Venice 2019 Film Reviews: Wasp Network, Rialto, Citizen K
Ivan Radford | On 02, Sep 2019Reading time: 7 mins
With Netflix, Amazon and HBO out in force at the Venice Film Festival 2019, we head over to the Lido to catch up with their latest offerings and review some of the other films making their debuts.
Sometimes, the person it’s easiest to be honest with is a stranger. That’s the paradoxical but universal truth at the heart of Rialto, a breathtakingly delicate drama that picks apart one man’s unassuming existence, even as it crumbles apart all on its own.
The existence in question is that of Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a married man with two teenaged kids. His life is thrown into disarray when his father passes away, but the reality is that a darker shadow has been growing over him for some time; Colm isn’t grieving a relationship he had with his old man but rather one he didn’t have, and the suspicion that his bond with his own son equally unhealthy is just one part of the puzzle that’s eating away at him.
Colm has been working at the docks for his whole life, perpetually on the very edge of stable land in an environment where heavy loads are locked up in boxes and happily shipped away to somewhere else. When his job comes under doubt on top of everything else, Colm finds an unlikely place to ferry his own burdens: into the arms of Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), a young man on the cusp of his twenties, who propositions him in a toilet, before blackmailing him about their tryst after.
That might sound like a familiar drama about a man coming to terms with his sexuality, but Rialto has a groove all of its own – a quiet song of loneliness and depression that’s accompanied by a bewitching score from Valentin Hadjadj, which gracefully crescendoes towards resolution while a stormy darkness relentlessly swirls beneath.
Daphne director Peter Mackie Burns has an impeccable command of tone throughout this low-key tale, rooting it in tiny details: Colm is constantly framed trapped between walls and doorways, or leaving him positioned to the edge of the frame – adrift, even in his own story. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is heartachingly good in the lead, delivering a natural performance that’s so understated every tiny conflict and obstacle in his life becomes visibly overwhelming. Unrecognisable from his recent scene-stealing turn in Avengers: Infinity War, it’s a turn that confirms him as an actor of raw, honest power; even the way he wears a jumper sags with downbeat sincerity.
He’s matched by the excellent Tom Glynn-Carney (soon to impress as well in Netflix’s The King), who manages to make Jay intimidating yet sympathetic and far more complex than his appearance would suggest. Both are believably broken, complementing each other in a way that almost brings a completeness to each character.
Adapted by Mark O’Halloran from his own play, Trade, the script ensures the nature of Colm and Jay’s relationship remains ambiguous, as both men have their own families to look after, dwelling not on the physical intimacy between them but rather asking what’s missing for each that they need to find it somewhere else.
That’s the question haunting Colm’s wife, Claire (the superb Monica Dolan), who can see her husband growing more distant by the day. In a life of lies, where only a stranger can provide solace and a place for honesty, Rialto ponders a profoundly human question: can an estranged family ever become so detached that telling the truth is possible once again? This deeply engrossing domestic tragedy is small in scale, but packs a big emotional wallop – the kind of indie drama that deserves awards attention for its accomplished, unbridled honesty.
Rialto is currently seeking UK distribution.
From Lance Armstrong to abuse within the Catholic Church, Alex Gibney has always been a filmmaker with his hand on the topical button. Here, he once again taps into a timely topic with a documentary about the political machinations and power games of modern Russia.
His means of exploring these big questions is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch who was once one of just seven men who dominated half of the Russian economy. A shrewd operator, he moved quickly to gain money power in the chaotic period of Yeltsin’s – every bit a match for the similarly calculated Putin, who has since contrived to hold onto power for almost two decades.
It is no wonder, then, that Khodorkovsky is an enemy of Putin’s state, living in exile in London due to charges of murdering a mayor many years ago. Whether real or not we don’t know, but we do see Putin’s clown court treatment of Mikhail that saw his opponent kept in jail for 10 years – and that, coupled with Khodorkovsky’s change of heart towards fighting for the people and real democracy, is enough to put us warily on Mikhail’s side.
That uneasy sympathy and trust in this decidedly ambiguous figure gives Gibney’s documentary a wonderful frisson of tension, as the director and his team dig up all manner of facts that chart his subject’s lifelong rise and fall. With the battle still ongoing today – and the threat of poisoning looming very real and large – Citizen K understandably spends more time on the past than the unfinished present. That, however, results in a dense watch that dwells on some details that feel less immediately relevant than Mikhail’s eventual reform following his time in prison.
But if that means the pacing is occasionally a challenge, the documentary’s ability to distil all of this into something digestible is no less of a marvel, and there is room here for dark humour, bleak examinations of the current state of global democracy, and even the odd touch of whimsical hope. The result is a clinical, absorbing and frightfully pertinent account of a how power can do easily reside in the hands of the few.
Citizen K is currently seeking UK distribution.
Edgar Ramirez. Penelope Cruz. Gael Garcia Bernal. Wagner Moura. Wasp Network is a film that boasts a top flight cast. Coupled with Olivier Assayas at the helm, the political thriller is an exciting prospect.
It helps that the film’s focus is so unusual: the Wasp Network is a group of spies working for Cuba in the 1990s, which went undercover in Florida to infiltrate gangs planning anti-Casto terrorist attacks. To do this, each member defected from the communist island and took up arms with a rebellious organisation called Brothers to the Rescue. They flew missions over Havana, distributing leaflets criticising Cuba’s corrupt regime and dropping vital supplies to those trying to flee the nation for the freedom of America. But, after following this activity for a while, we’re informed that they’re actually heroes of Cuba, not enemies of the state. If you’re starting to lose track, you’re not alone: Wasp Network doesn’t quite manage to communicate its remarkable subject matter into something approaching a cohesive story.
Assayas dazzled with his epic saga about Carlos the Jackal, which also starred Ramirez, but the two-hour-plus Wasp Network is sadly missing those extra hours needed to flesh out each narrative twist and turn. With big names on all sides, he winds up jumping from one character to another almost haphazardly, trying to do each one justice but ending up not giving any of them enough time to come into focus.
Ramirez is Rene, a pilot whose experience makes him a natural fit for the Brothers – and the separation from his wife, Olga (Cruz), as a result of his supposed defection carries a tangible emotional impact. But their relationship and his motivations are as muddled as those of the other key players, including fellow pilot Juan (Moura), who is also tied to the FBI, and Gerardo (Bernal), the ringleader of the Wasp Network. Each of them are convincing and charismatic in their scenes, but never become more than surface-level figures, as Assayas glides over each one in the race to get to the next. The aerial sequences along the way are stunningly executed, and some hotel attacks rivetingly recreated, but Wasp Network’s sting remains elusive despite its clear ambition. It has a top flight cast, but never manages to balance their weight to stick the landing.
Wasp Network is currently seeking UK distribution.