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EPIC IS JUST OUT OF REACH

FILMS OF THE WEEK

Tom Cruise is a short but accomplished Jack Reacher
Tom Cruise is a short but accomplished Jack Reacher

Midnight's Children (12A)

Jack Reacher (12A)

Reviewed by Demetrios Matheou

Last week I reviewed the excellent adaptation of one Booker Prize-winning novel, Life Of Pi. This week the so-called Booker of Bookers, Midnight's Children, fares far less well. It also involves India, but while the action in Life Of Pi leaves India's shores for a lost-at-sea adventure, Salman Rushdie's novel is deeply concerned with the country and its traumatic history following independence. The movie should be epic, it should be profound, it should be moving. It just isn't.

The story concerns the trials and tribulations of a group of children born on the night of independence from the British Raj, kids whose coming of age corresponds with that of their country. Chief amongst them is Saleem, born in poverty but swapped at birth with a child of wealthy parents. At first he leads a comfortable life that isn't his own, until the reality of his identity is discovered.

Rushdie's tale stretches backwards in time, to 1917, charting the history of Saleem's adopted family, moving towards the boy's birth in 1947, then further through the tumult of partition, the civil war in Pakistan, and the Indian state of emergency in the 1970s. "Handcuffed to history", Saleem and the other Midnight's Children have a terrible time of it.

As an allegory for the birthing pains of his country, Rushdie's approach seems ready-made for film. So why does it feel so laborious? One specific problem is the magical realist introduction of the children's special gifts (including Saleem's telepathy), which feels like a distraction from an already ambitious conceit. More pervasive is the sense that the film is dragging itself, and us, from one momentous event to another, rushing through history to the extent that the treatment becomes increasingly superficial, even twee.

The driving force, of course, is the book, and one can't help feeling that the presence of Rushdie himself, both as screen-writer and narrator, denies the distance required to make a truly memorable stab at the material.

In the opening of Jack Reacher, a sniper sets up shop on a Pittsburgh roof, takes out his rifle, and casually picks off strangers across the water. This may not be a school shooting, but such coldly efficient killing sends a more bitter chill down one's spine than usual in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre. It was the right decision to cancel the US premiere of this film. With its almost fetishistic use of rifles – and one actor making jokes about Americans' right to bear arms – it rekindles the age-old question of whether cinema contributes to such murderous mentalities in the real world.

Putting such considerations aside, this first appearance of author Lee Child's popular creation (based on his ninth Reacher novel, One Shot) is a solid, entertaining crime thriller, with Tom Cruise as the former military policeman turned one-man crime-buster, who sets out to prove the innocence of the chief suspect for the shooting. Fans of the books may balk at the casting of the less-than-average Cruise as the 6' 5" Reacher, but he's in his element as the born investigator with a soldier's skills – no-nonsense, believably tough, with just enough self-deprecation.

The venerable German director Werner Herzog makes a surprising appearance as the chief villain of the piece, a former gulag prisoner who lost his fingers and his soul in Siberia; Herzog's portentous delivery verges on self-parody and allows us, thankfully, not to take any of this too seriously. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, still best known for penning The Usual Suspects, marshals proceedings with a commendably old-fashioned absence of special effects and hi-techery.

Midnight's Children and Jack Reacher are in cinemas now

OPENING ON TUESDAY

The Impossible (12A)

Quartet (12A)

Reviewed by Demetrios Matheou

IT was one of the most memorable Boxing Days ever, for the worst of reasons in 2004 when a tsunami in the Indian Ocean crashed into Thailand, killing thousands of people. The event has been dramatised before, notably in the HBO television movie Tsunami: The Aftermath. But on the big screen, with cinema's special effects to hand and a pair of fine actors essaying the human scale of the tragedy, The Impossible is a much more affecting experience.

It's based on one of the true stories recorded that day, of a family of mum, dad and three sons, who were holidaying when the tidal waves struck. Naomi Watts plays Maria, Ewan McGregor Henry. We first see them on the plane heading towards their holiday, he demonstrating a touch of OCD as he worries that he's left the alarm on at home, she disturbed by the turbulence – day-to-day anxieties that will soon be put into perspective.

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona possesses a restraint – an awareness that less is more – that made his debut, the horror film The Orphanage, all the more scary, and makes this film all the more terrifying.

The tsunami hits suddenly, during the morning after an idyllic Christmas Day. As Maria and her eldest son are swept away by the deluge, desperately trying not to be killed by the cars, trees, people and buildings embroiled in this watery, deadly helter-skelter, the camera is sometimes so close to them that we almost feel their peril ourselves. Bayona cares less about scale (though this is fairly spectacular) than the personal experience of being caught up in the waves; the result is incredibly effective. And then it's over. And the true business of the film begins, as the family struggles to stay alive and find each other in a landscape they can no longer recognise.

Watts portrays a woman battling through serious injury gamely and with aplomb, while McGregor is terribly moving as the man who fears he's lost half his family. Some of the dialogue is a bit ropey, but nevertheless, this is a stirring tale of the courage of ordinary people in a situation that doesn't bear thinking about.

I wish Dustin Hoffman had decided to direct a film when he was younger, when his work as an actor took him to places that were strange (Little Big Man, Tootsie) and dangerous (Straw Dogs, Marathon Man). Then, perhaps, some of that tendency to push himself would have extended to his first film behind the camera. But he didn't, he's now in his seventies, and so we get Quartet, heartfelt yet dispiritingly slight, about a group of elderly people raging against the dying of the light and, in the process, sapping our own will to live.

Curiously, the American directs an all-British affair. Adapted from his own play by Ronald Harwood, the film takes place in a home for retired musicians, whose residents are preparing their annual gala and where a quartet of once-great opera singers tussle over whether to reunite for a final encore.

This rum bunch comprises supercilious Maggie Smith, sombre Tom Courtenay, randy Billy Connolly and dotty Pauline Collins, while their preening director is played by Michael Gambon. One can't help feeling that, canes notwithstanding, this is a walk in the park for all of them.

Courtenay is particularly fine, and Smith can never not be entertaining. "His grandfather made laxatives," she says disdainfully of the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. "Naming a nursing home after him is frighteningly apt." But the performances can't elevate a minor, workmanlike piece.

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