Spencer (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). This isn’t the only film on my list to have been comprehensively talked out already. You don’t need another review of it, you got everything you needed about a year ago. But it wasn’t released in NZ until into 2022, and despite all my many reservations, I really enjoyed it. Not because of any fondness for its subject, but because of the way it was done, the atmosphere it evoked. So here we go, another review.


This film is a whole vibe, and either you get with it or you don’t, I somewhat suspect. I did, but I can understand people who go the other way. In terms of its felicity to ‘real life’, well I think that’s a fraught question at least; I’ve seen some people marvel at the accuracy of Kristen Stewart’s performance. I’m not enough of a devoted royal watcher to really know how much she captured Diana, but I don’t really see her specifically in Stewart’s portrayal. But this is as much a story about a woman in a particular situation, imagining how it might go down; it’s a fable and a fantasy, it’s shot in a hazy, gauzy, pastel-hued way yet somehow also manages to channel gothic horror. But Stewart’s Diana is trapped from the start, a doomed woman, even if around her the royal family seem nothing so much as zombies, not least Charles (Jack Farthing) and Her Majesty, who have the deadest of eyes. So she only has her head to delve further into; she gets visions of Anne Boleyn and increasingly dissociative fragments of an alternate reality, which we know is not her own because she’s giddy and happy, moving down endless corridors like Kubrick’s The Shining, cautiously at first perhaps, but with an increasing abandon as the film progresses. Against my best instincts — because I really do not like or want to hear about the British royal family — it manages to be a beautiful film, and an excellent performance as ever by Stewart who goes in fully and bodily to the whole thing. Whether it captures Diana per se, I can’t say, but it captures something fleeting, somehow both archly camp and deeply felt, about an impossible life.

Spencer (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

రౌద్రం రణం రుధిరం Roudram Ranam Rudhiram (aka ఆర్.ఆర్.ఆర్ RRR, 2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. So on the penultimate day of the year I caved to the clamouring voices online telling me that this was a fun film. I’m hardly resistant to popular Indian films either, but I’d hoped it might get a cinematic screening (then again, I’m in NZ, so of course not). It still works fine on the small screen but you can see it’s made for an audience.


People have been talking up this film all year, and, to be fair, it’s pretty clear why. Watching it is not three hours of your life that you’ll regret, I don’t think. Not that it necessarily does things differently from other big Indian productions I’ve seen (and technically, as an aside, this is not Bollywood but Tollywood as it’s originally in the Telugu language — not that Netflix cares one bit about that kind of fidelity, meaning I had to watch it in Hindi and you probably will too, though it’ll default to English dubbing).

But what it does as a film, it does bigger! And more! And… uh, bigger, have I mentioned that? It is undeniably a lot, and I think towards the end it becomes pretty mired down by some problematic weighting — it has a hard-on for torture like no film since that Mel Gibson one about that guy on a cross, and so I suspect its politics lean rather hard into nationalism. However, at least at the historical level of the film’s plot, we’re dealing with freedom from colonial oppression, and who can’t get behind booing a giddily awful British aristocracy, a group of feckless oppressors delighting in misery, division and bloodshed (except for Jenny; she’s nice).

So, seen as a story about getting out from under the thumb of some bad guys (who are also bad actors), this hits all the buttons and does it with the kind of bold maximalism you come to expect from this kind of production, with gleefully non-naturalistic animal fights (all CGI-rendered), explosions, and some thrilling camerawork. It passes the time quite nicely.

Roudram Ranam Rudhiram (aka RRR, 2022)CREDITS
Director S.S. Rajamouli ఎస్. ఎస్. రాజమౌళి; Writers Rajamouli and V. Viyajendra Prasad కె. వి. విజయేంద్ర ప్రసాద్; Cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar కె.కె.సెంథిల్ కుమార్; Starring N.T. Rama Rao Jr. జూనియర్ ఎన్.టి.ఆర్, Ram Charan రాం చరణ్ తేజ, Ajay Devgn अजय देवगन, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 182 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 30 December 2022.

The Woman King (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.


Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.

Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.

However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.

The Woman King (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.

The Green Knight (2021)

I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.


