On the Rocks

An elegant, subtle and playful take on marital affairs with Bill Murray providing dubious advice as the aging playboy dad

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It takes all of twenty minutes for Bill Murray to bound onto screen in Sofia Coppola’s new film.  Before he does, the scene is set on the roundabout of routine so familiar to young parents who juggle their children’s needs with work or career and can’t find enough time for relationship intimacy.

It is big Bill, so good in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s best known film, that we have been waiting for. Big Bill all set to play up and goof around.

Felix (Murray) has a daughter who lives with her husband and two children in a trendy neighbourhood in Manhattan. Laura (Rashida Jones), is always on the go, shuttling between school gate and toddler group. Yet when she sits in the quiet stillness at home to write, she finds herself tidying her desk and sorting files.

Her career is doing great, and so is her husband’s with half a million followers online, but success breeds problems all its own.

Felix drops by in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and is all ears when Laura lets on that she is has the sense that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), may be having an affair. There was a female toiletry bag in Dean’s luggage, and he acted strangely towards her after arriving home late from a business trip to London.

We don’t know much of Dean’s side of the story because Coppola is a filmmaker who consistently prioritises the female point-of-view her focus. In films like The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides, she has taken us into a world made up almost entirely of women. It was the latter film that announced her arrival in early, heady ways back in 1999.

Jenny Slate and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks

The writer-director is a deal more playful here, and has a bit of fun with the doubts and fears of her female protagonist. Laura wonders whether she is in a rut, not putting her best self forward, and boy, does she let herself get an earbashing from that awful character (Jenny Slate) every time they meet at toddler group.

Then there’s the ‘innocent’, sly question from elsewhere at lunch ‘Is Dean still travelling a lot with that new assistant?’

Sofia Coppola has a keen eye for the small details that give people away

The new assistant, Fiona (the dazzling Jessica Henwick), is Dean’s new account manager. It happened to be her toiletry bag with pink hearts that was in Dean’s luggage.

A world away from the operatic, grand cinematic statements made by her famous father­­­­­­­­ – think The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now – Sofia Coppola always has a keen eye for the small details that give people away. And she has developed a deft hand at irony and subtle humour.

Indeed, she has two comedians in key roles to offset Laura’s frame of mind. The engaging, affable Wayans is a comedian in his own right and one of the stars of the Scary Movie franchise. And of course, we all know Bill.

Actor-comedian Murray, a star of the Ghostbusters franchise, has had a renaissance in recent decades, particularly since he became unforgettable as the bored weatherman in Groundhog Day, and the world-weary businessman in Lost in Translation.

Actor and director capitalise on the dead-panning persona in On the Rocks. If Murray does sound a touch uncertain at times, and doesn’t deliver his lines with quite the same assurance as before, he is perfectly cast as Felix. Moreover, he helps keep things light.

On the Rocks, despite the subject, has an airy lightness of being. Over the years, some critics have discounted her work for its interest in fashion’s froth and fizz, but it is one of the things that endears her to her female audiences.

Coppola can’t be accused of a focus on fashion here. Laura is seldom seen out of her working mother uniform, alternating subdued grey tees with her stripey ones.

Coppola is one of the most successful female indie directors ever with seven really distinctive fiction feature films to her name. On the Rocks is an elegant, wry and subtle play on relationships that has all the earmarks of Sofia Coppola.

The British Film Institute nominated it as one of top ten new films to watch in 2020. Only three of these, Tenet, Da 5 Bloods and On the Rocks, have reached us so far in 2020. As a film with a female perspective, the contrast with the other two releases, could not be more marked.

First published in the Canberra Times on 4 October 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Les Misérables

MA15+

104 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the summer of 2018, when France beat Croatia in the FIFA World Cup, the people of Paris went out on the streets, ecstatic with brotherly feeling. As throngs of fans crowded the Champs-Elysees, the Marseillaise erupted in a shared golden moment, but it was followed by serious rioting in the city.

This film is inspired by those events, a first fiction feature from documentary director Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, one of the lead actors.

the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised

It is well made, compelling and, as it turns out this year, highly relevant. An invitation to outsiders to familiarise themselves with a district of extreme disadvantage, a city within a city with a rhythm and feel all its own.

The son of immigrants from Mali, Ly grew up in Montfermeil. After the Paris riots of 2005, he decided to turn the camera on his own neighbourhood, notably in the documentary 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil.

Not long ago, Montfermeil was a no-go zone, awash with drugs, and run by competing ethnic groups. A district home to immigrants of Sub-Saharan Africa and Maghrebi origin that have lived there since it was the location of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, Les Misérables. Other immigrant groups have made their way there since.

