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).

Cruella (2021)

My week of newish cinema releases continues with this film, directed by the dude who did I, Tonya (2017). Again, I didn’t review that on here, but I quite liked it? It had some good performances. This film is equally stylised, and very silly, and probably not Good. I expect there are people out there who hate it, but I try to be positive and, well, it looks good. Jenny Beaven did the costume design, who I laud below as the auteur at work here.


This is not, I suppose a ‘good’ film in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense that most films that seem to get made these days are: big and showy and well-designed and just so, with big performances. It’s fun, is what it is, but it has no depth. They clearly spent an enormous amount on the music, but I don’t think it’s used very inventively — it’s largely all 60s music for a film set on the cusp of punk with a lead character who has a sort of Vivienne Westwood chic but even her central fashion show is soundtracked by Iggy and the Stooges (though perhaps that’s a commentary in itself on the reliance of British punk on American archetypes). Anyway, too many of the cues seem too obvious, and then the plot in general is also really quite stultifyingly straightforward. (Quite aside from having us believe that an actress as distinctive as Emma Stone playing a character as singular as this could play an alter ego without detection, though I assume there’s a Shakespearean level of suspension of disbelief happening here.) But Stone and Thompson camp it up, Paul Walter Hauser is excellent as a villainous Cockney sidekick (with a wandering accent) and the real auteur here is the costume designer, clearly. This is a film about frocks: great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Cruella (2021)CREDITS
Director Craig Gillespie; Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith); Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis; Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Monday 7 June 2021.

Late Night (2018)

When discussing Asian-American experiences, there’s a lot about people from Chinese or Japanese backgrounds, but Indian-Americans have also been fairly prominent (see also my review of Meet the Patels a few years ago). This prominence has come not least via high-profile television comedians like Aziz Ansari or Mindy Kaling, the writer and star of TV’s The Mindy Project and most recently this film, also directed by a Canadian of Indian heritage, Nisha Ganatra. Ostensibly the film focuses on Emma Thompson’s star, but really it’s about women like Kaling getting a foot in the door of an industry dominated by white people, usually men.


A broadly likeable film which doesn’t always feel believable. Quite aside from having a woman as a long-running late night talk show host (and Emma Thompson exudes an odd energy, unlike the guys and even the few women currently doing it), mostly it’s because the film repeatedly leans on the idea that the show is broadcast live. I also didn’t believe anyone in the film really knew anything about social media. However, the script delivers quite a few laughs, even when it’s being more broadly sentimental, and it can be quite sharp about some of the politics around diversity in the media (though I’d have liked to see the dream diverse team actually working together at the end, rather than in a montage). What I loved most of all were Emma Thompson’s hair and clothes as late night talkshow host Katherine Newbury (she is a style icon in this film), and her withering backstage grumpiness. It does make a great case, quite in passing, given how easily Katherine fires people, that media workers desperately need unionisation, though.

Late Night film posterCREDITS
Director Nisha Ganatra; Writer Mindy Kaling; Cinematographer Matthew Clark; Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 18 June 2019.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

As Cast Away (2000) proved, Tom Hanks hasn’t exactly been averse to feature-length product placement films, and while it would probably be perverse to say this is all just one big advert for the magical power of Walt Disney, it certainly doesn’t shy away from hymning the transportive power of childhood entertainment (after all, it’s made by Disney Studios). It deals with the making of their film of Mary Poppins (1964), specifically with the negotiations that took place to get the original book’s author, Mrs P. L. (Pamela, but never call her that) Travers, onboard. It’s through the curmudgeonly Travers, played by an on-form Emma Thompson, who makes the whole enterprise at least somewhat palatable, taking Disney’s self-aggrandising lustre off with her bitter and cynical asides about just about everything she encounters. In that sense, you could look at it as a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, and that’s probably the best way to enjoy the film.

Part of the success of the film is that its subject, Mrs Travers, is clearly such an interesting historical character, but one whom very few people know about. From the very first frames of the film, a parallel structure is set up between the contemporary world of the early-1960s and Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia just after the turn of the century, as the son of an alcoholic bank manager father (played by Colin Farrell). In some ways, you need the saccharine pomp of Disney in his Los Angeles headquarters to temper the bitter edge of Travers and her life, though the parallel structure does mean that Travers herself is seen coming to some kind of understanding of Disney’s project through reflection on her childhood (in reality, she hated the finished film). This creates an explicit link between childhood memories and the fantasism of the children’s entertainment industry (as epitomised by Disney) — between Travers’ real father and that of the father in Mary Poppins (after whom this film is titled) — which can all seem a bit obvious and over-sentimentalised at times in the film.

That said, Thompson’s performance is a marvel, given the character as written hardly has very much more to say for most of the film than “No, no, no. No no no no NO! This simply won’t do” and the like — she is particularly set against the animation. The bulk of the film’s Los Angeles sections are taken up with her locked in conflict with the film’s writer Don (Bradley Whitford) and the two composer brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively), into which fray Disney himself (an avuncular Hanks) tries to bring peace, to limited success. These sections are however far more enjoyable than those set in colonial Australia, though Farrell does perfectly well as the loving but dissipated father. The younger Travers has little more to do than look golden-haired and angelic, betraying little hint of her later grumpiness.

In the end, Saving Mr. Banks is a film about the interplay between childhood innocence and adult disappointments as made by Disney, so that should be a guide for viewers as to the tone the finished film takes. That said, Thompson and Hanks do their best to efface any of the more overt sentimentalising in their performances at least, making this a very watchable and easily digestible piece of filmmaking history.

Saving Mr. Banks film posterCREDITS
Director John Lee Hancock; Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.