Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien | 1hr 54min

The flower houses of 19th century Shanghai are inherently political establishments, hosting affairs between the city’s wealthiest men and the young courtesans look to pay off their debts. To an extent, their relationships are monogamous, though these social conventions are vaguely defined. Hou Hsiao-hsien wisely doesn’t force drama from this tension, but rather lets it transpire in naturalistic conversations between patrons, concubines, and the aunties who run the brothels with firm hands. Composed of 38 single-take vignettes cleanly divided by fades to black, Flowers of Shanghai weaves together inspirations from Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch in its naturalistic dialogue and elliptical structure, yet with a visual style as exquisitely ambient as this it undoubtedly belongs to the Taiwanese master of mise-en-scène.

Though we are confined to the interior of these pleasure houses for the entire film, the detail that Hsiao-hsien instils in them are essentially all we need to understand the society his characters belong to. The accomplishment of production design is integral here – common areas and bedrooms are decorated with wood panelling, floral artworks, ornately carved furniture, ceramic ornaments, embroidered curtains, and stained-glass windows, bearing the façade of great wealth while its inhabitants struggle in poverty.

Flowers of Shanghai has some of the most striking mise-en-scène of the 1990s, committing to the authenticity of the Chinese period setting.

From the oil lamps that often obscure shots in the foreground, a dim amber glow radiates across these rooms, diffused softly through the light opium haze suspended in the air, and blending beautifully with the gold and red palettes so richly drawn through the traditional Chinese décor. These are similarly the colours which the courtesans wear in their period-authentic robes, becoming part of the gorgeous scenery while the men disappear into the darkness with their predominantly black outfits. The gender divide is clear, though the power struggles between both sides is far more nuanced.

Along with production design, this film is a feat of costuming, cloaking the women in bright, vivid colours while the men sink into the darkness.

Plot threads of girls trying to earn their independence drift through this screenplay, though there is also some structure given to these vignettes in the loose chapter titles named after individual girls, which are in turn derived from colours, flowers, and gemstones. Negotiations over Emerald’s expensive freedom is a running subplot throughout scenes, peacefully resolving in Master Luo successfully taking her away. Other efforts aren’t so diplomatic, with Jade attempting to trick Master Zhu into a murder-suicide after he rejects the notion of marriage.

There are oil lamps in virtually every scene here, shedding a soft, warm glow across the brothel interiors.

Most complicated of all though is the difficult situation Master Wang finds himself in after breaking off a lengthy relationship with Crimson, and moving onto the younger Jasmin. In this world where boundaries of professional and personal relationships are dangerously blurred, such an abrupt and informal breakup is considered a cheap show of disrespect, and with Crimson struggling to gain more customers Wang soon finds himself pressured by the aunties to settle her remaining debts.

The casting of Tony Leung in this part is an inspired choice by Hsiao-hsien, as he effectively replaces his natural charm here with an enigmatic, brooding presence, and stands out as the quietest of all the men who frequent the brothel. As the camera elegantly floats through conversations and congregations with passive tranquillity, it often finds its way back to him in crowds even when he is not speaking, intrigued by his subtle expressions. As time passes though, his unspoken instability grows more apparent, eventually bursting out in a lonely, drunken rage upon discovering that Crimson has found herself another man. Wang’s decision to marry Jasmin even while he still has feelings for Crimson was only ever going to end in another broken relationship and agonising self-loathing.

Easily one of Flowers of Shanghai’s finest frames, dividing it up into segments through the open doors.
And then Hsiao-hsien very gradually dollies his camera forward, obscuring the left third of the frame with a door and lingering on Tony Leung.

Hsiao-hsien is patient with this character development and his narrative at large, frequently dwelling on those games of mahjong which men and working women bond over, while slipping in tiny details of their own arcs. The sound of traditional Chinese music always seems to be lingering in the background, almost like a hypnotic accompaniment to the sound of trivial conversations and comfortable laughter, while many of the more scandalous moments aren’t shown at all. Though the girls frequently speaking of the aunties beating them, this violence is never rendered onscreen, and when Jasmin finally leaves the brothel with Wang we only ever learn of her cheating through second-hand sources.

These crowded scenes of patrons and courtesans often feel inspired by Robert Altman’s chaotic dialogue, picking out subtle interactions as the camera pans back and forth.

In effect, this combination of open-ended character arcs, naturalistic dialogue, and an elliptical narrative structure develops Flowers of Shanghai into a wholly immersive slice of life, denying tidy endings to issues that may never be resolved. Perhaps Wang will always be an irretrievably unhappy man, and it is likely that many of these girls will never find the freedom they desire. Much like his serene, hovering camera, Hsiao-hsien does not intrude on their lives, but positions us as silent observers of the sharply gendered politics inherent in this setting. 19th century China has never felt so tangibly real on film as it does in this seductively authentic drama, exploring the tentative boundaries that lie between sex and business in its most frequented pleasure houses.

Kaagaz Ke Phool is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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La Promesse (1996)

The Dardenne Brothers | 1hr 34min

The story of Igor’s relationship with his father, Roger, in La Promesse can be understood through the three-act journey of his signet ring. He first receives it as a stolen gift, and proudly compares it to the matching one Roger wears on his own hand. When he is forced to do his father’s dirty work, it gets grimy, and Roger is right there to polish its surface, erasing all traces of what went down. In this unjust world it is his most treasured possession, both for its sentimental and monetary value, so his final, selfless decision to pawn it off for the benefit of someone else in need marks a major shift in his loyalty. The Dardenne Brothers are dedicated realists on every level of their filmmaking, tying their narratives up into knotty moral predicaments, and yet it is through these tinier symbolic developments that La Promesse progresses with archetypal formality, leading Igor down the path to maturity and the responsibilities that come with it.

Marvellous formal detail in this father-son relationship – the ring is its own story in three acts, and the tattoo serves as a brilliant metaphor for Roger making his son in his own image.

In 1996, this film marked a cinematic breakthrough for the Dardennes, who carry the neorealist traditions of 1940s Italy into contemporary Belgium and its own unique set of social issues. Exploitation of undocumented immigrants, trafficking, gambling, and petty theft thrive in this small industrial town, swaying the prospects of its local youth away from respectable occupations and towards the corruption of their elders. Right in the opening minutes, Igor steals a purse from a woman without a whole lot of guilt, clearly following in his father’s steps as an amoral, opportunistic criminal looking to take advantage of the system. Being a teenager though, his childhood innocence has not yet entirely faded. He would much rather ride bikes and go-karts than pursue his dead-end future, and in the formal repetition of these shots hanging in close-up on his untroubled face flying through town, the Dardennes uncover a youthful desire for freedom which no adult can harness.

The formal repetition of Igor riding his bike or go-kart down the street. There is innocence in this freedom, and the Dardenne brothers will often hang in close-up on the boy’s face with wind in his hair.

