The world of entertainment has saved a bleak January

Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton frolicking around in The Personal History of David Copperfield.

January 2020 has set an ominous benchmark for the new decade. Almost beginning with World War Three, it ended simultaneously with Britain exiting the European Union and President Trump’s acquittal in impeachment proceedings which display contempt for the spirit of the American Constitution. Wildfires have ravaged almost 19 million hectares of Australian bush – an area greater than the size of England – and this should be considered a new norm if massive transnational government action is not taken to battle the global climate emergency. January is a slog of perpetual gloom more generally: 16 hours of darkness a day, with barely a bank holiday to exploit. It’s surely made less bearable for those who relish the self-flagellation of a plant-based diet or a month without alcohol. I wonder who benefits other than Guardian commentators and the Linda McCartney foundation.

But the month was saved by a selection of exceptional films and television series released as we forge through the awards season. I can recommend one achievable New Year’s Resolution: go to the cinema once a week. It’s affordable (£5 at Norwich Odeon and Vue), enjoyable and broadens your cultural horizons – or failing that is an excuse for a good nap. Without further ado, here are my January media picks:

5) You, Series 2 (Netflix, released 26th December)

This story of sociopathic stalker-cum-serial killer Joe Goldberg progressed to a greater level of addictive implausibility in Series 2, as the title character moved to Los Angeles to start a new life free from the bloodbath he wrought in New York. At first, he seems reformed under the alias of “Will Bettelheim”, keeping his obsessive tendencies at bay. But alas, the real Will Bettelheim is to be found locked in a suburban Self-Storage complex inside Joe’s soundproof book cage from Series 1. Quite how he was able to arrange the transcontinental transportation of a cage the size of my bedroom is not addressed. Meanwhile, Joe-as-Will is shown to have fallen for the first girl he finds in LA with a brain and a pulse, who goes by the name (because why complicate matters?) of Love. As with his girlfriend Beck in the first season, we follow Joe’s increasing fixation with Love and his willingness to risk anything to save their relationship. Obstacles are numerous, from Love’s brother Forty (the tennis connection is sadly ignored) to his suspicious apartment manager, Delilah, and most ominously his ex-girlfriend, Candace. Somewhat aggrieved after Joe tried to bury her alive, she sets out to take revenge.

The show’s sparkle lies in Joe’s self-justifying internal monologue and flashbacks to his traumatic, abusive childhood, which force the viewer to wrestle between the empathy elicited in viewing a tortured soul with no regard for human life seeking validation, and revulsion at his homicidal actions. Joe’s deranged behaviour is almost equated with that of his vacuous, selfish, effortlessly beautiful Hollywood counterparts. The show deftly navigates through the complications of Joe’s marginal existence in the Southern California bubble of gated mansions, kale smoothies and glamping séance retreats to a frankly ridiculous final twist. We keep watching because You is like Love Island plus murder: trashy television with a provocative message beneath the surface. 7/10.

4) The Gentlemen (released 1st January)

This gangster comedy is an unapologetically alpha-male scramble through the London criminal underworld. Despite a degree of cringeworthy stereotyping, Guy Ritchie’s film satisfies with a large helping of surprises, flashbacks and meta-narratives, in a similar vein to his underrated 2015 film remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As with the Soviet-American spy pairing of that film, the protagonists of The Gentlemen – American cannabis magnate Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), his British wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) and his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) – never seem in serious jeopardy, but the sense of threat drives this action-packed film. The revelatory performance comes from Hugh Grant, playing the sordid investigative journalist Fletcher, who threatens to expose Pearson’s empire, complete with a Cockney accent and rhoticism. Since A Very English Scandal we’ve seen that Grant can actually act, even though his Notting Hill persona suggested otherwise for thirty years. Colin Farrell as “Coach”, a boxing mentor in league with Pearson, is equally strong.

Despite the transatlantic lead from McConaughey, this feels like a very British film: clever but self-deprecating, with the plot driven by human error as much as design. Such scenes as Raymond’s accidental murder of a young Russian heroin addict by pushing him from a tower block, or Coach’s blackmail of Fletcher’s boss, the tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), by forcing him to have sex with a pig Black Mirror-style, are among the highlights. One can hardly laud The Gentlemen for an original plot, but there is great satisfaction in a popular category executed well. 8/10.

3) The Personal History of David Copperfield (released 24th January)

Armando Iannucci’s reinterpretation of this classic adapts his customary mix of slapstick silliness with crisp dialogue which celebrates Charles Dickens’ turn of phrase. The colour-blind casting gives freshness to this depiction: Dev Patel is excellent as the title character and proves the irrelevance of race or historical accuracy to the narrator’s story. Copperfield revels in adventure and his signature mimicry of friends and guardians fuels his self-discovery and personal growth. The settings are packed with colour which gives the film a surreal aesthetic, similar to Wes Anderson’s style at times. It does not dwell excessively on the gloomier parts of Copperfield’s story: working in a bottling factory under the thumb of his authoritarian stepfather, Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd); losing his family money to the cunning, grovelling Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw); or the torment of Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie essentially reprising Prince George in Blackadder), who believes himself to be possessed by the inner thoughts of King Charles I on his execution. The title character continues unabashed throughout his precarious existence, and the viewer can’t help but catch his enthusiasm.

