This year looks like The Return of the Big Hollywood Director. George Miller returned to the post-apocalyptic desert with Mad Max: Fury Road, Ridley Scott returned to space with The Martian, and now Guillermo del Toro returns to the haunted house with Crimson Peak and Steven Spielberg returns to the epic of the good American with Bridge of Spies.
For a haunted house movie Crimson Peak isn’t particularly scary, but then neither are Del Toro’s best movies, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Those two were grounded in historical reality—the Spanish Civil War—while Crimson is built on the horror movies that came before it. It’s gorgeous but flimsy, and though it reaches the same conclusion (People are the real monsters), it doesn’t haunt us. At the end we shake off the movie like popcorn crumbs, but it’s still entertaining as hell.
In Crimson Peak, aspiring American novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls in love with penniless British aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), to the dismay of her father, a self-made millionaire who is not taken in by Sharpe’s posh accent. They marry, and Sharpe takes his bride to his family seat, a crumbling, freezing Cumbrian mansion called Allerdale Hall. The house is built on red clay—it’s already bleeding, all it needs are fresh corpses. When the wind whistles through the tattered roof and cracked walls, the house breathes. Edith must put up with her disapproving new sister-in-law Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who instead of handing over the house keys makes endless cups of tea. Clearly the Sharpe siblings have a secret, and it’s fairly easy to guess.
Edith, who’s been seeing ghosts since she was ten, spots several in the dark hallways. They look like the mother in Mama, which Del Toro produced (ooh, recycling) and Chastain starred in. Edith also has a devoted childhood friend, an ophthalmologist (Charlie Hunnam) who seems less real than the ghosts. Wasikowska is right at home in gothic settings (see Jane Eyre) and Hiddleston, the internet’s boyfriend, is lovely, but Chastain just wipes them out of the frame. Her Lucille is so fierce, she seems to keep the house standing through sheer force of will. It’s more exact in Tagalog: Nilamon ni Jessica Chastain yung cast, pati yung haunted house. All that gorgeous decay turns out to be non-essential: it’s just design. There’s a tale of intense, bonkers passion here that the filmmakers retreat from in favor of production design. Expect fan-fiction.
Steven Spielberg makes two kinds of movies: Amazing Stories (Jaws, E.T. Jurassic Park) and Tales of Decency (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln). Bridge of Spies, based on real events, is a solid addition to the second group. We expected a thriller with dead drops and tradecraft, and got tense negotiations instead. In 1957 James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York lawyer, is press-ganged into defending Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance from Wolf Hall, who has the most sorrowful expression on the screen). Donovan demurs—he had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, but now does insurance law.
All the Americans want is to show that Abel has gotten a capable defense attorney. But Donovan does his job too well, and ends up becoming the second most hated man in America (after Abel). Then American U-2 pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, a good-looking lump) is shot down in Russia, and Donovan is sent to negotiate a prisoner exchange in an unofficial capacity, since neither government will admit to spying.
This is a Spielberg movie co-written by the Coen Brothers and shot by Janusz Kaminski. Every footstep on the street sounds ominous, but there are many moments of unexpected humor. Superheroes are all the rage in cinema, but it’s the ordinary people who hold their ground, who say no to bullies, who just show up, who really save the day. As always, Tom Hanks convinces us that he is that guy.
Bridge of Spies is a reminder of the time when America was regarded as the good guy, as the country that did the right thing because it was the right thing. When you consider that the current frontrunner for the nomination from Abraham Lincoln’s party is Donald Trump. . .
It would be interesting to see how well Bridge of Spies does in its own country.
Rating: Highly recommended.