The classic Hollywood man-on-a-horse western has all but disappeared, a victim of changing attitudes toward America’s colonial past and the rewriting of history according to modern trends.
That decline started after the 1970s, which produced the last movies depicting heroic pioneer settlers as positive and progressive.
Baddies always existed in frontier society, but by the 1980s these no longer included the indigenous peoples who resisted land grabs. The western widened its scope to include historical sources such as slavery, the American Civil War, and events in Mexico and Alaska.
Of course, these remain a rich vein of stories but they are now seen through different perspectives, most notably racial and feminist.
When the Coen brothers remade 1969’s True Grit in 2010, attention no longer focused on the John Wayne character, himself parodying his roles in Rio Bravo, El Dorado and The Searchers. Instead, Jeff Bridges played second fiddle to the teenage girl bent on revenging the death of her father.
At the same time, Clint Eastwood, who had rescued the western from Wayne and its mid-life crisis, returned to his American roots after his success with “spaghetti” versions made in Spain.
Many consider his best his also his last – The Unforgiven (1992) – and he has not returned since.
Tom Hanks is as big a star as Eastwood and, in nearly 100 movies, he had never made a western. Neither had action director Paul Greengrass, who made the piracy thriller Captain Phillips (2013) with Hanks, as well as high-octane shows such as United 93, several in the Bourne series, and Green Zone.
So News of the World (Universal) deserves attention, and not just because it has gone straight to Netflix after some token cinema screenings.
It has the structure of a good western: easily identifiable characters, a simple story of a man on a mission, and an audience-pleasing denouement. Hanks is a retired Confederate army captain, who makes a living by reading newspapers to largely illiterate audiences in isolated Texan communities.
It is 1870, and he is heading home when he rescues an orphaned girl (Helena Zengel) after a holdup. He learns that she had been adopted by the local Kiowa tribe, after her German parents were killed. A brief scene later shows the Kiowa have been dispossessed.
Hanks’s mission is to take her to relatives in a German settlement, as she is traumatised from her ordeal and speaks no English.
Naturally, the trek has its moments of excitement, but its value is in how Hanks bonds with the girl, who eventually helps him deliver his news items with a purpose that today’s audiences would appreciate. Based on a novel by Paulette Jiles.
Incidentally, Zengel came to international attention in System Crasher, a German drama that is on this year’s film society circuit.
Rating: Mature audiences. 118 minutes.
Two long-established and reputable actors, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, bring gravitas to an otherwise unremarkable story about a couple who face the inevitable end to their relationship. Tucci, a novelist, has dementia, but still has his lucid moments, while Firth, a concert pianist, has been persuaded to come out of retirement for one more performance. They are travelling to northern England, and they visit Firth’s sister (Pippa Haywood) who, at Tucci’s suggestion, has put on a surprise party attended by their friends and relations. While overcome by the event, Firth also discovers what else Tucci has planned for their trip. This unfolds against an extended metaphor of celestial phenomena, as well as the kind of bickering that marks all lengthy relationships. Writer-director Harry Macqueen, who played the lead in his first directing effort (Hinterland), tackles issues with a rare intelligence. If the subject matter isn’t offensive, the patient viewer will be rewarded with some great acting, splendid countryside scenery, and evocative music by Elgar.
Rating: Mature audiences. 95 minutes.
The business world usually gets the short straw from film-makers, and this is no exception. A British financier (Jude Law) is comfortably off in America, but decides the pickings are better back in London at the start of Thatcher’s economic reforms in the 1980s. His wife (Carrie Coon) and their two children are not so sure, but they initially accept their lot living in a country manor, where the mother is able to indulge her interests in horses. The façade of their wealth crumbles when the bonanza fails to arrive and bankruptcy beckons. The story homes in on how the family reacts when the father’s false promises are exposed. The excruciating outcome is told largely through Coon’s eyes, as her suspicions and unease mount with understated horror. Writer-director Sean Durkin confirms the promise he showed with his debut cultist feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011).
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 13. 107 minutes.
I Care a Lot
(Amazon Prime Video)
Rosamund Pike, of Gone Girl fame, again plays a toxic role to the hilt, as a predatory swindler in a black comedy about aged care facilities, as they are known in America. She plays a professional guardian, apparently easily granted by the courts, giving her complete control over the financial affairs of vulnerable old people who are unable to care for themselves, whether they approve or not. Greed gets the better of her when she snares her next victim – a wealthy single woman said to show signs of dementia. However, she is not what she seems at first, triggering a pushback from connections who will stop at nothing to blow the scam apart. Dianne Weist, as the victim, and crime boss Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), prove to be a match for Pike’s manipulative machinations as a poster representative for ruthless business success. Writer-director J. Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) has form with hard-boiled material. While there’s convenient moral copout in a topic of high sensitivity, the conclusion opens him to accusations of contrived cynicism.
Amazon rating: 16+. 119 minutes.