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MOVIES: Wasp Network (LFF 2019) - Review

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When a director has had such a brilliant career as Olivier Assayas, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate even lesser films from them; you’re often wondering why you weren’t met with another masterpiece. Assayas’ Personal Shopper is still my favourite movie of the decade and Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t far off. But Wasp Network is a reminder that those two films aren’t what Assayas normally does, and that can throw people who are perhaps not familiar with his work off when it comes to experiencing a new film. For those wanting a more typical Assayas, fans should look to Non-Fiction, about the evolution of the publishing industry, or Summer Hours, that focuses on a family being brought together when their matriarch is in ill health. The Cuban revolution and its aftermath is a subject Assayas clearly has an interest in (he has tackled similiar stories before, one need only watch his Che saga for an example) and life under the regime of Fidel Castro, and he uses that as a backdrop to tell a true story based on the life of spies who were fighting for the Communist Government working undercover among counter protesters.

Assayas has two hours to tell an epic journey that spans several years, and the length would almost be better suited to television. Wasp Network introduces characters and then moves onto the next, with those that were set to take centre stage backing off and making way for other, newer pieces of the board. We see introductions to characters who are likeable enough for the audience to want to spend time with them before they are replaced with newer ones; and the structure of the film itself feels very episodic in nature. There are even scenes that fade to black that could act the cue for closing credits on a television series.

Wasp Network has an ensemble that’s full of quality and star talent. We are first introduced to René González's Édgar Ramírez saying goodbye to his wife Olga, played brilliantly by Penélope Cruz, on what would be the start of a typical normal day for a Cuban pilot. But rather than return home, Gerado decides to seemingly abandon his family in favour of a better life in the United States; defecting from a regime beset by a crisis that includes starvation and limited electricity access. The film scattershots through history from then onwards keeping the characters largely in play but switching to others with ease - Gael García Bernal is brought on board to play the leader of the Wasp Network, depicting various attempts at invasions of Cuba, showing the story of the organisation itself in as large a scope possible. It acts as a nice counterpart to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which focuses on the real people at the heart of key global crises, and how their lives are changed by events.

Although Wasp Network is more subdued and reigned in than even The Irishman, the actors are mostly restrained allowing for little emotional attachment and no loud, character-defining moments that would signify an Oscar moment for a film pushing for a nomination; but there are moments where Assayas goes for style and flair that showcase his affection for not just the event itself but cinema, with the director having started out as a film critic before making the transition to the big screen. Luke Skywalker and John Wayne are both referenced, and a running gag throughout the film is made at Kevin Costner and The Bodyguard’s expense, but this is no stranger territory to a director who made a Michael Haneke and a Star Wars: The Force Awakens joke in his last film, Non-Fiction.

Wagner Moura’s Juan Pablo Roque makes for a fascinating pairing with Ana De Armas’s Ana Magarita Martinez, and their life is one of excess and fame. Roque himself is established as a minor celebrity early on in Wasp Network once he makes that transition to the United States, and it’s interesting to see the lifestyle that both him and Martinez share when pushed against the simpler life of Hernandez, theirs is one of parties, an overindulgent Marriage, and never is it more punctuated during a key scene where Martinez scolds Roque for buying a mobile phone, expensive and unnecessary, not realising his key role in the Cuban Government at first, suspecting that it is something to do with drugs. Assayas pulls back the pages on these reveals really well, tying things together in a brilliant fashion that showcases how well he is able to utilise his ensemble.

The location work of Wasp Network is alive, authentic and full of hustle and bustle, with Assayas capturing the streets of Cuba and the United States brilliantly, aided by the stellar cinematography from Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir. It’s not as drenched in excess as Scarface or Narcos for example, but is a more conservative work that has plenty of strengths to it. The soundtrack is one of those; with a key scene in the final act punctuated by The Five Americans’ brilliant Western Union. Assayas never goes for the obvious, on the nose option, and instead crafts something that feels like a unique experiment, for better or for ill.

Wasp Network is going to be a hard sell for most audiences; there’s a lot to process and arguably, not enough time to take it all in. It’s fast moving and rarely stops to slow down. Yet it’s something that can, and will be loved, and even though it may not be Assayas at the top of his game, even a weaker Assayas film is still among the contender for the better films of the year.

You can watch a clip for Wasp Network here.

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