Ly has called his fiction feature Les Misérables in a deliberate nod to Victor Hugo. The director enjoys an advantage that the author didn’t have. The cinematography by Julien Poupard, the bird’s eye drone shots and travelling shots along the streets, makes a strong contribution to atmos of the Montfermeil location.

Ly knows the area intimately, with its eclectic mix of socio-economically disadvantaged, ethnically diverse people. And he clearly understands the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised.

Ly’s Les Miserables foregrounds three policemen who work in the district’s anti-crime brigade.

Policeman Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just arrived. Experienced and credentialled, he had transferred there to be nearer to the young son who lives with his estranged wife.

It doesn’t take Ruiz long to size up the other two he has been assigned to work with. Unit leader, Chris (Manenti), is proud of his reputation ‘100% swine’, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), much quieter, is a man of Muslim background.

They take Ruiz on a tour of the hood. There is a lot to absorb, along with an introduction to the team’s methods. Chris dubs him ‘Greaser’, a derogatory nickname that appears to be part of the deal.

Chris (Alexis Manenti), unit leader in the Anti-Crime Brigade. Courtesy UniFrance

Actor Manenti, in a challenging role, is particularly convincing, as are many of the ensemble of actors who portray the various community leaders. Ly has drawn excellent performances from the youngsters too.

On tour Chris and Gwada introduce Stephane to a man who behaves likes a long lost friend, although they helped put him in prison for four years. An encounter with a trio of teenage girls is more disturbing. Chris moves in on them threateningly but partner Ruiz manages to coax him away before things escalate further. It’s a genuinely chilling close call.

In recent times, the forces of law and order and the people of Montfermeil had reached an accommodation presided over by the so-called ‘mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu).

a minor theft drives the film to its tipping point

But when a juvenile of African descent, Issa (Issa Perica), widely known as a troublemaker, steals a lion cub from a gypsy circus troupe, the precarious peace in Montfermeil careens out of control.

The theft is a relatively minor incident that could be amusing, but it drives the film to its tipping point when the police tracking down the culprit make a serious tactical blunder. This is captured by a drone controlled by a local kid and he understands its serious potential.

All the complexity is masterfully handled by Ly, whose documentarian skills come into play as the various threads of the action are brought to a cliff-hanger conclusion.

Leaving the narrative ‘unfinished,’ can be a risky way to close a film, but it can work and certainly does here. It is the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that precipitate the events that are the point here.

As even-handedly as he can, Ladj Ly has skilfully shown in this important, award winning film, how community tensions can quickly escalate to a point of no return. How everyone makes a contribution, good and bad, to this outcome is rivetting.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 August 2020

*Featured image: flics on the beat in Montfermeil, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Stephane (Damien Bonnard). Courtesy UniFrance

The Swallows of Kabul

M, 81 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Swallows of Kabul is set in the summer of 1998, a couple of years into Taliban rule in Afghanistan. This is strong stuff of course, yet not live action.

It is delicately packaged instead as an attractively rendered 2D animation in subdued pastels that look like a watercolour painting. A profoundly sad tale is told with a simple, light touch.

The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Mohammed Moulessehoul, under the name of Yasmina Khadra. The award-winning author Moulessehoul adopted this nom de plume for his writing while serving in the army in Algeria. He has talked since about how he has drawn on his experiences in the field.

Essentially, The Swallows of Kabul is a narrative involving two couples whose lives intersect, but is at the same time alive with many characters who are well-defined, interesting, sometimes even amusing.

At the time, the Afghanis are of course living in fear. Public executions frequently take place in the city squares and sport stadiums, and people cower in their houses during curfew as the Taliban hoon around in pick-ups, firing at random.

The main character, Zunaira (voiced by Zita Hanrot), is the artist wife of Mohsen (voiced by Swann Arlaud). She is free inside her home, happy working at her charcoal sketches while listening to banned musicians on her boombox turned down low.

Although the book sets events in 2001, the film has located them earlier during the Taliban regime. This works better.

Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, the women bear the brunt of the regime

It is easier to believe that Zunaira, still full of vitality and hope, could be as she is. She is depicted as sumptuously beautiful, has to borrow a chador to go out, and would surely have been pulled up by the Taliban before 2001.

Every now and again a flock of swallows appears in the frame but they are not the birds the film title refers to.

It is the local women draped in their blue chadors who are the swallows, and it is their lot to be utterly unfree. Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, they bear the brunt of the regime.

