The Martian (Fox, cert 12)
Given that The Martian is an Oscar front-runner this year, a mega-budget production set in space, and is directed by Ridley Scott - a man who thinks big when it comes to making movies - it may strike you as a surprisingly intimate work.
In part this is because of its story – essentially about one man, astronaut Mark Watney, who is stranded in space after a mission to Mars that went wrong. Happily, this one man is played by Matt Damon, an understated actor who may also be the most reliable Hollywood star of our time. The Martian is conceived on a grand scale - yet between them, Damon and Scott make it feel highly personal.
Watney, a botanist, is separated from his fellow crew members on the surface of Mars; they reluctantly leave him behind when a storm hits, assuming he has failed to survive it. The film’s most engaging part shows how he uses his knowledge to purify water and grow food on the planet to keep himself alive.
The second half of the film is devoted to Nasa’s attempts to get Watney safely back to Earth; it’s unquestionably more cinematic and action-packed, but lacks the quiet charm of Watney’s attempts to survive in an unpromising environment.
Because the most charming and engaging moments occur in the first half, there’s an unintended consequence; The Martian feels a little overlong. (Its running time is 141 minutes). It seems all the jaw-dropping action and special effects in the world can’t always compete with the sight of one man all alone, talking out loud to himself.
Still, The Martian only furthers Damon’s status in Hollywood. Here is an actor who, with his Everyman features and low-key delivery seems never to wear out his welcome.
Macbeth (Studio Canal, 15)
I was lucky enough to see this jolting new screen version of Shakespeare’s tragedy in a small, quiet art-house cinema in north London one weekday afternoon, with only a dozen or so people in the audience. It’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances better designed to create the illusion that this production was being staged for me alone.
And make no mistake, this is an urgent, compelling piece of work from Australian director Justin Kurzel. It is, to use a voguish word, ‘immersive’ – you feel you’re right in the centre of the nefarious events that unfold.
It’s not always easy viewing, and an early battle scene between Macbeth’s soldiers and those of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor sets the scene for more blood-letting to come.
It should be said that the main casting here feels un-improvable: the remarkable Michael Fassbender, in the title role, adds yet more lustre to his impressive career. This actor has a reined-in quality, conveying the impression that Macbeth has a million agonised thoughts hurtling around his brain, while presenting a stoic, grim face to the world. As for Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth, it’s a performance touched with greatness: her sleep-walking scene compares favourably to anyone who has played this role on film.
The text has been hewn to a workable length, but somehow leaves no obvious yawning gaps. And there are wildly inventive touches: put it this way, you’ve never seen Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane in quite such an original manner. The music (by director Kurzel’s brother Jed) has a rumbling, uneasy quality that sets the tone perfectly.
All in all, this is a superb production that does full justice to the Scottish play – and one that stands its corner with other screen versions.
Legend (Studio Canal, cert 18)
I confess I didn’t make it a priority to see this film account of the infamous Kray twins when it first arrived in cinemas. I feel queasy about films that might glorify the gangs who literally terrorised London’s East End back in the 60s; I was there at the time, and saw too much of the misery and grief they caused. Also, I recall the cod-psychological 1990 biopic The Krays; Gary and Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet played the twins, but were effortlessly overshadowed by Billie Whitelaw as their dear old mum.
Legend, it turns out, is in a higher league, and features an intriguing dramatic device: actor Tom Hardy plays both Reggie and Ronnie Kray, in a manner that sharply defines their differences: Reggie the ruthless hard man, Ronnie the unstable loose cannon.
Leaving aside the technical sleight of hand that allows Hardy to appear to be playing them both in a single scene, this is accomplished acting on his part; he manages to be intense both as Reggie and Ronnie, but in totally contrasting ways.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland (who also wrote the brilliant L.A. Confidential) opts to tell the twins’ story from the viewpoint of Reggie’s wife Frances (played by Emily Browning). But her thoughts on their rise and their vicious careers are rarely made clear.
Even from what I know about the Krays, it feels as if several queasier details about them have been airbrushed out; no-one’s going to hail Legend as a rigorous piece of biography.
But in fairness, Hardy (both of him) is the main attraction here, and laudably he tackles a tricky assignment without fear. This may sound suspiciously like a back-handed compliment, but as films about East End gangsters go, Legend emerges with credit.
Read David Gritten's insightful film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition, or download the digital edition today.