Saturday, 11 July 2015

A couple of films not to be missed: A Song for Jenny and Whiplash

It you’re looking for a feel-good film, then A Song for Jenny isn’t for you. Although it left me feeling good – but only through a powerful case of what classical Greece called catharsis, the process by which an audience experiences intense fear and pity, which are then purged leaving them cleansed and uplifted.

Certainly, A Song for Jenny does just that. Based on the story she told in her own book, it tracks the slow realisation of Julie Nicholson that the silence of her daughter Jenny, on the day of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, was not due to lack of mobile signal, or even to injury, but to the worst loss a parent can suffer.

Millions commute in London every day, and 52 were killed by the terrorists. What are the chances that your daughter should be among the victims? But when you phone her office and she’s not there, the iron enters your soul. Julie, superbly played by Emily Watson, asks the terrible follow-up question – is everyone else in? 

They are.
Emily Watson, when denial's no longer possible
The family gathers in London. They check the hospitals, to no avail. The police assign family liaison officers, who act with sensitivity and warmth, but can’t soften what is clearly ahead. Day after day goes by with no sign of the young woman; the police collect DNA samples, and hearts sink further; but still no one is voicing the truth that all of them in their hearts have recognised.

It would have been obvious where we were heading, even if I hadn’t already known from the news reports of that day. It isn’t suspense for the audience that the film builds, but a wrenching sense of the suspense in the family, as slowly it comes to terms with the fact that Julie will never make good on her repeated promise to bring Jenny home.

Harrowing, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. And at the end I felt privileged to have watched something that so powerfully showed beauty in the face of horror.

Whiplash is a completely different kind of film, but no more to be missed than A Song for Jenny. It’s original to the point of being quirky, in the best possible way. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young jazz drummer student, enrolled in a prestigious US music academy. There he’s discovered and picked up by a brilliant teacher, Fletcher, played with genius by J.K. Simmons.

Fletcher is demanding to the point of being abusive. And by “abusive”, I don’t mean that he throws his weight around and is occasionally insulting to his students. He’s viciously cruel to any performance he feels is less than up to his painful standards. In one scene, he sends the other musicians out of a rehearsal room, to force three drummers to keep trying the same passage until one of them can play it as he wants – a process that takes hours and keeps the practice session going into the small hours of the following morning.

Fletcher delivering his own brand of encouragement to Andrew
We repeatedly see Andrew's hands bleeding onto the drums
It seems that the writer and director, Damien Chazelle, gave Simmons the instruction “I don't want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal.” Simmons delivers exactly what he was asked for, and fully deserves his best supporting actor Oscar for doing so.

Now you all know how this kind of film ends. The protagonist rises above all adversity, including the vile behaviour of his teacher, is spotted by a talent scout and is launched on an illustrious career in the course of which he learns to be grateful for the harshness of his training. I’m glad to say that the ending of Whiplash is nothing of the kind: it stops at the right moment, before any definitive tying of loose ends, but on exactly the kind of note that fits the rest of the film. One of those rare jewels, like Casablanca or The Life of Others that gets its ending exactly right.

And, like A Song for Jenny it manages to be cathartic too. With some great music thrown in for good measure.

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