CONTRATIEMPO – The invisible guest

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Murder mystery film

Availability: Netflix – Spanish with subtitles

Plot: Spanish director and screenwriter, Oriol Paulo, brings Contratiempo to the screen. It’s another tale-with-a-twist thriller, that follows his earlier success with The Body in 2012. Both films have contributed significantly to box-office takings inside and outside Spain, and are now available on Netflix. Contratiempo tells the story of the young, successful businessman Adrian Doria who finds himself accused of the murder of his lover, fashion photographer Laura Vidal. Laura’s death has a complex backstory – a car accident involving Adrian and Laura, with consequences that dig them deeper and deeper into trouble. Adrian faces losing everything – his family and his business – so he employs Virginia Goldman, a lawyer with renowned witness preparation expertise, to help him construct a strong courtroom defence. The film then uses the limited hours they have together to explore various scenarios that will strengthen his case and challenge our perceptions about what we have seen. 

Cast: Contratiempo follows four main characters: Adrian played by Mario Casas, Laura played by Barbara Lennie, Virginia played by Ana Wegener, and Tomas played by Jose Coronado. While all four do well, it is Wegener and Coronado, the two older actors that really impress. One can’t help but admire Ana’s portrayal of Virginia’s steely intelligence and forceful presence as she drives the action in the second half of the film.

Filming and Setting: This is a fast moving film – a lapse in concentration and you will lose your way as scenes are replayed from different perspectives. It’s a clever plot, but you do have to pay attention. Paulo certainly keeps you engaged as he replays scenes and suddenly things are not as they seemed. His focus is clearly on creating tension, which does come at the expense of character development. But there is no question that it is gripping. The cinematography is stylish, showing the rich and famous in Barcelona, and then the beautiful wintery scenes in the country, with the now obligatory aerial views.

Personal Comments: Contratiempo is 106 minutes of drama-packed filmmaking. It is both interesting and satisfying to watch as the various scenarios play out, changing our views as they go. It’s a contemporary drama, and while I didn’t warm to any of the characters, and there are some stretches in credibility, if you favour a good mystery and are happy to follow the film’s twists and turns, you will probably like this one.   


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½ 

Categorisation: Drama

Availability: In theatres

Plot: English director Phyllida Lloyd created this Dublin-based film about a woman escaping domestic violence. It is a road well travelled by many women who find themselves looking after children alone, often plunged into homelessness without the resources needed to support their children. Sandra, the film’s main character, is no exception, as she flees from her violent husband with her two little girls, Emma and Molly. Soon she finds herself accommodated in a back room in an airport hotel, trying to juggle two jobs – serving behind the bar in a local pub, and cleaning for a GP with an injured hip. While domestic violence is a key theme in the film, this is a story of resilience and strength as Sandra confronts adversity and starts to build a small house, and a new life for herself and her two girls.  

Cast: In Lloyd’s earlier films she has generally engaged big stars, for example, Meryl Streep and Colin Firth in Mama Mia, and Streep again, along with Jim Broadbent and Olivia Coleman in The Iron Lady. With the exception of veteran actor, Harriet Walters playing Peggy, the GP who befriends Sandra, Herself brings together lesser known actors. Clare Dunn, better recognised for her stage performances, is exceptional in the lead. She brings a remarkable emotional depth to the role. Sandra’s hand, damaged by her violent husband is a constant reminder of her harrowing experiences. Ian Lloyd Anderson is also effectively menacing as her violent husband, Gary, and indeed all the other supporting actors do well. Sandra’s two daughters, played by Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann, are compelling in their roles. Their screen relationship with their mum is a real strength of the film.

Filming and Setting: Whether Lloyd intended to film on the shadiest of Dublin days, it certainly brings a darker ambiance to the movie. Intentional, or by necessity, it contrasts nicely with some of the brighter scenes later in the film as Sandra looks around her new home – we get a rare glimpse of sunshine with dappled greenery – all signs of hope. While there is good use of silence in the film, on the night we saw the film the the sound quality was poor. This made the strong Irish accents difficult to follow, and particularly so with the children who are quietly spoken. I was sorry to miss some of the dialogue because of this, although the expressiveness of the actors filled in many of the gaps. 

