Mary Shelley (UK-Luxembourg-US-Ireland, 2017)

Musing upon life and death

The choice of Haifaa Al-Mansour to direct this slice of English Gothic is interesting; she was the first female Saudi to direct a film and this is the follow-up to her debut, the excellent Wadjda. Presumably the producers were attracted by her outsider’s eye (and of course her talent) though I’m not sure what she has added as the material is presented in a straightforward, and efficient, manner. Al-Mansour is also credited with ‘additions’ to Emma Jensen’s debut script. My knowledge of Mary Shelley is limited but it’s good to get her perspective on the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.

If the script sometimes leans towards a 21st century view of gender, the film’s set in the early 19th, then that is forgivable. It even uses the term ‘gender’ when ‘sex’ would have been the word of the time. We are, after all, observing the past through modern eyes; no one can truly recreate historical times. There’s no doubt that Mary (Elle Fanning) was a remarkable woman: we meet her at 16, daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin who died just after birthing her. Her dad, William (Stephen Dillane), was also a radical but the film shows he is somewhat nimbyish about the emancipation of his daughter.

Percy (Douglas Booth) is portrayed as a ‘pretty boy’ who follows his libido though he has more about him than simply being a ‘player’. That Mary’s masterpiece, the novel Frankenstein, was initially attributed to him shows the sexism of the time and he’s portrayed as unhappy about it. Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron, on the other hand, is entirely heartless with women; I didn’t find the performance convincing (too much kohl?).

Probably due to budget limitations, there’s no sense that they are in Switzerland when Mary concocts her famous and hideous tale. I wasn’t even sure they were abroad until the challenge to write a ghost story arose. While Gothic graveyards are given their due, it was a mistake not to show the awesome Swiss peaks as an inspiration on Shelly’s famous novel. On the other hand, the influence of popular theatre presenting the ‘miracle’ of Galvanism is well portrayed.

Elle Fanning is excellent as Mary, combining youthful vulnerability with fiery defiance. Bel Powley, as her sister, makes her mark as someone determined to not be left behind by her brilliant sibling. It avoids the problem that many biopics have of trying to cram a life into a short narrative as the focus is on the key moment in Mary Shelley’s life, meeting Percy and publishing Frankenstein.

Mr Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine, 2019)

Witnessing history

The last film directed by Agnieszka Holland that I’ve seen was In Darkness, a brilliant rendition of life under the Nazis in Warsaw. Since then she’s (co-)directed Spoor (Pokot, Poland-Germany-Czech Republic-Sweden-Slovakia-France, 2017) which wasn’t released in the UK and isn’t available on DVD here, and done a lot of television. I can’t comment on the latter but Holland’s cinematic eye deserves the big screen and, above everything else, Mr Jones is a visual treat. I don’t mean that it seduces with a beautiful mise en scene, as many of the scenes are hellish, but the vistas presented to the spectator are often eye-popping.

The film is the true story of Gareth Jones, a journalist who interviewed Hitler and the film portrays him trying to do the same with Stalin in the mid-1930s. In doing so he discovers what’s happening in Ukraine and the second part of the film, after establishing the milieux in Moscow, concerns his journey there and the aftermath. I’d never heard of Mr Jones and his story is compelling; it’s also entirely modern in the importance of speaking truth to power which corporate journalism has largely forgotten how to do. James Norton is excellent in the role of the somewhat diffident Welshman (are the Welsh always protrayed as such?) who doesn’t waver from his principles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the script by newcomer Andrea Chalupa, whose grandfather witnessed the events. There are occasions where it doesn’t quite gel, although to be fair it could be caused by the problem with biopics which are inevitably compromised by squeezing a life into narrative. That said, although it is about Jones, it’s not a conventional biopic, he’s more the witness through which history is portrayed.

Chalupa fictionalises a meeting with George Orwell (it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the meeting took place) who was writing Animal Farm at the time; I read somewhere that the character in the novel may have been named after Gareth Jones. It’s a useful device as it reminds us how Stalin was, for a time, a hero of the left before disillusionment set in.

The main strengths of the film (apart from the performances) are Holland’s direction, Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography and the editing by Michal Czarnecki. At least three sequences of travel are characterised by editing influenced by Soviet theorist and filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: the montage is non realist and dynamic. During Jones’ first train journey it seemed as if there were shots interpolated from documentaries made at the time, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. The editing was so rapid that I couldn’t see them clearly but even if it wasn’t old footage, the allusion is clear. However, using similar techniques for a rushed journey on a bicycle comes across only as comic.

The cinematography of Jones’ journey into the Ukraine becomes almost, suitably, monochromatic. Fabulous widescreen extreme long shots show Jones as a small black coated figure ploughing his way through a field of snow in the bottom right of the screen. Although the acting is naturalistic throughout, the characters’ faces are sometimes caught (at the start or end of a shot) in an unusual expression. This creates a stylisation to the acting which Holland emphasises through editing; an early shot of a secretary cuts to her open-mouthed. This is particularly true of Peter Sarsgaard’s Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer winning journalist; he epitomises ‘slimy’ and Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ springs to mind.

