The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Running Time: 144 mins

Cert: 15

Release date: 2nd November 2012 (London only) 16th November 2012 (UK)

A new film by director Paul Thomas Anderson is always an exciting prospect. The man who gave us Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood is one of Hollywood’s most exciting a film makers. His much touted Scientology drama, The Master, has to be the most talked about film of the year, outside of the blockbusters. So, was it worth getting excited about? Yes and no. It’s a film that will divide its audience. Critics will love it and be ever so pretentious about it while the ordinary ticket buying public may not see it that way.

Freddie Quell is a mess of a man. A sailor in the American Navy, we first see him on a beach simulating sex with a sand sculpture of a woman, followed by him crouched over mastibating in the sea. He is a mess of a man. Obsessed with sex and a full-blown alcoholic, once he leaves the Navy, he gets a job as a photographer in an apartment store which leads to him attacking a customer, making him leave the country, where he poisons an old man with one of his alcoholic concoctions.

He stows away on a luxury boat, captained by Lancaster Dodd, a writer and self-proclaimed philosopher who takes Freddie under his wing, to the disdain from his powerful, pregnant wife, Peggy. Dodd is the leader of the The Cause, a group whose beliefs belong to the regression and going into the past. Dodd wants to change the violent, alcoholic Freddie but it becomes apparent that one might be the Master, but which one?

This is an ambitious tale and a power struggle between two very different men. It look magnificent, filmed on 65mm stock and presented (at London’s Odeon West End) in 70mm, which helps capture the mood of the time and a sense of an epic cinematic experience. The cinematography, by Mihai Malaimare Jr, is  faultless and beautiful.

The performances, as with every Anderson film, are amazing. Joaquin Phoenix, who famously went off the rails (allegedly) a few years is back on form. Filled with aggression and uncontained violence, he is a nasty character and Phoenix makes him not so much likeable but you can understand why. On the other hand, Philip Seymour Hoffman is all bloated peacock with his own line of anger. His is a commanding performance and when the two leads share the screen, it is electric. The most memorable scene is when the two men are arrested, Hoffman for fraud and Phoenix for assaulting the policeman who came to make the arrest. In a scene that is more like split screen, Hoffman is calm, motionless while Phoenix is an explosion of violence. It’s a powerhouse of a scene that shows the diversity of the performances.

And yet the film doesn’t quite match the leads. It seems messy and all over the place. Scenes are never fully realised and some drag on for no apparent reason. Anderson is at his best when he does hand things over to Hoffman and Phoenix (and to an extend, Amy Adams, giving another terrific performance) but the ideas seems incomplete and when we are promised a satire on Scientology, we don’t fully get it.

It has been told that it divided audiences in the States, loads walking out. The critics have gone crazy for it but I can’t see why. It does feel too long (the same length as Skyfall and yet it feels it) and if I’m absolutely honest, a little boring. It’s a pity because the performances and the look are 5 star stuff and yet the story drags it all down. Not the masterpiece I was hoping for and I was a tad disappointed. Perhaps Anderson is such a good director that you expect more. I didn’t get it.

4/5

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