The Handmaiden is adapted from Sarah Waters’ Man Booker-shortlisted novel, “Fingersmith”, but Park Chan-wook has made it his own. Transposing Waters’ torrid tale from Victorian London to 1930s Korea, the director of “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” embroiders her gothic yarn with his signature obsessions: 180-degree plot twists, the severing of body parts, swooningly sumptuous production design and – in a last-minute cameo appearance – a grumpy-looking octopus. As familiar as these elements may be, Park has never made such an erotic film. “The Handmaiden” of the title is Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an orphaned pickpocket who goes to work for a shy heiress (Kim Min-hee) in an imposing mansion. Her mission is to encourage the heiress to marry a suave confidence trickster (Ha Jung-woo) posing as a Japanese duke, but Sook-hee is so intoxicated by her beautiful new employer that she begins to have second thoughts. Like all con-trick movies, “The Handmaiden” asks us to guess who exactly is fooling whom. But there is so much else in the film to savour that the answer scarcely matters.
Opens in America on Oct 21st and in Britain in February
Andrea Arnold’s speciality has long been very British films set in very small areas: for the characters in “Red Road”, “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights”, the world stretches no further than a few grimy square miles. But for her US debut, American Honey, Arnold has broadened her horizons, taking viewers on a semi-improvised two-and-a-half-hour road trip along byways both wild and remote. Star (Sasha Lane), a fearless 18-year-old, escapes her hometown by jumping aboard a white minibus full of tattooed young drifters. Led by the cocky Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and the steely Krystal (Riley Keough), this tribe of Lost Boys and Girls roams the sunbaked Midwest, selling magazine subscriptions from door to door, with no destination in mind beyond the next town, the next motel and the next party. How you feel about Arnold’s poetic yet sweatily authentic evocation of life on the road may depend on your age. Viewers will leave the cinema desperate for a hot shower or the first lift out of town.
Opens in America on Sept 30th and in Britain on Oct 14th
Ken Loach was thought to have retired from feature films, but the 80-year-old returned this year, apparently revitalised by today’s social chasms. The urgency, humanity and humour of his latest film earned him his best reviews in decades when it won the Cannes festival’s top prize in May. A direct descendant of “Cathy Come Home” and Loach’s other 1960s social-realist classics I, Daniel Blake stars Dave Johns as a widowed carpenter who is recovering from a heart attack in Newcastle. His doctor tells him that he’ll be putting his life at risk if he returns to his job, but the Department of Work and Pensions decrees that he’ll be putting his benefits at risk if he doesn’t. The film is fastidious in its depiction of benefit offices and their maze of bizarrely obstructive bureaucracy. “I, Daniel Blake” should be required viewing for all members of the British government – and, for that matter, everyone else.
Opens in Britain on Oct 21st
THE POWER OF QUIET
Loving tells the tender true story of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred “Stringbean” Jetter (Ruth Negga), a white man and black woman arrested in Virginia in 1958 because interracial marriage is deemed “against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth”. When lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union take up their case, all the elements are in place for a grandiose Hollywood issue drama, but the film’s writer-director, Jeff Nichols (“Mud”, “Midnight Special”) has fashioned something far more subtle. Graceful and restrained, “Loving” chronicles the spouses’ troubles simply and quietly, getting its power not from tub-thumping courtroom speeches or thunderous music, but from the toxic injustice of the all-too-recent events, and nuanced underplaying by Edgerton and, especially, Negga. For the laconic Lovings, the case isn’t about the struggles of a nation, it’s about their own right to have dinner together, or to do the housework, uninterrupted.
Opens in America on Nov 4th and in Britain in February
COOL, CONFIDENT TRANSGRESSION
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video-game company which specialises in sex and violence, is raped one evening by a man in a ski mask. The attack echoes one of her own games. Michèle’s response? She has a bath, goes out for dinner with friends, mentions the rape in passing, and then sets about discovering her assailant’s identity. Elle’s Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven, is no stranger to sex and violence himself, having made “RoboCop”, “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”, but none of his lurid Hollywood blockbusters quite prepares you for his first, shockingly entertaining and transgressive, French film. Part rape-revenge thriller, part comedy of manners and part character study of a woman who is as matter-of-fact about sexual assault as she is about the many other confrontations in her high-powered life, “Elle” is Verhoeven’s sharpest and most provocative work. The only predictable thing about it is that Huppert’s performance is just as confident and cool as you might expect.
Opens in America on Nov 11th and in Britain in February