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.

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Chalet Girl (2011)

Coasting through the dregs and ephemera that crop up on the various streaming services, a wealth of films with stars you may have heard of but which have more or less been forgotten to history (usually for good reason), leads you down some odd little alleyways. This one, for example, is a snowboarding romcom leaning heavily on the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between an ordinary girl just looking to make some money to help support her single-father family, and the plutocratic capitalists on their winter jollies who have their own Austrian ski chalet. It capitalises on the charm of its rising-star lead actor Felicity Jones (as the girl, Kim, who has a perfunctory background as a skateboarding prodigy), and the chiselled jaw of television leading man Ed Westwick (best known as cad Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl, playing not far from type as Johnny, the scion of wealth and privilege). It also rounds up some likeable supporting performances from Tamsin Egerton as posh ski instructor (or ‘chalet girl’) Georgie, and Bill Nighy as the (as always) likeable father of Johnny, as well as Bill Bailey and Brooke Shields for bonus WTF points. Everyone else in this refined society, though, is just a one-dimensional upper-class berk with few redeeming features (though I don’t take particular exception to that). The resulting film may be as light and powdery as the snow that settles on their Austrian mountain, but there’s plenty to like all the same, whether the winning acting, or the actually rather sharp and deftly-put together script by Tom Williams, someone I’d not previously heard about, but a strong enough effort to make me want to seek out other things he’s done. Certainly worthwhile if it’s late on a weekend evening, you’ve had a few drinks, and you want something to pleasantly pass the time.

Chalet Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Phil Traill; Writer Tom Williams; Cinematographer Ed Wild; Starring Felicity Jones, Ed Westwick, Tamsin Egerton, Bill Nighy; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 25 July 2015.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.

What in fact we get is a film very much focused on this once ‘invisible woman’, played by a radiant Felicity Jones, and such is her centrality to the film that maybe it’s Charles Dickens’s real wife Catherine who should be labelled as such. The story takes Nelly’s later marriage to a respectable middle-class educator in Margate, Kent — and her exchanges with a local curate — as a framing story for her youthful dalliance with Dickens. The romance between the two is developed very slowly and without any showiness on either’s part. There’s nary a hint of any bodice-ripping or heavy-breathing lust, but instead a romance founded at first on artistic and intellectual appreciation.

One wonders, indeed, if our director perhaps sees some points of contact with the character he plays, a man as famous in his time as any modern screen celebrity. There are some conversations devoted to his relationship with his public, and how that dominates his life. But this isn’t really a story about Dickens, as about Nelly. It’s her face the camera lingers on (especially when Fiennes isn’t also on screen), often in extreme close-ups.

One recurring visual motif in the film is the faces of Fiennes and Jones in the windows of a train, their shadowy reflection superimposed over the passing English landscape. It suggests a sort of liminality that encapsulates some of the doomed nature of their characters’ love; eventually we find out that this train journey took place at a very delicate point in their relationship. That the romance never really resolves itself positively is largely a reflection of how it was subject to the mores of the times (as well, perhaps, as how very circumstantial most of the surviving evidence for it is). Nelly finds herself adhering to these societal standards, and is repulsed by the freer, unmarried relationship of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) with his partner Caroline. So the story begins with her difficulty reconciling these pressures, at a point when she is enjoying the kind of marriage which she had been conditioned to covet and which she could never have had with Dickens.

There’s something about the way the story focuses on this inner turmoil within Nelly, and set against her society, that make it a bit difficult to really hold onto. This emotional evanescence is well-handled by the actors, though, and it’s never less than a sumptuously-mounted period piece. It treads delicately through its hidebound Victorian setting, against which all the characters — Dickens, his mistress, his wife, his children, his audience and his friends — come into conflict. Some do manage to prevail, but its the cost of that which the film is interested in above all.

The Invisible Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Ralph Fiennes; Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014.