Tom Ford's stylish thriller is one of the cleverest, classiest films of the year

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    Nocturnal Animals (15)

    Rating:

    The Light Between Oceans (12A)

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    The Accountant (15) 

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    Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford’s keenly awaited second film, after 2009’s A Single Man. It is a supremely clever and pulsatingly gripping psychological thriller, which ingeniously tells three stories at once.

    The central tale is that of Susan (Amy Adams), the wealthy and beautiful owner of a Los Angeles art gallery — enabling Ford, the former creative head of Gucci and Yves St Laurent, and still a hotshot fashion designer, to pile on the cliches of a super-trendy but utterly soulless, emotionally arid LA lifestyle.

    Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s keenly awaited second film, after 2009’s A Single Man

    Ford has said in interviews this week that he is turning his elegantly clad back on consumerism, having evidently just worked out that material wealth doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. It’s funny how it’s always the people with mansions in Bel Air who say that, but let’s not quibble, and certainly Susan seems to represent an existence he now finds objectionable.

    ‘What right do I have not to be happy?’ she laments early on. ‘I have everything.’

    But she doesn’t. She is married to a handsome financier (Armie Hammer), whose mastery of the universe is faltering. He has made squillions, but appears to be in the process of losing them.

    More significantly, he has scarcely any time for Susan. He forgets to attend the launch of a new exhibition at her gallery, which incidentally provides one of the most arresting opening sequences I’ve seen in the cinema for a long time, as two naked and grossly overweight women gyrate for a live art installation.

    It’s no surprise to learn that this emotional neglect of his wife is also compounded by sexual infidelity. We see that long before Susan does. But she, too, has a distraction.

    The central tale is that of Susan (Amy Adams), the wealthy and beautiful owner of a Los Angeles art gallery

    Her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) has sent her, out of the blue, a manuscript of his new novel. It is dedicated to her, and titled Nocturnal Animals. This is what he affectionately used to call her, but in the context of the novel it has a much darker meaning.

    The book tells the story — and here is the second strand of the narrative, acted out as if it is reality, not fiction — of Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), who is driving at night along a remote highway in west Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber), when they are forced off the road by a car-load of local hoodlums. It is a heart-poundingly tense scene.

    Horrifyingly, Tony’s wife and daughter are driven off to a fate that I won’t divulge here, but you can probably guess. He, meanwhile, is left bruised and bleeding in the desert, but eventually raises the alarm. A chain-smoking, Stetson-wearing sheriff (Michael Shannon), at first mistrustful of the stranger’s story, in due course leads the search for the depraved gang, led by the cleverest and most dangerous of them, Ray (a barely recognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

    And so to the third layer of the narrative, as we learn via brilliantly constructed flashbacks how Susan and Edward got together, two decades earlier.

    She fell in love with his writerly idealism, defying her immaculately groomed, ineffably snobbish mother (a marvellous cameo by Laura Linney) to marry him. But then she began to lose faith in his ability, becoming exasperated by his gentle, romantic nature, just as her waspish (in more ways than one) mother, seeing something of herself in her rebellious daughter, had warned her she would. By leaving Edward, and by doing so in the manner she did, Susan broke his heart.

    Gradually, grippingly, the movie becomes the sum of its three parts, as the story strands coalesce. However, it is not until the very final frames that we realise Edward’s purpose in sending Susan the manuscript.

    Ford, in adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony And Susan, has done a superb job. I will be amazed if his movie does not get Oscar nominations. Not only for his writing and direction, I should add, and not only so all those Hollywood glitterati can show that they, too, are disdainful of materialistic LA lifestyles, but also for the truly exceptional acting.

    Gyllenhaal and Adams are as classy as you would expect, but my early tip for a Best Supporting Actor nod is Shannon. His mesmerising performance as the sheriff brings fiction alive, twice.

