One of the most thrilling directorial debuts of this year, Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance is an edge-of-your-seat thriller with silk-sheet sex; a soap-operatic family melodrama with double-crossing siblings; and an exploration of the power of the state in the private sphere. Oh, and it’s set in Iran.
But it wasn’t shot there. In Iran, sexual scenes are not allowed, female and male actors are generally not allowed to touch each other, and women can’t dance, just for starters. So. Keshavarz, an Iranian-American writer-director with family in both countries, shot her film in Lebanon. She introduces a family in the relatively liberal elite of Tehran — a subculture we don’t exactly see very often onscreen — but the film doesn’t feel weighed down with the burden of representation: It’s too free-flowing for that, too plot-heavy, too stylish, too romantic, too hot. The first scene is a red-lit fantasy of the women shimmying in a night club. In front of a television playing bootlegged shows, the young women shake their hips just like the kids on American Idol. Drunk, they overdub Sex and the City’s orgasmic moans and gasps while giggling about their goofy transgressions, then (when things get slightly more heavy) overdub Sean Penn’s cri de couers from Milk. They go clubbing, slam shots, snort lines, argue about politics, and then shimmy in lingerie some more. Worse, one girl gets caught driving. Alone.
Though President Ahmadinejad has declared that Iranian homosexuality doesn’t exist, it sure does here. A wry Nikohl Boosheri plays Atafeh, the mildly rebellious daughter of a wealthy family who strikes up a dangerous affair with her bombshell-gorgeous best friend, played by Sarah Kazemy. The two dream of a fresh start in Dubai, where they presume they could love one another in a city with no history. At first it seems like their home is a sophisticated liberal island, and they’re untouched by what’s around them. But, of course, that doesn’t last. Meanwhile, the son of the family, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safari), begins the film as a rehabbing party boy and finds a severe brand of faith. This leads him to become the house Inspector General, installing video cameras to spy on his family’s cosmopolitan island.
Iranian filmmakers who cross over into American art houses (Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi) have become known for intense levels of realism (often featuring untrained actors), bare-bones production values, and spare allegories. But Keshavarz’s Tehran hews closer to the hard-rocking, pop-addled Iran of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and her style seems more indebted to the soapy excess of Douglas Sirk, the warm lusciousness of Bertolluci, or even Almodoóvar’s kinky talent for mashing up the domestic and the profane, the ludicrous and the weighty. The film, shot lavishly by Brian Rigney Hubbard, moves with a fluid rhythm — and its few stumbles are of the most excusable, overambitious sort.
As exquisite and flat as a sepia-toned vacation postcard, screenwriter Rowan Joffe’s directorial debut updates Graham Greene’s tale of crime on England’s Brighton boardwalk, pushing the 1938 novel into the hurly-burly of 1964, when mods maraud all over the beach. It’s also the last year of Britain’s death penalty, which sucks for Pinkie Brown, a dapper young hood who just killed a rival and must prevent a lovely young witness named Rose from sending him to the gallows. Pinkie’s cruel, elegant solution? Seduce and marry her. That way, she can’t testify against him. There’s always the option to kill her later.
Sam Riley plays this quiet bogeyman well enough, but he’s given little else to do but flip up his topcoat’s collar, glower, sneer, and snarl. Half as complex as he was in the Ian Curtis biopic Control, here, Riley is too controlled by far. You never feel his fear, or sense his charm. A creature of pure, distilled malice, Pinkie is all thorn, no rose, and it’s hard to see what Rose sees in this sociopathic freak, despite the good looks. As this too-vulnerable waitress of quivering lip and unshakeable faith, relative newcomer Andrea Riseborough makes Rose’s intertwined fear and naïveté palpable, but her blind devotion to such a clear sadist seem a better fit for the desperation of the late Depression-era novel than this film’s ’64 surging youthquake. She’s so gullible, their romance is all Pinkie & the No-Brain.
The raw materials are all here for an epic criminal thriller — a Brit Boardwalk Empire condensed to two hours — but it’s a shame to see so many actors plinking just one note so well: Helen Mirren is all brass as a streetwise, redheaded dame who understands Pinkie’s game. John Hurt is all amiable grumbles as her ride-along gentleman friend. Andy Serkis, as a suave and sadistic rival gangster, shows he can persuade out of a mo-cap suit and leaves you craving more, but his role as the ape leader Caesar was far more nuanced. Sometimes, they all get lost under the waves of Martin Phipps’s heavy-handed score, which threatens to drown out the action. Brighton’s “not what she used to be,” says one gangster, and that sure is a shame: The 1947 adaptation was so much more, and so much more strange.