Only a writer of Sally Wainwright’s audacious talent would dare reintroduce her unsettling masterpiece 19 months after it was last on our screens by sharing a humorous yet horrific yarn about bludgeoning a sheep to death while a witness makes a everyone a cuppa.
It works perfectly, of course; instantly re-establishing the distinctive blend of bucolic familiarity and sudden, sickening violence that made the first series of Happy Valley one of the most unwatchable yet unmissable shows of 2014, scoring a slew of awards along the way.
It’s 18 months after acerbic Sergeant Catherine Cawood sent her daughter’s alleged rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (a powerfully unhinged James Norton), back behind bars, but her troubles are far from over. As sure as night follows day, that story of sheep rustling, “North Halifax-style”, quickly leads to the discovery of an abused and mutilated body with links to Catherine’s old nemesis, putting her immediately in the frame for the woman’s murder.
The first episode is bursting with tantalizing plot threads, bringing a flood of familiar faces to the twisted West Yorkshire town. Downton Abbey’s Kevin day has essentially replaced Steve Pemberton in the role of ordinary bloke trapped in a bind of his own making, playing cheating detective John Wadsworth, who’s struggling to ditch his vengeful ex-lover (played with seething relish by Scott & Bailey’s Amelia Bullmore). Former Corrie stars Julie Hesmondhalgh and Katherine Kelly also arrive as John’s worried wife and stern colleague respectively, while Shirely Henderson and Matthew Lewis (both of Harry Potter fame) are suitably creepy in their brief appearances here.
But it’s Sarah Lancashire and her captivating, complex performance as Catherine that continues to standout. As an imposing yet compassionate copper with a reckless tendency to act on impulse, Lancashire’s Catherine is the rarest of things: a strong, complicated hero who just so happens to be a female. Here’s hoping she doesn’t remain a rarity for much longer.
Click here to watch Happy Valley on BBC iPlayer
It can be hard to make investigative journalism look exciting. While the magazine world gets the luxurious high-rise offices and sexy, fashionable editors (in the movies, at least), your garden variety hack is typically an ordinary schlub decked in faded slacks and sporting the pasty complexion of someone who rarely gets out of the office. Their job is to scribble notes, make phone calls and stare blankly at a computer screen. Hardly the kind of stuff that puts bums on cinema seats.
Yet that’s exactly what director Tom McCarthy’s fascinating and utterly absorbing drama achieves. Engrossingly rigorous and fiercely determined, Spotlight is a salute to the importance of journalism in all its plain, unfussy glory.
And ‘unfussy’ is definitely the nom de jour where this film is concerned. Spotlight handles the shocking details of its story with grace and understatement whilst resisting the urge for melodrama or phony uplift. McCarthy, who co-writes with The Fifth Estate’s Josh Singer, treats us like grown-ups who are capable of being suitably appalled at the sickening truth behind the allegations it uncovers without being prompted by histrionics or stirring scores.
For the unfamiliar, the film chronicles The Boston Globe’s eponymous investigative unit, who, in 2001, are tasked with looking into allegations of child sexual abuse among Catholic priests. Led by respected editor ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton), reporters Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (James) and Sacha Pfieffer (McAdams) are drawn to the case of John Geoghan, a defrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. But as the team digs deeper, they uncover more and more victims and a hidden cachet of evidence that points to a systemic cover up that goes right to the top of the Catholic Church.
The scale of the scandal is astonishing. The Spotlight team found over 70 priests and more than 1000 victims of abuse stretching back decades, all swept under a cover of red tape and institutional complicity. And that’s just Boston. As the pre-credits cards reveal, the Globe’s story had far reaching consequences for the entire world.
Yet this is not intended as a dismantling of the Church – indeed, McCarthy and Singer go to great lengths to highlight the culpability of lawmen, politicians and even the Globe’s own reporters in ensuring the abuse remained unchecked for so long.
The real motive behind this story is to celebrate the power of journalism at a time when its influence is seen to be on the wane. Spotlight revels in the plain nitty-gritty of reporting. Our heroic hacks scribble notes, corroborate sources, knock on doors and get them slammed in their faces, all in the dogged pursuit of the truth. It works, too, exposing a conspiracy that stretches for beyond the Globe’s patch.