At times, the film suffers from more cumbersome moments; Copperfield’s relationship with Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark) is nauseating, but this marks a difficult phase in Copperfield’s maturing process. The performances of Peter Capaldi as (a Scottish-Cockney) Mr. Micawber, Daisy May Cooper as Peggotty and Tilda Swinton as the donkey-phobic Betsey Trotwood are much more entertaining. Indeed Micawber, in his attempts to evade offensives from bailiffs and debtors, utters my favourite line: “You’re stealing an honest man’s chicken!”. Iannucci emphasises the resilience of the community surrounding Copperfield despite the callous, class-dominated reality of Victorian England. If not laugh-out-loud funny, this film guarantees a steady rate of chuckles and invites future efforts to make Dickens, Shakespeare, and other greats of English literature more accessible to the modern audience. 8/10.

2) 1917 (released 10th January)

This deceptively simple but magnificently shot First World War thriller deserved its seven BAFTAs – Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Production Design, Best Sound and Best Special Visual Effects. Indeed, the illusion of filming in one continuous take is central to the immersive and at times traumatic experience. Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns conceives the effect as living for two hours in someone else’s life, and it invests the viewer in a plot which hinges on just one critical vignette. With telephone lines cut off, two Lance Corporals are tasked by their General to deliver a message to the British front line to call off an imminent attack which has been set by the Germans as a trap. The film manoeuvres through the desolate scenery of Northern France on 6-7 April 1917, through no-man’s land, windswept fields, an abandoned town and mile upon mile of trenches (meticulously constructed on Salisbury Plain). Most impressive on this body-strewn canvas is the execution of a plane crash and a death in “real” time – I wonder how much of this was achieved through CGI acrobatics!

Brief appearances from seasoned British veterans (Colin Firth, Mark Strong) add to the gravitas of the mission for soldiers Schofield and Blake, played respectively by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, rather than detracting from their central importance. I’d only question why, with a mission that will allegedly save the lives of 1,600 men, their message couldn’t be delivered by plane, or with more men? Still, the viewing experience is elevated when the stakes are so high. Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch’s characters capture the debilitating effect on morale of such a seemingly futile and unwinnable war. Scott is the dazed Lieutenant at peace with his inevitable fate while, conversely, Cumberbatch plays the gung-ho Colonel who has authorised the British attack, mistaking a strategic German retreat for capitulation. He wrestles between the hope – ‘a dangerous thing’ – that one more push can irrevocably change the course of the war, and the cold reality: ‘There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing’. Sam Mendes immerses us in the themes of duty and sacrifice which mask the senseless reality of the First World War. Mendes calls it ‘the stupidest thing humanity ever did to itself’ in his own laudable if naive hope that people will remember, but not repeat it. 9/10.

1) Just Mercy (released 10th January)

Destin Daniel Cretton tells the remarkable true story of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) – the American civil rights lawyer named by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “America’s Mandela” – in this harrowing film which has slipped in unnoticed amidst award-seeking blockbusters. Cretton has chosen, in my view rightly, to let the facts of his tale speak for themselves, creating a candid indictment of the American criminal justice system that rubbishes any illusion that the Civil Rights Movement fixed race relations in the 1960s.

Just Mercy follows Stevenson to late 1980s Alabama, where he establishes the Equal Justice Initiative to advocate on behalf of underprivileged and overwhelmingly African American death row inmates. The film focuses on Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black tree feller framed by a white legal establishment for the murder of a white teenage girl in a laundromat, one year after the event. The evidence against McMillian makes a mockery of justice; it relies on the testimony of white convict Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) who, Stevenson establishes, made a false statement against McMillian when threatened to be put on death row himself. Only in 1993, after Stevenson’s concerted efforts to appeal the district court verdict, did the case against McMillian fall apart. Yet in the film’s epilogue, we discover how lucky he was. In the United States, 1 in 9 convicts on death row have been falsely accused: a shocking margin of error which exposes the extent to which the prison system is used to continue Jim Crow-era segregation of whites and blacks by another means.

Directorial restraint allows the truly outrageous moments of McMillian’s case to hold the weight they deserve, rather than dramatizing every scene or diluting the tension with a dominant soundtrack. With the BAFTAs and Oscars marred, yet again, in controversy over the dominance of white nominees, it is curious that neither Jordan nor Foxx receive plaudits for their exceptional performances. They contrast the quiet dignity of the African American protagonists with the bigoted disdain of their white accusers. District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) is a case in point, whose claims to his own colour-blindness would be comical if they didn’t represent centuries of systemic oppression. The hero-villain dynamic in Just Mercy may seem crude, but it attempts to reflect a Southern legal establishment under pressure from white communities to fit up any African American man, guilty or otherwise, to essentially atone on behalf of his race. The tenuous veneer of white “civilisation” is stripped away most starkly when we view the death by electrocution of McMillian’s fellow prisoner Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan): an event witnessed by Stevenson amongst prison officials and a priest to administer last rites. The portrayal of Richardson’s courage, and the solidarity of his fellow death row inmates, is overwhelming.

Just Mercy makes a strong case for Bryan Stevenson’s heroism. It ends with real footage from the acquittal of one of 125 innocent men (as of August 2016) he saved from the death penalty. There could be no better depiction of the understated but transformative force of Stevenson’s work on communities that need it the most. Cinematic effects become trivial with the raw emotional power of a story like his. 10/10.