So was it worth the wait?
Unquestionably, it's a film that had plenty going for it. There's Blake Lively, for example, as its protagonist Stephanie Patrick, a young British woman whose life has gone on a tailspin dive following her family's death in a plane crash. A crash that, three years later, she learns from a journalist wasn't an accident but a terrorist bombing. The film is very much a revenge thriller thanks to that revelation, but it's also the journey of Lively's Patrick from a depressed drug-addict prostitute to a woman with just enough skill to keep her from getting herself killed. Indeed, Patrick is a refreshing protagonist for the very reason that she's an outsider who, once she gets a bit of training, gets thrown into the field without turning into a flawless killing machine. Indeed, it's only through sheer luck at times that she manages to make out in more or less one piece, battered, bruised, and never entirely sure if her path is the right one. It's Lively's performance that keeps the character from being, as the character of Jude Law's Boyd, puts it, "a cliche," and into someone worth following, at least for 106 minutes.
The film's got other things in its favor. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography offers plenty of visually appealing elements, particularly during a lengthy section of the film set in Scotland. You'll find no better capturing of the harsh but beautiful side of that country this side of Skyfall than you will here. There are also some nicely staged action sequences, including a car chase in Tangiers that we see entirely from inside the perspective of Patrick's getaway car, which puts a nice spin on a potentially cliched sequence. It's a wonderfully visceral experience on the small screen that would have been interesting to see in a cinema. Likewise, the film has a large but engaging supporting cast including the aforementioned Jude Law as the former MI6 operative who takes Patrick under his wing when she tracks him down, Raza Jaffrey as the journalist who sets events in motion, and Sterling K. Brown as her eventual contact the ex-CIA agent turned information broker. Combined with direction from the award-winning Reed Morano, one would have thought the film would be a sure-fire hit, surely?
Unfortunately, not. The Rhythm Section has two significant issues, which rather weakens it. The first lies in its pacing, with the film's opening hour being rather slow, overloaded as it is with exposition that undermines both performances and that wonderful cinematography I mentioned. Once the film gets into its latter 45 minutes or so, it suffers from the exact opposite problem, rushing along from one action sequence and character beat to the next, with a pair of significant plot twists becoming essentially throwaway moments without any weight to them. It leaves the film feeling oddly disjointed, if not confusing.
That's something that likely has to do with the second issue I alluded to earlier. When I read that the film had been adapted from the opening novel in a series, the film's odd-pacing clicked into place. The Rhythm Section suffers from a problem that many a would-be franchise opener suffers from: namely, trying to tell an origin story at the expense of telling a compelling narrative. Even though it's comparatively short at 106 minutes, it's a film that feels significantly longer thanks to an overloaded front half, which leaves the back half feeling rushed and short-changed.
If this was intended to be the opener for a franchise, it's one that ultimately never quite delivers what's needed. Not that it isn't worth seeing, far from it. Lively's performance, the entire cast for that matter, along with the cinematography, and some nicely staged action pieces make it worth checking out. But, there's a lot of potential here that doesn't get put to its fullest use.
Perhaps the best way to look at this film, then, is to say, "Oh, what might have been..."
There's been a lot of films made about the Second World War over the years. Most of them have been what would be in the category of war movies exploring battles and generals, like last year's Midway, Sink the Bismarck, or the 1970 Oscar-winning Patton. Occasionally, however, some films offer a different perspective, exploring in fiction portions of the war, especially on the home fronts, that doesn't receive much attention. Their Finest, based on a novel by Lissa Evans, looks at the creative side of the home front and what it took to make a cinematic effort in a nation under literal siege.
First and foremost, this is a film about a film. Specifically, it's a fictional film about a fictional film. Something which, in itself, is rather interesting since it is also looking back on a very particular era in the history of British cinema, one which viewers are a witness to through the eyes of a young Welsh woman named Catrin Cole. This secretary turned inadvertent screenwriter becomes our guide as she finds herself involved in the creation of a film about two sisters and the Dunkirk evacuation as the Blitz rains down on the streets of London. One which might help to inspire an already war-weary people and which, as the Ministry ends up demanding, have an American in it to boot. It's an interesting way of looking not just at an interesting moment in British film history but also an intriguing moment of British history in general, something which works in the film's favor.
