The Guardian

And the rest

Great Expectations,

A Haunting in Venice

The contrast between Kenneth Branagh’s latest Poirot adventure, the enjoyably spooky mystery A Haunting in Venice, and the synthetic fakery of the previous instalment,

could be used as a case study of the power of casting to make or break a movie. The essential ingredients are the same: Agatha Christie source material; the timeworn formula of a murder or two in an impossibly lavish location, followed by a whole mess of conflicting motivations to untangle. Branagh brings exactly the same degree of prissy, moustache-fondling affectation to his performance as the Belgian master detective. But this time he smartly casts actors who are able to disappear into their characters – Tina Fey, with her staccato, typewriter line delivery as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver; Kelly Reilly’s silky, luxuriant sadness as celebrated singer Rowena Drake. Compare that with Nile’s distractingly starry cast of actors self-consciously wearing their roles: garish fancy dress costumes rather than characters.

Another plus is the atmospheric Venice backdrop, its murky, swirling waters hinting at dark secrets that accumulate over centuries, like barnacles clinging doggedly to the buildings; its extravagant beauty framed slightly off-kilter. The story itself is fairly formulaic: Poirot is tempted by the opportunity to debunk Michelle Yeoh’s society medium at a Halloween seance, but soon finds himself sock-suspenderdeep in bodies. It’s entertaining, if familiar. A special mention should go to Jude Hill, the child actor who played Branagh’s younger self in Belfast and here shows impressive range with a deliciously unsettling turn as Leopold, the son of a shellshocked and half-broken father.


(92 mins, 12A) Directed by Babak Jalali; starring Anaita Wali Zada, Jeremy Allen White, Gregg Turkington

The fourth film from IranianAmerican director Babak Jalali is an utter delight: a wry, Jarmuschian musing on the human connections and possibilities that spark in the most unexpected places.

Donya (a magnetic performance from newcomer Anaita Wali Zada) worked as an Afghan translator for the US before the Taliban returned to power. Now she has a tiny bedsit in Fremont, California surrounded by other Afghans who fled the regime. And she works in a fortune cookie factory, composing enigmatic mottoes to be enclosed in a crunchy sugar casing. She’s one of the lucky ones. But Donya can’t help feeling that her own fortune is a blank slip, her hopes for the future erased by her exile. So one day she sends a message out to the world on a cookie slip: “Desperate for a dream”, with her name and number.

It’s admirably understated filmmaking, shot in restrained black and white, with a tight aspect ratio that evokes the walls closing in around Donya during the long insomniac nights. A sparse, loose-limbed jazz score adds to the picture’s gauche charm. And Jeremy Allen White (star of TV series The Bear) tears out our hearts with two immaculate scenes of inarticulate longing.


Saul (a phenomenal, physically committed turn from Gael García Bernal) has two passions in life. One is his beloved mum. The other is Mexican wrestling. El Paso-based Saul has been plugging away on the amateur circuit, in gaudy, neon-lit dives just across the border, but with his drab grey costume and his unprepossessing name – El Topo, or the Mole – he’s not making much progress. But then casual comments from fellow wrestlers plant a seed, and Saul reinvents himself as the flamboyantly camp Cassandro. His new alter ego is an “exotico”, a wrestler who fights unmasked, wearing extravagant makeup and provocatively incorporating his gay sexual identity into his wrestling persona. Based on the true story of Saúl Armendáriz, who became known as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre”, this is a giddily entertaining and celebratory drama that hints at the emotional bruises under the sparkly lurex leotard and false lashes.

Love Life

(123 mins, 12A) Directed by Kôji Fukada; starring Fumino Kimura, Kento Nagayama, Atom Sunada

The delicate domestic balance shared by Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and her second husband, Jiro (Kento Nagayama), in their quiet home in a port town in southern Japan is upended when a tragedy strikes the family, in this wrenching Japanese melodrama from Kôji Fukada (best known for the 2016 Cannes prizewinner Harmonium). Relations are further strained by the arrival of Taeko’s deaf and seemingly vulnerable ex-husband, Park (Atom Sunada), back into her life. Since Taeko is the only person who can communicate with him – Park speaks Korean sign language – the responsibility for his care falls to her. But as the film’s elegant framing reveals, the gap between Taeko and Jiro, both physical and emotional, grows ever wider. It’s a solid, sensitively handled study of the aftermath of a trauma, elevated by tricky, unexpected revelations about Park.

The Nettle Dress

(68 mins, 12A) Directed by Dylan Howitt; featuring Allan Brown

There’s an almost fairytale-like quality to the subject of this lovely, poignant documentary: after the death of his beloved wife, a man spends seven years crafting a handspun dress from foraged nettles. Allan Brown, a textile artist, speaks eloquently of the rich symbolism of taking something that is a source of pain, stripping it of its sting and, over the years, gradually reshaping and repurposing it into a thing of beauty. The laborious process – from gathering bushels of the plants in the woods, labrador at heel, to spinning the fibres of the stalks into thread and weaving the thread into a roughhewn fabric – is captured with a lyrical sensitivity by film-maker Dylan Howitt’s unobtrusive camera.

Toronto film festival

Ends today


Jermyn Street theatre, London SW1; until 7 October

That Face

Orange Tree theatre, Richmond; until 7 October

Tanika Gupta’s set in 19th-century India during the British Raj, sounded as if it might be a magnificently arranged marriage, a mix of narrative energies, a cultural hybrid of Dickens’s masterpiece. But the challenge for anyone undertaking an adaptation of this sort is that once you have to make do without the flesh of Dickens’s language, his vim and strangeness, the bones of the surviving narrative tend to creak (all that sentimentality and improbable plot-twisting get unforgivingly exposed).

Gupta’s respectful but slack script involves too much telling: “The English are our puppet masters and if we want a good life, we have to dance to their tune.” And: “The English have kept us down for so long, we don’t believe in ourselves any more.” And: “The white devil treats the black man worse than the brown.” These are repeated truths that need unpacking through action, not in potted lines.

The Royal Exchange’s tremendous scale lends itself to epic, and the designer Rosa Maggiora offers a flexible, sealing-wax red design in the round with a homely shrine and white iron gates garlanded in jasmine. There is no lack of energy in the buoyant cast directed by Pooja Ghai (who herself appeared in the production’s 2011 premiere). Pipli, first encountered as a flighty boy in calico pantaloons, is played with

Without Dickens’s vim and strangeness, the bones of the surviving narrative tend to creak