That goes for his father too, who squanders every opportunity to model upstanding behaviour. Roger will easily transition from beating up his son and then continue working on his tattoo in an instant, and in tying these two acts together we find a powerful representation of his desire to make another man in his own image. Igor searches for guidance, but all he finds is his father’s warped direction, obliterating the intimacy of family by asking to be called Roger rather than Dad, thereby making his denial of responsibility just a little easier. This means that when Hamidou, an undocumented immigrant they have been exploiting at work, falls from scaffolding in a panicked attempt to hide from inspectors, Roger has no issue getting Igor to help cover it up. In this instance they are not a father and son, but merely just work buddies, equally culpable for the ‘accident’ that has occurred.

The bonds we hold to others can be tricky though, and Igor quickly discovers this when a dying Hamidou makes him promise to look after his family, directly conflicting with the loyalty he has to his father. This is the dilemma upon which La Promesse pivots its entire drama, holding us in the grip of Igor’s torn mind as he tries to figure out compromises between the two.

This is a big start for some of the most important neorealists in cinema history, building a narrative off a difficult moral problem and dwelling on the small moments of frustrated uncertainty.

Back home, Hamidou’s wife, Assita, speculates that he has run away due to gambling debts, and for a while Igor can entertain this theory, even setting up a co-worker to drop off 1000 francs under the guise of repayment. Really though, measures like these to soothe her worries are only temporary. Doubts keep creeping back into her mind, seeing her resort to traditional African divination readings from chicken entrails and a local seer to provide the truth of the matter. It is a strange dose of mysticism the Dardennes inject here, obscuring our view of the whole situation with the consideration that there may be some grander, divine force at work. These readings are never precise enough to convince us of their truth, but neither are they entirely inaccurate, with the seer sensing the rage of justice-seeking ancestors in Assita’s sick baby. Whether this is real or not may not even matter – the diagnosis haunts Igor all the same, pinning the baby’s fever on him and driving him deeper into his own guilt.

A dedication to the background in this shot, obviously served by the Dardennes location shooting in their industrial hometown.

It is a bitter, unjust society which these characters persevere through, persecuting them systematically, as we see in Roger’s attempt to sell Assita off as a prostitute, as well as in bouts of random cruelty, typified by the two strangers urinating on her for their own entertainment. The Dardennes are no great cinematic stylists, but their grainy 16mm film stock, handheld camera, and long takes do serve to underscore the pure joylessness of this setting, sitting in the back of cars and holding tightly on Igor’s face as he crumbles under pressure. Any actor would be envious of a debut performance as vividly pained as this, as Jérémie Renier bears the gradually increasing strain of Igor’s predicament with discomposed weariness.

Jérémie Renier’s performance is impressive for someone so young, framed in poignant close-ups that approach it with inspired angles and mise-en-scène.

His final, decisive action does not come as a shock, but the timing is certainly unexpected. There are no didactic monologues or urgent stakes pushing Igor to come clean – just the slow, mounting shame weighing on his conscience, spilling the truth out in a train station after a long, burdensome silence. The Dardennes land this ending with precision, resisting the urge to have Assita respond with anything other than a resolute turn around and walk back into town, now reinforced in her mission by the answers she has so desperately sought.

Lesser filmmakers might have hinted a little at the aftermath, though it is insignificant here for two reasons – this is the point where the story is is no longer purely in Igor’s hands, and it is also where he decisively puts his stake in the ground, resolving to be a man with integrity rather than a passive bystander. La Promesse is not about a death, a lie, or a fight for justice, though the messiness of each are unavoidable. It is about the promise a boy makes to be better than the world around him, starting with the sworn oath itself, and ending with his first step towards fulfilling it.

Dardennes land the ending at the perfect point with an excellent final shot in the train station tunnel.

La Promesse is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The English Patient (1996)

Anthony Minghella | 2hr 42min

A Hungarian, an Indian, and a couple of Canadians seek refuge in a bombed-out Italian monastery, each complete strangers, yet bound together by the trauma of war. The Hungarian, a badly-burned amnesiac who eventually recalls his name as László Almásy, is under the care of French-Canadian nurse Hana, while being sought out by the mysterious Canadian spy, Caravaggio. Meanwhile Kip, the Indian bomb disposal expert, has been tasked with clearing out mines from the surrounding villa, facing the possibility of death every single day while taking a romantic liking to Hana.

Both here and in the desert where Almásy spent many years exploring with a British expedition crew, national identities are broken down into meaningless constructs that are only ever secondary to individual character, though such a liberal ideology cannot thrive in wartime where divisions and allegiances are inescapable. Wistful memories and melancholy regrets swirl all through The English Patient’s vast, time-leaping narrative, developing its gentle ruminations into a dramatic epic of extraordinary beauty, compassion, and patience.

The dull grey palette of the present day story juxtaposed against the thick, orange hues of Almásy’s flashbacks in the desert.

Anthony Minghella takes confident charge of this bold literary adaptation in the director’s chair, imbuing it with all the historical weight of a legend set in the not-too-distant past. His cinematic inspirations are plain to see in the largescale cinematography, implementing lessons learnt from David Lean by using the sprawling emptiness of the desert to underscore the majesty of the larger-than-life characters traversing it, only for it to inevitably trap them in its dry, arid expanse.

Minghella tells a classical love story with huge, sweeping photography. It is particularly worth singling out his aerial sequences, soaring alongside biplanes.

The aerial photography of sandy dunes shot from atop biplanes distinctly evokes the sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia, and when the Hungarian adventurer finally arrives in Cairo with his crew, the urban Egyptian sandstone interiors bring a warm, intimate touch to the romantic drama. Inside Almásy’s hotel bedroom especially, its delicate latticework opens onto the hazy cityscape outside, and it is against this handsome backdrop that he shares his first, secret kiss with his travelling companion, Katharine, away from her husband’s eyes. Even beyond sunrises and sunsets, there is a permanent orange hue hanging in the air, smothering Almásy and his fellow explorers in the sweltering heat of Egypt – a distant contrast to the cool greyness of the present-day monastery, where these flashbacks are contained.

A thorough dedication to the production design in Cairo with the latticework, archways, sandstone, and Egyptian textiles.
Minghella often settles on this angle of Binoche and Fiennes next to the bed, building their connection in an abandoned monastery.

Bridging these timelines set on either end of World War II are the sort of long dissolves that editor Walter Murch previously perfected in Apocalypse Now, and which now mesmerically slip between the explorer’s current bed-ridden existence and his slowly returning memories. His only possession, a copy of Herodotus’ Histories, contains a bundle of personal artefacts inside, and as we linger on them, small pieces of their context come trickling back. Even more significantly, Hana’s reading of passages from the volume itself begins to evoke the face and voice of Katharine, elegantly conveyed through Minghella’s intercutting between both recitations.