I think it’s fair to say that this film has divided opinion — although we are now fairly far from its release, and therefore hopefully people are able to come to it without preconceptions now. Presumably, though, that’s partly due to the way it endeavours to film a 14th century chivalric romance. After all, the way that such texts were written doesn’t much fit with the modern conception of psychological motivations and naturalism, and I think trying to find a way to visualise a story told in a different mode has guided many of the choices here. As one example, text frequently shows up on screen, giving the whole an episodic feel, as our hero Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) tries to make sense of, well frankly, his whole life.

There is throughout an undertow of inevitable death which probably fits pretty well with the period, especially for a (wannabe) knight such as him, who must face all kinds of dangers, and in the final reckoning his quest is as much a question of morality, of doing good and being virtuous and finding where that line lies. It’s also very interesting the way that the finality of death is not presented as the end of life; beheaded characters walk away with their heads, a vision of a skeleton gains flesh and vice versa, those who are dead also converse with the living — and presumably that is led by the storytelling tradition.

In all, I think the film effectively preserves the mystery of life and death and puts across a compelling alternative vision of storytelling itself. However, I would one day love the chance to see this on the big screen, as I do not think that our TV was able to cope with the various shades of darkness that are employed throughout the film, and the film seems designed to look better the bigger the screen.

The Green Knight (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David Lowery (based on the anonymously authored poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo; Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Saturday 12 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 559: The Mikado (1939)

There were two notable Broadway stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta in the year this film was made, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, both all-Black casts which reimagined the text on a less specific island than Japan. I have no doubt that both would present problems to modern viewers, had they been preserved in anything more than audio excerpts from radio and a few still images, but instead we have this document. It has lavish, Technicolor staging, and I can’t dispute that it looks pretty lovely, rich and deeply saturated colours, flamboyant costumes and a bunch of actors who are largely familiar with the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m not a massive fan of these two’s work, though Mike Leigh’s 1999 film about them (Topsy-Turvy) is one I really like, that gets into what it is to make an artistic collaboration and to deal with delivering a consumer-focused product to a popular audience. This, however, is a curio, and not one that exactly meshes with modern tastes. Of course, its Japan is a confected one, based on a vague interest in Japanoiserie and a vague idea about Orientalism, so yes it feels decidedly racist, but you get the sense (perhaps more so from Leigh’s film) that it’s only an affectation, as it’s really about a bunch of white Home Counties English people putting on a play, and on that level it’s probably quite fun. But it is hard, very hard, to watch it and to focus on the staging and the joy of performance, and not on the fact that they are all playing ridiculous Japanese stereotypes. But the colour and the costuming and the sets are lavish.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the extras is a short deleted scene of a song that was excised (“I’ve Got a Little List”), perhaps for its topical political references (to a certain Mr Hitler), or maybe more so for its racial slur in the lyrics, because even in 1939 some things were just a step too far.
  • Surviving audio clips are presented from the two African-American productions of the musical mentioned in my opening sentence above, two songs from each, and though one cannot see them, you immediately get the sense that perhaps each would have made for a fine spectacle and ones far more worth preserving than this.
  • There’s a short, silent film of The Mikado (1926) included, which is obviously missing a key component of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera on which it’s based, but it’s there to give a sense of Charles Ricketts’ new costumes for the Savoy production of the long-running show, which draws more heavily on authentic Japanese costuming. Whether or not that’s the right direction to go for such a ridiculous piece of Orientalism is unclear to me, but the short preserves some little snippets of the D’Oyly Carte company’s performers of the 1920s, and of course those costumes (with a short sequence showing the designer at work, discarded cigarette butts and all).
  • A fascinating extra is a half-hour piece of two academics (Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.) speaking to this production, as well as to a history of productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and both make some excellent points, one from a specifically Asian-American perspective, but both with a wealth of knowledge.
  • Mike Leigh gives his opinions too, and he certainly has positive things to say in the 1939 film’s favour, as well as plenty of critiques. Still, it’s interesting to hear a fellow film director’s take on a film production, even if he acknowledges it’s more of a curio now than anything else.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Victor Schertzinger; Writer Geoffrey Toye (based on the opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan); Cinematographers Bernard Knowles and William V. Skall; Starring Kenny Baker, Martyn Green, Sydney Granville, Jean Colin, John Barclay; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 488: Howards End (1992)

I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.

It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 487: That Hamilton Woman (1941)

This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.