Saturday, 15 February 2020

Theatre Review: Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne (Teatr CHOREA)

Named for the Ancient Greek circular dance accompanied by singing, the Łódź-based CHOREA theatre company mobilises the bodies of its performers on stage in totally distinctive, explosive, unpredictable ways, creating dynamic shows that establish a deep connection with the audience as they awaken us freshly to the human body's expressive capabilities. 

Still, to call the company a "physical theatre" troupe seems reductive: rather, an important aspect of the group's work lies in its synthesis of classical models - the unity of singing, words and movement - with contemporary concerns and techniques derived from the experimental methods of Grotowski and beyond. As the company's Artistic Director, Tomasz Rodowicz, explains: "chorea is a kind of a model, which we try to partly recreate and, in a way, overcome, thus building a new chorea."

I first discovered the company thanks to last year's exciting Retroperspektywy Festival which presented the group's work alongside that of a wide range of international artists. A highlight of the Festival was Po Ptakach (After the Birds), a collaboration with the Welsh company Earthfall, which took off from Aristophanes's comedy to develop its own idiosyncratic take on community-building.

The influence of that show can be felt in the more recent piece Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne ("The Hive: Secret Social Life") which was presented yesterday as a festive Valentine's Day treat at the company's HQ of Art_Inkubator. The show uses movement, music, song and projections to explore the interactions of a species often employed by theorists and philosophers as a model for human society - and it comes with an urgent environmental message to boot. In short, having brought us "The Birds", CHOREA now brings us "The Bees."

Directed by Janusz Adam Biedrzycki from Wiktor Moraczewski's script, the show is in keeping with CHOREA's ethos of inclusivity in its appeal to kids and adults equally and isn't in any way dumbed down. Paweł Odorowicz's music, Jolanta Królicka's set, Karolina Burakowska's costumes, Tomasz Krukowski's lighting, Marcin Dobijański's sound design and Paweł Klepacz's projections synthesise to take us inside a beekeeper's dream and, from there, into a bees' nest. Here we're introduced first to the industrious workers, then to three sedentary drones philosophising in their "congregation zone" and, finally, to the Queen herself, sumptuously played by Dorota Porowska. 

With a startling array of movements and sounds, and then a sultry torch song, the brilliant Porowska stands out, but Rój is ultimately an ensemble enterprise in which the whole company - Joanna Chmielecka, Anna Chojnacka, Barbara Cieślewicz, Ewa Otomańska, Aleksandra Szałek, Aleksandra Ziomek, Antoni Kowarski, Odorowicz and Rodowicz - participates in rendering the bees' sophisticated "dance" language through the sophisticated language of Magdalena Paszkiewicz's choreography.

The notion of collective participation is, of course, a theme in itself, one that's apparent from the show's prologue in which Moraczewski appears with a large cardboard sheet containing an "ecological manifesto" for the assembled kids in the audience to sign - creating their own "swarm" as they do so. These opening moments connect with an ending which firmly confronts human responsibility for bees' decline due to industrial agriculture and climate change.

Some may find such preachiness problematic but it provides the show with an urgent edge - a necessary sting in the tale - and prevents the proceedings from becoming too cosy (as does an earlier scene of brutal "worker policing"). Seriousness of intent doesn't diminish the show's charm, and the didacticism dissolves in a gleeful coda celebrating nature's joys. Lyrical, playful, poignant and political, this pleasing show deserves to be widely seen.

Photos: HaWa

Further information here.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Theatre Review: The Visit (National Theatre)

"I don't know how long this visit will take," says Lesley Manville as Claire Zachanassian, imperious anti-heroine of Freidrich Dürrenmatt’s  The Visit, to the posse of townspeople who've been eagerly awaiting her arrival.

Audiences at this equally anticipated show - which presents Tony Kushner's new version of Dürrenmatt’s text in a production by Jeremy Herrin - could express the same sentiment. Originally coming in at a whopping 4 hours, Herrin's production has shed 30 minutes during its preview period and might get shorter yet. (Press Night is this Thursday.) It should, for while the show zips by excitingly for most of its duration, a still-overextended final Act indulges in an excess of Kushnerian speechifying and features directorial decisions that dissipate the tension just when the drama ought to be reaching a pitch.

