionage (a family man, Donovan insists that Abel is not a traitor who deserves execution, but a brave soldier who deserves respect for doing a dangerous job).

The period detail is exquisite, with the exteriors particularly impressive, and the two leads are both excellent — there’s a caustic edginess to Hanks’s usual turn as America’s Everyman as he defends the Constitution against all comers, while Rylance is quietly mesmerising as the stoical Russian spy with an artist’s eye for detail.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol (15A) opens in New York in the early 1950s with the meeting of socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and shop assistant and aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Their mutual attraction is instant, but acting on their instincts is a tortuously difficult affair, and matters aren’t helped by the fact that Carol is in the process of leaving her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler).

The greatest complication, however, occurs when the vengeful Harge instigates legal proceedings to prevent Carol seeing their young daughter, Rindy (Sadie and Kennedy Heim). Adapted by Phyllis Nagy and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol is a hauntingly painful account of the price of being true to yourself.

It’s a film of wilful contradictions, as Haynes provides a genteel, glamorous and sporadically dream-like setting for a tale that is rooted in sordid bigotry and suffocating expectations, the shimmering patina of 1950’s Manhattan glossing over the ugly truth of Carol’s experience.

It’s all reminiscent of the best work of Douglas Sirk, and while the always excellent Cate Blanchett occasionally overcooks the element of sybaritic elegance in her reading of Carol, Rooney Mara is wonderfully compelling as the young and impressionable but emotionally intelligent Therese, whose sharp eye for the raw detail of life cuts through the artificial constructions of Carol’s agonising experience of loss. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and a bracingly adult take on the soft-focus conventions of the Hollywood romance fable.

Black Mass (15A) stars Johnny Depp as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the most notorious criminal in the history of Boston.

Given carte blanche by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) in return for information on Boston’s Italian mafia, Bulger became a homicidal untouchable who wreaked havoc on South Boston as the leader of the Winterhill Gang, where he was regarded by his working-class constituency as something of a Robin Hood figure.

It’s a gangster flick, then, and a hard-hitting one based on true events, although Scott Cooper’s account is a layered, nuanced affair that doesn’t rely on a high body count for its emotional punch.

The long-standing relationship between Bulger and Connolly — as kids they came from the same neighbourhood, where loyalty was regarded as the greatest virtue — grows increasingly fraught as Bulger oversteps the mark and Connolly scrambles to justify his informant’s actions to his superiors, all the while falsifying the records to make it look as if Bulger is a more valuable asset than he really is.

Further complicating matters is both men’s relationship with Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a respected Senator whose career path is the mirror opposite of Whitey’s. Depp’s turn as Bulger owes a debt (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Departed, but he’s terrific (and unusually understated) as the dead-eyed, rodent-like killer.

He gets very strong support from Cumberbatch and Edgerton, the latter particularly impressive in the way he blends a bluff confidence with his FBI peers with a weaselly obsequiousness around Bulger and his cronies.

Bridge of Spies *****

Carol ****

Black Mass ****

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