The James Clayton Column: The serious & sombre movie season guide

The new year brings with it a wave of sombre dramas. James provides a solemn guide to these serious movies...

Real talk: it’s high time you wiped that silly smile of your face, sunshine. We’re in serious and sombre season and a cheery disposition is inappropriate during this difficult period. Please show some respectful decorum and put on your best po-face. Act accordingly, for these are grave times and we’re grappling with grave issues.

Now that you’ve adopted the expression of an Easter Island statue you’re ready to trip off to the cinema and watch all the sobering films that are being screened. Indeed, if you look at the release schedule for the next few weeks you’ll found that there are a lot of solemn affairs on the slate and making their way into movie houses to exert an ominous presence. Expect much misery and many attempts to manhandle massive issues of lofty social importance on screen. ‘Tis the season for this sort of cinematic fare and this curious phenomenon repeats itself every year.

Why are the first few months of the fresh calendar back-ended with weighty, brow-beating, unbearably bleak releases? There are several reasons and firstly, it seems appropriate considering that we’re in the gloomy cold of winter where the only warm glowy sensations come from memories of the Christmas holidays just gone.

With New Year resolutions already abandoned and summer looking a long way off, melancholy is in the air and misery loves company. Miserable movies make excellent company, especially if you’re a sadist who enjoys schadenfreude. Schadenfreude comes guilt-free if you’re indulging in the torment of fictional characters – or real people being played by actors – so films are definitely an appealing proposition for the slightly perverse.

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Speaking of summer, it’s also true that this period acts as a counterbalance to the blockbuster season of the warmer months. Those sunny days are rich with colour, comedy, costumed heroes, ebullient action and high-octane adventure for the whole family. In anticipation of those giddy highs we get the grittier, more introspective and unpalatable pictures as a suitable contrast. We all benefit from variety and appreciate the summer spectacles all the more after making it through the bleak midwinter alive and intact.

The final, most crucial factor that shapes January-February’s forlorn outlook is the parallel red carpet unrolling of Awards Season. To win BAFTAs and Oscars you have to make a movie in which people suffer or get strung out on overwhelming sociopolitical issues like, say, racism, war trauma, the plight of disempowered minority groups or the heartbreaking decline of silent film performers in the age of the Talkie. (Don’t believe the hype. The Artist is not a happy film at all.)

Studios want to be in contention for golden gongs so they push out all their historical tragedies, gruelling biopics, distressing dramas and resonant social studies at the ideal time to make an impression. I reckon that Awards Season’s arrival is the main reason we’re looking at a gloomy movie landscape as we gradually inch towards the grand finale of the Academy Awards on March 2nd.

Are you now sitting uncomfortably? Good, then I’ll begin and fill you in on a few of the strikingly lachrymose pictures shipping into your local multiplex over the next two months. It’s not a definitive list – consider it a concise collection of interesting-looking highlights (lowlights?) that are worthy of your attention. In truth, you can find sorrow anywhere if you’re searching for miserable company and my experience of The Artist is proof of that.

Here then is a list of a few grim or grievously solemn movies you’ll be seeing on UK cinema screens in January and February. (Many of these films have already been released elsewhere around the world.) You may need to bring a hankie and some Prozac…

12 Years A Slave

Coming down? 10th January.

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Why so serious? Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the autobiographical novel. It’s the story of a free black man who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1840s America. He then endures over a decade of abuse and indignity at the hands of rich white bastards on the Louisiana plantations. Expect a powerful, unflinching and ugly portrait of institutional racism and man’s inhumanity to fellow man.

Reasons to be cheerful? History tells us that Northup regained his freedom after a dozen years, but don’t hold out for any Django Unchained-style dynamite vengeance action. McQueen’s speciality is brutal, bleak and harrowing and you only have to watch him torment Michael Fassbender in IRA prison drama Hunger or sex addiction study Shame to see that. The reason to be cheerful is the fact that the legal slave trade ended and that films like 12 Years A Slave are forcing people to acknowledge and come to terms with the true atrocity.

The Railway Man

Coming down? 10th January.             

Why so serious? It’s World War II and Jeremy Irvine is a British officer captured by the Japanese in Singapore. The unfortunate prisoner of war is subsequently tortured and forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway (also known as the ‘Death Railway’). Years later, traumatised by his experience and now looking like Colin Firth, he endeavours to track down his captor and confront him. Expect epic hurt as psychological war wounds sting and burning internalised bitterness is brought to the surface.