It's also a film blessed with a first-rate cast. Leading it is Gemma Arterton as the Welsh secretary turned scriptwriter, a role that highlights her charm and inner-strength, even while allowing her moments of self-doubt and vulnerability. Sam Claflin plays Tom Buckley, her cynical screenwriting colleague, and the chemistry between the pair is palpable, to say the least. Rounding off the lead cast is a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as fading matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard. The supporting cast, likewise, is well cast from Richard E Grant as a Ministry of Information bureaucrat, Rachel Stirling as a Ministry executive overseeing the film, Jake Lacey as the token American, and even a cameo by Jeremy Irons. It's a first-rate cast and one that director Lone Scherfig puts to fine use.
Their Finest also features some superb production values. Wartime Britain, from Blitz London to the coastal Devon, are recreated in their 1940s glory through a combination of location filming and the production design of Alice Normington. The costume work by Charlotte Walter likewise helps to sell the recreation of the period. More than recreating Britain at war, they also recreate a British film industry dealing with it, with viewers seeing filmmaking circa 1940 recreated, including a humorous scene where Nighy's Hilliard crashes a matte shot in progress. There's also a warmth to be found in the cinematography of Sebastian Blenkov and especially from the score by Rachel Portman, a warmth which finds itself in stark contrast when the film finds itself going into gray London days or moments of proverbial (if not literal) darkness. True, some of the London scenes seem oddly devoid of people, revealing perhaps limits of the budget to recreate the period, but when things work, they work.
What stands out about Their Finest, as much as its cast and how well made it is, is its tone. In some ways, this is something of a wartime romantic comedy, one that focuses on Arterton's Cole. In other ways, it's a dramedy about the making of a movie in extraordinary times. Certainly, the warmth in its performances and those aspects I mentioned above, offer up evidence for that. To say that was all the film had would do it a disservice. Indeed, some of the twists along the way, and a major one toward the end, offer up proof that what screenwriter Gaby Chiappe and director Scherfig had in mind wasn't to produce a predictable genre piece. Instead, the movie becomes an exploration, on the national and personal level, of trying to make art in dark times, in finding hope when none seems apparent. It's something that helps elevate the finished film even more because, to its credit, it has something to say.
If you're looking for an interesting way of looking at the Second World War homefront, Their Finest is the movie for you. If you're looking for one about filmmaking in days gone by, then Their Finest is likewise a movie for you. If you're looking for hope in dark times, and frankly who isn't these days, then it is also a movie for you. Because if anything will make you laugh and feel better for a couple of hours, it'll be sitting down for two hours and watching the cast and filmmakers put on Their Finest for you.
In some ways, it's easy to look at The Kraken Wakes and think of it as an aquatic take on The War of the Worlds. It is, after all, a semi-journalistic account of an alien invasion in which our protagonists, husband and wife Michael and Phyllis Watson of the English broadcasting Company, are present for specific events while relaying others. Indeed, like HG Wells's work, the invaders arrive out of the sky in a series of curious fireballs. From then on, they are rarely seen but are a lingering menace over much of the novel, but with their appearance being all the more effective as a result. There's a definite lineage from Wells to Wyndham's tale, published the same year that a celebrated film version of the former was released.
To say that was all there is to Wyndham's novel would be to do it a disservice of the highest order. The Kraken Wakes is not the tale of a lightning assault upon humanity and the Earth as envisaged by Wells (or, indeed, director Rolland Emmerich with Independence Day). Instead, it is a slow invasion, one that occurs in three phases, which our narrator shapes his narrative around. What begins with fireballs and odd activity in the depths of the world's oceans leads to attempts at military assault, causing an escalation that leads first to land assaults as the invaders roll into coastal towns and, eventually, something that will be all too familiar to a twenty-first-century readership: (view spoiler). Wyndham offers readers a ringside view to the end of the world piece by piece, at the hands of an enemy largely invisible to us.