Gorgeously edited in the long dissolves bridging past and present, conjuring memories over Fiennes’ heavily made-up face.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Scott Thomas are thoughtfully grounded in these parts, offering a feminine sensitivity to both sides of the story, though it is Ralph Fiennes’ work in playing both the romantic lead and scarred survivor which stands as the greatest acting achievement here. Watching him bask in the freedom of the desert where national identities mean nothing lifts the spirits of the film high, right before the inevitable crash.

Perhaps the great irony of Almásy’s mental and physical injuries is that they effectively grant his wish of being truly nationless, and now as he recalls his identity, the dangers of such an attitude settles in too. When Katharine is left injured in the desert, he leaves to seek help, though only comes across further obstacles without proper identification on him. With his foreign-sounding name, he is arrested by British forces on suspicion of being a spy, and when he finally escapes, he is only able to make it back to Katharine by offering maps to a Germany army unit. After all, with no allegiance to any country, what difference does it make?

Obviously The English Patient isn’t on the same exalted level as Lawrence of Arabia, but the grandeur of these long shots making use of the desert’s natural lighting is comparable.

For Cairo, the difference is staggering, as in one stunning long shot we helplessly watch Nazi forces descend on the city in parachutes. For Caravaggio, it means losing his thumbs, as he is swiftly captured, tortured, and mutilated for his role as a Canadian Intelligence operative. As far as he is concerned, Almásy is a killer, not just responsible for the deaths of many in Cairo, but for Katharine and her husband, Geoffrey, as well. Surprisingly, Almásy takes at least partial responsibility for this – it was his own foolish love after all which stoked Geoffrey’s jealously and drove him to an elaborate murder-suicide via biplane.

Minghella appropriately uses a huge canvas for the German invasion of Cairo, seeing the Nazis descend upon the city in parachutes.
An oppressive overhead shot of Caravaggio’s torture, framed between the bars of his confinement.

Perhaps if there is any salvation to be found, it is in the end of this devastating war, as Americans parade through the streets in tanks proclaiming victory. For Almásy though, there is nothing left for him in this world. The morphine overdose that Hana administers is a merciful act, and as she reads Katharine’s final letter that was written while waiting in that cave before passing away, Minghella touchingly grants them death side-by-side, once again intercutting between both timelines. Just as Hana rides off through the green Italian countryside in these final moments, so too do we witness Almásy fly over Egypt’s rolling deserts, revelling in this land where all divisions of nation and culture fall away to boundless, sprawling freedom.

Both Hana and Almásy are liberated from the confines of the monastery in the final minutes, cutting between Italy’s stone streets and Egypt’s rolling dunes.

The English Patient is currently streaming on Stan and Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood | 2hr 11min

When Lee Marvin’s villainous outlaw was killed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart was hailed as a hero. When Clint Eastwood won the climactic shootout of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, he projected victory merely from his cool, confident swagger. In Unforgiven, there is no glory to be found in deadly quests for vengeance, and those who see them through to their end are called out for what they are – murderers. Ex-outlaw and retired gunslinger Will Munny wears that label with shame, preferring to put his violent past behind him so his two motherless children can grow up in a safer, kinder world, though the temptation to dredge up old habits lie on the horizon. A bounty on two men who cruelly mutilated a prostitute offers easy money that he desperately needs, but in Eastwood’s self-assured direction and sensitively layered performance, he incisively undermines the Old West mythology and Hollywood conventions that he built his career on.

Eastwood taking a leaf out of John Ford’s playbook, hanging the horizon low in the frame.

In fact, virtually every tale of fortitude, skill, and machismo told in Unforgiven is as unstable as the lies they are built on, attempting to rewrite a history of America that is far more honourable than its reality. Having once personified and subsequently shied away from its egotistical sadism, Munny is among the few characters who has seen the ugly truth, though acting as a counterpoint to this we find Richard Harris’ haughty, foreign gunfighter, English Bob. So conceited is this man that he has even hired a biographer to follow him around and transcribe his exaggerated stories, choosing to build a legacy not through organic word-of-mouth, but through his own contrived fabrications. Even his own aristocratic Britishness is a front, with his upper-crust accent concealing Cockney origins, and thereby suggesting that his own move over from England was likely motivated by the empty allure of the American Dream he now wishes to propagate.

Compared to English Bob’s thunderous arrival in the gun-free town of Big Whiskey, Munny arrives with much less pomp and circumstance. Huddled inside his coat and hiding under his wide-brimmed hat, Eastwood appears small, weak, and closed-off, diminished beneath the huge stature of Gene Hackman’s iron-fisted local sheriff, Little Bill. Turning this ambassador of the law into the villain of the piece and setting him against Eastwood’s heroic outlaw makes for a smartly subversive role reversal, and the process of seeing the latter sharpen up his old skillset and adopt the familiar mentality of a cold-blooded killer consistently raises the tension leading up to their eventual showdown.

This is a very different Western performance for Eastwood compared to the Man With No Name. There is deep-seated shame in his physicality, hunched over and shivering in his coat.

Within this ensemble of morally grey characters, the nihilism of Sergio Leone cynically asserts itself as a significant influence, and consequently so too does his fusion of magnificent blocking, camerawork, and dusty palettes that pervade Unforgiven’s mise-en-scène. Although predominantly shot in Alberta, the gorgeous scenery of dry grass, forests, and mountains form spectacular rural landscapes representing Wyoming and Kansas. When horizons hang low in the frame, Eastwood relishes isolating his characters against the wide-open skies, at times capturing it at magic hour when its setting sun burns a bright orange. When our attention turns to the action on the ground, he crafts some superbly staggered compositions out of his actors, staging the prostitutes seeking the bounty together as a cohesive unit, while low angles and guns hem in those at the mercy of Little Bill’s henchmen.

Masterful blocking from Eastwood, using wooden beams to draw lines in the frame and lining the prostitutes into the background from this low angle.
Gene Hackman in a position of power, backed up by dozens of men in the background, and then shrinking Richard Harris in the frame, closing enemies in around him.

Tracking shots are used a little more sparsely in Unforgiven, and yet they still intermittently bring a thick immersion into the action and suspense, whether we are following Munny in a quick getaway or adopting his perspective during his vengeful return to Big Whiskey. Outside the saloon, his old friend Ned lays dead in a coffin with a warning sign for all those looking to cause further trouble, though he is not even slightly fazed. The same rage and vindictiveness which fuelled his life of crime decades earlier have returned darker than ever, seemingly bringing with it an angry storm that mercilessly beats down on the town and unnervingly accompanies his daunting monologue to Little Bill and his henchmen.

“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

A slow tracking shot through town…
…and a low angle tracking shot in on Eastwood’s powerful stature, meeting him at his darkest point.

