Damon excels in portrait of a whisteblower

Timothy Barber
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Film<br /><strong>THE INFORMANT!</strong><br />Cert: 12A<br />MATT Damon plays a senior executive and whistleblower in the latest film from prolific director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean&rsquo;s 11, Out of Sight). But this isn&rsquo;t the kind of taut corporate thriller that&rsquo;s become fashionable in Hollywood of late. That exclamation mark in the title makes it obvious that this isn&rsquo;t a film that takes itself too seriously. In fact it&rsquo;s a rather jaunty telling of a true story about a man struggling to live the American dream.<br /><br />Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a paunchy, moustachioed executive who&rsquo;s the very opposite of Jason Bourne, the role he&rsquo;s best known for. Whitacre is the affable President of Bioproduction at a company making corn products, who suffers a crisis of conscience over the company&rsquo;s involvement in an international price-fixing ring, and goes to the FBI. He spends two years wire-tapping meetings to build evidence, but the case begins to unravel when it turns out Whitacre has some skeletons in the closet of his own. <br /><br />It&rsquo;s a well-acted and easy-going film, and Damon shows an interesting new side to his acting skills as the well-meaning but highly troubled protagonist. It&rsquo;s a little uninvolving, however. It&rsquo;s neither a thriller, a satire nor a psychological study, and falling somewhere between all three it ends up merely passing the time.<br /><br /><strong>A SERIOUS MAN</strong><br />Cert: 15<br />FOLLOWING the sweeping elegy of No Country for Old Men and the frivolous fun of Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers spin on their heals once again with this multi-layered look into the Jewish-American psyche. Set in 1967, it follows the considerable trials of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at a Midwestern university. His wife is leaving him for a pompous widower, a student is trying to bribe him, his mentally-troubled brother is sleeping on the couch, his daughter is stealing his money and his son is trying not to get expelled from his Hebrew school before his Bar Mitzvah. <br /><br />But that&rsquo;s just on the surface. Like their earlier film Barton Fink, A Serious Man is a weird, wilfully obscure slice of existential angst, full of non-sequiturs, red herrings and nightmares. Midwestern Jews themselves, there&rsquo;s the sense that it&rsquo;s the brothers&rsquo; most personal film &ndash; an opening scene set in 19th century Poland ties what follows to a larger sense of Jewish experience. <br /><br />It&rsquo;s also very beautiful and enormously funny, anchored by a splendidly anxious performance by Stuhlbarg. As with most Coen films, it&rsquo;s a piece that will reward repeated viewings &ndash; there&rsquo;s more artistry squeezed into this than the most expansive blockbuster, but it won&rsquo;t be for all palates. <br /><br />Theatre<br /><strong>THE HABIT OF ART NATIONAL THEATRE</strong><br />ALAN Bennett&rsquo;s last play for the National, The History Boys, swept all before it with international glory and an Oscar-nominated film. That the Habit of Art is unlikely to recreate that level of success is not a reflective of its quality so much as its subject matter &ndash; a meeting in old age between the poet WH Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. Out of touch since collaborations in their youth, they have each had to face the challenges of art, homosexuality and ageing. <br /><br />This may be a play about &ldquo;the failings of great men&rdquo; but it is also about theatre. Bennett presents the meeting as a play within a play &ndash; or rather, a rehearsal within a play. We are in a National&rsquo;s rehearsal studio, where Frances de la Tour&rsquo;s stage manager is putting the cast of a comically pretentious play about Auden and Britten through its paces. Richard Griffiths is pitch-perfect as unreliable actor Fitz playing the slovenly, self-satisfied Auden; Alex Jennings is silky and subtle as Henry, the man who plays Britten. Also on hand is the play&rsquo;s author, a young actor playing one of Auden&rsquo;s rent-boys.<br /><br />If it&rsquo;s slightly too clever for its own good &ndash; the elaborate set up means we&rsquo;re always one step away from the emotional core &ndash; Bennett&rsquo;s wondrous word-play and comic skill keeps you laughing like a drain while marvelling at his imagination.<br /><br /><strong>SIX OF THE BEST</strong><br /><br /><strong>ART: THE SACRED MADE REAL </strong>The National Gallery&rsquo;s revelatory exhibition of Spanish Baroque art.<br /><br /><strong>THEATRE: OUR CLASS</strong> A taut play following the lives of a group of Polish people torn apart by the Holocaust, at the National Theatre.<br /><br /><strong>FILM: THE WHITE RIBBON</strong> Auteur Michael Haneke depicts life in pre-World War One Germany.<br /><br /><strong>ART: BRIDGET RILEY</strong> Works by the abstract artist at Mayfair&rsquo;s Timothy Taylor gallery.<br /><br /><strong>THEATRE: ENDGAME</strong> Complicite&rsquo;s take on Beckett&rsquo;s play, with Simon McBurney and Mark Rylance, at the Duchess Theatre.<br /><br /><strong>FILM:</strong> Bright star Romance, history and poetry meet in Jane Campion&rsquo;s film about the dying days of Thomas Keats.