Movie reviews: Kong: Skull Island, Elle, Dancer

Dancer

Here are he top three films you don’t want to miss this week, writes Declan Burke.

Kong: Skull Island 4/5

Elle 4/5

Dancer 5/5

Kong: Skull Island (12A) opens in 1973, as a band of intrepid American adventurers led by visionary explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) head for the South Pacific to map the mysterious Skull Island. 

The party, which includes photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), experienced jungle guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), seems well prepared for every contingency as they journey into the unknown, but even in their worst nightmares they couldn’t have imagined themselves being hunted by a gorilla the size of a small aircraft-carrier. 

King Kong has fascinated movie-going audiences ever since Fay Wray was swept off her feet (and up a skyscraper) way back in 1933, but even the most jaded of Kong-sceptics will likely be impressed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ offering. 

The storyline is entirely bonkers, of course (Packard, embittered by the US Army’s retreat from Vietnam, views Kong as a nightmarish jungle foe he is determined to defeat), but even the improbability of it all adds to the movie’s deliciously old-fashioned appeal, calling to mind creaky classics like The Lost World and The Land That Time Forgot as our doughty heroes slug it out toe-to-toe with various behemoths and prehistoric monsters. 

There’s humour, too, in John C. Reilly’s Marlow, a US airman who has been living on Skull Island since crashing there during WWII, with his and Tom Hiddleston’s characters representing knowing nods to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. 

For the most part, though, Kong: Skull Island is simply great fun as it revels in the visual impact of its gigantic monsters, their regular clashes generating a stunningly impressive spectacle.

Set in Paris, Elle (18s) opens with a harrowing depiction of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) being raped during a home invasion, a scene of visceral intensity made even more disturbing by its lack of context. 

Shocked by the ferocity of the scene, the audience is further unsettled by the victim’s response to her assault, as the glacially self-composed Michèle goes on with her life, managing her computer-game company and attending to the whims of her extended family of inappropriate mother Irene (Judith Magre), needy son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and self-important ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), all the while eschewing the conventional reaction of calling the police as she schemes to track down her attacker herself. 

Paul Verhoeven’s film, which is adapted by David Birke from Philippe Djian’s novel, has been criticised for its unusual depiction of a victim of sexual assault, but Elle has no interest in portraying conventional responses to brutalising trauma: Michèle’s reaction is unique because she is unique, and the more we learn about her, the more gripping her circumstances become. 

Judith Magre, Charles Berling and Alice Isaaz, playing Vincent’s nagging girlfriend Josie, provide strong support, but Isabelle Huppert fully deserved her Oscar nomination for her daring portrayal of Michèle, not least in the way she slowly strips away Michèle’s layers of urbane sang froid to reveal a woman fired in the kiln of a tragic childhood.

Sergei Polunin, the subject of Steven Cantor’s documentary Dancer (PG), was only 19 years old when he was appointed principal lead with London’s Royal Ballet, a phenomenal achievement for a young boy who rose from humble beginnings in his native Ukraine to be acclaimed as the natural heir to Rudolf Nureyev. 

With the world at his feet, however, ‘ballet’s boy wonder’ went off the rails, indulging in recreational drug abuse, adorning himself with tattoos and succumbing to depression. 

Cantor’s narrative is a conventional one, juxtaposing talking heads with home-movie footage of the young Polunin dancing and larking about, but the story told is an absorbing tale worthy of a feature-length drama, as Sergei and his family outline the cruel sacrifices that were required for the prodigy to realise his potential. 

A handsome, charismatic and likeably self-deprecating presence when talking to the camera, Polunin is a man utterly transformed when he begins to move, and the film’s strength is undoubtedly the reams of footage Cantor uses to illustrate the blend of power, elegance and grace of this mercurial dancer. 

Best known beyond the ballet world for the 2015 viral video featuring Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, Polunin is a wonderfully expressive artist and a fascinating study in contrasts, a man who is both devoted to ballet and a slave to its rhythms, a reluctant star who craves self-expression and yet professes himself ‘a prisoner of the urge to dance.’ 

All told, Dancer is a beguiling tale of a divine talent sabotaged by all too human failings.


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