James Gray is one of those American filmmakers who – like Jerry Lewis – enjoys much greater critical acclaim in France than in his home country. Unlike Jerry Lewis, the French have a point. Whether it’s the neo-noir of We Own the Night or the ménage à trois of Two Lovers, Gray has managed to pursue an intensely personal vision through a range of genres.
Now he’s back on the Croisette and in competition with a more down to earth offering. Armageddon Time is an autobiographical novella of a film featuring Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway. It’s set in Queens, New York in 1980 – the time in which US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan solemnly announced that the US was facing a moral “armageddon”.
Banks Repeta plays Paul, a young Jewish kid who is having a hard time at school. He’s in a new grade and finds himself on the wrong side of his unsympathetic teacher. But in the process he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black kid who shares his class clown ambitions but receives harsher punishments than Paul. This evident injustice chips away at Paul’s respect for the school, but also for himself as he finds himself the beneficiary of his teachers and the school’s racism.
At home, Paul receives guidance from his grandfather Aaron (played with aplomb by Anthony Hopkins who feels no need to modify his Welsh tones). Aaron and Paul have a joshing, good-humoured relationship in sharp contrast to his twerpy and then frighteningly hot-tempered father, played by Jeremy Strong. Mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) can be fiercely protective but only intermittently involved and is soon ditching her state school ethos to get Paul into an elite private school and away from the “wrong people”: meaning Johnny, obviously.
The school is a pompous and brutal place, with Donald Trump’s father Fred (John Diehl) turning up to give a speech about winning. Throughout this Paul faces the twin traumas of Johnny’s slide into destitution and, with Paul’s connivance, petty crime; and seeing his beloved grandfather’s health failing. Along the way Paul finds solace in art, comic book drawings, and music – with Johnny encouraging him to listen to early hip-hop and suggesting he go to Florida to work for Disney.
Gray’s coming-of-age is for a large part a mea culpa about his abandonment of Johnny. But in doing so he is also indicting his family for their own besieged mentality of self-defence. All but his grandfather, who implores him to be a mensch and to not stand by while others get screwed. Hopkins delivers the speech with the moving gravitas of someone who knows he won’t see the boy grow up and succeed – or fail. Repeta plays opposite the Oscar-winning veteran with impish energy and nonchalance. It feels convincingly like it’s them against the world. And Strong is superb as a man who is unable to live up to his own vision of himself and sees himself unable to assert his authority.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography can be a bit heavy on the fifty shades of tea which seem de rigueur for period pieces regardless of the age, but there are some glorious shots of a pre-Giuliani New York with all the colour and skuzz that needs. What elevates Armageddon Time to something more than a piece of indulgent navel gazing is the way that Paul’s coming-of-age is reflected in the national story which closes a chapter on Jimmy Carter to turn a new page into Reaganite 1980s selfishness, reactionary politics and feral capitalism. It reminds us that for all we might deplore Trump, the seeds were sown decades ago and some of them were in our own personal failing to stand up for what was right. It’s rare that a period film can feel so powerfully timely.
The 75th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 17-28 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty