Life, the universe, everything

Film
THE TREE OF LIFE
Cert: PG-13

A FILM whose purpose is a slow, dream-like pondering on the meaning of life, the universe and everything – from fiery planets and early amoebic life through to the disappointments and small dramas of our modern lives, and beyond into transcendental spirituality – is never going to be Friday night entertainment.

Even if Brad Pitt is in it.

Instead, the Tree of Life – which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes – is a massively ambitious, ravishing work of art: a look into the essence of nature and experience that is like no other film you will ever have seen.

Its creator is Terence Malick, the revered director of Badlands and the Thin Red Line – it’s only his fifth film in four decades.

Pitt gives a quite tremendous performance as a disciplinarian dad in ‘50s Texas suburbia, as recalled in the flickering memories of his son Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn). The severe but disenchanted patriarch and his graceful, radiant wife (Jessica Chastain) are the twin poles of Jack’s childhood, and the backdrop for Malick’s mysterious, magical posing of the Big Questions.

Sure, this is philosophizing writ large, and many people will find it a yawn – it’s a 140 minute film, after all, with very few words. But its scale, beauty and sheer poetry are quite overwhelming, and say far more for the potential of cinema than Transformers or Harry Potter.

Timothy Barber

THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER
Cert: 15

THIS Gallic swashbuckler is a refreshing, enjoyable re-packaging of the swords-n-corsets clichés that are so familiar from scores of films. It’s set in the 16th century, when France was locked in interminable conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and where renowned young bombshell Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry) is the object of desire for several dashing Frenchmen. After her aristocratic family marries her off to a drippy Prince for personal and political gain, Marie becomes contested territory herself between her husband, a couple of heroic dukes and a learned, but hardly less-dashing tutor. Battles rage, castles echo with intrigue, duels get fought and corsets pop – it’s all predictable, but it’s well-acted and beautifully put together. Good, old-fashioned cinematic fun. Timothy Barber

Classical music
NASH ENSEMBLE
City of London Festival

THE City of London festival is a rare treat for denizens of the Square Mile: a smorgasbord of contemporary and classical music performed by top-line professionals in exquisite spaces right on our doorstep.

At Monday night’s concert at Drapers’ Hall, a massive, portrait-filled livery hall on murky Throgmorton Street, the Nash Ensemble delighted. The festival’s theme this year is Antipodean, and so the centrepiece of the two and a half hour recital was Australian composer Brett Dean’s sextet. It evoked nature: sizzling fields, swarming insects, cool nights.

There was also a folk theme: Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies on English Folk Songs, for cello and piano, which was like Debussy, only slightly more cloying. The standout for me was the opening act: an unfinished Grieg piano trio and Dvorak’s thrilling Piano Quartet in E Flat, Op. 87. The skill, sweetness of tone and mastery of the violinist (Marianne Thorsen), cellist (Paul Watkins) and the subtlety of pianist Ian Brown made the evening highly enjoyable.

Zoe Strimpel