Reasons to be cheerful? Looking at the positives, we know that Irvine/Firth’s character Eric Lomax is going to survive his Burma ordeal and find solace in a supportive wife (Nicole Kidman). The Railway Man may also offer potential for some nice scenery and pretty period costumes though, to be honest, that’s not much comfort against the backdrop of suffering and lingering psychological damage.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Coming down? 24th January.

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Why so serious? It’s winter 1961 in New York’s Greenwich Village and Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer played by Oscar Isaac. Tagged as a companion piece to Barton Fink and A Serious Man in the Coen Brothers’ ‘Serious Man’ trilogy, the titular Llewyn is a downtrodden creative guy operating as his own worst enemy. We spend a week with him (and his cat Ulysses) as he fails to overcome obstacles and achieve his goal of ‘making it’ as a musician while maintaining his artistic integrity. Expect musical melancholy and suffering artist schtick expressed bittersweetly by a man with a folky beard.

Reasons to be cheerful? When it comes to writing glorious doom-and-gloom, no one eclipses the Coens, and the pair always manage to wring brilliant black comedy and endlessly-quotable dialogue out of the most god-awful scenarios. Inside Llewyn Davis also promises a top-notch folk soundtrack performed by the cast themselves (including Justin Timberlake). If you’re still despairing, find comfort in the cat. He’s so cute!

Dallas Buyers Club

Coming down? 7th February.

Why so serious? In 1980s Texas Matthew McConaughey is a drug-addicted redneck who discovers he’s contracted AIDS. Given only a month to live and rejected by his loved ones, McConaughey’s character Ron Woodruff falls into desperation. The federally-dispensed drugs don’t work so our sickly protagonist searches for alternatives and seeks out sympathetic fellow sufferers. They then set up alternative clinics and smuggle other anti-viral medications into the US in defiance of big pharma and government bodies. Expect an emaciated McConaughey, morbid life-affirming epiphanies and libertarian frustration at inept medical institutions and ‘The Man’s’ lack of compassion.

Reasons to be cheerful? Chalk Dallas Buyers Club up as another feature pushing forward the Renaissance of Matthew McConaughey (see Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud and The Paperboy for more). History tells us that the real Ron Woodruff died, but in spite of the tragic nature of the story, it’s also an inspiring one of hope and real humanism. You also get to see Jared Leto playing a transgender woman, and he looks beautiful.


Coming down? 7th February.

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Why so serious? Detroit 2028 is a dystopian catastrophe ravaged by crime, violence, corporate corruption and poverty. Someone or something has to save this dump – serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law and whatever the other prime directive is. That someone is ill-omened police detective Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) whose mutilated body has been repurposed by the insidious and opportunistic OmniCorp conglomerate. They rather irresponsibly rebuild Murphy as a cyborg cop with eyes on massive profits for their shareholders.

Further cause for frowning – this is a glossy remake of the Paul Verhoeven masterpiece which is an untouchable classic of 1980s sci-fi cinema. Expect to be violently repulsed by the awful potential of modern capitalist greed and some distressing robo-violence (though nothing more extreme than the PG-13 certificate allows).

Reasons to be cheerful? Putting aside understandable sceptical fan concerns, the RoboCop reboot could be a worthy, highly relevant fresh take on the legend and it’s definitely possible for both versions to co-exist peacefully. Plus, in spite of all the techsistential despair and grim future forecasting of RoboCop, the simple premise of a half-robot law hero is a compelling one and we can have a lot of fun with it (as we have done several times before). We like depressing dystopian visions here at Den of Geek – even if they do come with a PG-13 rating.

The Book Thief

Coming down? 26th February.

Why so serious? On the eve of World War II in Nazi Germany a little orphan girl named Liesel finds relief from the horrors of the Third Reich in books. Her foster parents are sheltering a Jewish refugee beneath the stairs and, upset by the sight of book burnings, Liesel is inspired to risky deeds. She starts stealing literary works and shares them with others in a moving historical drama that’s narrated by Death himself. Expect tears as we face the terror of the Holocaust and Hitler’s regime while also watching so many precious books burn on bonfires.

Reasons to be cheerful? Some books avoid the pyre and people get to read and momentarily escape the grim reality around them? Once again, there’s not much mirth can be gleaned from this kind of World War II-era story so we’re just going to have to find cheer in the heartwarming tales of human connection and courage in the face of oppression. We can also take comfort in the knowledge of the Nazis ultimate demise (all their heads melted and heads exploded when they opened the Ark of the Covenant).

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It looks like such a lovely run of abject despair. I’m excited and am looking forward to the upcoming depression. Seriously.

James Clayton is not a serious man. He is, thus, not a contender for an Oscar this year. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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