In between diagnoses of sun cancers and several surgical chop-chops, I've been catching up with a few recent movies that I missed in the cinema, but are now out on DVD.
In Hacksaw Ridge, we have a superb war movie – provided you have a strong stomach to take the gore and mayhem of some of the most realistic battle scenes you will see in modern cinema. It is based on the true story of Private Desmond Doss of the US Army, who won a Medal of Honour (the US equivalent of the VC) during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, towards the end of World War II. Despite the fact he never touched a weapon or fired a shot in anger. His religion forbade him to kill, but he wanted to serve his country, so asked to be assigned to the medical corps. In the beginning, the army said no and tried to force him into a rifle company.
In the early part of this film, very ably directed by Mel Gibson, we see Doss (superbly played by Andrew Garfield, an actor I don't know very well) in a romance with and marriage to civilian nurse Dorothy, tenderly played by Aussie actress Teresa Palmer. Then we see his early persecution by the army for not carrying a rifle. This part of the movie reminded me strongly of Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) in From Here to Eternity (1953), when he is given "the treatment" for refusing to box. The big difference is, in the case of Doss, the army eventually relents and lets him become a medic. He went on to serve at Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa. The film deals only with the latter, where he won his Medal of Honour for rescuing over 50 wounded comrades from the battlefield under quite extraordinary conditions of supreme difficulty and danger.
The battle scenes on Okinawa (actually shot, as was most of the movie, in Australia) are incredibly realistic, but quite stomach-churning – these are perhaps the most convincing combat scenes filmed since the Omaha Beach D-Day landing scenes of Saving Private Ryan in 1998. At first, I thought the "scrambling net" assaults up the cliff couldn't possibly be realistic; why didn't the Japanese defenders just cut the nets down? Then, some research revealed this was the method actually used during the real battle in 1945. So, Hollywood doesn't always just make it up …
The film won technical Oscars for sound mixing and editing at the recent Academy Awards. Well deserved too. Mel Gibson has a very sure touch as a director; he gets very good performances out of his actors. As well as excellent performances from Garfield and Palmer, we have Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Doss's troubled parents, along with Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington as army compatriots who start out scorning Doss but come to admire him.
The movie's very strong Australian connections should make it of considerable interest to local moviegoers – but only if you are a committed war movie fan. This is not for the faint-hearted. But, if you are ineluctably drawn, as I sometimes am, to the idiocy and violence that man seems to like inflicting on his fellows, then you will like – or, rather, be fascinated by – this film.
I give it 4 3/4 out of five stars.
The Light between Oceans
This film, released in 2016, is not based on a true story, but on the best-selling, prize-winning novel of the same name by Australian writer ML Stedman (my maternal grandparents' name was Stedman; I wonder if ML is a distant relative?). A British effort, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, the story is set in Western Australia (but largely filmed in New Zealand) in the years after World War I.
Tom, a quiet and withdrawn survivor of the trenches on the Western Front, returns to Australia and finds a job as a lighthouse keeper at remote Janus Rock on the WA coast. He marries local lass Isabel, they go to live at the lighthouse and try for a family. After two miscarriages, Isabel is desperate. Then, one day, a boat washes up on the beach. In it is a dead man and a tiny baby girl, still alive. Tom and Isabel rescue it, bury the dead man, dispose of the boat, then pass off the baby girl as theirs. Everyone accepts their story, everything is fine for several years, until a chance meeting reveals that the baby's real mother is still alive and looking for her daughter. Will Tom and Isabel reveal the truth, or keep quiet? Their decision has major, unintended consequences.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It is an engaging exploration of the moral choices we face in life. It also examines the concept of parental love, family, finding love, and what price will you pay to keep it. The ideas of loneliness and isolation – e.g. living on a lighthouse far from the madding crowd – and their effects on human emotions, are also effectively and challengingly explored.
This film has a really good cast. As Tom, the brooding and tragic lighthouse man, we have Michael Fassbender, who is very good playing these types of tortured characters. As Isabel, his wife, we have the luminous and enchanting Alicia Vikander, who seems to be all the rage in movies these days. I loved her in Testament of Youth and, although I didn't like The Danish Girl, I thought she was excellent in that. In this film, she superbly captures, first, the bubbly, girlish enthusiasm of a just-married young woman, then second, the tragedy, anguish, and desperation of a mother faced with an impossible decision about the future of her child. Vikander is a jewel here. As Hannah, the baby's real mother, we have Rachel Weisz, who is excellent at portraying the agony and pain of a woman desperately trying to recover her stolen child. Making solid appearances in supporting roles, are well-known Aussie actors Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and – haven't seen him in a movie for years – Garry McDonald, a.k.a. once upon a time, as Norman Gunston. There is little comedy for his character here.
The cinematography is beautiful. The film crew used a real lighthouse, Cape Campbell, in New Zealand's South Island. Magnificent seascapes, beautiful period lighthouse cottages, coastal scenery – all superb. Some of the movie was shot in Tasmania: "The Nut" at Stanley is easily recognisable.
I have only two criticisms of this film. There are a couple of brief flashback sequences that are not strictly necessary, which are not clearly indicated as flashbacks, so only cause (happily brief) confusion. Also, I found parts of the dialogue difficult to follow. Perhaps it was a technical fault in the DVD. But it also may have been because some dialogue was recorded against a background of crashing waves and blustery winds. In addition, characters in love tend to whisper and mumble inaudibly. Whatever the cause, you had to really strain your ears to catch some of what the characters were saying. Happily, the visuals and the story were both grippingly clear enough to overcome this defect.
Watch out for a touching and beautiful ending. A very fine film, and I am giving it 4 1/2 stars out of five.