Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) wowed audiences with its bravura setpieces and technical prowess, taking us into space and back down to earth again. This year, London’s Surprise Film is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), who trumps his fellow countryman with a film that for the most part takes place in one long, seemingly continuous take. Rather than an immersive gee-whiz experience, however, here the technical choice recreates the danger and thrill of that old cinematic favourite – the theatre. From A Chorus Line to Shakespeare in Love, the theatre is frequently held up by cinema itself as its prestigious, more authentic sibling.
It’s where Barton Fink should have stayed – To Be or Not To Be confronts the Nazis – and it’s where washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (a wonderful performance from a haunted, grizzled Michael Keaton) goes to revive his flagging career and gain some much-needed validation. Riggan has adapted a Raymond Carver story for the stage, apparently swapping Carver’s famously spare prose for verbose melodrama, with the addition of extended dreams sequences that we get to occasionally glimpse. He’s also the director and has taken the main role. There’s a distinct possibility that Riggan might be insane – either that or a higher being. He meditates by hovering five feet off the floor and believes himself to have superpowers, haunted by the titular superhero role that made him famous many years ago.
Birdman, like a more abrasive version of Harvey, berates Riggan in a Christian Bale-like growl, piling scorn on his theatrical pretensions and attempting to lure him back to the role that made him famous and rich. A whole list of more mundane woes plague Riggan as first night approaches. His daughter (Emma Stone) has just returned from rehab and is working as his put upon assistant in a misguided attempt to mend bridges; his affair with one of the actresses (British star Andrea Riseborough) might have unforeseen consequences and all his money has been sunk into the production to the abject fear of Zach Galifianakis’ oppressed manager. Add to this a new actor who has stepped in at the last minute, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is a method man who threatens to steal the show or Riggan’s daughter.
With insanity, drink, egos and doubt bustling for attention, the whole entourage must hurdle the previews, knowing that their fate hangs on the poison pen of a New York Times reviewer, played by Lindsay Duncan in a suitably glacial mode. Co-written by Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone and Iñárritu, Birdman’s screenplay fairly crackles with killer lines and, as the camera moves through the backstage dramas, shifts dramatically but skilfully in tone from slapstick comedy, to corrosive satire to an almost visionary madness. The performances are universally spot-on and the casting itself wryly clever. Naomi Watts even gets to quote her character from Mulholland Drive. Norton’s take on his own famously difficult persona is by turns repulsive, sensitive and – when fighting Keaton in his underpants – brilliantly silly.
Iñárritu’s latest has much to say – almost too much – about the culture of celebrity in the age of Twitter and YouTube, comic-book movies, authenticity, the role of the critic. Birdman is a rich, startlingly clever and multi-layered collage, with Iñárritu creating a meta-universe of mirrors and performances upon performances. As the take goes on and on the growing feeling is one of careening non-stop towards disaster even as everyone insists that the show must go on, and it will all be alright on the night. This is exhilarating filmmaking, a tragi-comic gem and an outside contender come awards season.
Birdman featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here