Dürrenmatt’s plays are seldom performed in the UK - I only dimly remember Josie Rourke's production of The Physicists at the Donmar in 2012 - and The Visit hasn't been done in London since Complicité's production in the early 1990s. It's not hard to see why: among its idiosyncrasies, the play boasts a heroine - reckoned to be the richest woman in the world - who returns to her hometown accompanied by an entourage that includes a coffin, a panther and two blind eunuchs (played here, with panache, as a sinisterly upbeat Vaudevillian duo by Paul Gladwin and Louis Martin). 

Still, the play's focus on a gender-based reckoning in Claire's revenge on the man, Alfred Ill, who wronged her by impregnating her then denying paternity chimes with a modish #MeToo-ish emphasis on "toxic masculinity," female power and retrospective retribution, and, as adapted by Kushner, the material feels fresh. 

The playwright has very much claimed the property as his own, replacing the Swiss-German's Mitteleuropa absurdism with baroque Americana. The action is now relocated to post-war, recession-afflicted Slurry, New York, where the townspeople find themselves in a moral quandary when Claire arrives bearing  a billionaire dollars in exchange for a particular deed: namely, the murder of Alfred. 

While Michael Billington has suggested that the play might be read as a specific political parable, "reflecting on Switzerland's ambiguous relationship with Nazi Germany and on the wealth it acquired during the war," the new context works well, allowing Kushner to critique his own country's corruption and consumerist turn in ways that connect to his previous work, in particular his masterpiece Caroline, or Change, which heartbreakingly laid bare the economic underpinnings of human relationships. 

Billington also reckons that The Visit "gains from being staged with a resonant simplicity." But that's not the kind of production that Herrin provides. This Visit is busy, with Vicki Mortimer's teeming set spinning the action from train station to wood to store to town hall to graveyard. At times the resources seem used in an ostentatious, not-especially-expressive way, and perhaps some cuts already made to the production have resulted in the large cast of supernumeraries seeming surplus to requirements. Still, the heart of the piece lies in Claire's confrontations with the community, especially Alfred, and these scenes are brilliantly mined for comedy and tension here. 

Emerging like a vision from a cloud of train smoke, a white-haired, luxuriously costumed (by Moritz Junge) Lesley Manville gives a performance that is everything you could wish for. Either imposingly still or moving jerkily on artificial legs, relishing bitchy quips and well-composed arias about time and love's corruption, Manville operates in a completely different register from the beautiful naturalism of her most recent film role as the cancer-afflicted wife in Ordinary Love (2019) or her last NT role in Mike Leigh's great, underrated Grief (2011). An actress who's still taking risks, her stylization here brings freshness and drive to the stage: she does bold things I've never seen her do - like sticking her rump out to Hugo Weaving's Alfred on their first encounter and meowing in pleasure as he responds.

Weaving partners her perfectly throughout, his gruffness giving way to poetic rapture as he recalls the animalistic passion of their teenage trysts, and then dissolving into fear and paranoia (or is it...?) as he senses the town turning against him.

Of the large ensemble, Sara Kestelman - whose composed, pedantic teacher degenerates hilariously into a drunken mess - Richard Durden as a Justice-turned-butler, Nicholas Woodeson as the blustering Mayor, and Joseph Mydell as the Episcopalian Reverand  stand out. (It's hard to imagine seeing better "reaction acting" this year than Kestelman and Mydell's priceless responses to Claire and Alfred's reminiscences about their sexual past.) Meanwhile, Paul Englishby's fabulous score threads sneaky, jazzy, noirish textures throughout the action. 

With so much to enjoy, the final section's slackness is especially disappointing. The production doesn't go off the rails as badly as The Welkin, but there's a sense of anticlimax as Kushner resorts to shrill media satire - over-directed here - that lessens the impact of the vote scene and its aftermath - along with repetitious, patience-testing rhetoric. The play's revelation of a romantic dimension to Claire's revenge plot is not satisfying, either. If its final section can be tightened and finessed then this will be one of the stronger productions of the year. If not, then Herrin and his collaborators have still crafted a Visit worth making, one that offers the pleasures of both a glittering star performance and great ensemble work. 

The Visit is booking until 13 May at the National Theatre. 

