Review – Her

It’s love Jim, but not as we know it in Spike Jonze’s prescient tale of one man’s unconventional relationship with his operating system.

Her treads a well worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you'll be glad you went down it

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it

Since his striking debut Being John Malkovich, Jonze has divided critical opinion between those who embrace his unique vision and those who deride his films as being painfully self-conscious.

It’s unlikely his new film will woo the naysayers, but anyone who writes off Her as a knowing exercise in hipsterism is blinding themselves to one of cinema’s most honest, painful and beautiful love stories since the 2007 Irish charmer Once.

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

The premise of Her sounds like an offshoot of Charlie Brooker’s tech-led anthology TV series Black Mirror. Set in a near future LA, lost and lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara) and can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers. The only really meaningful attachment he has is with Amy (Amy Adams), an old friend whom he once dated years back.

His life changes suddenly when he purchases a new highly advanced Operating System, which calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and is soon conversing with Theodore either through his computer or via his phone linked to an earpiece like she’s flesh and blood.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore finds himself increasingly drawn to Samantha, who represents everything he could wish for in a woman… except to exist in physical form.

This is Her‘s big question – can a relationship work when two people aren’t physically together? In spite of the film’s digital age outlook, its central conceit has been a staple of screen romances for decades, from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic The Shop Around The Corner, to its e-make You’ve Got Mail.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Technology, specifically our slavish devotion to it, plays a key role in the film. Whether he’s on the train, in a lift or walking along the street Theodore, like everyone else it seems, is glued to their mobile devices (much like today in fact) or listening to something through their earpiece. It’s little wonder he’s so lonely; he’s surrounded by people who are as lost in their own little world as he is. Although not presented as a dystopia, we’re left to decide for ourselves if this is the kind of future world we’d be happy living in.

In a sad irony, Theodore’s job is to compose handwritten letters of love and devotion for people unable to find the words themselves. In a way, this doesn’t make him too dissimilar to Samantha in that the service he provides is there to help improve a stranger’s life; in some cases over the course of many years as he explains at one point.

Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

In spite of a few slight eccentricities, Theodore is a character we warm to and come to care about. Phoenix’s eyes convey a sadness and fear that break the heart, while his shuffling gait suggests a guy who’s sleepwalking nowhere in particular. However, with the introduction of Samantha his posture changes, his eyes light up and he radiates a positivity you suspect he hasn’t felt for a long time. Phoenix proved he could really act in The Master and here gives another fascinating take on detachment.

We buy into his relationship with Samantha and this is largely down to Johansson’s (excuse the ironic pun) full-bodied performance. The path they take is, for the large part, a believable one, even when Samantha drafts in a sex surrogate in order for them to enjoy ‘physical’ intimacy.

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

A big reason the film works is Jonze’s beautifully observed script. Many of us will identify with the melancholy Theodore feels at the passing of a cherished relationship, as well as the fear, happiness and scepticism he experiences when his once dormant heart reignites.

This being a Jonze joint, the film’s aesthetic is painterly. Shanghai steps in for near future LA (where the fashion appears to be for men to wear trousers almost up to their ribcage) and is a perfect fit for Theodore – gleaming surfaces paint a warm sheen over the sadness and remoteness that exists just beneath.

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it.

Bringing ‘Unfilmable’ Books To The Big Screen

For as long as the movie industry has existed as a popular art form, books in all their forms have been the subject of cinematic adaptation.

Whether it’s an old or modern classic or a schlocky best-seller, literature has been the source of some of the most loved films in history.

Ang Lee's Life of Pi

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi

In spite of cinema’s basic, inherent function to take words from the page and visualise them there are certain books, some have argued, that are simply impossible to film and as such will never be seen on the silver screen.

Never say never, though, especially in the movie industry, as time and again the critics are confounded and what was once written-off as ‘unfilmable’ ends up going before the cameras – all be it to varying levels of success.

This has never been more true than today, with several adaptations of books that have previously been deemed too complex or challenging to work as films reaching our cinemas. Just recently, we’ve seen an admirable take on Jack Kerouac’s defining beat generation work On The Road by Walter Salles, Ang Lee’s version of Yann Martel’s beloved novel Life of Pi and a bold adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling epic Cloud Atlas by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, while this month also sees the cinematic release of Salman Rushdie’s critically lauded book Midnight’s Children.

Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom’s ingenious adaptation of Tristam Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story

This is hardly a new phenomenon, however. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial tome Lolita arrived in 1962 (the film poster even states “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”). Mike Nicholls faced major challenges bringing Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war classic Catch-22 to the big screen in 1970, while more recently Peter Jackson finally delivered a truncated, but no less epic production of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to huge acclaim.

David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg’s unique Naked Lunch

Some directors have taken a more metatextual approach, including David Cronenberg who brilliantly weaved events from William Burroughs’ life into a unique adaptation of the writer’s drug-addled opus Naked Lunch. Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story inventively (and hilariously) acknowledged the difficulty of realising Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel Tristam Shandy on screen by adopted the film-within-a-film approach, while Charlie Kaufman channeled his head-banging struggle to write a script for The Orchard Thief to ingenious effect in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

As Cronenberg, Winterbottom and Kaufman/Jonze have proved, the book is merely the beginning of the process, it needn’t have to be the end. For years movies have been ‘printing the legend’ and playing fast and loose with ‘true’ stories, so why shouldn’t the adaptation of novels be any different?

Midnight's Children

The supposedly ‘unfilmable’ Midnight’s Children

As Lee has stated on adapting Life of Pi: “We can never write a book or make a movie as good as how it plays in the audience’s mind.”

Once published, a book no longer belongs to the writer, it becomes the intellectual property of each and everyone who visualises the words they are reading in their own heads. A film is just another visualisation of the material, it just happens to be the one that gets the most attention.

When the source is a graphic novel, problems can occur as the author/illustrator have already set down how it should look. Zack Snyder was on a hiding to nothing when he adapted Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen, thought to be one of the medium’s most unfilmable works.

Mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen

A mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen

Snyder tried to stay as close to Moore’s vision as he could, but compromises inevitably needed to be made, incurring the ire of both the author and some within the fan community.

Directors and screenwriters will invariably tell you it’s not their job to come up with an ultra-faithful translation of the source. An adaptation is exactly that, an interpretation of the material that should be taken on its own merits.

So-called ‘unfilmable’ books should be treated no differently; we can only hope screenwriters and directors continue to have the vision necessary to bring these texts to the big screen. After all, the books aren’t going anywhere.