Vanessa Kirby is effective as Jone’s ‘love interest’ and the sexist characterisation is just about all we get of female characters. It was probably a strain on reality to make her role so big anyway, as the ’30s were obviously more male-dominated than today. And I was amused to see William Randolph Hearst being shown as a hero of press freedom.

The film’s already available on DVD and online but catch in cinemas if you can as Holland’s films deserve to be seen there.

Jimi: All Is By My Side (Ireland-UK-US, 2013)

Film as uncanny

Andre Benjamin, of Outkast, is Jimi Hendrix. Well, he isn’t but he certainly does a great impression of the great guitarists even if writer-director John Ridley’s biopic is severely hampered by a lack of copyright clearance for Hendrix’s own music. Like Don Cheadle, in Miles Ahead, the film works because we appear to be eavesdropping on a great. Of course, all biopics are an interpretation but Ridley’s work seems to be more than necessarily contentious: Hendrix is shown beating his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell superb too), who has denied it happened.

Ridley sensibly focuses on one year from Hendrix’s ‘discovery’ by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), then Keith Richards’ girlfriend. The film knowingly lays out the position of women in the ’60s; future Hendrix manager, ‘Chas’ Chandler (excellently embodied by Andrew Buckley) doesn’t know who Keith is (a Vogue model) until she says she’s the Stones’ guitarist’s girlfriend. The film finishes just before Hendrix’s triumph at Monterey Pop and the film climaxes with The Jimi Hendrix Experience playing ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, released just three days earlier, to an audience including a couple of Beatles.

I knew little of this part of Hendrix’s life, hence the film was of particular interest as I love Hendrix’s guitar playing (an ex-colleague told me once he’d seen Hendrix play in Ilkley, a small town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales – it’s a slightly surreal idea that this elemental rock god played there). In focusing on one year Ridley avoids the necessary lacunas required to cram a life onto celluloid. In addition, Ridley dips into the editing tricks of the French new wave that had made its mark at the time (1966-7). Discontinuous editing, that Godard might have been proud of, and displaced soundtracks help give a sense of the joie de vivre of ‘swinging London’. The social class differences between Keith (posh) and Etchingham (northern), though, aren’t really explored, which is a pity as that was a staple trope of ‘swinging sixties’ films.

One disadvantage of the film stopping as Hendrix was about to become a big hit is we don’t get experience the tragedy of his early death. At the time this was something of a ‘fashion’, Brian Jones and Janis Joplin amongst others, so I suppose it’s fair to avoid this convention though there’s not even a few end titles about what happened next. I think to assume everyone knows what happened is wrong, as I’m not sure younger generations are particularly aware of the man’s greatness.

 

Harriet (US, 2019)

Women doing it for themselves

I knew the name Harriet Tubman and her reputation as a woman who rescued slaves after rescuing herself; however, I had no idea what a ‘super hero’ she was. African American women, in particular, struggle to be heard and the fact that Kasi Lemmons has managed to direct five features since her debut Eve’s Bayou (US, 1997) is a testament to her determination. She wrote the script, based on work by Gregory Allen Howard, but was always going to struggle to present Tubman’s life fully in a two-hour film. As it is, the early scenes, when she was a slave, rattle along quickly in the nature of biopics before settling to a slightly more sedate dramatic development. As postscripts, Tubman’s gobsmacking role in the civil war is covered in one scene and the last 50 years of her life via a caption.

I struggled at first to engage with the film, Terence Blanchard’s lush American-pastoral score alienated me, and the scenes of plantation cruelty seemed a bit passé when compared to, say, 12 Years a Slave. Though Lemmons herself stated she wished to avoid the clichés of presenting plantation life as this was a ‘freedom film’. However, once Tubman (as she renamed herself) escaped, the jaw-dropping bravery of the woman (which would be unbelievable in fiction) ensures the narrative is gripping. As the film notes, in the end credits, some of the scenes are fictionalised, however the portrayal of the essential truth of what Tubman did is enough to forgive any dramatic embellishments.

Tubman became a conductor on the underground railway, a route managed by abolitonists who helped runaways escape to the north. Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel, The Underground Railway (2016), is better at portraying the bravery of those involved, but that wasn’t Harriet‘s subject. British actor Cynthia Erivo is sensational in the lead and Janelle Monáe brings great charisma to a supporting role. In an industry were colour wasn’t a bar Monáe would be a fully fledged film star (though she may not want to be one as she has plenty of other interests).

The film has done decent business in America; to date it’s almost reached the box office of 12 Years a Slave that was more of a (relative) hit in the UK. There were three of us in the cinema for the screening I attended showing that Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner is the exception rather than the rule for ‘black themed’ films in the UK. Of course, the idea of ‘black themed’ is racist nonsense as ‘white themed’ is never mentioned as we are assumed to be universal.

I particularly liked the use of songs, for example when Tubman tells her mother she has to leave she sings her farewell whilst her mother is working in the field. These were the songs the underground railway used to communicate, necessary because most of the slaves were kept illiterate. Wikipedia tells me:

One reportedly coded Underground Railroad song is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd“. [1] The song’s title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough.

