It is a relief to see an acting giant like Anthony Hopkins once again in a bullseye by a top director – even though James Gray hasn’t gained enough status in Finland to warrant a regular cinema run for this last year’s Cannes selection. This despite the fact that Hopkins’ performance as a wise grandfather is one of his most charming ones.
The coming-of-age story of Armageddon Time is loosely based on Gray’s own experiences as a schoolboy in 1980 in Queens, New York (the stomping ground of a certain Trump family). We are in the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s expertly characterised presidential term. Paul, the preteen son of the middle-class Graff family with Ukrainian roots, befriends at school a black kid, Johnny, who needs shelter from his poor, broken home – not that the Graffs’ lives are always so amicable.
Gray doesn’t take the easy nostalgic approach with his intimate depiction of the everyday life in the family, neighbourhood, and school. The colours and shades of Dariush Khondji’s wide angle cinematography seem perfect to melancholically follow this heart-breaking play of injustice.
Not many American directors with an accomplished thirty-year career have been as overlooked in Finland as JAMES GRAY (b. 1969). That said, this descendant of Russian Jewish grandparents was also side-tracked in the US after his sensational debut film, Little Odessa (1994), directed at the age of 24. But such later works as the cop thriller We Own the Night (2007), obsessive romance Two Lovers (2008), explorer adventure The Lost City of Z (2017), and the sci-fi epic Ad Astra (2019) are more than enough proof of his significant, versatile talent.