Shropshire Star

Film Talk: Jeffrey gets it Wright with American Fiction

He first dropped onto my radar with Westworld, and as bizarre as this show turned out to be, clearly this man was one to watch.

American Fiction: Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison

As it turns out, by the time this dystopian sci-fi Western series dropped in 2016, Jeffrey Wright was already very much an established talent, having first made his name in the 90s with Basquiat, and then going on to star in a wealth of quality flicks including two Bond films.

Since appearing in Westworld, this American star has gone on to reprise his 007 role of Felix Leiter, given stand-out turns in Wes Anderson flicks The French Dispatch and Asteroid City, and has even stepped into the shoes of grizzled comic-book cop Jim Gordon in Matt Reeves’s The Batman.

A man whose cool confidence and dulcet tones have earned him much-deserved critical acclaim, Wright has also been the toast of the video game world with his vocal performance of Isaac Dixon in The Last of Us Part II. Comic fans meanwhile have another reason to cheer him, with his voice work as The Watcher in Marvel’s What If...? animations being a highlight of the series. Not for nothing is our boy Jeffrey now regarded as one of the industry’s shining stars, and it with the highly-anticipated UK release of his latest feature project that he has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, American Fiction has been named one of the top 10 films of 2023 by the American Film Institute and is on the verge of cooking up quite the storm at the Academy Awards.

Written and directed by Cord Jefferson (incidentally in his feature directorial debut), the flick has been nominated for a total of five gongs, including Best Picture.

But is it as good as the critics proclaim, and does Wright deliver true to form? Let’s take a look...

AMERICAN FICTION (UK 15/ROI 15A, 117 mins)

Released: February 2 (UK & Ireland)

Truth and fiction repeatedly swap places in writer-director Cord Jefferson’s hilarious and heartfelt study of the creative process, glimpsed through the spectacles of a frustrated academic, who is repeatedly told by publishers that his books aren’t “black enough”.

His enraged response – an outlandish work of fiction crammed to bursting with garish racial stereotypes – sets in motion a winning comedy drama, which pokes fun at white guilt, overly zealous political correctness and the furious tug of war between authenticity and commercial viability.

Jeffrey Wright is deservedly Oscar-nominated for his heart-on-sleeve lead performance as a writer raging against an imbalanced system.

He visibly relishes the zinging dialogue in Jefferson’s script adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, beginning with a stinging rebuke to a pompous college lecturer who boasts that he has written three books in quick succession.

“The speed with which you write only proves that good things take time,” coolly retorts Wright.

Jefferson doesn’t rush character development or messy personal relationships, eliciting a wonderful supporting performance from fellow Oscar nominee Sterling K Brown as a plastic surgeon in the throes of embracing his sexual identity.

We first encounter Los Angeles-based writer and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright) as he is strongly urged by colleagues to take a leave of absence after clashing with a student about the use of the N word in a book’s title.

Monk bristles with indignation during a subsequent visit to a book festival in Boston, where author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is feted for her debut novel We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, and frustration boils over in a book store when Monk discovers his work has been consigned to the African-American Studies section.

His anger is targeted at a laptop keyboard and he churns out a soulless manuscript, My Pafology, under the pen name of ex-con Stagg R Leigh.

Unthinkably, a publishing house offers 750,000 dollars for a book that Monk spewed out as a joke.

“Now it’s the most lucrative joke you’ve ever told,” chortles his agent (John Ortiz).

Hype around the book intensifies and Monk’s unease impacts potential romance with lawyer Coraline (Erika Alexander) and concerns about his ailing mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), which necessitate input from estranged brother Cliff (Brown).

Fittingly, not everything is black and white in American Fiction, which sparks uncomfortable but necessary discussion about how far attitudes have changed following global movements to address diversity and inclusion.

The ensemble cast is excellent and Jefferson strikes a pleasing balance between humour and anguish.

“This family’ll break your heart,” Cliff warns Coraline.

Jefferson’s picture accomplishes that feat, particularly in scenes where Monk acknowledges he is gradually losing his mother to Alzheimer’s.


