Feb 1, 2009

Valkyrie [12A]

Dir: Bryan Singer
You can’t say its not an exciting story, that of the last major attempt, by a German resistance, on the life of Adolf Hitler, one that very nearly succeeded, but as a film Valkyrie works only about half of the time.

For many years it was quite standard to see Nazis portrayed on screen speaking English in cut glass British accents, but that feels more anachronistic now, in an age when foreign language films can make it into the multiplex (however seldom) and, especially, when a new generation of German filmmakers are themselves re-examining the second world war in a wave of largely excellent films. The language issue doesn’t, however, dog Valkyrie in quite the way that it did The Reader, a fact that can be largely put down to two things; the decision to let the whole cast use their own accents, and the casting itself. Besides its impossibly famous American star Valkyrie is almost exclusively cast with Europeans, most of them Brits. Only two major speaking roles go to German actors, and both Christian Berkel and Thomas Kretschmann prove as adept as actors in English as in their native language.

It also helps that most of the performances are very good. Bill Nighy, recently seen turning the bad acting up to 11 in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, gives a restrained, frightened performance as General Olbricht and Tom Wilkinson is as good as ever as General Fromm. There are also nicely underplayed turns from Kenneth Branagh and Terence Stamp, whose final line is one of the film’s best and beautifully delivered. Carice Van Houten, on the strength and length of her part as Nina Von Stauffenberg, should barely rate a mention here, but it’s a shame she’s not in the film more as she again suggests that she’s a very fine actress, and makes you long for the day someone will give her a big star part in English. On the other side of the acting coin there’s Eddie Izzard, who is a terrific comedian, but seems lost in an entirely straight role, and undecided whether to do an accent.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Tom Cruise. He’s in an unusually vulnerable position, he’s had a couple of films that haven’t done very well – at least by his standards - Valkyrie delayed, and his future as a studio owner at United Artists is to some degree riding on this film. About the behind the scenes stuff, who can say? But as an actor he is largely vindicated here. Cruise has always been a better actor than he is given credit for and he makes a strongly, but never blandly or solely, heroic Claus Von Stauffenberg. The fact that he sounds exactly as he always sounds, amid a sea of Englishmen, playing a German, takes a bit of getting used to, but he’s good enough that it only takes a few minutes.

Though it is always impressively mounted Valkyrie does take a little while to get going, with the usual hoops to be jumped through, the exposition in which Stauffenberg is brought into the plot. Thereafter the film ramps up, and becomes, for a story to which the ending is known, a surprisingly tense thriller. You wish that the film had had the courage to simply throw you in to the plot itself, and skip the preamble. The sequences dealing with the attempt on Hitler’s life and the implementation of Operation Valkyrie (which was to allow the plotters to take control of Berlin after Hitler’s death) are genuinely thrilling, even though Cruise’s role is largely limited to making deals over the phone, which did, briefly, cause me a Jerry Maguire flashback. It is this part of the story, how far the plotters got, how close they came, that I knew little of.

There isn’t a great deal of complexity to Valkyrie; there are the plotters (yay) and the Nazis (boo), and while a little more grey area would go a long way to giving the film a little more depth it is, at heart, a mainstream thriller and in that respect the second half of the film does a sterling job. It’s not Bryan Singer’s best work, and in fact feels a bit directorially anonymous, perhaps Singer keeping his head down and turning ‘one for them’ out after his disappointing Superman Lives, but it’s also by no means a bad film.

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