Film reviews: Labor Day, Starred Up, Svengali

Kate Winslet as Adele, Josh Brolin as Frank and Gattlin Griffith as Henry, in Labor Day
Kate Winslet as Adele, Josh Brolin as Frank and Gattlin Griffith as Henry, in Labor Day
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Labor Day (12A) ***

A working, single mother. An escaped convict who’s a dab hand in the kitchen. Think The Desperate Hours with romance and Labor Day suddenly makes sense.

The passion at the core of this unapologetic chick flick is provided by Frank (Josh Brolin), a killer-turned-houseguest who melts the heart of lonely Adele (Kate Winslet) and gives her son the father figure he always wanted. Of course there is a real dad but he doesn’t visit. And when a suspicious neighbourhood cop starts to sniff around neither mommy nor sonny will give the guest away.

And there is no talk of Frank’s crime. This interesting three-hander is a remarkably plausible tale despite itself.

Frank is a desperate escapee yet wanders freely around Adele’s home. He wins over the boy (Gattlin Griffith) despite the kid’s growing pains and jealousy at his new surrogate dad. And unlike his predecessor he’s a real man.

Labor Day presents an idealised fantasy. Brolin as Frank is tall, dark and handsome. He’s a handyman par excellence. He’s also charming, gentle, world-weary and exudes sex appeal and animal magnetism.

Winslet is a loser in life and love. Is it any wonder she responds to this cuckoo in her barren nest? And is an audience foolish to accept such plot devices? Not a bit.

Writer/director Jason (Juno) Reitman, co-scripting from her novel with Joyce Maynard, makes this work against the odds. It helps that there is genuine chemistry between the leads with Brolin in particular possessing an old Hollywood/Gable-esque charisma that underlines the entire film.

Starred Up (18) ****

A memorable film for all the wrong reasons – it’s a brutal, bleak and unrelenting portrait of the British penal system and the individuals within it – Starred Up is also notable for the emergence of a bona fide, brand new talent.

That talent is Jack O’Connell who bursts onto the screen in a blaze of explosive violence as a teenage product of the system whose behaviour has elevated him to the ranks of uncontrollable undesirables. He finds himself in an adult jail but is neither fazed nor frightened by the prospect.

Like a 21st century evolution of Alan Clark’s prison classic Scum, Starred Up examines the shared environment that contains convicts, warders and civilian support workers. And it presents a world that stinks like a sewer of corruption, drugs and murder.

Scripted by Jonathan Asser based on his own book it combines several interlocking stories. Central to all of them is Eric Love (O’Connell), incarcerated after a horrific attack on a paedophile, and a young man who has known nothing except care homes, young offenders’ institutions and jail. O’Connell plays Eric as a coiled ball of energy and violence. He’s also possessed of uncomfortable street smarts – just like the father he never knew who also happens to be a fellow prisoner of some influence.

Asser and director David Mackenzie present the prison community as a world built on pride, status and face. Losing face is unthinkable and even the smallest transgression is met with intense aggression. The layers of this fragile and unpredictable world are stripped away to deliver the main thrust of the film: Eric’s rage at his father, and his father’s (Ben Mendelsohn, from Animal Kingdom) ham-fisted attempts to look out for his boy. Both the film’s high point and it’s weakness – it feels contrived yet is compelling – the father/son tug-of-love provides a balance to a movie that breaks through the boundaries of civilised behaviour. Raw, visceral and in your face, Starred Up is a new breed of prison movie.

Svengali (15) ****

The wannabe Svengali at the heart of this aspirational rags-to-riches tale tramps the streets in a parka carrying his worldly goods in a Tesco carrier bag.

His mission: to turn a band of bickering, egotistical young musicians into the Next Big Thing. It’s all about belief, and Dixie (Jonny Owen) has it. Trouble is, no-one else seems to agree with him…

Like The Commitments but with bags more heart, Svengali is less a tale of the music industry and its motley denizens than it is a portrait of an eternal optimist.

Dixie is a naïf – a small-town Welsh boy adrift on a sea of dreams in the big city. And like all dreamers he eventually meets with a harsh epiphany when he loses his flat, his cash and his fiancée (Vicky McClure) all in a day.

But Dixie’s drive keeps him bumbling on, and it’s this appeal – and a heart as big as a mountain – that makes Svengali a joy to watch and laugh at. Originally an Internet series the project (written by Owen with co-star Roger Evans) morphed into a film drawing support from the likes of Martin Freeman, playing a record store mod.

“Don’t be a suit. Be a dude,” says one character early on. And Svengali’s strength is in the image of this little Welsh fish swimming against the current in a river full of sharks.

Owen is tremendous throughout: a gentle giant with a winning grin and the love of a good woman.