Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”

3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon, 2018)

Biopics are often about famous men (and made by men too), but increasingly women’s stories have been brought to the screen, whether in big budget biopic dramas like Hidden Figures or in little indie chamber pieces like this one, which is about a film star towards the end of her career.


This is on the whole a pretty solid chamber drama (more-or-less) set at an upscale resort hotel in France in c1980, as Romy Schneider (Marie Bäumer) is rather unsuccessfully in detox, while a German journalist and photographer (Charly Hübner) comes to interview her, and her friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) stops by to offer emotional support. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the performances are all very good, even if it does run a little long — there’s a lot of the interview in there, and we get a sense of the fragile state of Schneider’s psyche as she breaks down over the course of the drama. Hilde’s character is the least ostentatious, but Minichmayr has worked with Jessica Hausner and Maren Ade, so she knows how to hold the camera’s attention for even a repressed, very interior person. You can tell it’s set in the early-1980s because everyone smokes constantly, everywhere, in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms… just always lighting up. It’s not always obvious why this was made, but as a portrait of depression, and the bleak insularity of stardom, it feels compelling at times. Also, the (all too brief) Denis Lavant appearance is most welcome.

3 Days in Quiberon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emily Atef; Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast; Starring Marie Bäumer, Birgit Minichmayr, Charly Hübner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 19 November 2018.

Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots”

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.


I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Colette (2018)

Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.


In a season when we’ve had The Favourite, all other costume dramas now seem particularly plodding, unoriginal and well-meaning, and Colette seems at first blush to fit into the idea of a handsomely-mounted heritage film about another era, anchored by some strong lead acting performances, but presenting a very cleaned-up recreation of a past filmed in various grand houses and city panoramas retouched to remove all the signs of modernity. Still, there’s at least a queer subtext (no that’s not fair, by the latter half of the film it’s simply the text) to subvert things a bit, as Knightley’s title character has affairs with both men and women, while her marriage to Dominic West’s foolish husband starts to pall. Indeed, his priggish idiocy and the way that he is constantly put in his place by everyone, particularly his younger wife, becomes an enjoyable theme for the film. Setting aside the dreadful Louisiana accent of one of Colette’s companions, there’s a lot to enjoy in all the performances, and even the more affected cliches of the script feel a little bit revived by the particular focus brought by this story of a writer who remains largely unknown to English-speaking audiences. (I actually own one of her novels, but haven’t read it in the 20 years it’s been on my shelves, so perhaps now is the time.)

Colette film posterCREDITS
Director Wash Westmoreland; Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Westmoreland; Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens; Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 January 2019.

The Favourite (2018)

Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.


Yorgos Lanthimos can go either way really can’t he? I didn’t even see his The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I really liked The Lobster, and then there’s this, which seems like a carefully controlled “fvck you” to the whole industry of heritage filmmaking. It has the sumptuous sets and glorious frocks and the use of baroque music pulling it back to something like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon but then it just throws a bunch of stuff in that feels less like ‘let’s try and get the historical details exactly right’ (as many historical dramas are wont to do) and more ‘let’s do some free-form historical cosplay’. Needless to say, I think the latter is a far more rewarding strategy at this point in time, though given all the fun dance sequences, the chucking rotten fruit at bewigged naked guys, and the racing of lobsters, they might as well have cast more people of colour in prominent roles. Still, it’s a great film for it’s three leads (Colman, Weisz and Stone), and the way they just talk down to and over the men, who clearly think a lot of themselves but are also fools. The filmmaking feels at once liberated in the way it tries out ideas, but also very precise and controlled in the way it’s all filmed and put together.

The Favourite film posterCREDITS
Director Yorgos Lanthimos Γιώργος Λάνθιμος; Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 28 December 2018.

Hidden Figures (2016)

One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.


I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.

Hidden Figures film posterCREDITS
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.

Fighting with My Family (2019)

This Friday sees the release of Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a biopic about Harriet Tubman, starring British actor Cynthia Erivo in the title role, so I thought I’d look back on the biopic genre for this themed week. Fictionalised version of real people’s lives are usually made after their deaths, looking back on their legacies and sometimes making the mythical aspects of their story just a little bit bigger, but there have been a number in recent years that deal with more recent stories, and such is the case with Fighting with My Family. The person it’s about is still very much alive, and really not very old, but it’s also a story that’s likely not known to mainstream audiences, hence its telling here. As it involves professional wrestling, there’s a cameo for Dwayne Johnson, one of cinema’s most charismatic stars (and he was also attached as a producer), though the sport has always been about showmanship so quite how accurate it is to life is down to individual viewers I suspect.


I remember seeing Florence Pugh being introduced to the audience before the first time I saw The Falling (2014), which she was in all too briefly, and then her wowing us in Lady Macbeth (2016, which really was one of the best films of its year, and I concede I was behind on that), so with all her excellent skills at projecting deeply internalised emotional states, I didn’t quite believe the news that she was going to be playing a wrestler. And aside from some small fudges in the wrestling scenes to accommodate a stunt double (which amount to rather more feverish cutting than you’d ideally want, given the sport’s emphasis on physicality), she really nails the performance aspects. In fact, this was a far more emotional film than I’d expected or prepared for, as it becomes a story about her character (a real life professional wrestler, Saraya/”Paige”) dealing with her family, and them dealing with her success, especially her brother (Jack Lowden) whose arc is very much one of resentment and then grudging acceptance. That’s probably the main drawback for me about this film — the very clear and obvious character arcs that everyone is going through, and the sentimental beats that the film tries to hit at the appropriate moments — but it’s such a warm-hearted enterprise, and approach with such affection, that I didn’t really mind. It got to me, I was involved in her story, and I barely even cared that the big WWE arena climax seemed to come out of nowhere (professionally). Also, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remains as solid a presence as you could hope for, even if he never gets his jeans dirty in Norwich as the poster suggests.

Fighting with My Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Stephen Merchant; Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin; Starring Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 5 March 2019.