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Film Review – S.W.A.T., Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Love, Actually

The Politics of Celluliod

(originally published in Inform Magazine, December 2003)

It’s funny how the movie industry reflects the world of politics. It’s invariably the case that films strip the world of all subtlety and present things in as base and moronic manner as possible. Take S.W.A.T. for example, a typically brainless action film where the vile bad guy terrorist, played by gorgeous pouting Olivier Martinez, just happens to be French.

Is this deliberate do you think? Is the US slowly realising that Middle Eastern chaps, the bad guys of choice of recent years, are not the most fashionable of targets at the moment? Even Hollywood may have realised that Iraq wasn’t a nation of seething terrorists and that countries which have actually been supporting things like 9/11, such as Saudi Arabia, are off-limits. Perhaps they’ve realised that the world isn’t quite as obvious as once hoped.

Except that bad guys are still needed, so why not use the French instead?

Okay they may not have done anything bad per se, and their opposition to the Iraq war may have turned out to be correct but, as the Simpsons has pointed out, no-one really likes the French. Where S.W.A.T. is positively insulting in its depiction of our Gallic cousins, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World does pretty much the same thing, only with a lot more restraint.

It’s hard to believe this film being made even five years ago. Back before the middle east became the breeding ground for evil geniuses it was hugely fashionable for the British to be the ones that the Steven Seagals of the world would beat the crap out of. Although it’s essentially made by antipodeans (writer/director Peter Weir and star Russell Crowe) and funded with US money, Master and Commander is the story of British derring-do on the high seas during the time of Nelson and featuring as the villains, you guessed it, the French. This time under Napoleon – the sort of bad guy who anyone can relate to.

However, this being a Peter Weir film – he who did The Truman Show and Gallipoli – there’s a lot more subtlety involved. The battle scenes are more Saving Private Ryan than any ‘war is fab’ nonsense, with the first encounter by Captain Crowe’s ship with the French frigate they spend the film chasing being a hellish fusilade of smoke and fire coming at them through an impenetrable fog. Once one of the ten-year old boys who serves as a very junior officer has his arm graphically amputated you know that this is going to be a fairly unflinching portrait of battle on the seas. For most of the film the French are unseen, a “phantom” presence across the water in a better and faster ship. It’s no wonder that the British crew turn on themselves, despite the inspirational presence of Crowe – if you’re going to get anyone to play a captain who can inspire a crew to go to hell in the pacific, then Crowe’s your man. An unlucky junior officer (a positively ancient 30 this time) is branded a Jonah by the crew and eventually hounded into suicide.

But these are minor setbacks and for the most part this is pure boy’s own adventure, with none of the painful soap opera characters that blight the otherwise very similar Hornblower TV series. Revelling in its realism the cast of characters are a quietly pleasing bunch, topped off by Paul Bettany’s beautifully drawn portrait of the ship’s doctor and Crowe’s best friend, the only anchor to Crowe’s heroic recklessness, down to smaller roles such as David Threlfall’s perpetually grumbling ship’s steward.

Another film which seems subtly influenced by world events is Richard Curtis’s sprawling directorial debut Love, Actually. In it Hugh Grant plays the sort of lovingly drawn senior politician the movies periodically throw up and make you wish that we could vote for them instead of the guys we actually get. Hugh Grant’s prime minster probably bears as much relation to reality as Russell Crowe’s naval captain, but he’s great to watch as he falls for his maid, played by Martine McCutcheon in full on ‘gor blimey’ Eliza Doolittle cock-er-ney mode.

It’s a shame that this isn’t the main thrust of the story, as a British version of the Michael Douglas film The American President might have been rather good. As it is, we have to put up with a lot of other plots, most of which stink the place up like you wouldn’t believe. Curtis’s idea of love seems to be a lot of porky middle-aged blokes like Colin Firth, Alan Rickman and Liam Neeson getting off with the youngest, skinniest supermodels around. Thankfully, there are some good bits away from these ‘main’ stories, with the best story of the lot featuring good ol’ Bill Nighy as a washed up rock star – essentially the same part he played in Still Crazy but without the grumbling backing band – getting an unlikely Christmas number one, not because the song is any good but because he behaves so outrageously to the likes of “Ant and/or Dec”.

But even amongst all the fluff of this fluffiest of films politics rears its head, as Hugh Grant, incensed by the lewd behaviour of Clinton-esque US president Billy Bob Thornton to McCutcheon, practically declares war, which gets the immediate support of the British people. Is Curtis trying to tell Tony Blair something do you think?

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