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Film reviews: Capernaum

Tough: Zain (right) is played by real Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea



(15) ★★★★★

GARNERING a 15-minute standing ovation at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and boasting an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, Capernaum manages to be both rousing crowd-pleaser (if that’s not an oxymoron for such a heart-wrenching story) and critical darling.

It’s got a unique conceptual hook. Zain, a tousle-haired child of around 12 played by real-life Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea, is led from a prison cell in handcuffs. He is already serving time for stabbing someone but today he is bringing his own case to court: he is suing his negligent parents for giving birth to him in the first place.

As Zain’s story gets told in flashback, you can sympathise with his point of view. His life is, matter-of-factly, terrible. Capernaum takes its name from the Biblical city condemned by Christ to hell. Which, according to this Lebanese drama, is what modern-day Beirut is like for the thousands of street kids who try to survive there, including Zain.

Looking much younger than his 12 years due to malnutrition, Zain lives in squalor with innumerable siblings and neglectful parents, who teach him to hawk drugs. When they sell his 11-year-old sister in marriage to a local shop owner, Zain runs away, forging another family with an illegal Ethiopian immigrant (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby.

Lebanese-born writer/director Nadine Labaki (Caramel) spent six months shooting hand-held footage of real street kids in Beirut and another two years editing it. The result is an emotional and tender yet unsentimental fable steeped in vibrant and authentic detail.

The non-professional cast, including a miraculous and extended turn by a one-year-old toddler, are captivating. And while the parents are villains in this child’s-eye view on conflict, they too are (literally) permitted their day in court.

Deep breathing is required to get you through some of the movie’s tougher scenes but, as a whole, it’s a testimony to human resilience and the astonishing power of hope.

The verdict

Seen Roma? This rival for best foreign language Oscar should be next on your list.

Cold Pursuit

(15) ★★★✩✩

ACCORDING to Liam Neeson, this is his last action role (something he declared before his recent controversial remarks). Cold Pursuit takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the dadsploitation genre the Oscar nominated actor has oddly helped to pioneer.

A remake of a 2014 Norwegian thriller, it casts Neeson as Colorado snowplough driver Nels Coxman (yes, do titter — he’s actually known as ‘Nils Dickman’ in the original). After his teenage son (Neeson’s real-life son, Micheál Richardson) is killed under orders of a narcissistic drug kingpin (an outrageously cartoonish Tom Bateman), the previously mild-mannered Coxman transforms from a pillar of the community into a face-pulping, shotgun-toting vengeance seeker.

Very much one for Neeson’s existing late-career fans, it’s fair to say that if you don’t find gratuitous violence funny, this is not the film for you. Viewers will either hop aboard the black comedy or make like Laura Dern (here playing Neeson’s wife) and exit early.

On the Basis Of Sex

(12) ★★★★✩

THIS stirring biopic of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is like the origin story of a real-life superhero. In the mid-1950s Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was a young married mother battling her way through Harvard Law School as one of only nine female students. Struggling against a barrage of everyday sexism, Ginsburg couldn’t even get a job as a lawyer, despite graduating top of her class, but with the support of her remarkable husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), she finally got a chance to mount a legal challenge against gender inequality and rewrite US law. Excelsior!

Written by Ginsburg’s own nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, this was always going to be something of a feminist hagiography. But it’s also a wonderfully intimate portrait of a marriage that’s packed with laughs along the way. Solidly and sincerely directed by Mimi Leder, it’s a must-see for any mother and daughter, reminding you how incredibly far female equality has leapt and bound within a single lifetime.

More new releases this week

Old Boys (12)

Best known for playing a young Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, rising star Alex Lawther (pictured) excels as another bright but awkward teen in this 1980s boarding-school reworking of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (no cert)

Olivia Lichtenstein’s terrific documentary reveals the so-incredible-it’s-amazing-it’s-not-a-Hollywood-movie story of ‘the Black Elvis’. The first African-American male singer to record five consecutive multi-platinum albums in the US, Pendergrass’s hits include If You Don’t Know Me By Now and Don’t Leave Me This Way.

Total Dhamaal (PG)

Translated as ‘Total Fun’, this comedy adventure marks the third instalment in Bollywood’s ongoing Dhamaal series about four con-artist pals. This one is set in a jungle.