    Just as there is a newsy backdrop to Nocturnal Animals, with Ford’s rant about consumerism, so there is to The Light Between Oceans, a soggy melodrama which stars moviedom’s hottest couple now that Brad and Angelina have stormed off to the divorce courts, in the beauteous form of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.

    Fassbender-Vikander might sound like a Nordic shipping line, but they’ve been an item since ‘becoming close’ — that coyest of movie-star euphemisms — during the making of this film, which is based on M.L. Stedman’s bestselling novel and set in western Australia just after World War I.

    The Light Between Oceans, a soggy melodrama which stars moviedom’s hottest couple in the beauteous form of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander

    They certainly look good together, with Fassbender playing Tom Sherbourne, an upright but troubled war hero who takes a job as a lighthouse keeper not least because it suits his inclination not to talk very much, and Vikander the local woman, Isabel Graysmark, with whom he falls headlong in love.

    Isabel understands Tom’s suffering because the war claimed both her brothers, so emotionally — and indeed pulchritudinously — they are a perfect match. They duly marry and head off to their remote island, where for a while all is conjugal bliss and ravishing shots of big skies and big seas. The director is Derek Cianfrance, whose previous best-known feature was Blue Valentine (2010), a tremendously sensitive portrait of a blighted marriage.

    Alas, it transpires that this marriage is blighted, too. Isabel has two miscarriages in quick succession, and is grieving both her loss and the prospect of childlessness when a boat washes up containing a dead man and a living baby girl.

    Much against Tom’s better judgment, she persuades him to raise the child as their own. Naturally, they make wonderful parents.

    All this takes an age to unfold, with lots of plinky piano music presaging the histrionics to come. But come they do, beginning when Tom takes a trip to the mainland and there encounters a well-to-do woman, played by Rachel Weisz, who believes her husband and baby daughter to have been lost at sea.

    So Tom has a dilemma as big as anything ever debated on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. Does he own up, or not? He steers a middle course, but it all ends in tears, and much louder music, and a series of events that strain credibility to snapping point, although it could well be that by then you’re sobbing too loudly to care.

    With great respect to accountants, some of whom I am proud to call friends, The Accountant might be the most boring film title of all time, pipping 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau and the 2008 comedy Conversations With My Gardener, which doesn’t even sound enticing in the original French.

    Unsurprisingly, the plot does not live up, or rather down, to the title. It is sometimes entertainingly, but more often bewilderingly preposterous, requiring us to believe that its title character, stolidly played by Ben Affleck, might not only be a numbers wizard afflicted both by Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder, but might also be as preternaturally talented in martial arts and marksmanship as he is at long division.

    The Accountant might be the most boring film title of all time, pipping 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau

    Christian Wolff was raised by an uncompromising military father to take care of himself in a tight spot

    But is two hours of this hokum a worthwhile investment of your time, not to mention the cash-flow implications?

    This is Christian Wolff, who, as a series of flashbacks make clear, was raised by an uncompromising military father to take care of himself in a tight spot. But most of the action takes place years later. Chris is the kind of small-town accountant who helps sweet old couples juggle their savings. He is the Wolff of Main Street. However, that’s just a front. Actually, he is a books-cooking genius with mighty crime barons as clients.

    Then a U.S. Treasury agent starts sniffing around, played by J.K. Simmons and named Ray King (as in raking it in, presumably). So Chris takes on what appears to be a legitimate job, helping a robotics company find some missing millions, and there meets a fragrant young woman in the accounts department, Dana Cummings, nicely played by Anna Kendrick.

    Ironically, and yet predictably, it’s the legit case that proves the most dangerous, leading to a showdown with an assassin (Jon Bernthal) just as resourceful as Chris himself, and more willing to make eye-contact. There are shafts of wit here and there — mostly provided by Kendrick’s character, who ‘studied accounting at the University of Chicago, where fun goes to die’.

    But is two hours of this hokum a worthwhile investment of your time, not to mention the cash-flow implications?

    On balance, probably not.

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