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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Brooklyn (2015)

This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.

Brooklyn film posterCREDITS
Director John Crowley; Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín); Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015.

Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

Atonement film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
— Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.

Re-reading my pretentious opening paragraph, I suspect that it’s just in the nature of the film to encourage this kind of reading. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not abstruse or difficult in any way, but it is layered. The key metaphor for me is the elaborate layered cakes made by the bakers in the film, Mendl’s, which seem to reflect the way that the film is structured, not to mention its candy-coloured set design and the superficial sweetness of its surfaces. Most notably, the film is nested within four different generations of narration: the first is a young student visiting a statue of the Great Author and reading his eponymous account of his earlier life at the titular hotel; the second, the Author (Tom Wilkinson) at home in 1985; the third, ostensibly drawn from the book, is that Author as a young man (Jude Law) talking to Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the decaying 1968 lobby of the hotel; and finally, there’s Zero as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) working under the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) in the hotel’s 1932 glory days. For all these levels of narrative fragmentation, most of the film is set in the 1930s strand. The four are distinguished by different aspect ratios (a Cinemascope widescreen sweep for the late-1960s, with 1.85:1 at varying zooms for the more recent scenes, and finally ‘Academy ratio’ of 1.33:1 for the oldest), which along with the usual obsessively-detailed set and costume design, means it never gets too confusing when the film jumps around in time.

The actual plot of the film is something of a caper, as dapper roué Gustave H. is bequeathed the fortune of elderly heiress Madame Celine Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), which is quickly contested by her diabolical sons and leads to plenty of deadly ado, set against the background of a coming war. The posters already make clear quite how many people are in this film, but they and their stories all support the central picaresque tale of young Zero, accompanying Gustave everywhere, and in the process finding his way in the world. In the film’s title, location and the year of its setting, I am reminded of Grand Hotel (1932), itself a multi-character story of criss-crossing lives and old world European opulence. Perhaps more atmospherically linked are the mannered and beautiful films of Max Ophüls, such as La Ronde (1950) or his luridly coloured final work Lola Montès (1953) — indeed one of the best of his films (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948) is also based on a work by Zweig.

My point, in any case, is that Anderson has crafted a richly-detailed work that harks back to a history of twentieth-century culture and politics. One needn’t pick up all the references, so crammed in are they, but it adds depth to what at its heart seems like a very silly story with a large cast of colourful characters. All the small details accrue in the mind and work their way into the imagination, such that a week after viewing it I still have a strong sense of it and its delirious charms, which is more than can be said for most films. I can’t comment so soon on whether it’s Anderson’s best work (The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favourite), but it’s a strong reminder that he hasn’t yet disappeared within his own pretensions as many including myself had at one point feared. If he is here conjuring something of an identical beauty to those earlier films, it’s one that continues to resonate.

Update after Second Viewing: There’s a precarious sense of mortality which subtly encroaches around the edges of many of the film’s otherwise superficially innocuous action. It took me quite a while, after all, to realise that The Royal Tenenbaums was more than just a jolly colourful farce and realise it was laden with affecting pathos (which came home to me when I watched it with my wife, and found myself in tears at the end). Still, the febrile comic persona of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. comes through all the more strongly, with the running gags of his inappropriate swearing, not to mention the way his recitations of romantic poetry are consistently cut off, remaining especially funny on second viewing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Wes Anderson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014, and later at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 1 April 2014.

How I Live Now (2013)

I like going to see films for which I have precisely no expectations nor any idea even what they’re about except in the barest terms, so long as I can be confident they are crafted by good hands. In director Kevin Macdonald and, especially, star Saoirse Ronan, I have no qualms about the talent behind the film, and therefore the film was rather a delight, an almost bucolic story of young love set against the improbable backdrop (for its lush setting) of World War III.

In a week which sees the release in the UK of two quite different but both very Scottish films (Sunshine on Leith and Filth), How I Live Now stands out by seeming rather very English. Part of that is its setting in the English countryside, and the film has a real sense for the shambolic rural farmstead, with its cosy homeliness, which makes it all quite alien for newcomer Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan as a brightly-clothed yet sullen Californian teenager. It takes her time to get used to this earthier, messier pastoral existence with its lack of internet connection replaced by walks in the woods and impromptu swimming trips in nearby ponds (rather than immaculately kept azure-blue pools). Director Macdonald and his cinematographer Franz Lustig linger over the autumnal colours and golden setting sun, interspersing extreme close-ups of faces and flora, glinting and shimmering attractively as a sort of natural analogue to the first blush of Daisy’s feelings towards her cousin Edmond (George MacKay). It’s clear that Daisy has never visited her English family before, and while it’s not evident why she’s come now, nevertheless she makes her displeasure known.

