Streaming Spotlight – who was that masked man?

From secret identities to mystery and mayhem, a look at masks in the movies

by Jennie Kermode

Now that governments are beginning to drop mask mandates occasioned by Covid, ordinary people are finding themselves uncertain whether or not to keep covering their faces anyway. Some continue to do so as a health and safety measure, some just like the way they look, and others appreciate the complex and fascinating history of face coverings, much of which has been captured by the movies. Whether you’re glad to see the back of them or relieved by their lingering use, this week’s Spotlight selection will remind you of some of their most sensational onscreen moments.

Point Break
Point Break

Point Break - Amazon Prime, Netflix, Virgin TV Go

Forget the 2015 version. This is the original and still the best. Keanu Reeves plays the eager young cop who has to learn to ride a wave and jump out of a plane as he goes undercover to infiltrate a gang believed to be carrying out armed robberies – behind rubber masks depicting former US presidents. Even when his face is obscured, Patrick Swayze’s performance as the leader of the gang is compelling to watch, not least for our conflicted hero, and Lori Petty works hard in one of those thankless love interest roles added to keep people from questioning his sexuality. It ought to be awful, but against the odds, everything works.

The Phantom Of The Opera
The Phantom Of The Opera

The Phantom Of The Opera - Apple TV, Rakuten TV, Amazon

A no-expense-spared adaptation of the hit musical, itself adapted from an assortment of previous works, this film is notable for its stunning production design and magnificent costumes, mask and all. While Gerard Butler might not be everybody’s idea of the ideal Phantom, he acquits himself well enough, stripping out the sentimental elements conjured up for the stage but retaining the passion. Emmy Rossum brings a more than usual degree of liveliness to young starlet Christine and there are some great supporting performances, even though an uneven tone keeps it from reaching its potential.

Fantastic Mr Fox
Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox - Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime

The history of cinema is full of great bandit masks, from The Mask Of Zorro to Plunkett And MacLeane. They’re often mark of being accepted into the company of outlaws, so it means a lot to displaced young fox cub Kristofferson to be gifted one when he goes on a mission with his famously fantastic uncle, but Mr Fox’s own son, Ash, is left behind and feels forced to make his own out of a tube sock. While perhaps not the greatest of disguises given that foxes of all kinds are on the hit list, it gives him the confidence to take on the bad guys and engage in acts of derring-do which make his father proud.

Skull: The Mask
Skull: The Mask

Skull: The Mask - Shudder, Apple TV, Amazon

A splendid example of Brazilian grindhouse cinema which takes a swipe at outsiders who exploit the country’s archaeological treasures, this film looks about 50 years older than it is, but in a good way – at least if you like that sort of thing. The mask of the title is a recently excavated artefact associated with an ancient, bloodthirsty Mesoamerican god, which possesses the first suitable human it finds in order to carry out a string of ritual murders intended to bring that god back to life. Only a detective and the assistant of a corrupt priest can stop it in a film laden with gore and exploitation of every kind.

The Man In The Iron Mask
The Man In The Iron Mask

The Man In The Iron Mask - MGM, Apple TV, Google Play

These days Leonardo DiCaprio has learned to look quite comfortable in OTT 18th Century clothes. In 1998 he did not, but that’s appropriate for half of his dual role here, as the French king and as his secret twin brother, who has been languishing for years in the Bastille wearing the titular mask. Rescued by the three musketeers (Jeremy irons, John Malkovich and Gabriel Byrne), the hapless youth becomes a pawn in a complex political plot. The film also features a spectacular masqued ball where multiple characters exploit the opportunity for mystery.

Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut - Virgin TV Go, Apple TV, Chili

Masks take on a different quality in Stanley Kubrick’s final film when used to conceal the identity of attendees at an orgy where a young woman meets her death. Called upon to lend his services as a doctor, Tom Cruise’s character enters a world of much richer and more powerful individuals, where metaphorical masks are omnipresent. Themes of obscured identity are made more pertinent by the fact that Nicole Kidman is playing opposite him as his wife during the final stages of the couple’s own disintegrating marriage. Even after many years together, their fictional equivalents have failed to see and recognise each other fully.

Watchmen
Watchmen

Watchmen - Virgin TV Go, Chili, Amazon

Almost every superhero film features masked characters, despite the fact that – as Blake Lively’s character points out in Green Lantern – anybody who knew them could recognise them anyway. In Watchmen, however, they take on greater weight, as the slogan “Badges, not masks!” is the rallying cry of people campaigning for a traditional justice system, having grown sick of being policed by vigilantes. There are also very few superhero masks as striking as Rorschach’s, with its fluid black and white shapes always shifting and always open to interpretation.

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