Photos: Johan Persson

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Theatre Review: Uncle Vanya (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Reviewing Anthony Page's Royal Court production of Uncle Vanya in 1970, Martin Esslin pointed to "the strange and marvelously productive affinity between the British and Chekhov", suggesting that "the country house civilization which Chekhov portrays, with its house guests, its boredom and its frustrations... closely resembles the country house life of the English middle classes until not so long ago, and in some ways to this day." 

Esslin might have also given special attention to the relation between the Irish and Chekhov, since my two encounters with Uncle Vanya on stage have come via translations by Irish playwrights: first, Brian Friel's version for Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 and now Conor McPherson's new take, directed by Ian Rickson, which has just opened at the Pinter Theatre. 

The play retains its original setting here, but the production boasts a stealth Irishness too, evident not only in McPherson's dialogue rhythms but also in the casting, with Ciarán Hinds playing the pompous prof and Dearbhla Molloy as his devoted mother-in-law. 

McPherson's version has some infelicities: the drunken nighttime revels scene is funny but slightly overdone, and the use of a phrase like "wanging on" may be (just about) acceptable once, but not twice, and certainly not delivered by two different characters. But the production gets the ever-shifting Chekhovian flow of laughter to tears right, and the themes of unrequited love and disappointment emerge vividly and without ponderousness. Confrontations give way to embraces, mundanity intrudes into the philosophising, and the production preserves the compassion and humanism of Chekhov's vision, with each character given their measure of pathos, absurdity and awareness. 

There have been more poignant Vanyas than the impish Toby Jones; in an effort not to sentimentalise the character he seems to have robbed him of some of his tragic stature. But Jones certainly conveys Vanya's bitterness and resentment at the waste that he's made of his life: which he lays at the Professor's door. A commanding Richard Armitage does well with the contradictary qualities of Astrov - his obliviousness to Sonya's devotion, his cynicism, his surge of sexual passion for Yelena - and he makes the vegetarian character's ecological concerns (a prescient part of the play if ever there was one) urgent and compelling. 

As Nana, the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall (who played Sonya in the 1970 production that Esslin reviewed) makes every look and line, however throwaway, count. "Do you remember?" she asks Vanya and the remark reverberates thanks to her beautiful voice. Some of the biggest pleasures of the production come in watching Calder-Marshall interact with Peter Wight, whose garrulous Telegin - describing how his wife left him a day after their wedding - strikes just the right notes of silliness and melancholy. 

The older actors' beautiful ease makes Aimee Lou Wood's performance as Sonya look especially effortful; Wood has some touching moments, but others that are shrill or amateurish, and a lack of rapport between her and Jones is a weak spot that makes the ending less moving than it should be. Wood seems much more secure with Calder-Marshall and Rosalind Eleazar. I wasn't sure about Eleazar as Yelena at first either, but the performance warms up as the actress powerfully reveals the character's sense of entrapment and frustration. Enhanced by a beautiful country house design by Rae Smith, and by Bruno Poet's lighting, the production is already in strong shape and looks likely only to deepen as the run progresses. Overall, it's a Chekhov to cherish. 

Uncle Vanya is booking at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 May Further information here. 

Images: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Theatre Review: The Welkin (National Theatre)

The last time I saw Maxine Peake on film was in Thomas Clay's great Fanny Lye Deliver'd (2019), a properly startling 1650s Shropshire-set "Puritan Western" in which Peake played the title character: a wife and mother who undergoes all kinds of awakenings when two strangers appear at the family farm.

Now, back on stage in James Macdonald's production of Lucy Kirkwood's new play The Welkin at the NT, Peake fast-fowards exactly 100 years to the 18thC. Here Peake plays one Lizzy Luke, a midwife who, along with 11 other women from a Norfolk-Suffolk border community, is called on to form a "jury of matrons" to pass a judgement on the fate of a child-killer, Sally Poppy. The women's task isn't to determine Poppy's guilt or innocence - that's already been decided by a jury of men - but rather to make a judgement on whether the girl is, as she claims, pregnant: a condition that would save her from the hangman's noose.

Kirkwood continues to prove herself a versatile writer in terms of form and subject matter, and The Welkin - a period 12 Angry Women, if you will - is a play whose ambitions are pleasingly big. Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of Macdonald's production (boldly designed by Bunny Christie), the end results feel rigged, contrived, and a bit of a mess. The opening image - a "split stage" portrait of women's domestic toil - is sensational, and the production stays strong for most of its first half. It's grip slips, however, when  revelations start piling up; after one of these the play loses believability and never recovers, with moral issues and character nuance sacrificed to plot twists, not all of which make sense. (Included in the play-script, a final flourish that would have brought the proceedings together has sadly been snipped from the production.)

It doesn't help that Kirkwood's dialogue swings uneasily between juicy mock-Georgian rural diction, contemporary profanity and flagrant anachronism, with some psychobabble and "woke" statements designed to flatter a contemporary audience thrown into the mix. Laurence Ubong Williams appears as a doctor who genially informs the group that women's bodies represent "a history of disease." In a moment that might have popped out of some recent Twitter exchange, Philip McGinley's Mr. Coombes - there to oversee the women's deliberations - is lectured: "You're not here to speak; it's your turn to listen." A low point comes in a meant-to-be-moving interlude in which the women sing together - not a folk ballad that might have made some thematic and dramatic sense, but rather an iconic 1980s pop song. At such times I couldn't help thinking back to Charlotte Jones' excellent The Meeting, another female-centred "period" play but one which trusted the audience to find its way in the setting without heavy-handed contemporary signposts or pandering to current sensibilities.

Kirkwood's concern with how the justice system fails women certainly gives The Welkin some bite. Yet, despite the research evidently undertaken, there's a lack of sympathetic imagination at work in certain areas, not least the treatment of the crime itself, perpetrated as it is against the child of an upper-class family who are - no surprises here - vicious exploiters and abusers of the poor.

What keeps the evening going through the missteps is that this "jury of matrons" is comprised of a company of great actresses. While Ria Zmitrowicz overdoes it as the accused, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne (sadly stuck with the worst of the "reveals") provide texture and humour in the (long) deliberation scenes. Best of all is Cecilia Noble who contributes another of her cherishable characterisations as the hardliner who sucks up to Gwynne's out-of-towner and identifies "a moral slippage in this country I find most troubling." The cast make the evening worthwhile, but it's disappointing that a play that promises to be an insightful exploration of the politics of women's work and women's bodies ends up as a lurid maternal melodrama.

The Welkin is booking until the 23rd May, and screens in cinemas as an NT Live on 21st May. Further information here

Images: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Theatre Review: 4 x Hamlet (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

The sharing and doubling of roles has been a feature of almost all of the Łódź Film School Diploma shows I've seen so far (in particular Mariusz Grzegorzek's great devised extravaganzas Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki and Nie Jedz Tego! To Jest na Święta!) - an approach that allows a range of actors to put their individual stamp on a character that they may all have had a hand in creating.

As its title suggests, the second of the 2019/20 shows, 4 x Hamlet, directed and designed by Jaracz Theatre Artistic Director Waldemar Zawodziński, continues the trend but applies it, this time, to a canonical text. The production shares this mightiest, most demanding of Shakespearean roles between four of the graduating actors. (Well, actually eight in total, since the production boasts two casts, whom you can watch perform on separate nights.)

In relation to Shakespeare's play, this seems a particularly apt - and democratic - gesture: Hamlet is, after all, to quote Harold Bloom, "a character so various that he contains every quality." At the performance I attended, Rafał Kowalski, Dominik Mironiuk, Krzysztof Oleksyn and Jan Butruk appeared in the title role, forming a compelling "relay" that rejects a "consistent" approach (if such a thing is ever possible in the case of Hamlet) to instead emphasise the contrasting qualities of the multifarious prince. 

If anything, the conceit could have been taken further: how about giving one or two of the female actors the chance to take on the role too, huh? But Kowalski, Mironiuk, Oleksyn and Butruk all bring interesting qualities to the table. Taking on the early sections of the play, his first soliloquy delivered directly to a particular audience member, Kowalski conveys both the prince's melancholy isolation and his scathing wit as he pops Gertrude's mourning veil over his head; still, his most galvanising moment occurs in the brilliant staging of the first encounter with the ghost. Mironiuk (who was memorable as the MC in Nie Jedz Tego!brings a distinctive stealth savagery to the part, notably in the violence with which he turns on Rosencrantz and Guilderstern (a relationship that, it's suggested, goes beyond the platonic here) and, later, Ophelia. 

