Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault In Our Stars transpires hope - the script is quietly moving - evoking a sort of sleepy beauty that disarms you. The intellectual exchanges between the two leads, Angustus Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster, are refreshingly clever and pleasant, wordy conundrums teenagers and adults alike can revel in. The glaringly unsentimental gaze of director Josh Boone serves the source novel right but what really has this film reaching far and beyond into something notable is Shailene Woodley's contribution. She's a steady performer, grasping the affections of the audience like a ambitious seductress - its skilful wordplay and smooth acquaintance. Leading man Ansel Elgort's performance pales in awkward comparison, utilising little more than his good looks and charming deliverance of lines to attain endearment and concern from the audience. All other aspects of the film are primarily basic from the cinematography to editing to the narrative structure save for a masterly soundtrack and notable other supporting performances.  

This is a teen love story with two significant modifications: 1. Hazel Grace and Augustus meet at a cancer support group: Hazel living with terminal thyroid cancer and Augustus, an amputee now in remission; and 2. Rather than sharing a simple desire to be loved, they bond over realistic concepts such as wanderlust, wit and literature. Friendship between the couple grows, Hazel at constant resistance of anything romantic but the inevitable comes to pass - they fall in love as one would fall asleep - "slowly and then all at once".

I was fond of Josh Boone's debut piece The Writers or Stuck In Love - it was infectiously likeable and undoubtedly spirited. And whilst Fault no doubt improves upon Boone's previous feature, it still leaves much to be desired. Whilst acknowledging his intentionally removed approach, his direction can only be characterised as somewhat lifeless and uninspired. I admit that having delayed the completion of this review, I have grown more critical over time - the novel written by John Green was honestly one of the best contemporary works I had read in some time. There was a certain delicious eloquence and articulation about the writing which the script did manage to preserve and a clever story arc which I followed with incessant desire for outcome. 

Shailene Woodley at just 22, is easily and distinctively an actress who keenly understands exactly what she is doing. She's attentive, charming and delightfully believable, capturing every essence of Hazel Grace with admirable ease. Her every response from situation to remark to question is prolific, patient creation of a being we never doubt could exist. It is rare to find an actress who can forward a character off the page, beyond what was initially produced by the author in question. The same unfortunately, cannot be said of the young man starring opposite Woodley, Ansel Elgort. 

When I first came across Ansel Elgort just last year in Carrie I was convinced Augustus Waters had been perfectly cast. The young actor protruded a fierce sweetness and being easy on the eyes didn't hurt either. But once this initial shine wore off we are left with an actor performing in films which are beyond his skill, his experience, his right. And whilst I proclaim this at the bequest of my own opinion and contrasts desperately with the general consensus amongst swooning teenagers internationally - I acknowledge this: Elgort possesses charm, grace and sentimental whim, the problem being that this is all he is, a rather shallow emotional sponge wringing for tears and the love of easy hearts of idealist teenagers.

I am sorry to declare that upon my second viewing of Fault - I found him to be the films biggest flaw. You can overlook his limitations in lighter moments, where yes, granted, conversation carries nicely whilst not deviating from the believable. But in cathartic moments, emotional peaks Elgort's lack of experience - a dire absence of performing competence - becomes glaringly obvious. In these sequences something happens to his acting: he becomes self-aware, his performance becomes tainted. You can tell he feels the eyes on him, he's being watched, he's acting - he forgot to make the audience forget that he's an actor. He just doesn't pull his weight when it matters most. One exception can be made in the a certain scene shot a petrol station where little script-work has somewhat resulted in a slightly elevated performance. Genuine emotional material is wrought, our despair is successful attained. His "metaphor" monologue is nicely shot and Elgort's performance whilst not "layered" as such, manages still to imply something more. 

The screenplay falters miserably in two main points of the film. Firstly, in the horrifying moment when in the Anne Frank house following the long-time-coming embrace between our two leads - we are met with applause by other members of the public. Having read the novel I had assumed that this particular aspect would be cut. The translation from page to screen produced only absurdity, a sickly sentiment absolutely ironically inappropriate and inconsistent with the remainder of the film. Secondly, when following (*spoiler alert* >) a certain funeral service Hazel Grace shouts "I need to grieve" at Peter Van Houten. This was nothing more than blatant apathy on part of the screenwriters and a sore mistake of the film. 

No doubt elevating novel and film alike is the characterisation and depiction of one Peter Van Houten. Spurring the characters into interesting action is the representation by Willem Dafoe, whose experience in his darker material habitat (a nod to Lars Von Trier) does the feature a magnificent favour. The short but vibrant visit to Van Houten's house in Amsterdam is easily the most accomplished sequence in the film thanks to brilliant performances (and chemistry) shared between Woodley and Dafoe
From Nat Wolff we receive unusual comic relief and situation, in every respect of life with cancer - death and loss easy and all too admissible consequences. His small part of the film builds significantly upon the realism aspect of the drama we see. 

A difference in pace and tone of the film can be clearly identified from the first to the third and final act. The first act is the most competent - Woodley at its central focus and illness at the heart of life makes for an interesting portrait - we want to know the story. The second act is the most inconsistent, yes whilst we see strong and exciting moments of truth at the house of Van Houten this is also where we encounter love's fatality - sentimentality creeping on. The final act is easily the worst - a certain laziness has dawned on the editor - its often sloppy, dull, redeemed (barely) by the melancholias cries produced by an M83 song in a neat, sweet finale.

Sentiment attempting to segregate itself from sentiment never could have ended well. There are more tactful approaches to portrayal of life's real pain without exploitation. Whilst this is exactly what Fault tries for, a certain irony fails it - but the attempt is a worthy one decorated with beautiful words, the emotion that pours out of a seasoned actress and ambition that deserves a pat on the back. 


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