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.

Benediction (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.


Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.

In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).

It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.

Benediction (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.


Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).

Catherine Called Birdy (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and this post falls into two themes already identified: (1) unexpected pleasures; (2) Colin Farrell as a fine actor. I would not have imagined the latter 20 years ago when he was starting out as a fairly generic pretty dude in big budget films, and the former is the case for a lot of films on my list this year. Most years, they’re unexpected because they are directors or projects unknown to me. However, this one, just about the last film I went to see in 2022, is by a director I know and have not liked the films of, plus with the general Oirishness of the enterprise (deedly-dee music, whimsical religious irreverance, and cute animal friends), I was primed to dislike it intensely. But I didn’t.


This makes for an odd note to end a year of film watching at the cinema, but it’s not a bad film by any means. I’ve often been a bit suspicious of McDonagh’s cinema, and haven’t liked most of the stuff that people have been big fans of, but this hits a very honest note in dealing with some pretty deplorable behaviour in a way that makes it clear what’s gone wrong. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just wants to be left alone to work on his fiddle music in silence without the tiresome chatter of his buddy Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nice yet dull local cow herder; the film throws us straight into Colm’s decision, but it’s easy to take on trust how this longstanding friendship went by in a haze of stout down the local pub. The film captures their interactions, and those of the local characters, by focusing on the simmering tensions of rural life, and though it does ratchet things up a bit towards the end, it’s a commentary on people getting far too mired in their ideals to notice what it’s doing to them as people. Thus, there’s a sort of bleakness built in there — the confrontation with a person’s life and the worth they derive from it at the end — but the film works hard to ensure that it keeps us just teetering on this side of that particular abyss very ably. There’s a bleakness of course, that goes with the 1920s civil war setting, and the craggy glowering landscape, but it’s a bleakness primarily expressed by the way the characters end up, making this a sort of parable about paying attention to what matters when the world is falling apart (a parable for our times).

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Martin McDonagh; Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 31 December 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.

Aftersun (2022)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a non-Criterion Collection review, but as 2022 is done and dusted (well, the year, not my viewing of films from that year, which will undoubtedly stretch out for years to come), it seems like a fitting theme for my first few posts of this year would be to cover some of my favourites from last year. This small British indie film was my favourite, until I eventually catch up with everything else. You can see my full list here though.


After a year of watching fairly unchallenging films at the cinema (sadly I missed my city’s annual film festival), it’s nice to see one that properly challenges audiences. Which is, I suppose, one way of saying it’s slow and sad — and thus probably not for everyone — but I think it has depths to it, and I miss a film with depths. Texturally, it reminds me of the early work of, say, Lynne Ramsay and that’s not just because its period setting reminds me a little of Ratcatcher in its lugubrious mood (though where that film went back a few decades to the 70s, this one takes us back to the 90s). Partly too that’s the way that the evocation of the era doesn’t rely on period hairstyles and music, but rather on some far more oblique signifiers of the era like the grain of the camcorder films (though, okay, there’s also the “Macarena”).

However, the more resonant aspect of the film is that sadness that haunts its tale throughout, though is never explicitly reckoned with. There’s the feeling evoked by the dark, heavily strobing club dancefloor sequences that punctuate the narrative, the emptiness of the video framings being watched by someone looking back on this period of life, and the quiet moments in the story of a young dad and his 11-year-old daughter on holiday in Turkey that are punctured by the dad’s attempt to be upbeat and positive. (It should be said up front that the darkness isn’t anything to do with sexual abuse, so don’t go in worried about that. The relationship between these two is clearly loving and strong, in both directions.) But there are strong hints throughout of the elegiac nature of this 90s holiday, and the way it resonates in the present, such that in a sense this is a coming of age film that goes beyond the innocuous flirtations on the beach or the innocent kisses by the poolside with teenage boys, into more delicately shifting psychological territory.

I imagine it will hit a long more strongly for those who are parents, but it feels beautifully cathartic in a way that relies on the audience to make the connections and draw out the emotional threads, and that’s just a nice change of pace.

