The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.
I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.
I think it’s fair to say that W.E., which depicts the love affair between King Edward VIII (or “David” when he wasn’t the king) and Wallis Simpson, got a bit of a critical kicking when it came out. That’s not to say that certain elements of the film aren’t easy to deride — some of the scenes just seem misjudged or laughable (an elderly Wallis dancing for her ailing husband comes to mind), and the camera has a tendency to wander a bit loosely — but I imagine a lot of it comes down to its framing narrative, which uses historical objects as a means to enter the past. This fetishisation of material things is, indeed, an overriding element of the story — objects, clothes, set design, hairstyles and make-up, all of these things are fawned over by the camera and lavishly depicted — though it shouldn’t really come as a surprise given the film’s creator. But that needn’t be a drawback or a criticism — if anything it’s just making explicit the pitfalls of recreating historical events for the screen. In any case, the history is very much nested within a modern story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), who has grown up obsessed by the historical romance, and in communing with their personal effects at a Sotheby’s auction, via flashbacks starring Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as the royal couple, comes to understand that their love affair wasn’t perfect. At the same time, her own marriage is foundering and she is falling for a security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), hence the “W.E.” of the title refers to both of these couples. The film isn’t perfect, but the actors are all excellent, and moments of absurdity aside, this is on the whole a handsomely-mounted period production.
Director Madonna; Writers Madonna and Alek Keshishian; Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski; Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 9 January 2016.