Reviews

Spielberg and Coen brothers a dream team behind the fascinating Bridge Of Spies

Helmed by Steven Spielberg and penned by the Coen brothers, Bridge Of Spies is a detailed and fascinating tale of Cold War espionage

This week is about pairings. Legend Steven Spielberg collaborates for the first time with the Coen brothers, sending the combined Oscar-worthy talent count of their spy movie through the roof.

Guillermo del Toro returns with his muse, performance artist Doug Jones, the towering, stick-thin actor whose Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth (2006) made us wonder what it would be like to see through eyes implanted in our hands.

"What makes us American are the rules," says Tom Hanks' character, the lawyer James B. Donovan.

It's a strange thing to say, but that is what makes director Steven Spielberg's Bridge Of Spies(PG13, 135 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 STARS) so interesting. It never settles for the usual good-versus- evil, Western freedom-versus- Communist dictatorship triteness.

Spielberg, working with a screenplay polished by famed Hollywood philosopher-kings Joel and Ethan Coen, asks the deep questions - What makes a person decent? What does it mean to be a patriot? - without making the puzzles or the answers appear obvious.

In this true story, Donovan is settled into his life as dad and rising star at his law firm when in 1957, he is called to perform his national duty, to act as attorney for alleged Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (British stage actor Mark Rylance, giving a masterclass in understatement).

A few years later, Donovan once again volunteers when asked to be a go-between for an East-West prisoner exchange - Abel, for downed American spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).

As in Spielberg's conman caper movie Catch Me If You Can (2002), attention is paid to the characters' sense of craftmanship. We observe dead drops, hollow coins and poison- tipped needles. This is spycraft, and it is detailed and fascinating.

Captured spy Abel figures in the story almost as much as Donovan, but perhaps because of the lack of biographical information about the real Abel, he remains an enigma for much of the running time.

Rylance absorbs and reflects that mystery. It is as if he has pulled an Iron Curtain over his face, but like the real Eastern Bloc, that opacity breeds greater fascination on the other side.

Hanks' Donovan, despite being the less enigmatic half of the duo, holds his own. Here he is, hugging Abel's effusively thankful "relatives", who might be Soviet decoys; later, he is anything but the triumphant American as he shivers, nose dribbling, in an unheated West German flat, having been robbed of his coat by street thugs.

That absurdity, the sense that the universe is designed to peel away, bit by ignoble bit, the well-intentioned of their ideals, is classic Coen.

As usual, Spielberg's musical cues are too insistent, but otherwise the mix of Coen acid and the Spielberg sweetness is beautifully matched. What took them so long to team up?

Actor Doug Jones' skeletal frame returns to frighten the 21st century out of us in Crimson Peak(NC16, 119 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 STARS ), a work of Gothic horror not only set two centuries ago, it also looks as if it were made on the lot of British creep show specialist Hammer Film Productions some time in the 1960s.

At the turn of the last century, American Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is wooed and won by handsome titled Englishman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and taken back to the mass of brooding turrets and collapsed roofs that is his stately manse in Cumbria.

His sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) seems warm, but Edith soon discovers that Lucille's smile, like the walls of the family home, hides secrets.

Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, like Quentin Tarantino, makes movies that talk about other movies; how good these meta-films are depends on which side of the homage-versus-unintentional parody line they walk.

Crimson Peak veers very, very close to unwanted giggle territory, such is del Toro's enthusiasm for poetic motifs (snow, moths, blood) and stagey dialogue that feel less than organic to the story; Chastain's wayward English accent is not as terrible as Kevin Costner's in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), but it is jarring, while Charlie Hunnam's earnest good guy

Dr Alan McMichael is woefully undeveloped. And did Victorian scholars have muscles and hipster cheek scruff, as Hunnam does?

But what the movies does have is proper scares. Jones, when he does that thing he does, reminds us how unnerving a simple arm or leg movement can be.

Other body parts - namely breasts and eyes - figure strongly in Knock Knock (R21, 99 minutes, opens tomorrow,2/5 STARS ), horror specialist Eli Roth's take on the stranger-danger genre.

Like del Toro, Roth is a referential film-maker who wants nothing more than to make his work one of a piece with the genre greats; the difference is that Roth's domain is trash cinema and you can only do so much to class it up.

Keanu Reeves plays the solidly middle-class family man Evan Webber, who, one rainy night, allows two attractive women, Genesis (Roth's wife Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Cuban actress Ana de Armas), into his home, while his wife Karen (Chilean actress Ignacia Allamand) is away with the kids.

Director and co-writer Roth thinks that movies about the violation of the home (The Last House On The Left, 1972; Funny Games, 2007) lack sufficient sexploitation.

So we have a good measure of R21-rated kink, but done in a flat, dare we say it, playfully wholesome manner.

We watch these sorts of films to have our equanimity shaken; the best that this one achieves is mild titillation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Genius pairing behind spy intrigue'. Print Edition | Subscribe