The camera tracks in on him from a low angle and thunder reverberates in the background, presaging what we expect to be a thrilling, drawn-out confrontation between these hard-bitten adversaries. The massacre that Eastwood delivers instead is no great struggle for Munny, whose calm composure and quick draw instantly mows down Little Bill and his men, and yet this doesn’t feel like a victory. As he previously told his younger, bounty-hunting companion, the Schofield Kid:

“It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

This is a lesson the Kid only learns when he experiences it himself for the first time, shooting his quarry who he finds sitting defenceless on a toilet. There is nothing bold or courageous about this murder, and we see a pitiful change take place in this boy who, like English Bob, had built his entire reputation on the lie of being a fearsome gunslinger. Only when he becomes exactly that can he see the utter shame of it, and much like Munny, choose to walk away from the life he had always revered.

A superb arrangement of the rickety set design with the snowy landscape of mountains in the background.
Eastwood’s split diopter lens catching both characters at different depths in the frame.

Still, murder leaves a mark on these men which can’t simply be shaken off. It haunts them long after the deed is done with the guilty knowledge of what they will always be capable of – a heartless evil as easily recalled as horse riding or shooting targets. Unforgiven is not a new story for a man like Munny, so used to taking lives with no regard for what they truly “deserve”, but in Eastwood’s brilliantly cutting genre subversions, it emerges as a horrific reminder of what lies dormant beneath America’s prideful history, ready to rear its head again at any time.

Unforgiven is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 26min

In one of Goodfellas’ most iconic scenes, Henry Hill sits with his fellow wise guys in the Copacabana night club, listening to his good friend Tommy DeVito send the group into fits of laughter. “You’re really funny,” Henry chuckles. “What do you mean I’m funny?” As the uproar fades into dead silence, it quickly becomes apparent that Tommy’s fragile ego has taken it as an insult. “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?” The tension is thick in the air for a full two minutes, before the joke is revealed and everyone bursts into laughter again. Perhaps Henry can brush off the emotional manipulation easily, but Tommy’s instability is noted, and it isn’t the last time we will see him come down hard on those who offend him. The only difference is that in most instances, he is not joking, and we bear witness to his full, brutal anger being unleashed in extreme acts of violence.

“Funny how?” A solid contender for the best scene of Joe Pesci’s career, drenched in the red lighting of the Copacabana.

Tommy may be the best encapsulation of the gangster lifestyle’s volatility, though the backstabbing and bloodshed that comes with it extends far beyond the reach of his revolver. Henry is fully aware of its dangers, but while he is riding its sweet highs through the golden era of the 60s and 70s, he is more than happy to keep doing the mob’s dirty work. In this way, Martin Scorsese seems to be holding up a mirror to The Godfather films from two decades earlier, and it is even a curious turn of fate that Goodfellas was released in the same year as The Godfather Part III. Where Francis Ford Coppola’s series is operatic in its classical, sprawling narrative though, Scorsese’s film races forward with all the momentum of a live rock concert, transplanting the ‘rise and fall’ gangster storyline from high-flying mafia bosses to a true story based in the world of their low-ranking, blue-collar subordinates. Unlike the members of the Corleone family, our antihero Henry Hill was not born into any sort of privilege or destiny, as his very first line of voiceover following the opening scene informs us.

“As far back as I remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”

A forward tracking shot, red lighting, freeze frame on a close-up, voiceover, needle drop – a brilliantly stylistic way to launch this narrative into action.

With a brisk tracking shot swooping in low, a freeze frame on his face, and the big band number ‘Rags to Riches’ punctuating the transition, we are energetically brought into Henry’s innocent childhood, looking up to the mobsters who populate his borough of New York City. The scene we just witnessed of him, Tommy, and the third member of their trio, Jimmy, finishing off the half-dead man they have in their car trunk will be returned to later, but for Goodfellas’ first act Scorsese is all about setting the scene, revelling in the thrill, freedom, and community that this Italian American crime ring has to offer. Henry’s voiceover is there with us every step of the way as well, coating his memories in layers of nostalgia that are powerfully backed up by the wall-to-wall soundtrack of jazz, pop, and rock hits from the 50s and 60s, which at times even seem to comment on the action.

The narrative flies by in the opening scenes of Henry’s childhood, ingratiating himself with the gangsters and floating by on brilliant soundtrack of 50s and 60s hits.

As if in control of a television remote, Henry’s narration holds absolute power over the pacing of his story, pausing the tape to add extra information and flashing through montages of his youth with all the energy of a fresh-faced gangster. At this point in Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas clearly marks his most playful work yet, matching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in its grittiness, though carrying a transcendently suave charm in Thelma Schoonmaker’s kinetic editing and Michael Ballhaus’ energetic camera that so many subsequent films would emulate.

Freeze frames…
…slow motion…
…and dolly zooms. Goodfellas is a hugely energetic in its pacing, but Scorsese’s cinematography and editing propels it forward as well.

It is especially through the virtuosic cinematography that small moments are given even greater weight with tracking shots in and out of faces, and that larger scenes become some of Scorsese’s greatest displays of visual style in his filmography. The first time he floats us through the night club to meet minor characters like Freddie No Nose and Jimmy Two Times, we adopt Henry’s perspective as a well-respected man, though by the time his future wife Karen is in the picture, Scorsese turns the allure up higher with an even longer take. The couple’s descent from the street, through the depths of the Copacabana’s restricted areas, and into the main dining area hangs our perspective right on their tail for close to three minutes, where the entire world looks as if it is falling into place right in front of them. Conversely, the red décor and lighting that Scorsese integrates all through his mise-en-scène here carries slightly darker implications – this is a figurative journey into hell for Henry and Karen, though for now they might as well be King and Queen of this infernal realm.

A descent into the depths of hell (or Copacabana) through one of the truly great tracking shots of Scorsese’s career and film history.

Beyond the famous Copacabana scene though, Scorsese is formally laying these blazing, aggressive hues all through Goodfellas as a dominant visual motif, shining it through bars where Tommy loses his temper and splashing it across the scenes of Billy Batts’ murder. Red light pours from the car trunk where the rival mafioso lies gasping for breath, and so too is it diffused through fog as they later dig up his body, silhouetting them in a demonic haze. The emphasis of this colour palette also accompanies us as we return to the opening scene, where its context becomes fully apparently within the narrative – this is the point of no return for Henry, whose assistance in covering up Billy’s death kicks off the erosion of his own relationship with the mob at large.

A stunning, infernal shot silhouetting Henry and his friends as they exhume the body they buried in the opening scene.

