Coen brothers deliver the goods

FILM
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Cert 15 | By Alex Dymoke
Four Stars

INSIDE Llewyn Davis is an offbeat, directionless sulk through the unforgiving streets of early 60s New York. These 60s don’t so much swing as shiver: winter-time Greenwich Village is wan, washed-out, freezing. The aspiring musicians who shuffle through it aren’t carried forth by the revolutionary tide of the time, but by hunger and cold – small fees from gigs just about sustain a hand-to-mouth existence.

It’s clear from the off that hapless Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is not the saviour the folk scene so desperately needs. Following the suicide of his musical partner, he struggles as a solo artist, and when his debut album fails to raise a single a dollar he sets out on a sullen journey around New York, moving between the living rooms of tolerant – but not sympathetic – acquaintances. Along the way he picks up a cat called Ulysses and argues with former-love interest Jean (an enjoyably irascible Carey Mulligan), who’s enraged to discover she’s carrying his baby.

He garners a wide variety of reactions on his travels: a middle class family revere him as a genius; his sister rails at him for failing to get it together; a stranger beats him up for heckling a performer; obese old jazz man John Goodman belittles him on the road to Chicago. I sympathised with all these responses. Davis is intransigent and refuses to develop as an artist or a person. He’s rude, miserable, aggressive, inscrutable: despite the title, we’re barely offered a glimpse “inside” Llewyn Davis. He seems talented, though it’s never clear quite how talented (he sings beautifully, but because his songs are folk songs, there’s an assumption he didn’t write them himself).

All of which begs the question: is the film about one of history’s great missed opportunities – a rare and fragile talent engulfed by harsh times? Or is it about a sad, deluded man, whose grand ambitions were doomed from the start, and whose story barely seems worth telling?

Inside Llewyn Davis has a peculiar power as a lovingly restored relic from one of history’s less remarkable moments, evoking the distance and closeness of long-forgotten lives.

FILM
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Cert 15 | By Steve Dinneen
Two Stars

August: Osage County sounds like an anagram, something you might find in a cryptic crossword. And it turns out it is – you can use the letters to spell “a stagy, unctuous ego”, which is exactly what it is (it can also spell “sausage county gout” and “a saggy unctuous toe”, but these are less applicable). It’s a chimera of a film, impressive on the surface but banal and navel-gazing underneath.

The critical reception to the play upon which it’s based was gushingly positive but the transition from stage to screen hasn’t been easy – it never really feels like anything other than a play that’s been dragged, by it’s hair, in front of a camera.

It’s similar in tone to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, in that it’s interminably bleak, but it lacks the directorial flair or sense of humour of its Oscar rival. But more than anything it brought to mind American Hustle: both are self-consciously theatrical, self-congratulatory vehicles for talented actors that amount to far less than the sum of their parts.

Meryl Streep plays the pill-popping matriarch of the Mid West’s most dysfunctional family. The action focuses on the arrival of her trio of daughters to the family home after her alcoholic husband goes AWOL. She’s hideous – a bitter, spiteful creature who has an uncanny knack of homing in on the insecurities of her extended family.

Streep’s turn is equal parts impressive and infuriating. Her considerable talents are more than amply showcased but too often it feels like she’s just showing off. It’s not just Streep, either – the entire saga is an exercise in grandstanding; a big group of thesps slapping each other on the back about how darned talented they all are. Ewan McGregor, for example, is wasted as Bill, the wayward husband of one of the daughters. His part is entirely two dimensional, a throwaway role for a jobbing actor. His entire raison d'être is to act as a counterpoint to his wife – he’s nothing more than a carefully manicured beard with legs and a mangled accent that’s neither American nor Scottish. That he appears at all is pure casting onanism.

Throw Julia Roberts – who received a spurious Oscar nod for her part – Benedict Cumberbatch and Juliette Lewis into the mix and you have too many actorly egos, all nuzzling each other like randy ponies.

It’s not a complete disaster – the dialogue is sharp and the drip feeding of revelations about the family maintains at least a rudimentary level of interest. But where it wants to move or enlighten, I just felt cheated, like I was watching a magic trick whose solution is blindingly obvious.

THEATRE
DUCHESS OF MALFI
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Four Stars

A RECENT article by author and columnist Emma Brockes noted that “with the exception of flying, there is no cost to discomfort ratio more out of whack for the consumer than the Broadway experience.” The same is true of London’s West End, where punters happily pay through the nose for a numb bottom. Now there’s a new contender for the least comfortable seat in theatre. The Globe’s Sam Wanamaker playhouse has been constructed as the “anti-globe”, an exact replica of an indoor Jacobean theatre complete with sanded oak and ceiling murals. An astonishing 340 people can squeeze into this tiny hall.

What it lacks in comfort it makes up for in atmosphere. Actors are lit by beeswax candles, which they hold themselves, and the shadowy amber glow is the perfect accompaniment to The Duchess of Malfi, a play in which ghosts lurk around every corner. Gemma Arterton is magnificent in the title role. Tall and full of poise she literally rises above the melee of scheming and sycophancy. John Webster’s play is full of characters without agency, who are carried along by their own sense of good or evil. The Duchess, however, acts with mischief and self-knowledge. Arterton makes the most of a meaty role, providing levity and then tragedy in a hushed, intense production. The uncomfortable seats will test your patience through the more self-indulgent parts, but on the whole it’s a confident start for London’s newest theatre.