Arthouse Reviews: Birdman

By ArtHouse Crouch End, 11 Jan 2015

Birdman Film

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is already a huge critical success, receiving five star reviews, seven Golden Globe nominations and it’s being widely tipped for Oscar glory. So what does your Arthouse reviewer think?
 
Riggan Thompson, a faded film star remembered for turning down the lead role in a fourth film as Birdman twenty years earlier is played by Michael Keaton, who himself turned down the lead in a third Batman film. Just as Edward Norton, with a reputation for being difficult, plays actor Mike, with a reputation for causing havoc on stage. With real life mirroring the film’s characters, and the film characters morphing into theatrical actors, the play merging into the film, fantasy merging with the reality, the scene is set for some complex and multi-layered cinema viewing.
 
Riggan has been forgotten by his audiences and, longing for success and critical acclaim, tries to regain it by starring in his own theatre production. He’s tortured by a fear of failing, and by an inner voice that’s externalised as Birdman and he’s not helped by Mike, a hilariously over the top method actor. We’re treated to a brilliant energetic performance from Keaton who can switch apparently effortlessly from raging meltdowns to weird comic outbursts and moving emotional monologues.
 
The performances are given a live and theatrical edge by the innovative way Birdman has been filmed in what seems like one single continuous shot. In fact, there are some seamless joins but some shots were as long as twenty minutes, meaning there was no room for error from actors, crew or director. The action takes place entirely in and around the Broadway theatre that will host the great Riggan comeback with its labyrinth of corridors, halls and dressing rooms that give an intense feeling of claustrophobia. The fantasy sequences on the other hand are wildly cinematic from the stunning first image of Riggan levitating to him soaring through the skies above the city skyline.
 
So far so good, but the frenetic pace of the constant movement of the camera combined with fast and loud dialogue gave me a headache. It was difficult to like or feel any sympathy for the characters who all seemed too self-obsessed and indulgent. The female characters were mainly there to tell us more about the male ones. There are some gratuitous sexist remarks and for no obvious reason there’s a passionate kiss between two actresses Lesley and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), as well as a creepy affair between the vulnerable Sam (Emma Stone) and the much older Mike. Added to that, the comedy wasn’t always funny. The scene where Mike tries to rape Lesley (Naomi Watts) on stage was played for laughs, even though the actress is clearly traumatized.
 
Filmed on a modest budget with funds that Iñárritu had trouble raising, you cannot help but admire and be excited by the courage and the technical achievements, as well as the acting and directorial skill. It’s definitely a film not to be missed, but to rephrase what Riggan’s ex-wife tells him, admiration isn’t the same as love.