Film review – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

23 May 2010
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Against many expectations, when Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films first teamed up to make 2003’s theme-park ride adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the result was a fun adventure film containing exciting action, inventive scenarios and entertaining characters. Disney and Bruckheimer’s latest collaboration is now a computer-game adaptation and the result is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a film that while not as good as the original Pirates of the Caribbean is nevertheless extremely enjoyable. Far more of a hyperactive fantasy film than anything remotely historic or realistic, Prince of Persia is about the quest by the adopted prince Dastan to clear his name and stop a mystical dagger, which has the power to turn back time, from falling into the wrong hands.

While English director Mike Newell’s previous films are a diverse collection that includes Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, he is no stranger to family-friendly action/fantasy having directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth film in the franchise and most interesting after Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Prince of Persia Newell displays a real flair for action, especially with the scenes involving sword fighting and knife throwing. Newell also incorporates elements of the source material’s game play into the aesthetic of the action with lots of characters jumping over buildings, climbing up walls and hanging off platforms. The time travel plot device also nicely replicates the gaming experience of being able to restart a sequence from an earlier saved point.

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Tamina (Gemma Arterton)

Tamina (Gemma Arterton)

Many computer game adaptations suffer from having an overly complicated plot (for example, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) as some sort of overcompensation for being a computer game adaptation. Prince of Persia doesn’t buck against this trend but at least its convoluted story doesn’t get in the way of the big set pieces. It also helps that the writers (who include Fresh writer/director Boaz Yakin) have created a brisk pace and the tone of the film is pleasingly slightly over-the-top enough to be affectionately self-aware without being parody. There is also a strident critique of recent US history with Persia’s attack on Alamut, based on misinformation that the holy city was making weapons to be used against them, being a blatant condemnation of the USA using the presence of non-existent WMDs to invade Iraq.

There is not a lot of character complexity and it’s certainly pretty obvious from the start who the villain is going to be, but as conventional adventure character types the cast of Prince of Persia are convincing and fun. As Prince Dastan Jake Gyllenhaal is charismatic without being smarmy, tough without being macho and righteous without being tedious. His slow-motion-walking-in-front-of-flames hero shot comes a little too early in the film but otherwise he makes a credible hero. Gemma Arterton, as the film’s co-hero/love interest Tamina, holds her own in this predominantly boys-own adventure story and the supporting cast includes the ever-reliable Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina steals every scene that he is in.

Prince of Persia is frothy light entertainment but it’s frothy light entertainment done right. It delivers exactly the sort of cinema experience that it promises to deliver with more integrity and a little more substance than many other films of its ilk.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – An Education (2009)

23 October 2009
Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age film about Jenny, a 16-year-old girl who starts a relationship with a much older man. An Education is the second English-language film directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig with the first being the very impressive romantic comedy/drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself – a film about a suicidal man. Scherfig is clearly drawn to highly unconventional feel-good material because despite the weird and uncomfortable dynamics at play in An Education it is a strangely seductive and sweet film.

Stylistically everything about An Education suggests that it is romance film. The soft lighting, gushing music and gorgeous 1960s London setting are all designed to conflict with the fact that the film is about a highly questionable relationship between a confident yet naive school-girl and an older man who is clearly not all that he seems. Jenny is played by Carey Mulligan, an emerging actor whose more prominent recent roles include a part in Public Enemies and playing Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.  Mulligan is astonishing and commands the screen with the assured graceful vulnerability of a young Audrey Hepburn. As Jenny she is both sympathetic in her desire to break away from her routine existence to embrace life and infuriating in her recklessness. Jenny is a likeable, strong, intelligent and assured character who is still capable of making huge errors in judgement. She’s not too far removed from the titular character in Juno except Jenny speaks, behaves and rationalises far more convincingly.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

The supporting cast in An Education is terrific and Peter Sarsgaard (Orphan, Elegy) gives what is possibly his best performance as the mysterious David. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is wonderful as Jenny’s taskmaster father and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess) is suitably foppish as David’s playboy best friend. Emma Thompson has a couple of over-the-top yet very amusing scenes as the bigoted principal at Jenny’s school.

Scherfig is an intriguing director who is deceptively skilled at taking material that could be considered dark or unsettling and turning it into something very accessible.  There’s a lot going on under the surface of An Education but at face value it is simply a very warm, funny and enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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