Reviews

London Film Festival 2015: 'Red Leaves' + 'The Daughter' + 'Desierto'

Red Leaves

Red Leaves offers a shrewd take on King Lear, but Simon Stone mangles Ibsen, and Desierto is an offensive victimisation fantasy.


Red Leaves

Director: Bazi Gete
Cast: Debebe Eshetu

The Daughter

Director: Simon Stone
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Paul Schneider, Miranda Otto

Desierto

Director: Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Contemporary revisionings of King Lear have been common in the culture, whether it’s Edward Bond offering a Marxist take on the play in Lear (1971) or Jane Smiley’s feminist transposition of the plot to the Iowa cornfields in A Thousand Acres (1991). In his debut feature, Red Leaves, which is screening in the London Film Festival’s “Journey” strand, Bazi Gete doesn’t approach Shakespeare’s play through an overt political prism as did Bond and Smiley. In transferring aspects of the plot to contemporary Israel, the writer-director delivers a fresh and involving film that never feels overly dependent on its source.

The movie’s Lear-ish protagonist is Meseganio (Debebe Eshetu), an elderly Ethiopian man who, following the death of his wife, announces that he’ll be living with his children from now on. But this plan proves problematic, as once installed, Meseganio starts observing infidelities and unhappiness in his children’s lives, and is unable to resist intervening.

Red Leaves begins at a measured, deliberate pace, introducing us to the characters in the most unobtrusive way possible, and concentrating on the family’s day-to-day doings and dynamics before tensions inevitably explode. There are strong suggestions of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (The Secret of the Grain) (2007) in the attention given to the characters’ interactions over meals, and, from these encounters, the movie gradually builds up a compelling portrait of a man out of joint with changing times.

Gete keeps us physically close to Meseganio, and Eshetu’s carefully modulated performance withstands the scrutiny, presenting a stubborn man who can be warm and genial with his buddies, yet who is harshly critical of his children when they don’t act as he believes they should. A shocking and moving incident on the street – Meseganio’s equivalent of Lear’s “storm scene”, if you will – provides the movie’s emotional crux.

The film loses its way a little after this event, with Gete critiquing the Israeli authorities’ treatment of Meseganio in a way that’s slightly crude, and failing to provide a satisfying conclusion to the drama. But Eshetu’s superb performance, and the film’s portrait of an immigrant community seldom seen on screen before, means that Red Leaves lingers with the viewer.

The Daughter

The Australian theatre director Simon Stone scored a big critical and commercial success with his recent stage adaptation of The Wild Duck, which was seen last year at London’s Barbican. While working on the stage version, Stone was also developing a contemporary film based on the play, and the result is The Daughter, the director’s debut feature, which is screening in the LFF’s Official Competition. I didn’t see Stone’s The Wild Duck in the theatre, but judging by The Daughter, the director must have used up any good ideas in the stage version, since the film is an embarrassment of considerable proportions.

Unlike Red Leaves, which is judicious and intelligent in its approach to King Lear, The Daughter is clunky in its refashioning of Ibsen and, with the setting shakily updated to a modern-day Australian mill-town, the film only succeeds in making the play itself look stupid. The Wild Duck is a rarity for Ibsen: a work that suggests the dangers, rather than the liberations, of “truth-telling” in showing the destruction that’s wrought when a character returns to his hometown bearing information about the past that upsets several lives.

Stone retains that main plot apparatus: here, the always-interesting Paul Schneider is the returnee, Christian, coming back to town for the remarriage of his father (Geoffrey Rush) and meddling in the lives of his old friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), Oliver’s wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). But the motivations are decidedly sketchy here, and no clear theme emerges. The early scenes meander, with Stone wasting time on Hedvig’s sexual adventures with her boyfriend, before getting decidedly shrill in the second half, where a series of risible confrontation scenes (including the inevitable punch-up at a wedding) turn the material into pitiful melodrama.

Stone’s idea of developing dramatic intensity is to heap on the slow-mo and put a choral dirge on the soundtrack. Just one sequence works: Christian and Oliver’s night on the town, in which the men get drunk together and reminisce about old times, makes you feel the extent of their rapport, and their disappointment in the direction that their lives have taken since. But by its excruciating final scenes, The Daughter looks less like the “searing modern tragedy” it’s been billed as and more like an art-conscious episode of Neighbours.

Desierto

“Welcome to the Land of the Free,” sneers Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Sam, having just gunned down a terrified group of Mexican illegal immigrants in Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto. For all its shortcomings, it’s easy to see how The Daughter might have ended up in the LFF Official Competition: Stone’s film has the superficial patina of art cinema (though none of the depth). But what Cuarón’s film is doing in competition is a baffling mystery.

A reprehensible victimisation fantasy dressed up as a nail-biting thriller, Desierto’s focus is a group of Mexicans who find themselves the prey of Morgan's (Uncle) Sam, a trigger-happy racist who’s determined to prevent them from entering the US by single-handedly killing them one by one. Well, not entirely single-handedly, for Sam has an ally in his efforts: a ferocious mutt named -- oh yes -- “Tracker”, who’s every bit as anti-Mexican as his master.

As an allegory of US/Mexico relations, Desierto is basic, to say the least. Sam’s redneck status is signalled by his toting of the Confederate flag and (naturally) his appreciation of country music. He also has a dramatically-convenient tendency to speak his thoughts aloud.

More problematically, Cuarón does nothing to make most of the Mexican characters vivid to us, with the majority picked off before we’ve learnt a single thing about them. Since he’s the movie’s only big star, the emergence of Gael García Bernal’s Moises as the hero is pretty much assured from the start, and Cuarón cooks up a conclusion that allows this character to exact revenge and take the moral high-ground simultaneously.

What’s most worrying, though, is that Desierto might have been expressly designed to exploit the fears of Mexican audiences. In a perverse way that’s presumably the opposite of the intention, the film justifies the perspective of the Morgan character: if ever there was a film that would put Mexicans off trying to cross into the US, then this is the one. Of course, there are tense moments, and the film is beautifully shot by Damian Garcia, but the movie’s undertones are so queasy that I found it impossible to enjoy it as a straightforward suspense story. In using the Mexican/American border -- the place where the “Third World grates against the First and bleeds”, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words -- as the setting for a dumb chase thriller, Cuarón has produced a work that’s as reductive as it is offensive.

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