Sunday, 27 October 2013

Captain Phillips

I have a hatred of Hanks which I find difficult to justify. Perhaps it his slightly nasal, whiny voice. Maybe that irritating eye-narrowing thing he does. Possibly his annoying everyman shtick. More likely it’s that batch of woeful romantic comedies he made with Meg Ryan in the mid-nineties. After all, I’ve occasionally chosen to overlook my Hanks hate – Forrest Gump, the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, childhood favourite Big. And so it was with Captain Phillips: a film which, despite its abysmal title, has received rave reviews and in which Tom Hanks gives possibly the best performance of his career.

The plot is a simple one: the eponymous Captain (Hanks) is piloting his cargo ship through international waters off the Horn of Africa when it is hijacked by a group of four Somali pirates. Phillips appeals for help from the authorities, but assistance fails to arrive in time to stop the armed raiders boarding the ship – leaving the noble captain to protect his unarmed crew and his boat.

Such a simple synopsis reveals nothing of the film, however. 

Tom Hanks is superb as a man out of his depth, forced to confront difficult decisions in the most difficult of circumstances. Initially he seems the archetypal company man, following protocol and playing it by the book. But as his captors become increasingly unpredictable, so Phillips’ actions become more inspired, courageous and innovative. He takes huge risks in the most prosaic ways – it’s only after leaving the cinema and reflecting on the movie that it becomes clear how just how risky some of his plays were.

At the other end of behavioural the spectrum is the pirates’ own captain. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is desperate, bitter and emotional – a trembling, wide-eyed, wounded animal whose erratic nature is the antithesis of Phillips’ cool exterior. It’s a mesmerising performance from a first-timer who didn’t even meet Tom Hanks until their first on-screen confrontation. 

And what a confrontation it is. Sparks fly as the characters face off, with the threat of violence constantly simmering beneath the surface. There is mutual respect too, with moments of genuine compassion and humanity passing between the two – not least as Muse attempts to protect Phillips from some of the less sanguine pirates in his crew. 

As the film lurches towards a conclusion, the action becomes increasingly claustrophobic and the tension is almost unbearable. Barry Ackroyd’s photography is superb, placing the camera amidst the action as blood and sweat are spilled and violence threatens to erupt in the closest possible confines. Even knowing the true story which inspired the film doesn’t lessen the knuckle-whitening tension.

The final scenes are an acting tour-de-force: a visceral, powerfully emotional outpouring which offer an increasingly tense audience some kind of catharsis after one of the most gripping, tautly made movies of recent years.

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