Personal Comments: Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a familiarity about Herself as Lloyd traverses the dangers and consequences for women and children exposed to domestic violence. A number of reviews  have suggested similarities with other films where vulnerable people confront unhelpful and immovable bureaucracies, in particular, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. Lloyd’s lighter touch in exploring the individual and the institution is nevertheless more nuanced, and ultimately more effective than Loach’s heavy-handed, stereotypical depictions of the bureaucracy. But while there are some powerful and moving scenes in Herself, there are also gaps in the story. How and why people came to support Sandra to build her house is handled sketchily, and as a consequence the film misses opportunities to explore the centrality of creating friendships in the context of human vulnerability, pride, and the shame of having to ask for help.

Call My Agent

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: comedy, drama

Availability: Netflix – French, subtitled

Plot: Created by Fanny Herrero and Dominique Besnehard this French series has been hugely successful for Netflix. It follows the trials and tribulations of a fictional talent agency in Paris, Agence Samuel Kerr (ASK). The series begins with the much loved and long-standing owner of the firm, Samual Kerr, embarking on the first holiday he has had in years. Then disaster strikes. He swallows a wasp and dies, leaving the other partners juggling their grief along with their ambitions while trying to keep the firm afloat. ASK represents film stars and directors, bringing them together in a what they hope will be a cinematic triumph – and a lucrative one for them. They get ten percent when things go well. In fact, Dix Pour Cent is the French title – and the agents earn every euro. The celebrities are high maintenance, and the agents spend their time massaging egos, flattering and cajoling, and trying to fix bizarre domestic situations that their clients’ dysfunctional lives continually present. It’s all in the interests of artistic cinematography, and their job of bringing director and star together is what makes a great film. The agents will do pretty much anything to pull it off. 

Cast: Everyone is wonderfully highly strung in this series. There are four Agents in the partnership. Andréa, a predatory lesbian womaniser, is played brilliantly by Camille Cottin. She is smart, manipulative and morally abject. Mathias, the wonderfully suave leader-in-waiting, is played by the equally suave Thibault de Montalembert. With a name like that it’s not surprising that he brings an element of gravitas to the role, even when his professional and personal lives begin to disintegrate. Grégory Montel plays the good-natured but ultimately flawed Gabriel. And finally, the eighty-eight year old French doyenne, Liliane Rovère plays the wonderful Arlene. These four lead the organisation, but the next tier of assistants are equally impressive. It is, however, the engagement of famous film personalities in the show that sets Call My Agent apart. Every episode is a French who’s-who of celebrities playing themselves. Or rather, they happily parody themselves, as demanding clients of ASK. There is a veritable constellation of stars, and it’s clear that they are having a ball.

Filming and Setting: Filmed in Paris, ASK is situated on rue Saint-Honoré, not far from the Louvre. Enough said perhaps … but not surprisingly the series is a visual treat. There are restaurants with wonderful views of the Eiffel Tower, and many splendid buildings and bridges that can be found in and around Paris. We also get to see the best, and sometimes the worst of Parisian fashion – check out Juliette Binoche’s haute couture dress she wears for Cannes Film Festival in series 2. 

Personal Comments: Given this series is all about the challenges of making of films, I’m surprised that it’s taken me such a long time to get to this one. Call my Agent was first screened in 2015 on the public France 2 channel, and is now in its 4th series. It’s intelligent, irreverent, and the humour is sharp. The characters are all engaging in their own way, and it’s amusing to see the chaotic lives of the agents seem normal compared to the wacky lives of the celebrities they represent. If you haven’t seen this, I suggest you grab a croissant and get onto it straight away.   

Keeping Faith

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Thriller

Availability: Acorn

Plot: Created and written by Welsh BAFTA winner Matthew Hall, and directed by Pip Broughton, Keeping Faith has been a huge success for BBC Wales. The series begins by introducing us to the Howell family – Faith, her husband Evan, and their three young children, Alys, Megan and baby Rhodri. Faith and Evan are solicitors in a legal firm that was established by Evan’s father, Tom, who recently retired. Faith is on maternity leave, and Evan is holding the fort – at least he was until he disappears one Wednesday morning, leaving Faith to look after the children and manage the firm. Soon it’s clear that the firm is in trouble, and on top of that, the police suspect Faith of murder. They have no evidence, but that doesn’t seem to stop DI Williams who is hell-bent on arresting her. Over a period of a week, Faith experiences a deepening sense of loss and bewilderment, as well as increasing danger as she becomes involved in the murky underbelly of crime and corruption in the small Welsh town. 

