BRIAN VINER: Nomadland is a tough one to love
BRIAN VINER: Disney’s Oscar hit? It’s no fairy tale… It won Frances McDormand a well-deserved gong, but Nomadland is a tough one to love
Verdict: Admirable, but not lovable
Heaven knows what ‘Uncle’ Walt Disney would have made of Nomadland, with its story of Americans made refugees in their own country, trying almost literally to consign grief, loss and economic hardship to the rear-view mirror.
I raise the rhetorical question (he’d have hated it, of course) because the film, based on a non-fiction book of the same name and anointed Best Picture at last Sunday’s Academy Awards, becomes available from today to watch at home on Disney+.
Now, it’s true that Disney should no longer be synonymous with Snow White and folksy made-for-TV films about heroic mutts finding their way home.
These days it’s a corporate Big Bad Wolf, gobbling up smaller outfits such as Searchlight Pictures, the company behind Nomadland.
Early on, we learn there’s nothing about Fern’s intellectual capacity that may have led to her beleaguered circumstances. In a supermarket she runs into a woman and her daughters, one of whom she once tutored in English Literature
But even so, Uncle Walt will be choking on his celestial cornflakes. Heck, this is more like The Grapes Of Wrath, the John Ford picture about Depression-era migrants that came out in 1940 while he was making Fantasia.
In truth, Nomadland is not a wholly miserable film. In certain subtle ways it’s the opposite, celebrating the dignity and resolve of an impecunious widow, Fern (Frances McDormand, now with another shiny, richly deserved Best Actress Oscar), as she hits the road after the death of both her husband and their town.
They lived in Empire, Nevada, which, when its giant U.S. Gypsum plant closed in 2011, no longer had a reason to exist. Even its zip code was discontinued.
That bit of the story is true, and to compound the authenticity director Chloe Zhao (Best Director) has, with the exception of a few key players, cast actual ‘nomads’.
They help to add a broad documentary feel to a beautifully-shot film with no obvious linear narrative.
Instead, it unfolds episodically, as Fern, dependent more than she’d like to be on the kindness of strangers, moves through the American West, between RV (recreational vehicle) parks with romantic names such as Desert Rose, and between temporary jobs including a stint in an Amazon warehouse the size of a football stadium.
Early on, we learn there’s nothing about Fern’s intellectual capacity that may have led to her beleaguered circumstances.
In a supermarket she runs into a woman and her daughters, one of whom she once tutored in English Literature.
‘My mom says that you’re homeless,’ says the girl. Fern replies that she’s houseless, not homeless, and if there’s a sentence that underpins the entire film, that’s probably it.
Fern’s home is her van, to the extent that when it breaks down and she is advised to buy a replacement rather than throw good money after bad, she swallows her pride and goes to her estranged sister for a loan.
Her van gives her friends, a social life, work . . . it’s just that they change every now and then. For a while there’s even the beguiling hint of a love interest.
She and her fellow nomads, most of them elderly or in late middle age, don’t exist on the edge of society. Rather, they have their own version, and their own reasons for belonging to it.
In the case of Bob Wells, one of those in the film playing themselves and the nearest this community of van-dwellers has to a leader, it is the lifestyle that best helps him come to terms with the death of a son.
A less classy film would inject more excitement into all of this. Nomadland is not a heart-thumper but nor is it a tub-thumper. Ken Loach, for example, would have made it a cinematic howl of rage.
Instead, it’s the wistful, mildly downbeat, exquisitely observed tale of a woman finding new horizons. And having now seen it twice, I think it’s a picture worthy of admiration, but not necessarily love.
Nomadland is available from today on Disney+
And the award for worst twist…
Verdict: The misfire
On Sunday night, when his name was read out at the Oscars, beneath a duvet in Wales seemed like the least appropriate place for Sir Anthony Hopkins to be. But when The Virtuoso comes out, that’s exactly where he should hole up, maybe with his head under the covers, too.
Hopkins plays a character known only as The Mentor, who hands assignments to a hitman, the enigmatic Virtuoso himself, played by Anson Mount.
The hitman narrates much of the film (in all honesty, way too much), as if he is reading aloud from the pages of a rubbish thriller, telling us how he goes about his business.
Hopkins: The monologue man
One of his top tips is this: when you rent a car, make sure it’s black. Unobtrusive, you see. You want to look like a travelling salesman, not an assassin. Yet, forgetting his own rules, The Virtuoso looks exactly like assassins in bad films always do. When he sits down in a café, peering through narrow eyes over his turtle-neck jumper, every idiot knows he’s in town to drill a hole in someone’s forehead, not to sell crazy paving.
Hopkins gets one extended monologue, which he delivers with characteristic ‘this is what you get in return for the cheque’ brio.
Abbie Cornish, as The Waitress, does her best with a plot twist you can see coming from space. And Eddie Marsan, as The Loner, gets so little to do he should be called The Extra.
The Virtuoso is on digital platforms from today
A romantic comedy set in ruggedly beautiful County Mayo, Wild Mountain Thyme (★★✩✩✩ digital platforms) stars Emily Blunt, Jamie Dornan, Christopher Walken and Jon Hamm, all grappling for screen time with every Emerald Isle cliché short of a Guinness-fuelled leprechaun dancing to fiddle music on top of the Blarney Stone.
The writer-director is John Patrick Shanley, adapting his own play, Outside Mullingar. Blunt and Dornan play Rosemary Muldoon and Anthony Reilly, who grow up on neighbouring farms strangely unable to see they are destined for each other, and even more strangely unable to master the local accent, haard though they troy.
There’s whimsy aplenty in all this, and one or two touching moments, but on the whole it’s a misbegotten affair which strains for authenticity like a hooley in a temperance hall, while never quite finding it.
Pipe dreams: Emily Blunt
Another good cast (Michael B Jordan, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce) graces Without Remorse (★★✩✩✩ Amazon Prime Video), a lively but entirely formulaic thriller based on the novel by Tom Clancy.
The Artist’s Wife (★★★✩✩ digital platforms) has Bruce Dern doing what these days he does best: playing an irascible old man, in this case a celebrated artist with dementia. The title character is nicely played by Lena Olin, once a promising artist herself, who has lived for 20 years in his long shadow. The Wife, the 2017 film with Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, told a strikingly similar story with more elan.
The Mitchells vs The Machines (★★★✩✩ Netflix) is fun, an animation about a dysfunctional family who might be cousins of The Simpsons but are the best humanity has to offer when robots take over the planet.
If you’re looking for something more cerebral, I recommend Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (★★★✩✩ digital platforms), not quite what it says on the tin, but a documentary profiling writers Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, great friends, largely in their own words.
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