The scandalous true story of one lawyer’s fight against the chemical giant whose waste poisoned a town: BRIAN VINER reviews Dark Waters
Dark Waters (12A)
Verdict: Quietly impressive
Verdict: Funny and thought-provoking
Not many actors have played crusaders against villainy in quite as many guises as Mark Ruffalo.
He is the mighty Hulk in the Avengers movies, turning his superhuman strength against the forces of evil.
In the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2016), he was one of the Boston Globe journalists exposing institutionalised child abuse within the Catholic Church.
And now, in the quietly compelling Dark Waters, he plays a tenacious lawyer taking on another monolith: the gigantically rich and powerful DuPont chemical corporation.
Rob finds that the substance responsible for all this was used in the manufacture of DuPont’s most famous and profitable product, Teflon. But can he make his accusations stick? Not many actors have played crusaders against villainy in quite as many guises as Mark Ruffalo
Like Spotlight, it’s a true story. Ruffalo is Rob Bilott, a mild-mannered attorney with a law firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, that specialises in representing chemical companies.
He is contentedly married to Sarah (a mostly sidelined Anne Hathaway).
She is a former lawyer herself, but now what Americans call a homemaker. At work, Rob is assiduously climbing his way up the ladder.
His boss (Tim Robbins) likes him. A solid but unflashy career beckons, until one day in 1998, when everything changes.
An angry farmer turns up at his office, demanding to see him. There is a tenuous connection. The farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), knows Rob’s grandmother, back in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Wilbur is a man devoid of social graces at the best of times, but these are the worst of times.
Almost 200 of his cows have died, and he is certain that DuPont’s nearby plant is the cause. He thinks toxic chemical waste has been poisoning a creek on his land.
At first, Rob is reluctant to take up the cudgels on behalf of this irascible, unlikeable man. Apart from anything else, it would create embarrassment at his law firm, an unwieldy conflict of interests.
Nothing in his life so far has marked him out to be a maverick. But when he starts looking into Wilbur’s grievances, he finds that they have alarming substance.
Tim Robbins is pictured above as Tom Terp, along with Anne Hathaway as Sarah Barlage and Mark Ruffalo playing Robert Bilott
DuPont’s waste is poisoning humans as well as animals. Children’s teeth are rotting; cancer and birth deformities are everywhere. This, to put it mildly, is not the West Virginia that John Denver sang about.
But even as the scale of the scandal becomes apparent, Rob faces intense hostility, not just from one of America’s biggest corporations, but also from the folk of Parkersburg themselves. DuPont is the area’s biggest employer.
Even if he can convince them of what’s going on, it seems they would rather lose their teeth than their livelihoods.
The film chronicles Rob’s obsessive search for justice over the ensuing years, although not quite up to the point where this diffident hero — who in another Hollywood era would surely have been played by Jimmy Stewart — bashfully acknowledges public appreciation on BBC1’s The Graham Norton Show.
That was a few weeks ago. Ruffalo was the guest; Rob was in the audience.
DuPont’s waste is poisoning humans as well as animals. Children’s teeth are rotting; cancer and birth deformities are everywhere. This, to put it mildly, is not the West Virginia that John Denver sang about. The real-life plant is pictured above
Twenty-two years after Wilbur marched into his office, Rob is still trying to get justice for all the victims. Not that he ever will. For it’s not just people in small-town West Virginia who have ingested the poisons. To a greater or lesser extent, it’s almost all of us.
Back to the film. Rob finds that the substance responsible for all this was used in the manufacture of DuPont’s most famous and profitable product, Teflon. But can he make his accusations stick? That’s my gag, by the way.
The film doesn’t have any. It’s a sombre, almost stolid drama, directed without frills by Todd Haynes, whose other recent pictures, such as the lesbian love story Carol (2015) and the stylish but saccharine Wonderstruck (2017), gave no hint that he had a legal procedural in his locker.
For really, that is what Dark Waters is. It’s billed as a thriller, but there are no thrills.
Co-writer Matthew Michael Carnahan also scripted the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon, another tale of corporate greed (about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). But at least that had spectacular explosions.
So, despite echoes of that movie, and of garlanded dramas such as Erin Brockovich (2000) and even Chinatown (1974), this film’s considerable qualities are mostly those of its modest, righteous, quietly impressive hero.
Downhill doesn’t just have echoes of another film, it’s a direct rip-off. I was a big fan of the Swedish black comedy Force Majeure when I saw it at the Cannes film festival in 2014.
I remember glumly thinking then that a big U.S. studio would probably want its own version, just as we can doubtless now expect Parasite to be re-worked in English.
