Summerland (2020)

I’ve now seen five films in an actual cinema, which isn’t going to threaten the amount I’ve been watching at home, but it makes a nice change after the past six months. However slightly uncomfortable it may be returning to the cinema (and I think we all have to make our own decisions about such things, regardless of what the official guidance may allow — for my part, I leave my mask on at all times, unlike most people it seems), it was difficult for me not to take up this opportunity. Therefore this week’s theme is going to be the films I’ve now seen at the cinema since they were allowed to reopen.


Director Jessica Swale has made her name in the theatre, and I can see that her talents haven’t quite been matched to film form here. A lot of the way that the themes and characters are developed, while not inherently unsatisfying, just seem overdetermined. Combining the (1940s) past and (1970s) present is done elegantly enough — albeit every time I see Gugu I wish for more of her — but the points in the script where the revelations land just feel so thudding, as we come to understand that the curmudgeonly Alice (Gemma Arterton) has her heart warmed by the love of a child (Lucas Bond), and then later on as multiple different strands are brought together. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the setting weren’t so overly familiar from other British period films (include ones starring Arterton), and if the score hadn’t swelled at the expected appropriate moments. For all the ways that the casting and themes tried to expand the range of references for ‘World War II romantic drama’ the drama as a whole didn’t work, and things devolved rather too far into unsubtle melodrama. Still, there are things I like about it, whether the cinematography (by Laurie Rose) or the fine performances, and indeed some of the character details, particularly the early characterisation of Alice, are amusing and I still always enjoy seeing Gemma Arterton on screen.

Summerland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Swale; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Fast Color (2018)

Catching up on my films-on-Netflix theme, we come to this striking outing from Julia Hart, a sort of supernatural superhero film albeit one very much grounded in a recognisable world.


This is a film that builds slowly, but it has a sense of atmosphere and mystery that I found beguiling and which really drew me into this story, reminiscent somewhat of NK Jemisin or Octavia Butler in putting across this recognisable future world of hardship and environmental breakdown without belabouring the dystopian qualities in a simple way or building societal collapse into some art-designed fascist nightmare. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a confused young woman just trying to piece things together as she travels across these wide, barren landscapes, and the film follows her and reveals things to us as she discovers them. It’s clearly not had a huge budget (like a number of other recent future dystopia films) but it uses its effects in a sparing and expressionist manner, and draws out the drama happening amongst primarily three characters.

Fast Color film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Michael Fimognari; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Saniyya Sidney, Lorraine Toussaint, Christopher Denham, David Strathairn; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

Beyond the Lights (2014)

This was released at the end of last year in the US and it should by any reasonable measure have had a UK release too (after all, there’s plenty of dross which does). It’s a story in which the central character Noni and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver respectively) are from Brixton, and it even has sequences set in this country. And yet it went straight to DVD, which is why the folks from the Bechdel Test Fest thankfully stepped in to give it a mere two (well-attended) cinematic screenings. The film is packed with powerful scenes that seem to be rendered out of raw emotion, not through some intensity of over-acting but just an acuity of writing on the part of director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who has sadly not been as active a filmmaker as her short but distinguished filmography suggests). That said, I’m not sure if I’m explaining its effect well. Maybe “raw emotion” is too portentous a phrase to convey how the narrative operates. It seems to tap into a wellspring of female-centred melodramatic tradition — of the artist (here a pop/R&B singer) trying to reconcile her work and public image with her private desires (towards cop and nascent politician Kaz, played by Nate Parker) — without actually quite being that. The plot synopsis could suggest some kind of Notting Hill refit, except that it’s not a comedy either. It’s a serious-minded romantic drama that treats its characters with respect, even when they don’t respect themselves. It’s also packed with some of my favourite scenes from any of this year’s films, just for their sheer straightforward punchiness, and for Mbatha-Raw’s wonderful performance, which calls on her to shed layers of protective emotional armour not in order to secure a man, but in order to find something within herself that she can be happy with. It’s quite an achievement and it deserves your time.

Beyond the Lights film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood; Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 2 August 2015.

Belle (2013)

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.

Belle film posterCREDITS
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.