Movie reviews: Free State of Jones, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Deepwater Horizon

Free State of Jones 4/5
Movie reviews: Free State of Jones, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Deepwater Horizon

Set during the American Civil War, Free State of Jones (12A) opens with Confederate soldier Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserting his post and returning home to Jones County, Mississippi.

Outraged by the way Confederate troops ‘tax’ the locals — taking their livestock and crops and leaving defenceless women and children to starve — Knight begins a campaign of resistance that draws fellow deserters and freed slaves.

Soon Jones County has declared itself ‘the Free State of Jones’, a provocation that the Confederate States cannot ignore.

Based on a true story, and directed by Gary Ross, the film is a fascinating account of an historical anomaly, in which men and women, black and white, took to the barricades in what amounted to a proto-Communist uprising in America’s heartland.

Despite the specific setting, it’s an epic, timeless yarn, with Newton Knight something of a Robin Hood of the Mississippi swamps, stealing from the rich and redistributing to the poor as he transforms his ragtag band of troops into experts in guerrilla war.

The contemporary resonances to class warfare are hard to ignore, as Knight rails against the poor (and particularly the ex-slaves) fighting the battles of the rich, but there’s a powerful humanity to go with the economic theorizing, as Knight develops the strongest of bonds with his fellow rebels, in particular Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Moses (Mahershala Ali).

An admirable fidelity to historical fact means the movie concludes in an unusually downbeat fashion by Hollywood’s standards, but it’s a denouement that adds handsomely to the overall authenticity of the piece.

Director Tim Burton has become a byword for gothic excess, but he reins in his imagination (mostly) for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (12A), which is adapted from the best-selling YA novel by Ransom Riggs.

The story opens in contemporary Florida, with teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield) discovering the mutilated body of his grandfather, Abraham (Terence Stamp).

Solving a number of cryptic messages, Jake is soon on his way to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he stumbles into the past and meets the mysterious Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and the children she has sworn to defend against the predations of the ‘hollowgasts’ — humanoid, tentacled monsters, led by the despicable Barron (Samuel L Jackson), who prey on ‘peculiar’ children.

It’s an inventive tale, combining gothic tropes and time-travel (back to WWII) as Jake mourns his recently departed grandfather, struggles to cope with a strained relationship with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), and embarks on a tentative romance with Emma (Ella Purnell), all of it wrapped up in a powerful allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Tim Burton’s fans won’t be surprised to learn that it’s also a visual treat, and the scene in which the hollowgasts do battle with a host of skeletons is a touching homage to the work of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen.

Eva Green steals the show in a strong ensemble cast, with only Samuel L Jackson’s clunky turn letting the side down, with the result that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children… is something of a cult classic in the making — although parents of younger children should be aware that, in places, the tone is very dark indeed.

Deepwater Horizon (12A) stars Mark Wahlberg in a dramatisation of the explosion that occurred on the BP-operated offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, the chief electrical engineer of ‘the well from hell’; as soon as the helicopter taking them to the rig sets down, Williams, his boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez) realise that, with the operation already 43 days and many millions of dollars behind schedule, BP’s executives — led by Vidrine (John Malkovich) — are scheming for drilling to commence without critical tests taking place.

What follows is a vividly depicted account of a man-made disaster as Peter Berg directs with real verve, first creating a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere, and then superbly capturing the chaos that ensues when the explosion lets rip.

It’s an old-fashioned disaster movie — the blazing, floating rig is a blend of those 1970s classics of the genre, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure — but Deepwater Horizon offers more than pyrotechnics and breathless derring-do.

Wahlberg puts in a robust performance as the reluctant hero Williams and Malkovich is brilliantly slimy as the manipulative executive, although it’s Kurt Russell who takes the laurels as the gruff, no-nonsense ‘Mr Jimmy’.

The result, despite the fact that we know in advance what will happen, is that Deepwater Horizon is a gripping drama of grace under pressure.

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