Joe Pesci may walk away with the performance of the film as the violently mood-swinging Tommy, though as Goodfellas moves into its final act, it becomes clear that Ray Liotta surely isn’t that far behind. Pressure mounts when Jimmy begins turning on his own friends and Tommy is brutally whacked by those who promised to initiate him as a ‘made man’, and as Henry picks up drug-dealing a side business to support his lavish lifestyle, Liotta’s demeanour grows noticeably agitated. By now his bright eyes and charming smile have faded away, replaced by a permanently nervous expression etched across his pale, clammy face, and Schoonmaker’s editing only drives up the intensity with jump cuts and a frenzied, paranoid juggle of his competing priorities. Most of all, that helicopter following him overhead wears away at his sanity, and with few friends left in the mob, any hope that he might get off lightly for a second time is well and truly gone.

A downward slide for Henry and his friends in the final act of the film. Ray Liotta becomes jumpy, nervous, and sweaty – far more on edge than the cool, confident Henry from before.

The Henry who decides to rat out his associates when cornered is a very different person to the one who, as a young boy, was praised for keeping his mouth shut in court. He is not content with his life as a suburban “schnook” under witness protection, but as his voiceover finally catches up to the present in a direct address to the camera, we see that it is all he has left. Henry’s fall from grace couldn’t be more different from Michael Corleone’s, who keeps his wealth yet loses his family. The fate of mobsters here is not tragic, but wholly pathetic, stripping these selfish men of their superficial riches and sentencing them to a mediocre existence. Scorsese’s agile, vibrant filmmaking meets both ends of this lifestyle with a spirited energy, though in his construction of such a purely compelling narrative as well, Goodfellas stands boldly next to Coppola’s gangster epic as the finest of its genre.

Goodfellas is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Out of Sight (1998)

Steven Soderbergh | 2hr 3min

The artistic reach of Pulp Fiction can be felt on an immense scale through the decades of cinema since its release in 1994, and yet it is just as fascinating to study its immediate cinematic offspring born of Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-stylised editing and non-linear structure. Out of Sight might feel familiar in this sense, and yet it is never derivative, demonstrating Steven Soderbergh’s mastery of an art form that is constantly reinventing itself under the steady hand of innovative creators. The similarities between these two leading directors of 90s independent cinema aren’t accidental either – just as Tarantino adapted an Elmore Leonard novel the year prior, so too does Out of Sight draw from one of Leonard’s most famous crime thrillers, and even tie in a cameo from Michael Keaton’s detective character in Jackie Brown, Ray Nicolette.

And yet despite all these parallels, it is still tough to imagine anyone other than Soderbergh directing something as uniquely composed and darkly comic as Out of Sight. Tarantino might have lightly experimented with freeze frames in Pulp Fiction, but Soderbergh takes them even further in this rollicking cat-and-mouse chase across several American cities, lifting characters out of time and lingering on the humour, pain, and longing of their expressions for just a few seconds longer.

A major achievement in editing with freeze frames in Out of Sight, lifting characters out of time and lingering on the humour, pain, and longing of their expressions for just a few seconds longer.

His finest use of this comes in early with the opening title, boldly announcing our leading man, bank robber Jack Foley, as he furiously tugs off his tie and throws it to the ground in a single blur of action. From this point on, it continues to land all through the film as a visual punctuation mark, frequently ending scenes before dissolving into the next. That Soderbergh was able to pull in veteran film editor Anne V. Coates, famous for her work on Lawrence of Arabia, is straight-out remarkable, and the collaboration pays off even further as we bounce between both sides of the conflict at the centre of the film.

Combining freeze frames with long dissolves as scene transitions, creating these powerful composite images.

All through Out of Sight, these parallel storylines wind each other like a dance, and leading both we find George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez towards the start of their acting careers, delivering a pair of enthralling performances loaded with romantic chemistry. Scott Frank’s smooth dialogue certainly makes up a large part of this too, as the interactions between Lopez’s U.S. Marshal, Karen Sisco, and her slippery target, Jack, hinge upon an effort to avoid their most natural instincts, as well as a universe that seems to be constantly running them into each other through chance encounters.

Jack and Karen brought together in this steamy dream sequence, leading to this dizzying overhead shot looking down on the bath.

The first time they are brought together is through a meeting of fates, where Jack’s prison break and Karen’s arrival at the gates collide. In a moment of panic, he pulls her into the trunk of his getaway car, trying to cover up any evidence of his escape. Forced into an awkwardly close position as the driver speeds away, she makes reluctant small talk with the man breathing down her neck, and Soderbergh spends the entire scene in tight close-up on their faces, squeezing us in with them. Physical intimacy and discomfort become one beneath the red light that he illuminates the scene with, as he generates a warmth that begins to wear away at their defences.

A bright, red light bathing the two adversaries and soon-to-be-lovers during their intimate first encounter.

By the time we reach hotel scene where both Karen and Jack fully give in to their mutual attraction, those inhibitions are well and truly gone. Even with some distance between the characters prior to this, Soderbergh still effectively builds a relationship based on tangential connections – a steamy dream sequence, an unexpected crossing of paths, and a brief flash of eye contact. All of this is to set up a truly artful sex scene that entirely earns its passion, delivered through a sensual intercutting of the lovers’ tantalising conversation at the bar, and the silent, physical consummation of their long-held desire that rolls beneath their lingering voiceover. Outside the large windows of both scenes, a stunning night sky of falling snow and city lights sheds an air of romance over them, and David Holmes’ bluesy score of electric guitar, keyboard, and drums settles into a slow, teasing beat.

A gorgeous city of lights and falling snow becoming a romantic backdrop to Karen and Jack’s sexual encounter in the hotel.

Of course, this is but a distillation of the non-linear structure Soderbergh employs all through Out of Sight, not quite shaking up the order of events to the point of becoming Pulp Fiction, but still frequently jumping between flashbacks and the present day enough to build out these characters’ backstories. This is not a convoluted story, but it is somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle in the way it sprawls out and pieces together into a gorgeously staged finale, sending each key player of this ensemble into a mansion where a cache of uncut diamonds is said to be hidden.

Nothing is by accident in Soderbergh’s framing, foreshadowing Jack’s prison break with the watch tower in the background of this shot.
Soderbergh maintains a strong sense of setting as we jump between American cities and suburbs, making the most of these gorgeous wide shots.

It is inside this magnificent set piece that Soderbergh is clearly most at home, as he sets his thriller caper against luxurious backdrops of olive-green walls, ornate wooden furniture, and gold-embellished ceilings. There is a through line of black comedy that runs through the scene too, most evident in the darkly ironic death of White Boy Bob tripping and shooting himself in the head. On a purely dramatic level though, Soderbergh is entirely committed to paying off on multiple character relationships through his action and suspense, spanning multiple betrayals, murders, and of course, one very complicated romance. In the end, it all comes back to that love forbidden by social convention yet spurred on by a fatalistic world driving the two ends of the law together. Only with as heightened a visual style as that which Soderbergh binds to his narrative in Out of Sight could this unlikely pairing make all the sense in the world.

