Love triumphs on the road to hell

Cert: 18

IT’S hard to imagine a less happy future than the one conjured up by this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In last month’s disaster flick 2012, we had the ultimate Hollywood apocalypse, in all its vapid, digitally-created stupidity. Now we have the serious, literary version of the end of history, as the final, bedraggled remnants of humanity shuffle around a blasted landscape following some unnamed extinction event. The earth is on fire, the sky is clogged, plant and animal life has ceased to exist along with any form of civilisation, and survivors are reduced to cannibalism. It’s not exactly full of jokes.

Amid all this devastation are Viggo Mortensen’s wretched, nameless traveller and his young son, played by newcomer Kodi McPhee. Refusing to surrender to the feral, kill-or-be-killed existence of the rest, they alone seem still to be in possession of some kind of moral compass, and it points south. Starving but for the odd salvaged bit of tinned food or crunchy insect, they travel down America in the desperate hope of finding deliverance.

Director John Hillcoat, who made 2005’s exceedingly tough Australian western The Proposition, has certainly captured the shattering bleakness of McCarthy’s book. This is a film that looks astonishing, with epic, ruined landscapes and an atmosphere of unbearable loss and futility. It must be the most horrific, hopeless vision of our future ever committed to film. So why would you want to watch it?

Well, at it’s core is the tender tale of love between father and son, played with awesome conviction by Mortensen and McPhee – Mortensen will get a lot of attention come awards season. As the man who will sacrifice anything for his son’s survival, even when death seems more humane, his nameless protagonist is motored by an instinct even more primal than the savagery of those he’s escaping – that is the one kernel of hope the film offers. It is, at times, painfully moving – to the point where you start to wonder if your emotions aren’t being exploited as much as your nightmares.

Charlize Theron appears in flashback as Mortensen’s wife, and Robert Duvall makes an eye-catching cameo as a grizzled, haunted fellow traveller. But the real star is McCarthy and his brutal, bitter vision of humanity’s downfall. Fans of his writing should be satisfied with this faithful rendering; for the rest of us, it is possibly too much misery to take.
Timothy Barber

Cert: 12a

LAST year, Emma Thomson and Dustin Hoffman tackled the insecurities and perils of middle age romance in Last Chance Harvey. Now it’s Meryl Streep as mom-of-three Jane Adler caught between ex husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) and Adam (Steve Martin), her shy but endearing architect.

Streep’s character will speak to women of all ages because she is that terrifying figure so rarely dealt with in Hollywood: an older single woman wondering if love will ever come her way again. Younger women will regard her example anxiously, while older ladies will feel – at last – represented positively on screen.

Indeed, Jane Adler is far from a total female pity case: she has three healthy, happy children and she owns a successful restaurant and bakery in Santa Barbara. There are lots of food porn shots with her cooking and eating that humorously echo Streep’s role in last year’s hit Julie and Julia. And she’s really quite attractive – for any age.

But all this doesn’t stop her feeling glum about a long-standing sex drought while her ex-husband has gone off and married a twenty-something with a washboard stomach and a permanent tan. Turns out, though, young and beautiful women aren’t a bundle of joy either and after an unexpected night of sex at their son’s graduation in New York, Jane and Jake embark on an affair that does not have the outcome you might expect. After teetering on the brink, the film decouples from the typical romantic pattern, leaving us with something closer to reality – but still rosy enough for Hollywood, naturally.
Zoe Strimpel