Aftersun (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Charlotte Wells; Cinematographer Gregory Oke; Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 11 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 606: Blithe Spirit (1945)

Unexpectedly — for a David Lean film — this story of spiritual mediums and the haunting presence of a dead ex-wife, is very silly. Still, it’s very much in writer Noël Coward’s line, I suppose, with a brittle comedy of manners amongst very middle-class people set at a pleasant home in the country, where Rex Harrison’s novelist Charles wants to research a crime plot involving a séance. This introduces us to Margaret Rutherford’s Madame Arcati, who very much steals the entire film with her flamboyant performance, and thus to the novelist’s recently-deceased ex Elvira (Kay Hammond) who trades barbs with him while Charles’s current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) looks on, concerned for his mental health and upset that he seems to be rekindling his relationship with the glamorous dead woman. I’m not sure what deeper thing it says about the English, but it’s pleasant enough as a silly divertissement and has some lovely use of Technicolor.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The extras include a 1992 episode of the long-running arts show The South Bank Show dedicated to Noël Coward. It strings together archive footage of Coward himself talking about his life as a way of bringing together his upbringing and artistic career, as well as his later years in Jamaica and a bit about his public and private life as a gay man in 20th century England. There is some good footage they’ve unearthed of him as a young man, and as a stage actor, as well as little clips from the making of some of his works, and some interviews with collaborators like John Gielgud and John Mills. It may not dig really deep but it gives you a good overview of the man.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 8 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 605: This Happy Breed (1944)

There is a certain strain of English cinema (and it does seem very precisely English, maybe even Home Counties England) of which Noel Coward was an expert purveyor. He was from a fairly dowdy background but he perfected a certain kind of genteel middle-classness that is exemplified of course in Brief Encounter but seems to inform all his films that I’ve seen, not least this one set in the very plain, working class London suburb of Clapham (not that you’d get much of that these days in Clapham). I am, however, quite a sucker for London stories, so despite my reservations, my attention was held throughout this generational tale.

Coward’s perspective can come across as slightly condescending at times, and I’m not quite sure where he sat politically but it all seems a bit small-c conservative, given the attitudes towards the socialist partner of one of the family’s daughters. It was also made during wartime so it naturally has a bit of that patriotic perspective to it. Still, there’s an everyday feeling to it, of several members of a family over the interwar period, living their lives and getting on with things while the big events of the day are telegraphed via newspaper headlines and conversations over tea. In short, yes, it’s very English, very much from a certain perspective, but I still found myself very much liking it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, John Mills, Stanley Holloway, Eileen Erskine; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 8 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 604: In Which We Serve (1942)

A solidly crafted flag-waving exercise in wartime uplift, about the way a diverse (well, diverse from a class-based background at least, if literally nothing else) group of fighting men on a navy ship come together through adversity. The film is largely told in flashback as the HMS Torrin lies crippled and sinking after the Battle of Crete, as some of the surviving crew reflect on how they came to be there. Turns out this is a fairly effective narrative strategy, allowing both for the setbacks of war (the sinking of the ship, the loss of life) to intertwine with the duty and service that motivate these men, most of whom are lifelong Royal Navy crewmembers, and the wives and children that wait for them back in England — and indeed, given the fairly limited screen time, it’s the women who give some of the film’s best performances. Writer and co-director Noël Coward himself plays the ship’s captain, which makes sense given his own leading involvement in getting the film made, and he acquits himself well enough, in the soulful vein of a by-the-book type who nevertheless has great admiration for all his crewmembers (except for a baby-cheeked Richard Attenborough, who abandons his post in one memorable vignette), but it’s the emotional story between John Mills and Bernard Miles which is most satisfying. All in all, this is well-made and probably the film for its time, but it’s still pretty boilerplate as a wartime fighting film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Noël Coward and David Lean; Writer Coward; Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Noël Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 1 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 603: “David Lean Directs Noël Coward”

This box set brings together four collaborations between the director David Lean and the writer (and occasional actor) Noël Coward, starting with Lean’s debut — which is also Coward’s only credited film as a director — the wartime propaganda movie In Which We Serve (1942). Another wartime story from a couple of years later is This Happy Breed (1944), taking us into the London suburbs but also into Technicolor. The following year’s Blithe Spirit takes a swerve in terms of content and tone into something rather more theatrical, but it’s in the magnificent Brief Encounter (1945) — already released on the Criterion Collection but now included here — where all of that comes together, back in black-and-white again, but combining both the unspoken difficulty of wartime life with the yearning of unfulfilled romance and a certain theatricality.