A brilliantly staged finale in this manor of green walls, gold-patterned ceilings, and ornate wooden furniture, but he is also sure to emphasise these as part of the drama through both high and low angles.

Out of Sight is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven | 1hr 53min

At every step of Douglas Quaid’s journey into the Martian conspiracy of Total Recall, he is confronted with forks in the road, offering him one of two choices. To welcome the danger of new technologies, or to reject the call of adventure. To live out his deepest wish fulfilment as a monster, or to carry on an ordinary life as himself. To save a potentially fictional civilisation and risk death, or to let it perish and return home none the wiser.

One of these realities exists only in his head, but it is impossible to tell which, and from this ambiguity Paul Verhoeven draws out an identity crisis that follows Quaid to the depths of a strange, extra-terrestrial plot. If Alice in Wonderland’s bizarre trip down the rabbit hole met the retrofuturism and metaphysics of Blade Runner, then it would probably look a lot like this – an ambitious, off-kilter genre movie that unites its science-fiction, action, romance, and comedy elements under a space-bound adventure, and then tops it off with a riotous Arnold Schwarzenegger performance.

A very physical Schwarzenegger performance, almost pushing into the realm of comedy. He makes some big choices here that don’t all land, but it is tough to imagine anyone else in this role.
Precision in Verhoeven’s staging and camera angles, bringing artistry to the violence.

The Blade Runner comparison shouldn’t be all that surprising given that the source material of both films comes from the wildly creative mind of Philip K. Dick, equally questioning the nature of reality, perception, and identity in the context of futuristic civilisations. The influence of Ridley Scott’s seminal work of science-fiction extends far beyond character and themes though, as the sheer scope of Verhoeven’s visual world-building is stretched to magnificent proportions, crafting alien cities and landscapes out of imposing, expressionistic miniatures.

From there, it is impossible not to see a mix of other cinematic predecessors emerge as well, with talk of political revolution bringing Metropolis to mind, and the surreal madness evoking the distorted humour of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The choice between two different realities being boiled down to a single pill even remarkably presages The Matrix by nine years as well, setting a new standard for action sci-fi films with philosophical concerns. In its entirety though, Total Recall is very much a Verhoeven film in the vein of Robocop, hiding inspired reflections on humanity beneath audacious set pieces of bloody violence and extreme tonal shifts.

Total Recall is in a lineage of science-fiction films like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Brazil, building out a fantastical world of imposing architecture rendered through detailed miniatures.

It takes a little while at first for Verhoeven to arrive at these brilliant displays of spectacle though, as much of the first act is spent around Quaid’s home on Earth where he lives with his wife, Lori, and works a construction job. Televisions lining the walls of subway trains and giant x-ray walls that screen civilians both represent small but significant parts of a technology-dependent society, and Verhoeven maintains a strong narrative drive through it all in the staging of a heart-pumping chase. But as the story moves to the Martian colony ruled by tyrannical governor Vilos Cohaagen, it is evident that this planet is where Verhoeven is having the most fun as a filmmaker. Most importantly, he passes that joy on to his audience with some truly unhinged conceits as well – a fat lady disguise that encases Schwarzenegger in a shell-like apparatus, an underclass of mutants living in Mars’ red-light district, and even a revolution leader who lives as a conjoined twin growing out of his brother’s belly.

Solid world-building on Earth before we even get to Mars, lining subways with televisions.
Body horror rendered in grotesque practical effects, pushing the film’s style in unexpected directions.

Cronenbergian body horror abounds in scenes like these that push Verhoeven’s visual madness to its limits, even going so far as to render the bulging eyes and popping veins of characters doomed to suffocate on Mars’ uninhabitable surface through grotesque practical effects. Adding a sense of peril to these fervid designs is a persistent dedication to red hues all through the mise-en-scene, vibrantly lighting up interiors of rigid lines and steel beams, but even more dominantly hanging in the air of Mars’ rocky landscapes, casting a hellish glow over Cohaagen’s dominion.

Giant sets and the red light of Mars coming together to create brilliant backdrops and action set pieces.
An oppressive frame here with the giant fan obscuring a shot of total carnage.

It is almost too easy to be swept up by such outlandish visual fantasy, as much like Quaid, we excitedly invest our suspension of belief into his believed reality as a secret agent from Mars. Schwarzenegger himself too is a huge, physical presence onscreen that matches Total Recall’s deranged aesthetic, even if his throaty grunts and yells eventually grow tiresome. And yet every now and again, Verhoeven weaves in just enough doubt for us to wonder whether these thrills are simply one big distraction from a greater existential question lying beneath.

“What if this is a dream?” Quaid wonders in the final seconds, having remarkably solved all of Mars’ political troubles. “Then kiss me quick before you wake up,” his too-perfect love interest responds, right before the screen fades to white. Even in his escapist storytelling, Verhoeven still finds a way to let the uncomfortable ambiguities of reality linger in our minds, as Total Recall finally settles in that anxious space that exists between majestic, adventurous bliss and crushing, psychological despair.

Great work from Verhoeven in using his steel architecture to obstruct and divide frames.

Total Recall is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

A Little Princess (1995)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 37min

Like the fanciful stories that Sara tells her fellow students, her entire life within the context of A Little Princess takes the form of a fairy tale, as if wished into existence by her own imagination. The kind young maiden, her dashing saviour, the cruel monster that has imprisoned her – this is a fable of classic archetypes conjured up in a 1910s New York boarding school, and Alfonso Cuarón skilfully draws a light thread of magical realism through it all, adopting the fantastical point-of-view of his young, inventive protagonist. Lingering on the edges of her consciousness is a fear for her father’s safety while fighting in World War I, and through some clever intercutting it is evident that her stories aren’t just a form of escapism, but an indirect sublimation of that concern. For as long as she lives under the rule of cruel headmistress Miss Minchin, they are all she has to fight off the despair.

Being a film that focuses so heavily on child actors, it is not surprising that there are often awkward contrivances in their performances, and it doesn’t help that some of their lines tend to repeat the same mantras in ham-fisted variations. This is not a film of great subtlety or complexity in its construction though, nor is it pretending to be. Above all else, A Little Princess aims for bright, bold fantasy, evoking a nostalgia for childhood where even the worst evils can be overcome by the sheer power of will, and where evocative colours are weaved through emotional and artistic expressions with vivid, soothing elegance.

Fine detail in the set design make for some elegant compositions, drawing out the sensitivity in Sara’s closest relationships.

