Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.

IT WOULD be a great injustice to ZERO DARK THIRTY if it is criticised merely for implying that torture might have played a part in finding Osama bin Laden, because this peripheral issue tends to diminish this excellent film’s effect as a fact-based thriller.

Enhanced interrogation, as waterboarding and other persuasive techniques are called, is central to Mark Boal’s terrific script — in fact, the movie opens with a shocking scene depicting cruel mistreatment — because it shows how the US was forced to sacrifice some of its democratic principles in its search for a ruthless enemy who had definitely not considered the morality of killing 3,000 citizens on September 11 2001. Kathryn Bigelow’s perfectly paced direction concentrates on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a Central Intelligence Agency operative, whose dedication and deduction eventually paid dividends.

It takes nine years of frustration, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attacks, indecision and inaction before Maya gets the information that finally located Bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout, just down the road from a military academy.

The importance or otherwise of torture as a reliable source of intelligence may never be established; whether sanctioned or simply condoned, it remains a blot on the US’s conscience, hence the Senate hearings held in the wake of Bigelow’s even-handed yet, to some, unpatriotic and unsubstantiated dramatisation.

Maya’s real identity may be a secret, but Chastain’s nuanced performance creates a sympathetic portrait of a woman devoted to a single purpose and not too fussy about the origins of the clues that help her find her elusive quarry so that an elite squad can finish the job.

The raid itself is photographed using green filters that match the way the action would have been seen by men wearing night-vision goggles. The climactic fire fight, although criticised at the time (May 1 2011) when conflicting narratives surfaced, is a superb sequence that heightens the sense of involvement created by watching Maya, who has no other life, achieve her and her nation’s vengeful goal. Which, perhaps, was not quite as vigorously pursued during the Bush administration as it was when his successor — seen here declaring on TV that "America doesn’t torture" — took office, while those who know differently keep their feelings to themselves.

There are no signs of triumphalism in this sober, absorbing and, possibly, underplayed depiction of the power of persistence and Bigelow ensures that even what is already known is made dramatic and tense enough to keep audiences engrossed.

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THE sweet-natured QUARTET proves that there is still work for actors of a certain age and, as shown by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (so successful that a sequel is planned), still an audience for their endeavours.

Directed by Dustin Hoffman from a script by Ronald Harwood, this charmer is set in a home for retired artistes waiting to take their final bows; it focuses on four whose lives and careers intersected over the years. The mansion needs money if it is to survive and part of the fundraising effort is an annual concert organised by the colourful, demanding Cedric (Michael Gambon). This year, though, the atmosphere crackles with anticipation as the old ducks and drakes await the arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith), a renowned though mercurial former singer. The most anxious consist of Reginald (Tom Courtenay) who was married, briefly, to Jean; Wilf (Billy Connolly), a lecher lusting after a doctor (Sheridan Smith); Anne (Gwyneth Jones, the only real singer in the cast); and Cissy (Pauline Collins), slipping towards her last curtain call.

The ever-imperious Smith is, of course, the proven mistress of the elegant, telling put-down but Harwood fails to provide her with lines of the standard to which she and her admirers have come to expect. However, Reginald delivers a lecture that compares opera with hip-hop.

The possibility of reuniting four singers for one last bash at the quartet in Verdi’s Rigoletto, once personal animosities and jealousies have been resolved, keeps the movie moving. Hoffman, making his debut as a director, steers his very experienced cast away from maudlin sentimentality to give viewers pleasant, untaxing entertainment that will appeal mostly, if not exclusively, to older patrons.