Armageddon Time owes its title to Ronald Reagan, shown on a TV set in this film, speculating: “we might be the generation that sees Armageddon.” I was thinking of a reggae song covered by The Clash, but that was Armagideon Time, which also gets a quick burst in this movie. Either way, it’s not good.
James Gray is an American director who has always had his admirers, but I’ve never been one of them. His films have felt a bit too ponderous and self-conscious. However, I’m coming around. His melancholy science fiction drama, Ad Astra (2019) took a big step forward, and Armageddon Time is his most personal and engaging feature to date.
It’s an autobiographical tale of a boy growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Queens, and his faltering steps toward maturity. Baby-faced Banks Repeta plays the 12-year-old Gray substitute, Paul Graff, a bright but troublesome child who likes to draw caricatures in class, and play the clown. Paul quickly gets on the wrong side of the teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) – inevitably nicknamed “Turkey” – but he’s not the only miscreant. A black boy named Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) is judged an even bigger menace to society. Johnny is a little older, and more streetwise, and Paul is eager to be his friend.
The film traces Paul’s dismal school career, and the connection with Johnny that crosses an invisible line separating New York’s Jews and African-Americans. But the main focus is on his problems at home – problems that are no less self-made than the ones at school. Paul rejects a meal cooked by his mother (Anne Hathaway) and rings for dumplings. He antagonises his well-meaning but quick-tempered father (Jeremy Strong), and retreats into a fantasy world in which he is a champion boxer or a great artist.
Paul’s true mentor is his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who is on his side, but ready to deliver the occasional home truth. The story veers between Paul’s escapades with Johnny, which are always destined to end badly, and his growing understanding of the hard realities of adulthood.
As a coming-of-age film, Armageddon Time is consistently engaging. Paul’s Jewish family in Queens is like everybody’s family, apart perhaps from the dinnertime chat about the war and the Holocaust. Gray’s skill is to turn this disguised memoir of his own childhood into a reflection on America in the early 1980s, when Reagan was elected President in a landslide victory.
Almost imperceptibly the film paints a picture of an anxious society divided over issues of race and class. When Paul’s father tells him: “Life isn’t fair”, it could stand as the motto for the entire production. Although there are many today who think of Ronald Reagan as an economic hero, it was during his presidency that America acquired a trillion-dollar deficit while wall street bankers began to pay themselves astronomical salaries. What Regan reaped, the world has sown, with successive financial crises, rising inequality and all that has followed.
It’s a truism that every American movie nowadays has to be, in some way, about Donald Trump, but Armageddon Time introduces both Fred Trump (John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) as speakers at a gung-ho speech night at a private school. Paul finds them pretty deplorable, and we’re invited to share those sentiments. In effect, Gray is showing us how the Reagan era prepared the way for the unhinged extremists who have infested today’s Republican Party – and are soon to be taking up the reins of power. We may not have seen Armageddon in the 1980s, but the odds are shortening in the present.
Queens in the 1980s seems tremendously affluent alongside the Irish midlands in Sebastián Lelio’s film, The Wonder. In an atmosphere that is permanently dank, wild and gloomy (even when the sun is shining) the lead character trudges solemnly along muddy paths, going back and forth between a seedy village inn and a rundown farmer’s cottage.
That character is the ubiquitous Florence Pugh, whom we last met looking blonde and glamorous in Don’t Worry Darling. In this film she is at her most matronly, as nurse Elizabeth Wright (AKA. ‘Lib’), a veteran of the Crimean War, école de Florence Nightingale. She is in Ireland because she has been hired to attend to a certain O’Donnell family, but it’s not until she arrives that she learns the nature of her job. Along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), she is being asked to watch over eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), who claims to have not eaten anything for the past four months but remains in good health.
It’s a miracle in the making, and word is leaking out. To Lib it sounds like a preposterous fraud, but this is not the way it is seen by others in the village, who dream that Anna might become their very own saint. Even the local quack, Dr. McBrearty (Toby Jones), seems heavily invested in the idea that it’s all true.
Lib and Sister Michael are required to do nothing but watch over Anna for the next fortnight, making sure she is not secretly taking in food. It sounds an easy job, but the poverty of the O’Donnell home and the overwhelming air of Catholic piety, are hard for Lib to handle. Her instincts make her increasingly alarmed that Anna may be starving herself to death, for reasons she can’t fathom.
Although Lib is full of suspicion, she becomes fond of Anna, a bright girl whose whole life seems to be morbidly dedicated to religion. Anna says she survives on manna from Heaven, just like the Israelites, who spent 40 years in the desert nibbling on the stuff. The only person in the village with whom she can share her misgivings is a newspaper man, Will Byrne (Tom Burke), who is reporting on the wondrous child for the Irish Times. At first Lib gives the garrulous Will the cold shoulder, but their relationship is destined to grow much closer.
The Wonder is a slow-burning mystery that cleaves closely to Emma Donoghue’s novel, allowing for a few nips and tucks. Donoghue is a great descriptive writer, and Lelio matches her detail for detail (with a little help from Australian cinematographer, Ari Wegner). Even when the plot is merely crawling along, we are held by the shots of the O’Donnell house, the fields, the inn, and Lib’s barren bedroom. We see the action largely through the nurse’s eyes and become acquainted with her own secret sorrows.
Lelio’s most striking conceit is to begin the film on the other side of the fourth wall, with a pan over the set and a brief address by Pugh, telling us about the importance of stories. What follows is a testimony to the power of competing narratives to create their own reality.
Swiftly, we’re into the story itself, which progresses day by day while never losing its strangeness. It’s a horror movie without the horror. Anna is not about to turn into Linda Blair in The Exorcist, but her cheerful self-possession is truly disturbing. As she grows weaker, we get the feeling that people in the village care more about her supposed miracle than they do about the girl’s life. For Lib this sets up a conflict between her task as an observer and her vocation as a nurse. That problem will be resolved in the most dramatic fashion.
Written & directed by James Gray
Starring: Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Ryan Sell, Andrew Polk, John Diehl, Jessica Chastain, Tovah Feldshuh
USA/Brazil, rated M, 115 mins
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Written by Alice Birch & Sebastián Lelio, after a novel by Emma Donoghue
Starring: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Toby Jones, Niamh Algar, Elaine Cassidy, Caolan Byrne, Ciarán Hinds, David Wilmot, Ruth Bradley, Josie Walker
Ireland/UK/USA, rated M, 108 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 November, 2022