The message being, ‘go north’. Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, a mere 100 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Eviro has a beautiful voice and came to fame via the musical version of The Color Purple on Broadway; she was also in Widows.

Harriet is an essential film because of what it tells us about humanity: the best and the worst. Everyone would be better for seeing it.

Miles Ahead (US, 2015)

Cheadle ahead

Biopics that attempt to cover a whole life rarely work as life doesn’t readily crush into a two-hour narrative; an alternative is to focus on a particular time with flashbacks to key moments, which works much better. The ‘moment’ in Don Cheadle’s (it is his: he stars, co-wrote, directed, produced) film is the silence Davis ‘endured’ during the ’70s. I’ve been a Miles fan for years and was soon wrapped up in Cheadle’s fantastic performance and, after some irritating camerawork of the framing interview, at the start, directs well. Above all, it is the convincing realisation of the music that stands out; it wasn’t hard to think we were watching Miles, and many other jazz greats (in the flashbacks), at play. Plaudits also to Hannah Beachler’s production design and Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography.

Although authenticity is important, the film also deploys a fictional character as a foil. Ewen MacGrego, rchannelling Renton, plays a Scottish journalist who’s trying to blag an exclusive interview. MacGregor at one point tells Miles he couldn’t remember what happened because he ‘was offa ma tits’ (drunk): Cheadle-Mile’s incomprehension is brilliant. Cheadle also uses some extreme close-ups which, along with the soundtrack, give expressionist moments which serve to portray Miles’ state of mind rather than simply showing what was happening.

The film does not ignore Miles’ faults: his treatment of his wife, superbly played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, is shown to be riven by the sexism of the time. He tells her to give up her career so he can look after her. Why were (are) men threatened by strong women? His addictions are also shown for what they were.

In comparison, a recent film that uses the same narrative technique to portray a star, Judy, relies too heavily on the (superb) performance of Renee Zellwegger. The flashbacks here focus on The Wizard of Oz, but miss out on the 1940s, the years of Garland’s greatest stardom. The film’s thesis is her treatment, as a 17-year-old, by Louis B Mayer, blighted her life. While I’m sure that’s true, anyone unfamiliar with Garland wouldn’t get a sense of how big a star she was so the ‘fall’ in the ’60s is slightly less a tragedy. Miles Ahead both fleshes out the milieux of the time and Miles’ seminal musical moments sufficiently to understand how his ’70s hiatus was significant.

Music is key to the success of the film and you do get a sense of eavesdropping on the creation of great music: for example, Miles working with the Evanses, Bill and Gil. Most of all, it pushes you back to the Mile’s great albums.

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose “Pepe” Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

Stan & Ollie (UK-Canada-US, 2018)

Steve & John

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are extraordinary as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy duo in cinema history. The 23 people that make up the makeup department also need to take a bow because great as Steve and John are, the preternatural likeness of their appearance is as crucial to the film’s success. Jon S. Baird’s direction and Jeff (Philomena) Pope’s script are also important ingredients in portraying the twilight years of the duo on tour in the UK.

I’m not a fan of biopics as they often cram key moments into a narrative making the film seem one set piece after another. So despite Marion Cotillard’s stunning performance as Edith Piaf, I was desperate for her to die so La Vie en Rose (France-UK-Czech Republic, 2007) would end. Through focusing on a few weeks, with a preface set 16 years earlier for context, Stan & Ollie successfully conveys the duo’s brilliance and their friendship. The film is encased in a deep melancholy about fading footlights and fading life; Ollie, in particular, is ill and Stan’s wife, in an effort to protect him, constantly downs his drinks: “It’s funny, the more I drink, the drunker my wife gets,” he says. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson also excel as the duo’s duelling wives.

The preface, in 1937, is set during the filming of the classic Way Out West (1937) and explains how producer Hal Roach’s contract ensured they weren’t as well paid as, for example, Charlie Chaplin. Pope’s script, however, makes it clear that numerous divorces and gambling was also a reason they were on their uppers, touring smaller theatres and desperately trying to get a new film off the ground in 1953.

Their performances on the tour featured sketches from their films, such as the ‘hard boiled eggs and nuts’ from County Hospital (1932). Steve and John’s mimicry is such that during them, and I’ve seen Laurel and Hardy’s films countless times, it seems that Stan and Ollie have been transformed into high definition colour. It takes conscious thought to recalibrate and think ‘Coogan and Reilly’ to allow the actors’ appearance and voices’ timbre to filter through.

Matthew Sweet’s article in Sight & Sound (Jan-Feb) makes it clear that the rapturous reception the duo receive in Ireland, toward the end of the film, didn’t happen but we can forgive Pope for fantasising how they should have ended their career. There are clearly plenty of fans still around (the shorts are shown on Talking Pictures in the UK) as it’s already taken £6m after two weekends in Britain and was apparently budgeted at a mere $10m. In my youth Laurel & Hardy shorts were dotted about BBC1’s schedules but the younger generation (if my twentysomething nephew is an accurate indicator) have never heard of them. It is their loss but I wonder to what extent you have to know Laurel and Hardy to enjoy Coogan and Reilly and the film.