Released: February 2 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

The Zone Of Interest: Christian Friedel as Rudolf Hoss

Taking its title from the euphemistic phrase used by Nazi officers to refer to the immediate area surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp, The Zone Of Interest is an unsettling, experimental portrait of Nazi commandant Rudolf Hoss that humanises one of the men responsible for Hitler’s Final Solution in German-occupied Poland.

Jewish filmmaker and artist Jonathan Glazer spent 10 years nurturing the project to fruition, gaining permission to recreate the Hoss family’s two-storey stucco villa from archive photographs just outside the camp’s perimeter.

Attention to detail is evident in every disorienting frame, intentionally focusing on the mundane day-to-day life of the commandant and his kin while atrocities unfold out of sight but not out of mind.

Immersive sound design conveys gun shots and screams on the other side of walls adorned with coils of barbed wire, Hoss children frolic in a swimming pool while plumes of smoke chug above treetops in the distance from a train carrying new arrivals, and crematorium chimneys cast a red glow through the night.

Atrocities are never depicted explicitly on screen and Glazer’s camera ventures inside the camp just once, fixated on the commandant’s face as black smoke swirls around him.

The script orients us with a sickening jolt at roughly the midway point when the Hoss’s house-proud wife jokes that her husband calls her “the queen of Auschwitz” then giggles at her apparent good fortune. Commandant Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) and wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) raise their five children, Klaus (Johann Karthaus), Heidetraud (Lilli Falk), Inge-Brigitt (Nele Ahrensmeier), Hans-Jurgen (Luis Noah Witte) and baby Annegret, less than 100 metres from the walls of the camp.

Local women help Hedwig to run the household and in one quietly chilling scene, the wife rewards their diligence by allowing them to sift through a sack of silk lingerie taken from newly arrived prisoners. “Choose something you like,” she coos matter of factly.

Cruelty bubbles beneath the surface and Huller’s stunning performance captures the icy detachment of her matriarch, who reacts angrily to news that Rudolf is being transferred to Oranienburg and she may have to relinquish her kingdom.

A meek housemaid bears the brunt of one threat. “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Babice,” whispers Hedwig between mouthfuls of cooked breakfast.

Nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, The Zone Of Interest is episodic in structure, punctuated by nightmarish sequences captured using thermal night vision.

ARGYLLE (UK 12A/ROI 12A, 139 mins)

Released: February 1 (UK & Ireland)

Argylle: Dua Lipa as Lagrange and Henry Cavill as Argylle

Outlandish fiction bleeds into reality in director Matthew Vaughn’s hare-brained spy caper, written for the screen by Jason Fuchs. During the tour of her fourth book featuring dashing secret agent Argylle, novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) completes the manuscript for the next instalment and sends a copy to her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara).

The matriarch provides candid feedback on the manuscript’s final chapter and suggests a family brainstorming session.

Elly travels by train to see her mother accompanied by her beloved pet cat Alfie.

En route, bona fide spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell) rescues her from knife-wielding assassins who have been ordered to kill Elly because the plot of her latest book bears a spooky similarity to real-life espionage. To stay alive and escape persistent visions of her strapping literary creation (Henry Cavill), Elly places her trust in Aidan and former CIA deputy director Alfred Solomon (Samuel L Jackson).


Released: February 2 (UK & Ireland)

Migration: Pam (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), Dax (Caspar Jennings), Gwen (Tresi Gazal) and Mack (Kumail Nanjiani)

Films of a feather merge together in Migration, a predictable but feelgood computer-animated odyssey directed by Benjamin Renner and co-directed by Guylo Homsy, which nests in some of the same places as Chicken Run and Rio.

Mike White, Emmy Award-winning screenwriter of The White Lotus, brings some of his sardonic humour to a ducks-out-of-water script that repeatedly clips its own tail feathers as it deals with cross-generational strife, self-doubt and actor Keegan-Michael Key’s thick Jamaican accent.

That biting wit is most evident in marital discord between an anxiety-crippled mallard (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) and his wife (Elizabeth Banks).

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