And Oleksyn is an absolute whirlwind, amazingly fast and dynamic in his movements, and equally dexterous with the language (the production mixes several Polish translations of the play); the closet scene, played between him and Victoria Zmysłowska's ever-imbibing Gertrude, is, as it should be, one of the evening's most intense and moving moments. 

The production itself provides a pacy, modern-dress context for the actors' committed efforts, with some illuminating ideas and also some questionable ones. Augmented by the between-scenes appearances of a posse of percussionists drumming frantically on barrels, the show seems to take its cue from those strident sounds; the early scenes are played with an upfront aggressiveness (plenty of shouting in faces) that sometimes cuts against the grain of the text. Far from a dodderer, tall, shaven-headed Michał Włodarczyk contributes the bolshiest Polonius I've ever seen, though his death scene - in plain sight here - is startlingly effective and disturbing.

Luckily, the tone is modulated as the evening progresses, allowing for some subtler touches and fine moments for Hubert Kowalcyz's well-drawn Claudius and Antonina Jarnuszkiewicz's exceptional, expressive-voiced Ophelia, who starts out in leather-jacketed, short-skirted stroppiness, succumbs to abuse, confusion and grief, yet still finds surprising strength in the character in a haunting performance. 

Complete with dressing room mirrors (where the Players pause to do their make up before delivering a Mousetrap with a touch of Drag Race about it), seating area (for the court to watch the Players' show and the final duel), plus a tomb at the front, Zawodziński's design nicely emphasises the themes of performance and mortality, while Maria Balcerek's costumes accentuate the notion of generational conflict, the suited older generation contrasting with the casually attired youth. 

A bold final flourish is somewhat fumbled, but, exactly ten years since Rory Kinnear performed the role for Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, Zawodziński and company provide one of the stronger stagings of the play I've seen since, and one that's far superior to Robert Icke's overpraised 2017 Almeida Theatre take, with its Bob Dylan songs and Andrew Scott's awful orgy of gesticulation. Zawodziński's is a production to be seen for its performances, for the power of individual moments, and, particularly, for its innovation in turning an iconic role from a star turn into a collective endeavour. 

4 x Hamlet returns to Teatr Studyjny next month. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska. 

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Review of 2019: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki, Teatr Studyjny

"Nabrzmałe probleeemy!" If you were lucky enough to catch Mariusz Grzegorzek's exhilarating extravaganza - a rollercoaster ride through Polish culture high and low, historical and contemporary - then it wasn't really necessary to see another show this year. Satire, surrealism, all kinds of song, silliness, seriousness, uproarious humour and deep emotion (plus tap-dancing!)... the marvellous Mebelki had it all - including, in its tirelessly inventive, multitasking ensemble of Łódź Film School graduates, a constellation of stars of the future.  Review here.

The Antipodes, National Theatre
The reception was more lukewarm than it usually is for an Annie Baker play with The Antipodes, suggesting that the appeal of Baker's brand of slightly calculated mumblecore-ish naturalism may be wearing thin. For me, though, this singular exploration of storytelling created a relaxed feeling between rapture and boredom unlike anything I've ever experienced in the theatre. Especially with this cast - Conleth Hill, Sinead Matthews, Arthur Darvill, Fisayo Akinade, and Stuart McQuarrie among them - delivering tales both mundane and fantastic. 

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes, Orange Tree

Formal and linguistic playfulness bely a serious examination of loss and the relationship of language to experience in Tiago Rodrigues' Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes in which an inquisitive 9-year-old (terrific Eve Ponsonby) and her memorably foul-mouthed teddy bear embark on an imaginative odyssey across Lisbon, one rendered with hilarity and poignancy in Wiebke Green's breathless, barmy and dazzling production. More Portuguese plays for UK stages, please. 

Death of a Salesman, Young Vic/Picadilly  
Fantastic performances by a cast including Wendell Pierce, Sharon D. Clarke and Joseph Mydell ignited Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's game-changing production.

