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Armageddon Time review – James Gray’s latest is an indulgent exercise in self-reflection

Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins star in this languid semi-autobiographical drama about a Jewish family in '80s New York

There are two wonderful moments in James Gray’s Armageddon Time: when Anthony Hopkins utters the words “hugga-mugga” after lovingly embracing his grandson, and when Anthony Hopkins giddily calls the Guggenheim Museum the “giggly-heim.” In a semi-autobiographical drama that benefits heavily from his generous charisma, the veteran plays the lovable grandfather of mischievous schoolboy Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta), whose raucous behaviour causes a growing strain within his traditional Jewish family.

It is the late 1980s in the US and Paul has at last found a match in his natural rebellion: his classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Together, the boys mock their strict teacher and get a joined kick out of extracting giggles from their pals. The friendship, seemingly innocuous, has complex political undertones — Paul is a white, middle-class Jewish boy; Johnny, a Black kid from an impoverished background. Whereas one can lean into impishness without much consideration for the consequences, the other has even the most innocuous of jokes turned into a gruelling display of structural racism.

The personal nature of this politically inclined drama muddles the development of its characters to the point of narrative paralysis. The people Gray brings to the screen are far too entangled in the emotional strings held tightly by the director to enjoy even a slight semblance of breathing room, the story lingering somewhere between what is shown and what lives only in unshared nostalgia. As the parents of Paul — a stereotypical all-American pairing of housewife and plumber — Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong try their best to suck on the dry bone that is the script but, with so little to chew on, there is only so much weight their competent performances can sustain.

Equally frustrating in its shallowness is the film’s attempts to approach the social and racial struggles of the time. Reagan’s voice blasts on the television as the Graffs quibble over leftovers and the Trump family is superficially employed as the personification of the privileged preppy standard Paul is encouraged to emulate. Subtlety is a luxury rarely applied here.

If all that is left to salvage Armageddon Time is to state that it is at least more accomplished than Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-bait weepie Belfast, then there is not much hope to be had. Glacially paced, Gray’s indulgent exercise in self-reflection desperately grasps at any sign of meaningfulness to justify its existence, but simply can’t shake the limpness of what is a technically competent, inspiredly cast yawner.

Armageddon Time was screened as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 18 November.

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