Mary Queen of Scots (UK, 2018)

Imperious

I know a lot more about Queen Elizabeth I than Mary so I’m not sure how much of what we see in the film is ‘historical truth’ as against ‘dramatic truth’. It’s based on John Guy’s award winning book and this adaptation has a distinct modern focus on gender politics. No doubt gender was an issue in the late 16th century but fortunately, courtesy of the #MeToo movement, it is very much part of our zeitgeist. It’s telling that the film is directed by a woman, Josie Rourke, who describes how she fought to get a period in a period drama. I’m currently reading the excellent post Apocalyptic SF novel Defender, by G.X. Todd, which includes the trope of feral men concerned only with satisfying their appetites for sex and violence. It would be nice to think that, come the apocalypse caused by climate change (coming to a planet you are on soon), that wouldn’t be the case. However, the bile (mostly) males spew on Twitter suggests that male stupidity is fairly common.

That’s certainly the case in Mary Queen of Scots as misogyny is writ large particularly in the superb Ian Hart’s malicious (though evil might be a better word) Lord Maitland who, when asked “How did the world come to this?”,  replies despairingly, “Wise men servicing the whims of women.” Men who think they are by default wise due to their gender still infect the public discourse (see British Brexit negotiators); of course being a woman is no guarantor of wisdom (see Theresa May). The excellent David Tennant’s John Knox reminds us fake news is not a modern phenomenon with his propaganda against the Catholic Mary; the term propaganda came into use at the time:

The term “propaganda” apparently first came into common use in Europe as a result of the missionary activities of the Catholic church. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV created in Rome the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. (Ralph D. Casey)

We are currently being regaled with lies about Venezuela to justify American intervention.

Central to the film are Soairse Ronan and Margot Robbie’s performances as the monarchs and both are brilliant. The script, by Beau Willimon, teases out the sisterhood of the two showing how they are both trapped by patriarchy: Elizabeth behaves like a man and so survives. There’s only one scene (fiction) with them together, shot expressionistically with flimsy sheets filling the room to show the fragility of their divisions. Ronan sparks with fire whilst Robbie is reined in repression: brilliant acting.

Apparently some are bothered about the colour blind casting; more common in Rourke’s usual home of the theatre. Non-WASP actors Adrian Lester and Gemma Chan feature among others. For those of us who aren’t bothered, this is more heartening zeigeist: let the racists bubble in their anger. They will rant about historical inaccuracy (some will even claim there were no black people in Britain at the time!) but that’s not really their point. All history is interpretation and people of colour can interpret the past as well as anyone.

Guy Pearce deserves a mention as Elizabeth’s closest advisor, William Cecil, and the film is a great counterbalance to Elizabeth (UK, 1998). It’s good to see a loser being foregrounded in a retelling.

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The Favourite (Ire-UK-US, 2018)

Not

The Favourite seemed to be a good way to start cinema-going this year as it had been on many ‘best of’ lists. Then again, so was Phantom Thread. It irritates me when people declare a film to be ‘rubbish’ as if their view trumps all others; though it can be a nuisance to append ‘I think’ throughout. But that’s what they mean: ‘I think it’s rubbish’, as I do The Favourite. It’s rating is over 8.1 on imdb and has received rave reviews so I am, as far as you can objectively get in matters of opinion, wrong.

The cast is great, the set and costume design exemplary and the cinematography (apart from the use of fisheye lenses) marvellous. So I’m guessing my problem is with the director, Yorgos Lanthimos. I liked neither Dogtooth (Kynodontas, Greece, 2009) or The Lobster (Ire-UK-Greece-France-Netherlands, 2015) despite their interesting premises. It’s difficult to pin down what it is about Lanthimos’ filmmaking that I don’t like but I think he is an ‘arch’ filmmaker in that he keeps a distance between himself and his material. In The Favourite this is evident by the use of ‘comedy’ (it’s labelled as such but I rarely found it funny), much of which seemed to be sourced from the swearing we are not accustomed to associating with royalty or the upper classes. The fact that Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne says ‘fuck’ didn’t raise a chuckle within me and there’s some slapstick comedy, but not much. Lanthimos, and/or his scriptwriters, seem uncertain about how to portray the material, hence there’s a lack of commitment evident in my eyes.

More damningly, the film ignores the historical significance of the time; or at least assumes knowledge in the audience (which I don’t have). So the parlaying for influence in Parliament, which becomes the motivation for positioning themselves as Anne’s ‘favourite’, is fairly meaningless.

Not a good start to the year… but things can only get better?

Peterloo (UK, 2018)

Words not actions

Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.

Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.

In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.

There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.

Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.

Belle (UK, 2013)

Black belle

Although the inspiration for the film isn’t simply the above painting, where the bi-racial Belle is depicted with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the presence of a woman of colour in an aristocratic household in late 18th England is the core enigma of the film. The household is headed by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, as Lord Chief Justice, made some judgements that helped in the abolition of slavery. Scriptwriter Misan Sagay melodramatically places one of the key decisions with Belle’s ‘coming out in society’ although, in fact, she was actually a young child at this time. This melodramatic narrative serves to highlight the racial discourse that is central to the film.

Director Amma Asante, whose A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) also unearthed, superbly, hidden history about race, stated:

“You see a biracial girl, a woman of colour, who’s depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She’s staring directly out, with a very confident eye. This painting flipped tradition and everything the 18th century told us about portraiture. What I saw was an opportunity to tell a story that would combine art history and politics.” (link)

That’s not how I see it. To me they look level in the frame, though Belle’s turban is marginally higher; this equality in itself would have been a radical statement at the time. Belle also looks as if she is being pushed away and Elizabeth dominates two thirds of the frame. However if it is a push it’s certainly not aggressive given the smiling faces of both. Even though Belle is only filling a third of the frame she is the dynamic actor, moving on and in the direction of the city; St Paul’s can be seen in the background. Elizabeth is inhabiting a more domestic space that, even though she is outside, is enclosed and darker.

Belle’s finger pointing to her face is puzzling (there are theories in the article quoted above). The most obvious interpretation is she’s drawing attention to her colour; if this is the case it is doing it in an extraordinarily modern way as it is a hyperbolic gesture that serves only to emphasise the obvious. It’s almost ‘cheesy’.

Both women engage the viewer’s gaze with confidence; they are not there for the male gaze they are for themselves. It is an extraordinary painting; as far as I can tell, it’s not known who created the image.

The film is fascinating too and although it may lean a little too far toward crowd pleasing narrative resolutions that can be forgiven as it’s telling a fabulous tale. It’s a stellar cast, including Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, which is headed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is superb as Belle.

I am looking forward to Asante’s next film.

Anna Karenina (UK, 2012)

Fabulous sets

Period drama is not one of my favourite genres; it’s often shot staidly and we are merely invited to look at the ‘wonderful’ period detail and ‘classical’ British acting. Joe Wright does things differently. I enjoyed his Pride and Prejudice (France-UK-USA, 2005), where the steadicam roamed through Austen’s tasteful plotting and dialogue. He’s even more ambitious in Anna Karenina by deciding, after failing to find suitable locations (or budget), to shoot much of the film in a theatre.

It isn’t presented as a real theatre, and there’s no attempt to root the narrative in theatrical terms (as if it were all a performance), instead he uses the artifice of theatre to offer tour de force set design and transitions between scenes. In doing so he heightens the melodrama so, for example, the horse race that takes place on stage seems to threaten the onlookers even more as such races don’t occur indoors. The waltz, when Karenina (a suitably haughty Keira Knightley) falls for Vronsky (an insipid Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is dazzling in its virtuosity (I have no idea whether those hand movements are authentic but they looked great).

Jude Law, against type as the cuckold, is excellent and the other standout for me was Domhnall Gleeson, who represented true love amongst the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.

I hope the film does the ‘biz’ at the box office (£5m in the UK isn’t great) because it’s a superb attempt at an ambitious British film with a wide appeal. That need encouraging.

Wuthering Heights (UK, 2011)

The new black

If there was danger of another version of Wuthering Heights becoming hackneyed then the casting of black actors as young and older Heathcliffe immediately averted the possibility. Bronte describes Heathcliffe (as I remember) as ‘swarthy’ and so it’s entirely fitting, as are the racist expletives which Bronte couldn’t have used in her novel. Race is added to the class issues of the novel and Heathcliffe’s ‘outsider’ status is heightened.

Unlike mainstream versions of the novel, Andrea Arnold directs this as resolutely arthouse with little emphasis on narrative development. Instead nature, animals and the landscape, is given time to take its proper role in the story and, in doing, stalls the narrative slightly. The Academy ratio (4:3), I think, is used to constrict the mise en scene so we’re not allowed to bathe in the beauty of the landscape and it emphasises that the characters are trapped.

The performances are good, though I found Kaya Scodelario too insipid as the older Catherine; newcomer Shannon Beer excels as the younger. Arnold shows Cathy and Heathcliffe’s attraction to each other to be elemental, based on a necessity, and not romantic. I shall have to find to time to reread the novel as this version is a revelation.