Throughout most of Cuarón’s films, it is often assorted shades of green which dominate his mise-en-scène, whether in the lighting, colour grading, or production design. Here in A Little Princess, his delicately curated period décor is steeped in them, not so much taking on a symbolic representation of any fixed idea than calling to mind abstract associations of fantasy, youth, nature, and perhaps in the case of the repressed Miss Minchin, even envy. In a way, what Cuarón does with colour here is comparable to what Ingmar Bergman accomplishes in Fanny and Alexander, crafting vibrant, plush interiors that insulate the imagination of their young inhabitants from those heartless grown-ups looking to force it out of them. Based on his superb world-building and classical narrative structure as well, it also isn’t hard to see why Cuarón was selected to direct Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban nine years later, given that both incidentally share a good number of the same fantasy conventions.

A distinct Ingmar Bergman influence in the Fanny and Alexander production design and narrative, crafting colourfully plush interiors around our imaginative young protagonist.
As the distance between child and parent widens, the sets become noticeably harsher – and again, this shot of Sara lying on the floor of the attic looks strikingly similar to a similar scene in Fanny and Alexander.

Certainly some credit must also go to Bo Welch, Tim Burton’s regular production designer, whose first and only collaboration with Cuarón here stands among his finest efforts. The girls’ olive-green school uniforms beautifully complement the building’s painted and wallpapered interiors, and within its carved, wooden doorways and high ceilings Cuarón often finds the most evocative angles from which to frame his actors. His gorgeous green motif continues to run through the tiniest props of balloons, candles, apples, and flowers, each arranged with care in scenes of birthday parties and meal times. When we move outside, this ambitious artistic vision only continues to reveal itself, with the building exteriors lining the Manhattan streets conforming to the colour palette as well.

A formal dedication to the colour green in every scene – the uniforms, the decor, even the food on the table at meal times.

A Little Princess does not just signal a promising career for Cuarón though, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is also at work here developing his own distinctive style of gliding cameras and long takes, running along breakfast tables and through rooms with a graceful sweep. The effect is distinctly fantastical, even in those scenes which are otherwise grounded in reality, enthusiastically engaging with Sara’s mind that finds wonder and excitement in even the barest of environments. Within her tales of Indian gods and demons, Cuarón uses a strange, colourful mix of practical and computer-generated effects to create an expressionistic sort of artifice, visualising the wild imagination that has captivated her peers.

An even greater artifice in the design of Sara’s fairy tale interludes, carrying through the green motif in the surreal sets.

Quite significantly, Sara’s brilliant creativity is given tangible purpose in the parallels between her whimsical tales and her father’s fight in the war, finding a lighter, more digestible spin on uncomfortable truths beyond her comprehension. At the end of the day, she wins her freedom in the exact same way the heroes of her stories earn theirs – through courage, imagination, ingenuity, kindness, and love. In short, all those things that fairy tales value so highly, while sneering critics like Miss Minchin call them naïve. She is not disengaging from society, but rather making sense of its troubles in her own way, and it is through this empathetic curiosity that Cuarón paints out his own expression of wonder, recognising the creative potential of stories to inspire hope, bridge connections, and liberate prisoners of a cynical world.

The streets of New York have never looked so green as they do here, brimming with life and fantasy.

A Little Princess is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Philadelphia (1993)

Jonathan Demme | 2hr 6min

Throughout the history of filmmakers who have harnessed the full potential of close-ups, there are few so singularly focused on their standalone power as Jonathan Demme, and the trial that encompasses the final years of one man’s life in Philadelphia is the perfect canvas for such potent expressions of empathy. The camera is a vehicle of pure, emotional connection here, and even in spite of its consistently tight framing, there is a versatility in its placement which opens us up to Andrew Beckett’s full, complex characterisation, steadily built out through the court case that he launches against his former employer.

Tom Hanks’ accomplishment may arguably be even greater than Demme’s here, delivering a performance that fully capitalises on the close-ups narrowing in on his expressive face, growing paler and weaker the further along Andrew’s AIDS progresses. At the same time though, his intelligence and determination remain steady, pushing him to seek justice for his wrongful dismissal right up until his dying moments. At his most affecting, Hanks rolls pieces of both his physical vulnerability and moral strength into a sincere tenderness, expressing a deep appreciation for opera and its fleeting, lyrical beauty. As he closes his eyes and translates his feelings into words, Demme’s camera hovers above him at a high angle, capturing one of Philadelphia’s most transcendent close-ups at the point that the lighting fades to red and Andrew’s mind disappears into a realm of blissful, divine joy.

One of Demme’s strongest close-ups, hanging on Andrew from a high angle as he basks in the joy of his passion – opera.

It is a thin line between intimacy and intimidation though, and it only takes a slight shift in tone for Demme’s close-ups to turn on Andrew entirely, probing his personal space much like those lawyers and firm partners who bring his private life into the public eye. As he mixes with his colleagues at a function, the camera keeps wandering towards a lesion on his neck, looking at him through the eyes of the men whose suspicions of his homosexuality will soon push them to sabotage and fire him. When that meeting arrives, the cutting back and forth between Andrew and the executives sees the camera gradually push forward on Hanks from a wide shot, narrowing his world around him as he realises what is happening, until we finally arrive on his face in an isolating close-up.

The camera invading Andrew’s personal space, turning its probing eye against him.
Tracking the camera forward as Andrew realises he is being fired, ending in this tight shot of Hank’s face. Beautiful camera movement tied to the narrative.

Perhaps there is some solace to be found in Andrew’s lawyer, Joe Miller, who, while not exactly being any kind of LGBT ally, does offer hope as a representation of society’s shifting cultural attitudes. The road to progress is not perfectly smooth, as even after he decides to take on Andrew’s case there are still bursts of gay panic that emerge, and by the end of the film there is no sense of Joe entirely moving past those ingrained prejudices. Instead, it is simply the sweet friendship forming between them that brings understanding and acceptance – not just of another’s sexuality, but for Andrew, of one’s own mortality.

Denzel Washington and Hanks’ chemistry in these roles is helped along a great deal by Demme’s point-of-view shots, letting his actors gaze right down the camera’s lens and stand on the precipice of breaking the fourth wall. Even beyond the way he shoots their faces, he keeps subtly shaping our view of them with a gorgeously shallow depth of field, creating soft, impressionist backgrounds that lift the actors very slightly out of their immediate environments. Within one library scene, rows of green lamps make for a gorgeous display of mise-en-scène in wide shots, but even as we cut in close to Hanks and Washington, Demme is sure to keep the lights vaguely present behind them, shining a pale, sickly glow on their faces.

Green lamps in the library are eye-catching in wide shots, but even in close-ups Demme makes wonderful use of them in his soft, out-of-focus backgrounds.

Perhaps in less skilled hands, Philadelphia might have easily been lumped in with far more mediocre “issue” movies that tackle socially significant matters beyond the director’s grasp, but the cumulative effect of Demme’s empathetic visual style here does beautifully well to strengthen the film’s formal power. It is ultimately in embracing tightly framed close-ups of his actors that he reaches so deep into their impassioned performances and pulls out such raw anger, melancholy, and yearning, fully realising the complex emotional journeys hidden behind these bold fights for justice.

