Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin play forbidden lovers in Jason Reitman’s drama Labor Day
LABOR DAY (12A)
The heat of unexpected passion scorches two lost souls in Jason Reitman’s handsome adaptation of the novel by Joyce Maynard.
Embellished with a present-day voiceover that harks back to events of one sweltering summer in 1987, Labor Day woos us with stirring performances, Eric Steelberg’s sun-dappled cinematography and Rolfe Kent’s elegiac orchestral score.
Scenes between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin as the doomed lovers simmer with eroticism, including a glorious set-piece with a home-made peach pie that makes our pulses quicken and mouths water.
Fifteen-year-old rising star Gattlin Griffith is equally compelling as the painfully shy teenage son, who witnesses this mending of broken hearts in impossible circumstances.
Yet for all of its impressive qualities – and they are bountiful – Labor Day isn’t quite the sum of its parts.
The condensed timeframe of the central romance strains credibility and some of the subplots feel undernourished.
Reitman’s mosaic of flashbacks and reminiscence creates a fractured chronology that hampers dramatic momentum, dissipating the sense of dread and longing that should permeate every impeccably crafted frame.
“It was just the two of us after my father left,” explains 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (Griffith).
So the youngster nervously takes on the mantle of man of the house, tending to his depressed mother Adele (Winslet).
Once a month, they venture out for supplies but for the most part, Adele remains indoors, haunted by ghosts of her failed marriage.
During a visit to the local Pricemart with his mother, Henry encounters a bloodied stranger called Frank Chambers (Brolin).
Under duress, Adele and her son take Frank into their home and tend to his wounds.
That night, a television news report reveals the intimidating man is an escaped prisoner serving 18 years for the murder of his girlfriend (Maika Monroe).
“It didn’t happen that way,” growls Frank.
The fugitive lays low at the Wheeler homestead and adopts the role of surrogate father, teaching Henry how to pitch a baseball and lavishing Adele with tenderness.
“I could feel her loneliness and longing before I had a name for it,” notes Henry as he becomes a silent observer to the strengthening of bonds between Frank and his mother into a second chance at happiness.
Labor Day hinges on the screen chemistry between Winslet and Brolin and we believe in their emotional connection, although the film skirts perilously close to melodrama when Frank tells Adele, “I’d take 20 more years [in jail] just to spend another three days with you.”
Griffith is mesmerising in a demanding role and he wrings out tears beautifully and convincingly at a critical juncture.
A coda, set in the present day, feels cheap and unnecessary.
The heart wants what it wants and according to Reitman, our hearts want to feel warm as we leave the cinema.
A LONG WAY DOWN (15)
Several Nick Hornby novels have made the perilous transition from the page to the big screen.
Colin Firth led the squad of Fever Pitch which was remade as The Perfect Catch with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, High Fidelity failed to top the charts with John Cusack, and Hugh Grant discovered his paternal instincts in the hugely successful About A Boy.
Next up for the big screen treatment is A Long Way Down, a novel about four seemingly disparate strangers, who form a bond when they meet on the roof of a notorious suicide spot – the fictional Toppers’ House in London – where they intend to take their lives.
There’s Maureen (Toni Collette), a sweet-natured mother who doesn’t feel like she’s doing a good job of looking after her severely disabled son, Matty; disgraced television presenter Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) whose career and life have gone down the pan after he slept with a girl who, unbeknown to him, was underage; American musician JJ (Aaron Paul) whose life has lost direction since his band split up and his girlfriend dumped him; and Jess (Imogen Poots), a teenage livewire who has been spurned by her boyfriend and is haunted by the disappearance of her older sister.
Rather than kill themselves on New Year’s Eve when they first meet, the quartet makes a pact to live for another six weeks until Valentine’s Day.
Their plans are thwarted when newspapers get wind of the pact and make Jess, who is the daughter of an MP, and Martin front page news.
Jess decides to play the media at their own game, which results in the four acquaintances appearing on chat shows to discuss the pact and how they decided not to jump from the building when they saw an angel who looked like Matt Damon.
When it comes out that they didn’t see an angel who looked like the Hollywood heartthrob, the public and press turn on the foursome.
Fed up, Maureen, Martin, JJ and Jess slope off for a disastrous holiday together to escape the unwanted attention.
Despite strong performances from each of the main cast, A Long Way Down doesn’t hang together well.
The script and plot are largely true to Hornby’s book but the film feels higgledy-piggledy and there’s a noticeable rush to tie up loose ends in the final 15 minutes.
Unlike the book, the characters barely change over the course of the film.
Other than Maureen, you have little sense that these unhappy and unfulfilled people have moved on from how they were feeling at the start of their journeys of self-discovery.
Consequently, the ultra-neat ending seems to make trite of the issue of suicide.
STARRED UP (18)
The sins of a jailbird father are revisited upon an embittered son in David Mackenzie’s gritty drama.
Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s experiences as a prison therapist, Starred Up pulls few punches in its depiction of life behind bars, delivering a flurry of beatings as characters jostle for supremacy inside crumbling walls where everyone can hear you scream.
Squeamish audiences are sentenced to their worst nightmare: a journey into an unforgiving world where disputes are settled with a slash from a makeshift shank fashioned from a toothbrush and razor blade.
Prisoner officers are almost as cold-blooded as the offenders in their care, meting out violence to keep troublesome inmates in line.
If all else fails, ringleaders are strung up from the bars of cells – their deaths falsely attributed to suicide.
Belfast’s disused Crumlin Road Gaol provides a suitably claustrophobic setting and Mackenzie’s cameras explore every nook and cranny, capturing a vicious assault in the showers that leaves us wincing in horror.
At the centre of madness is 19-year-old repeat offender Eric (Jack O’Connell), who swaggers into his first adult prison as if he owns the joint.
“Get your kit off – come out when you’re ready,” barks one of the guards, who conducts a humiliating body search.
Clothed in a regulation grey tracksuit, Eric is escorted to his cell where he expertly constructs then conceals a shank.
An altercation with prison guards leads to a spell in solitary confinement and Eric is ushered before lifer Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), who rules the roost.
“No more silliness. I want a nice quiet wing,” Spencer tells Eric with an air of menace.
It transpires that Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is at the same facility and operates as one of Spencer’s underlings.
Their reunion after 14 miserable years of estrangement is far from happy.
While Eric exorcises ghosts of the past, the lad also attends anger management sessions led by a volunteer called Oliver (Rupert Friend), whose personal involvement with inmates is a source of frustration for sadistic Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell).
Punctuated by explosions of unsettling and graphic violence, Starred Up is reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s seminal 1979 film Scum, which chronicled one young man’s journey through the hell of a British borstal.
Mackenzie’s film is almost as suffocating, anchored by a no-holds-barred performance from O’Connell that’s a far cry from his formative years on ground-breaking Channel 4 teen drama Skins.
The 23-year-old Derbyshire actor electrifies every frame, offering glimpses of fear behind Eric’s cocksure facade as he rages against an imperfect system.
Friend and Mendelsohn are compelling in support and Asser’s script steadfastly refuses to polish any rough edges with pat sentimentality.
For these characters, the milk of human kindness is always sour and they have no choice but to swig and swallow.