Po Ptakach, Teatr CHOREA/Earthfall

Co-directed by Tomasz Rodowicz with Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, Po Ptakach takes off from The Birds, using Aristophanes's comedy as the basis for a distinctive and immersive piece of physical theatre that gives the themes of the original fresh potency. One of many highlights of this summer's Retroperspektywy festival

Wife, Kiln Theatre

Placing and tracing queer currents in and around A Doll's House, Samuel Adamson's sharply funny and touching decades-spanning drama offered a generous but unsentimental look at theatre's ability to preserve continuity and inspire change -for actors and audience members alike. Review here

My Mother Said I Never Should (UK touring)

The most frequently performed work by a female playwright worldwide, it's not hard to see the appeal of Charlotte Keatley's My Mother Said I Never Should: the play offers a distilled yet subtly expansive look at British women's lives across the 20th century. Both embracing and subverting "kitchen sink" realism, Michael Cabot's sensitive and beautifully acted production did justice to the play's focus on the sadnesses and pleasures of working- and middle-class lives. 

Śliskie słowa,  Teatr Studyjny

"Harlem River," Żabka meltdowns, slacklining and headstanding... The final Łódź Film School Diploma show of 2019, directed by Artur Urbanski, was a devised experiment, patchy but delivering some unforgettable, powerful moments.

Three Sisters, National Theatre

When not succumbing to heavy-handed blame-the-Brits didacticism, Inua Ellams's relocation of play to the context of the Biafran War made for a sometimes revelatory reimagining of Three Sisters, bringing into focus connections between national and domestic strife.

The Mikvah Project, Orange Tree 

A portrait of desire in conflict with culture, Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project unfolds a love story between two very different Jewish men who meet every Friday to take part in the religious ritual of water submersion. With a design that opens a pool in the OT floor, Georgia Green's audience-inclusive production sustains a palpable erotic tension, while also indulging in some broad humour, especially in a manic Alicante interlude. Nice news that the  production is returning to the Orange Tree next year

Photos: Mariusz Grzegorzek, Johan Persson,  Tristram Kenton, Alistair Muir, Rami Shaya, Geraint Lewis, Manuel Harlan, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg, Robert Day, Aleksandra Pawlowska 

Friday, 20 December 2019

Review of 2019: Cinema - 12 Favourite Films

Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)

Several acclaimed 2019 films indulged in simple revenge fantasies (Rose Plays Julie, The Other LambBacurau) or got praised just for taking fashionable political positions. Mati Diop's Atlantics flirts with those tendencies but does so with so much vision and idiosyncrasy that it touches the sublime. With the exception of Jonas Carpignano's great Mediterranea, recent films on the topic of African migration experience (such as Phillippe Faucon's Amin or Mahamat Saleh Haroun's A Season in France) have tended to be low-key, slightly underwhelming affairs that have turned out more worthy than insightful. Diop's innovation in Atlantics lies in twisting social realism into the realm of the supernatural, mobilising elements of folktale, fable, Ghost-ly romance and horror to create a poetic, intoxicating work that gets under the skin.

Synonyms (dir. Nadav Lapid)

An Israeli's attempt at integration in the City of Light is the subject of Nadav Lapid's Berlinale-awarded latest, a by turns cerebral, sexy, unsettling and ludic take on immigrant experience that has something of the philosophical smarts and energy of Christophe Honoré at his most exhilaratingly freewheeling; you never know where this journey's going to go. Holding the strands together is a fiercely charismatic, star-making performance from Tom Mercier, as captivating in his covetable mustard coloured coat as he is out of it. Pump up the Jam!

The Kindergarten Teacher (dir. Sara Colangelo)

God of the Piano (dir. Itay Tal)

Two exceptional films about female characters reckoning with the talents of children. Itay Tal's drama focuses on a mother (excellent Naama Preis) and the boy she wants to follow in the family footsteps as a piano prodigy; this brisk and gripping film is another standout in the vibrant new Israeli cinema. Sara Colangelo's remake of  Nadav (him again!) Lapid's 2014 work The Kindergarten Teacher is strictly speaking a 2018 release, but I can't let the year pass without highlighting the brilliance of the central performance here, one that proved conclusively that there are few better reasons to persist with American cinema than the opportunity to see Maggie Gyllenhaal acting. As Lisa, the aspiring writer and dedicated teacher who identifies a young boy in her class as a budding poetry genius, Gyllenhaal pulls us deeply into the obsessiveness of a likeable, intelligent woman in a haunting, empathetic performance. Gyllenhaal describes the film as being about "the consequences of starving a vibrant woman's mind" and part of what's great about this deceptively modest movie is the clear-eyed attention it pays to the ways that contemporary culture can disillusion and disable. 

Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper)
"There's nothin' that a little time and Patsy Cline couldn't fix..." So it proves in Tom Harper's drama about a ne'er-do-well Glasgow girl trying to realise her abiding dream to become a country music star. Wild Rose is insightful, huge-hearted, crowd-pleasing but mature in its perspective, with Jessie Buckley's dynamic performance connecting the Brit grit of a Margi Clarke with the real-life US country heroines that Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek played so memorably in Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner's Daughter. Lovely entertainment. 

By the Grace of God (dir. François Ozon)

As sober and soulful as his previous film - the bad-fun Joyce Carol Oates adaptation Double Lover - was perverse and hilarious, Ozon's dramatisation of the Preynat case eschewed shouty Spotlight-isms for a more nuanced, character-rich look at the effects of the abuses covered up the Catholic Church. By the Grace of God attends to each protagonists' personality with scrupulous sensitivity, aided by beautiful performances from Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet and Swann Arlaud as the central trio. Interview with Ozon here

Pain and Glory (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

 The Souvenir (dir. Joanna Hogg) 

Almodóvar and Hogg's exceptionally sensitive, complementary self-portraits of directors - one male, established and jaded, one female, tentative and starting out - proved that films about filmmakers needn't be exercises in solipsism or tiresome meta game-playing but can instead forge a hotline to the heart of the viewer. 

An Officer and a Spy (dir. Roman Polański) 

Adapting Robert Harris's novel about the Dreyfus affair, Roman Polański managed to deliver one of his finest recent films (by far), an intelligent, handsome historical drama with a thriller's grip, as fine-tuned and compelling as Jean Dujardin's immaculate lead performance. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Celine Sciamma)
At times suggesting a lost Henry James story adapted by Jacques Rivette, Sciamma's film is a love story at once austere and rapturous: cinematic écriture féminine.

Diagnosis (dir. Ewa Podgórska)

I Was Here (dir. Nathalie Biancheri 
and Ola Jankowska)

Anne Tyler once wrote "that there is no ordinary person, anywhere." If further proof of that were needed, these two superb documentaries offer it, as they unfold stories of violence, caring, compromise and resilience in the experiences related by their uncelebrated protagonists. Both experimental in their own particular ways, the films are linked by their confessional form and their very moving revelations of the durability of childhood wounds. More meta, Biancheri and Jankowska's I Was Here presents its British protagonists with the question of why they would make a good documentary subject. More mobile (indeed, the film's attention to how a city moves is peerless), Diagnosis draws on urban psychoanalysis theory, as it presents a range of questions to its Łódź-born participants. Podgórska captures the city's singular strangeness through a visionary stylistic approach that incorporates slow zooms, a haunting sound design, associative editing, and some stunning overhead shots - of the human face and the cityscape. Interview with Podgórska here

Bonus: Chambre 212 (dir. Honoré), Where'd You Go, Bernadette?(dir. Linklater), Ja Teraz Kłamię (dir. Borowski), Boże Ciało (dir. Komasa), Mr. Jones (dir. Holland), Young Ahmed (dir. Dardennes), Moments (dir. Beata Parkanova), In Fabric (dir. Strickland), Ibiza: The Silent Movie (dir. Temple)Us (dir. Peele), Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood), Cat in the Wall (dir. Mileva and Kazakova),  The Guest (dir. Chiarini), The Irishman (dir. Scorsese), Nic Nie Ginie (dir. Alabrudzinska), The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Nilson and Schwartz)Ordinary Love (dir. Barros D'Sa and Leyburn), System Crasher (dir. Fingscheidt), At Eternity's Gate (dir. Schnabel), Little Monsters (dir. Forsythe)

Worst:  Liberté (dir. Serra), The Laundromat (dir. Soderbergh), The King  (dir. Michôd), A Rainy Day in New York (dir. Allen), Red Joan (dir. Nunn)