So I took my seat for Downhill with apprehension, having lost count of the number of foreign-language films mangled by Hollywood. But guess what? It’s funny, well-observed and altogether terrific.
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie, an American couple holidaying in the Austrian Alps with their two sons.
There are no obvious cracks in the marriage, until an avalanche crashes down onto the terrace of the mountain restaurant where they’re about to have lunch.
Downhill doesn’t just have echoes of another film, it’s a direct rip-off. I was a big fan of the Swedish black comedy Force Majeure when I saw it at the Cannes film festival in 2014
Billie’s instinct in the face of danger is to protect her boys; Pete’s is to grab his mobile phone and scarper.
At first, there are few recriminations. But Billie and the children start to see Pete differently, and when Pete’s work colleague and his girlfriend arrive in the resort, the snow really hits the fan.
Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash scripted the film with Jesse Armstrong, the British screenwriter currently on a roll with the brilliant TV drama Succession.
But bobble hats off, too, to whoever cast Ferrell and in particular Louis-Dreyfus. She is such a skilled and engaging comedy actress, although it is in the film’s more sober moments, as a woman who must reacquaint her floundering husband with his manhood, that she really excels.
The Invisible Man? You must try to see it!
The Invisible Man (15)
Verdict: You’ll jump out of your seat
H.G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man in 1897 and here it is, still inspiring filmmakers 123 years later.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell was more directly influenced by the 1933 film version with Claude Rains, but he has very deftly adapted the material for the 21st century and created a tense psychological thriller.
It has what wine connoisseurs might call back-notes of horror, sci-fi and slasher movies.
As a seen-it-all film critic you’re not meant to make any vertical leaps, still less utter ‘Oh my God!’ at the same time
It begins grippingly, as the clearly terrified Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss, brilliant) sneaks out of her swanky clifftop home in the dead of night, making sure not to disturb her sleeping husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
He is a talented tech entrepreneur specialising in optics. He is also a controlling, possessive wife-beater.
She takes refuge with a friend (Aldis Hodge) but remains terrified that Adrian will find her, until her sister (Harriet Dyer) brings the welcome news that he has committed suicide.
Has he, though? Little by little, Cecilia becomes convinced that he has somehow faked his death and is stalking her.
Or is it just that he so terrorised her in life that he is able to keep doing so from beyond the grave? The film’s title offers a clue, of course, but it can certainly be interpreted metaphorically. He’s there, yet not there.
Whannell keeps his audience guessing, and I confess, in my case, also literally jumping out of our seats.
As a seen-it-all film critic you’re not meant to make any vertical leaps, still less utter ‘Oh my God!’ at the same time. I’m afraid I failed.
Music video vibe puts new spin on Ned Kelly legend
True History Of The Kelly Gang (18)
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (15)
Verdict: Easy on the eye
The 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly has been the subject of more biographies than any other Australian, and True History Of The Kelly Gang is the tenth movie, no less, about his life.
The first, in 1906, was also the world’s first feature-length moving picture.
Rather more recently, Heath Ledger and even Mick Jagger are among those who have brought him to life on screen.
Yet what do we in the UK know of the man many Australians think of as their version of Robin Hood?
The 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly has been the subject of more biographies than any other Australian, and True History Of The Kelly Gang is the tenth movie, no less, about his life
Precious little is the answer, and unless you’ve read Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, I’m not sure that Justin Kurzel’s strikingly stylish but strange adaptation, starring George MacKay of 1917 fame in the title role, will offer too much enlightenment.
It lurches episodically through the Kelly legend — his apprenticeship to a grizzled old highwayman swaggeringly played by Russell Crowe; his uneasy dealings with a pair of English constables (Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult); and, above all, his relationship with his fierce Irish mother (Essie Davis).
All the performances are brilliant; there are truly no exceptions. And there are some startlingly memorable scenes.
But there is a deliberately anachronistic, rock video vibe throughout, and a kind of smouldering homoeroticism, which for some will enhance the film as an exercise in storytelling, but for me undermines it.
That’s a shame, because it’s a heck of a story.
The French-language Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, another period drama, is much less eventful.
In 18th-century Brittany a portrait artist called Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is summoned to a remote house to paint a young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel), whose mother wants to send her likeness to her would-be husband in Milan so he can be in no doubt of her beauty.
At first Heloise doesn’t want to be painted. Marianne must study her discreetly, while acting as her companion, and work in secret.
Then she finds that Heloise has been observing her just as keenly. Gradually, inevitably, they fall in love.
Director Celine Sciamma has crafted an impeccably tasteful and rather moving love story.
Marianne must study her discreetly, while acting as her companion, and work in secret. Then she finds that Heloise has been observing her just as keenly