The backdrop to what one presumes is World War III (though perhaps it’s just a civil war) is very much that: a backdrop. The feelings between the lead characters is the thing, while the war is glimpsed only through the teenagers’ eyes, so we see hints of militaristic build-up around the airport when Daisy arrives, flashes of news reports hinting at major world events, and the only adult figure — Daisy’s aunt, a high-level civil servant — is only fleetingly seen and she disappears almost as soon as she shows up. For this is a film primarily constructed around the way its teenage protagonists relate to one another and the world. This means it never really becomes clear who the antagonists in the war are, though it would appear they are home-grown anti-government revolutionaries or anarchists. When Daisy is separated from the farm and her male cousins, this kicks off a process whereby she struggles to return to the farm and the comforts of home — and of course, the love of Edmond.

For me it’s the first half of the film, which details Daisy’s gradual adjustment to the English rural lifestyle, that is the film’s strongest. Her antagonistic relationship to her new setting is detailed rather acutely, and her cousins (particularly the middle brother Isaac) remain fairly chirpy in the face of this initial rejection of their lives. Once the war properly breaks out, we’re thrust into a world of internment camps and survivalist instict, in which Daisy gets to go all Hunger Games, by leading and protecting her youngest cousin Piper (Harley Bird) through a newly-threatening countryside. This leads to lessons and hard truths — not to mention a notable hardening of her emotions in the face of war’s brutality — but it’s never quite so boldly stated, and there remains plenty of subtlety in Ronan’s controlled performance. And although it is hinted that Edmond shares some deeper understanding with Daisy (his recognition of the noise she must tune out seems to hint at the densely overlapping sonic textures that occasionally flare up as she looks at herself in the mirror), it never overtly moves into the mystical or supernatural: this remains a world grounded in reality, unlike certain other teen-focused love stories of recent memory.

It seems that How I Live Now is destined to be underappreciated, for its charms are very much the unflashy ones of strong acting performances supporting complex characters in the absence of any big effects-driven momentum. I wonder too how it will play outside the UK, where the pastoral setting is a very specific and acutely-felt vision of England, supported by such artists as Fairport Convention and Nick Drake on the soundtrack. However, it deserves to be widely-known not just for its performances but for its narrow focus on just this core of young characters. It’s certainly one of the most appealing narratives of wartime dislocation I can remember.

How I Live Now film posterCREDITS
Director Kevin Macdonald; Writers Tony Grisoni, Jeremy Brock and Penelope Skinner; Cinematographer Franz Lustig; Starring Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Harley Bird; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 5 October 2013.

Byzantium (2012)

It’s become obvious to me since starting this blog quite recently, that it’s important to engage with film at a wider level than just going to check out the latest multiplex offerings (though I shall continue doing that of course). One of the most vibrant expressions of film culture is the film festival, of which London, like all large cities, boasts a great variety.

Sci-Fi-London 12 This is now the 12th year of London’s Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, though they prefer to be known as the hyphen-happy Sci-Fi-London for short, not least because the annual festival is just one aspect of their ongoing engagement with this niche of film culture. However, the festival is the highlight of their calendar, and every year brings a diverse new crop of films that bear some relationship to the stated subject, though in a range of genres and styles, with quality ranging from the amateur to auteurist. It’s all enthusiastically brought together by possibly the most idiosyncratic and charismatic of festival directors, Louis Savy.

This year is no exception, and this opening night film was given an engaging intro by Louis, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer Stephen Woolley, as well as its charming and eloquent writer Moira Buffini, and cast member Daniel Mays. Many of the other screenings also feature special guests. The festival runs until 6 May this year, split between the (very comfortable and pleasant) Stratford Picturehouse and the BFI Southbank.


FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Sci-Fi-London || Director Neil Jordan | Writer Moira Buffini (based on her play A Vampire Story) | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Gemma Arterton, Jonny Lee Miller | Length 118 minutes | Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 30 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© StudioCanal

Before I even start this review, can I just state, if it wasn’t already obvious to you, how spectacular the film poster is. It’s a gloriously eyecatching image featuring the titular hotel, which is ostensibly located on the Hastings seafront where most of the film is set. If the movie itself can’t possibly compete with this singular, gorgeously baroque vision, its images are still wonderfully striking, thanks to the work of Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, who also recently worked on The Place Beyond the Pines (2013).

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