Cast: Keeping Faith is a drama that was filmed twice, first in the Welsh language, and then in English. The leading actor, Eve Myles, learned Welsh to play the part. This is impressive in itself, but then we get to watch Myles in the lead role of Faith Howells, and she is absolutely outstanding. She fills the screen with raw emotion and a physical presence, and it is not surprising that she was awarded a BAFTA for the performance. While the acting from this stellar cast overall is terrific, unusually the men occupy the ‘borderlands’ while the series is clearly driven by the female characters. We see good women, bad women, funny women and downright nasty women. And they are all tremendous. My favourite is Cerys, Faith’s legal partner, played by the Welsh actor Hannah Daniel. She is a veritable powerhouse as she tries to maintain a semblance of order in the family firm. Faith’s three children also deserve a mention. The two older children are delightful and expressive, playing their roles with remarkable poignancy.  

Filming and Setting: The cinematography is quite beautiful in Keeping Faith. Filmed in Carmarthenshire it introduces us to the fictional small town of Abercorran. The series makes the most of the lovely Welsh scenery – fabulous seascapes with dramatic cliff faces, beautiful pastoral scenes, misty wetlands, and a quaint village with its own castle. Its beauty and serenity serves to camouflage the dark underbelly of small-town life. Throughout the series we also get to know the hauntingly beautiful ballad played throughout the series, Faith’s Song, performed by Amy Wadge, a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter. 

Personal Comments: This is a gripping drama from start to finish. It won three BAFTA Cymru awards – best writer, best composer and best actress. It is a quality series, and it shows. The series ends in a cliff-hanger, and it’s not surprising that the second series is now being streamed, and a third is on the way. It isn’t perfect. There are gaps in credibility, and there are weaknesses in the plot that leave you wondering who owes what to whom and why. But it’s full of twists and turns and it will keep you on tenterhooks for the full eight episodes.

The Woman in the Window

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Thriller

Availability: Netflix

Plot: British director Joe Wright created Woman in the Window, an American thriller based on A.J. Finn’s best-selling novel of the same name. Wright is an experienced filmmaker, with several successful films under his belt (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina). The film tells the story of Anna Fox, a child psychologist who has been unable to leave her house for almost a year. She is receiving counselling for agoraphobia, an intense anxiety condition that makes her terrified of going outside. From the sanctity of her brownstone house in New York she watches her neighbours, an obsession that becomes overwhelming and dangerous as she witnesses the murder of a woman across the street. She calls the police, but things may not be as they seem. The wine that she drinks to excess, combined with her medication, renders her incapable of clear thinking. Hallucinations are a side effect of her medication. The police have doubts. And then, so does Anna. Through a series of creepy encounters, flashbacks, and distorted scenes that parallel her deteriorating mental health, the film works through what is real and what is not. 

Cast: Amy Adams gives a strong and nuanced performance as Anna. The scenes where she becomes suspicious of her tenant, who lives in the basement, are taut and cleverly portrayed. Wyatt Russell is also good as the tenant, David, an itinerant singer, who is variously supportive of Anna, then exasperated by her intrusive behaviour. Julianne Moore, playing Anna’s neighbour Jane, overplays her role – even for someone who likes to live life on the edge. 

Filming and Setting: The film is unmistakably influenced by Hitchcock classics of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, it has Rear Window playing endlessly on a television in Anna’s house. It is a constant reminder to us how much it seeks to emulate Hitchcock, just in case we happened to miss it – but there is little chance of that, given the heavy overtones. Unsurprisingly, most of the action occurs in Anna’s house, which is large and dark, with plenty of stairs and sinister corners. Cinematically, it gives an intriguing feel of a stage-play, moving from one scene to the next, cleverly pausing to allow us the full impact of the staged set. 

Personal Comments: Having read the book, I was looking forward to the film. I recall the novel being full of twists and turns, and other similar books had been successfully brought to the screen, for example, Gone Girl. But I was disappointed. While Woman in the Window has a strong cast, and an experienced director, it somehow manages to miss the mark. Some of scenes are excellent. It starts off well, but in the end, it fails to keep you wondering, or even caring about what happens. The only thing I wondered about was whether I would see the film through to the end.