It’s not all abrasive interviews and fact checking, though, as McCarthy helps his captivating cast deliver relatable performances by providing glimpses into their private lives. Mike is a workaholic going through a grim divorce, Sacha is struggling to keep her work hidden from her devout granny, and Matt and Robby are both floored by the realisation the scandal spreads even closer to home than they dared fear. Far more so than anything gleaned from text books and court files, these personal insights give the story its sobering power, laying bare the terrible human cost that lurks behind the harrowing detail.
Runtime: 128 mins; Genre: Bio-Drama; Released: 29 January 2016;
Director: Tom McCarth; Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer;
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James
Click here to watch a trailer for Spotlight
Since graduating from shooting low-budget short in their backyard, directing brothers Michael and Peter Spierig have never been afraid to let their fervid imaginations run wild. Their debut, Undead, was an overbearingly camp homage to the zombie genre, while its follow-up, Daybreakers, raised the bonkers stakes even higher, posing a glossy chase thriller about refined vampires who harvest human blood. It’s no surprise, then, that their latest outing should be their weirdest offering yet: a slick, stylish sci-fi yarn that pulls on the heart strings just as much as it noodles the mind.
A twinkling Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent, who, after recovering from having his face liquefied by a fracas with a firebomb, is despatched on one final mission to stop the elusive Fizzle Bomber from launching a deadly attack in the past. His orders lead him straight into an encounter with Sarah Snook’s boozy confessions columnist whose doozy of a secret might just hold the key to unravelling this timey-wimey, period-hopping mystery.
To say anymore would be to spoil the fun of wading into this mind-boggling sci-fi saga unencumbered – for those unfamiliar with Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies, at least; needless to say it’s not long before all the twists and turns in the rapidly multiplying storylines will tie your brain into so many knots the sketchy logic employed will cease to feel important.
What encourages you to stick around is the uncommon pathos that oozes from its two exemplary leads. Hawke is his typically charming self, but it’s newcomer Snook who really dazzles, making a sharp, vulnerable presence in whatever guise she appears. It’s a breakout turn from the rising star.
Though it’s often too contemplative for its own good, Predestination entrances with its dizzying sci-fi spectacle and, crucially, has the weight and intelligence to make the most of its extraordinary premise.
Click here to watch a trailer for Predestination
Having been imprisoned in a cellar and sexually abused, Eve finally manages to escape her vicious captor only to discover her troubles are just beginning. Finding herself trapped in the middle of nowhere, Tina Ivlev’s unfortunate heroine searches her sicko tormentor’s (Richard Tyson) dilapidated shack for help but instead finds proof he’s keeping several more women locked up in different locations. Rather than running to the hills – as any sane person would – Eve snags Tyson’s self-styled “zookeeper” on a dogcatcher-style leash and sets out on a joyride across town to liberate her fellow victims.
It’s a neat idea from screenwriters Rock Shaink and Keith Kjornes, offering a feminist twist on the usual indie shocker fodder as the victim turns the tables on her abuser; unfortunately, what promised to be a pulpy revenge flick in the style of Old Boy meets Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt becomes a plodding bore, let down by a creaking script that’s heavy with idle coincidences and a pursuit of a not-so-shocking twist that adds nothing to the story.
Ivev is an imposing screen presence worthy of better material and her put-upon heroine strikes an intriguing dynamic with Tyson’s remorseless attacker, playing on a victim’s tendency to blame herself for the abuse she suffers by having Phil manipulate Eve’s guilt. Frustratingly, this engaging psychological game is increasingly marginalised as the story becomes more about inflicting gory horrors on scores of scantily clad women.
Bound to Vengeance also achieves the strange feat of feeling an hour too long despite clocking in under 80 minutes, the story padded out with coy flashbacks to Eve’s happier memories, which instantly evaporate what little agency this flimsy thriller manages to muster.
Click here to watch a trailer for Bound to Vengeance