In other ways, this nearly seventy-year-old novel remains prescient. As the timescale suggests, this is a gradual process over the space of a few years. Through Watson’s account, we experience reactions to events as they get gradually worse, and how they cover events as journalists. They watch as the crisis builds with people taking only gradual notice of it and expert warnings being dismissed. Cold War tensions, too, come into play, hampering responses to events by governments and allowing some, such as the wife of one of the Watson's friends, to go on believing the Russians are behind things. With debates over climate change and other events taking place as I write these words in the spring of 2020, Wyndham's novel feels oddly prophetic at times.
While written in the 1950s, and having some of the trappings of the period, Wyndham's novel has a timeless and timely quality to it. It remains a unique tale of an extraterrestrial invasion, one that takes place largely unseen and which we are seemingly helpless to stop. And in part down to our inability and unwillingness to deal with things, something which is a little too easy to believe these days.
There's an old Chinese saying along the lines of "May you live in interesting times." As I write these words in late March 2020, the world is in the throes of the very real Covid-19 pandemic. At times like these, some have turned to screen depictions of such events, however, too close to home they may now feel. It's no surprise perhaps that this 2007 miniseries has received new attention, and for reasons which quickly become apparent.
Though dealing with a flu outbreak, which comes to be known as the Riptide Virus, there are plenty of echoes of what’s happening now. There's a team of doctors trying to contain the disease, often struggling with both patients and political leaders. There are scenes of panic buying and profiteering. The miniseries also shows what happens when members of the public choose to ignore warnings, breaking quarantines to get on with their lives. There's even a group of conspiracy theorists who end up insisting that the government is up to nefarious ends, despite all the evidence. We also get to see versions of what governments are now terming social distancing and see characters in self-isolation. And, in one scene that’s become eerily prophetic thanks to reports from Spain, the use of an ice skating rink as a makeshift morgue. It's clear that writer's Bryce (co-creator of Dark Skies, which I wrote about on here in 2013) and Jackie Zabel did some homework going into this, and it benefits the production, in particular with hindsight.
Pandemic has other things going for it, of course. One of which is its large ensemble cast, taking in all sorts of perspectives. They range from Tiffani Thiessen's CDC scientist to French Stewart as her colleague, Eric Roberts as the mayor of LA, Bruce Boxleitner as his political advisor, Robert Curtis Brown as a slimy realtor whose cockiness helps spread the virus further, and Faye Dunaway as the Governor of California. The direction of Armand Mastroianni adds much to the piece, such as the series of quick cuts that visually show the journey of the Riptide Virus from an Australian beach onto the streets of LA. The score from veteran composer Kevin Kiner, while louder than it needs to be in places thanks to the mix, adds tension to the proceedings neatly as well. Given the made for TV budget, it looks and sounds pretty good across the three hours.
Not that the miniseries isn't without its faults, however. At three hours, it's perhaps inevitable there are parts of the Zabel's script that don't hold up or seem contrived. One particular subplot, involving Michael Massee as a drug baron who not only happens to be on the same flight as patient zero but who gets busted out of quarantine, only to then steal the anti-viral drug needed to fight the outbreak, comes across as convoluted. Indeed, it's purpose seems to be adding both a couple of action sequences and the overall running time. Others seem to fizzle out despite the attention given to them, like the aforementioned conspiracy theorists, for example. There's some casting that doesn't quite work too, such as Vincent Spano's FBI agent whose performance comes across as stiff and a little cliched, and some of the smaller supporting roles suffer in places from that as well. None of these are fatal flaws, by any means, though they do keep the miniseries from being better than it is.
On the whole, though, Pandemic is a solid miniseries. From a smart script to its ensemble cast and some neat moments of direction, there's plenty to recommend it for across its three-hour running time. Indeed, even with its flaws, there are parts of it that now feel eerily prophetic. Other times, you'll be thankful that some parts of it haven't come to pass.
Or haven't yet, anyway.