Demme’s close-ups are constantly versatile and never get so tired as to become repetitive, as here he uses a mirror to compose a two-shot of Hanks and the defence attorney.

Philadelphia is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle | 1hr 34min

There is a bitter contempt that burns through Trainspotting’s opening narration, moving with such repetitive vigour that it takes us a second to catch up to its derisive ridicule of middle-class Britain’s comfortable, monotonous lifestyles.

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, choose a big fucking television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.”

There is no waiting around for any opening credits or title cards here. In the very first seconds, we meet heroin addict Mark Renton on the run from security guards, spitting scorn at the pre-set pathways for conventional, material lives that have been drilled into his head from childhood, and which he and his friends now disdainfully reject. Ewan McGregor’s thick Scottish accent and heavy slang are steeped in the socioeconomic implications of lower-class living, and Renton isn’t one to keep quiet either. This voiceover runs all through Trainspotting like the first-person narrator of a novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given its literary source material. In this way, Renton is written like a more realistic variation of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, typifying a specific offbeat subculture of antisocial delinquents relishing freedom and spurning anything vaguely mainstream.

One of the great in media res movie openings, whisking the camera along with Renton and his friends as they run from security, and his cynical voiceover burns over the top.
Ewan McGregor gives one of the best performances of 1996, at times moving at 100 miles per hour and then pulling it all right back in moments of bleak despair and sobriety.

And like Stanley Kubrick’s own disturbingly uncompromising aesthetic, Danny Boyle does not hold back from indulging in his own audacious style to match Renton’s edgy manner, interrupting brisk camera movements around his characters with erratic freeze frames, and flashing their names up onscreen as introductions. Sick Boy, Spud, and Mother Superior are his mates, while Tommy and Begbie, an aggressive alcoholic, hang on the outskirts of the circle, abstaining from illegal drugs. “No way would I poison my body with that shite,” the latter declares with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Boyle’s humour is often amusingly dark, and this talented cast of young British actors capably deliver it with a sting of irony, recognising the inherent comedy in the reckless overconfidence of these wild, young men.

Freeze frames punctuating Boyle’s brisk pacing, jumping out of its flow as characters are introduced.
Though the editing and camera movements may be Trainspotting’s primary strengths, Boyle still finds the time to insert these wide shots of his characters against gorgeous backdrops, grounding them in the rundown urban setting.

The string of vignettes that lead this small ensemble through petty crimes, surreal trips, and devastating deaths may offer Trainspotting a loose formal structure that complements the drifting uncertainty of its characters, but it is in Renton’s troubled rehabilitation that it develops a more sincere forward momentum. The carnal temptation of one lifestyle versus the clear-minded stability of the other is a constant battle for him, and Boyle’s frantic editing often cuts right to the agitated centre of it, amplifying each injection and simmering solution with brief sound effects and close-ups not unlike the rapid drug montages of Requiem for a Dream, sensitising us to their immediate physical effects. Match cuts eagerly whip us between scenes in peppy transitions, impatiently leaping forward in time towards the next big hit or escapade, and in one scene that sees Renton, Spud, and Tommy each go home with a woman at a club, Boyle efficiently intercuts between each sexual encounter back home. While Spud daftly falls asleep before even taking off his clothes, Tommy and his girlfriend panic that their sex tape has disappeared, making Renton the only one to successfully bed a woman, Diane – only to disturbingly discover the next morning that she is underage.

Transitions driven by the movements of his actors – a fall at the end of one scene turns into Renton landing on the ground at the start of the next.

To an extent, the kinetic pacing and intoxicating highs of Trainspotting are simply distractions from the crushing despair that lies just outside its bubble of energetic thrills. Perhaps more than anyone else, Renton holds the most self-awareness of where he stands in relation to this divide between reality and mind-altering distortions of it. More specifically, he recognises the cultural forces that drive him to occupy this lowly place in society, where such diversions are necessary to avoid living with the shame of his own identity.

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth, the most miserable, wretched, servile pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation.”

By pulling us between such extremes of tragic realism and light surrealism, Boyle tempts us to look away from Trainspotting’s more harrowing scenes, such as that in which Sick Boy and his girlfriend, Allison, discover their baby has died in its cot due to negligence. Rather than pushing them to reconsider their lifestyles though, it has the opposite effect, as Allison joins Renton in his next high to dull the trauma. In contrast, another drug-induced dream early in the film hazily slips from the extreme decrepitude of the “worst toilet in Scotland” into a blissful underwater fantasy, revealing the full power of these substances in putting a shine on even the vilest circumstances.

Literally submerging us into surreal interludes, challenging the realism of the setting with the detachment of Renton’s mind under the influence.

Bit by bit though, Boyle turns Renton’s hallucinations against him, sinking him into a grave-shaped hole in the carpet during a particularly bad trip, and eventually pushing him into a full-blown nightmare when his parents lock him in his childhood bedroom and force him off drugs cold turkey. As McGregor writhes in agony, the dimensions of his wallpapered room stretch and compress, and Boyle presses his wide-angle lens right up against his face in distorted close-ups. In the background we can hear dance music pounding to the illusory manifestations of his most shameful insecurities, as Diane sings to him, his friends taunt him, and up on the ceiling Sick Boy’s deceased baby crawls and spins its head like the demon from The Exorcist.

Wide angle lens distorting Renton’s face in close-ups and the dimensions of his childhood bedroom, as we disappear into the darkest hallucination yet.

Even once Renton is sober, Boyle’s editing finds a new language to express this strange shift in momentum, centring the reformed addict in a bar that moves around him in a time-lapse while he sits motionless, far from the dynamic, erratic force he previously personified. The journey to this new sort of freedom does not come easily, as old friends return and tempt him back to his abandoned life, but grounding him in his renewed purpose is also a recognition of their inherent selfishness, holding him back from becoming a version of himself he might actually like.

A sober Renton has all the energy sucked out of him, as he sits inert in a bar that moves in a time-lapse around him.

From the inside of a locker lined with mirrors that multiply his face across the screen, his future looks prosperous, and later the camera is tipped completely off its axis as he leaves the world of drugs and delinquency for the last time. For all of its fast pacing and vigour, Boyle still finds the right moments to inject Trainspotting with a dose of striking visual beauty in his blocking and backdrops, underscoring Renton’s search for health, stability, and self-assurance with a rousing wonder that makes all of life’s trials worth the pain.

A brilliant composition as Renton finally starts to get his life together, filling the frame with reflections of his face.
Boy tips his camera to the ground on its side as Renton enters a new world – a hopeful future, even if it is still a little scary.

Trainspotting is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.