Mohsen and Zunaira met at university and can recall the time when women wore skirts, and when they could go out to the cinema. She believes in a future that could return to those freedoms. Mohsen is unfortunately no longer sure.

In one of the film’s early scenes, we see understand why this has come about for him.

Early one day, vendors were slicing fruit and grilling brochettes in the city square. The traffic was wending its way through the general chaos, and the market was alive with the seductive sights and sounds typical of a Middle Eastern souk. Then it became apparent there were men standing around with Kalashnikovs. Sounds of digging could be heard, and a pile of stones was delivered.

In the stoning that follows, Mohsen casts a stone too. It is the action of a sensitive man in a loving relationship who unaccountably succumbs to mob control. It seems even worse than the street urchins who get in on the act as well.

This very impressive animated feature about a recent dark chapter in Afghani history has clarity and compassion

From this point, a string of consequences cascade. Ultimately, Zunaira is taken to the women’s prison, formerly a wing of the university, where she comes under the watchful eye of Atiq (voiced by Simon Abkarian).

The former army veteran has reached a low-point in his life. He and his wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass) have been childless and now she now is suffering from a terminal illness. He feels helpless. The older couple’s plight is a poignant counterpoint to the loving, young partners, Mohsen and Zunaira.

It is only the swallows, swooping and banking above the city, that are living free. When a soldier takes a pot shot and one falls from the sky it is a shocking act of casual cruelty but of a piece with everything else the regime is remembered for.

Moulessehoul’s highly regarded book has been brought to the screen by two female directors, Zabou Breitman, who contributed to the screenplay, and animator Elea Gobbe-Mevellec. It was screened at Un Certain Regard at the Cannes in 2019.

This very impressive story about a dark chapter in recent history has a clarity and compassion that lives on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 August 2020

La Belle Epoque

M, 110 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicious tale of lovers a half century apart is a postmodern romance. Part your own romantic adventure in an era of choice, part relationship drama.

Stalwarts of French cinema, actors Fanny Ardant and Daniel Auteuil, feature as a jaded older married couple, in a story intertwined with an affair in crisis between a young couple. As an entrepreneur and one of the actors he casts, Guillaume Canet and Doria Tillier play the latter.

The two veterans, Ardant and Auteuil as Marianne and Victor, are great foils for each other. She is utterly believable as the vibrant, frustrated psychoanalyst wife, while the chameleon Auteuil is spot on, unrecognisable in beard and moustache. A political cartoonist still valiantly wielding pencil and paper in the online world.

The new digital reality is something Victor doesn’t get, or want a part in. As a technophobe who doesn’t even own a cell phone, he is the butt of endless jokes, from the earliest (somewhat off-putting) scenes.

The crisis in their marriage has reached a nadir but it is made-in-heaven for the scenarist of La Belle Epoque, young director Nicolas Bedos. One of the funniest scenes takes place as they drive home in their Tesla. The self-drive vehicle lets them argue face-to-face, while GPS is telling Victor to extinguish his cigarette.

Marianne and Victor are the best of sparring partners. They have many difficulties including her open affair with, of all people, the editor, Francois (Denis Podalydes), who fired Victor from his job as a cartoonist.

At home in bed, Marianne is immersed somewhere inside her 3D goggles when Victor attempts to read his book. Things escalate cruelly for him and he is sent packing.

a meltdown with humour, generosity and wistfulness for what is past

It’s a sharp, witty screenplay from Bedos that plays both sides of the fence. It also steps back for perspective on how times have changed for each of them since they met.

Were things left at that level alone, we may feel we have squirmed in front of films like La Belle Epoque many times before. In the domestic battles that featured long ago in films like Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Ingmar Bergman’s haunting Scenes from a Marriage.

La Belle Epoque does not do that kind of total meltdown. It has humour, generosity and a wistfulness for what is past. This suits Auteuil’s dreamer who, although his satiric instincts are well honed, is not quite tethered to the new realities.

Time travel adds a delicious new dimension to this domestic drama.

Victor is offered a trip to an era of his choosing. It comes as a present from Antoine (Canet), who has been a friend of their son since childhood. He runs a business, Time Travelling Inc, that offers ‘tailor-made historical events’, professionally scripted and staged, for customers to take part in, travelling to a ‘belle epoque’ of their choice.

it flips back and forth between reality, artifice and the grey areas in between in a directorial tour de force

The tailor-made events could involve attending a party with William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway or playing the doomed French queen Marie Antoinette. Or might simply offer someone an evening of conversation with a parent who has passed away.

Antoine, a scenarist and director, has a sharp eye for actors that haven’t got themselves into character. He also has a sharp eye for anachronisms, which ensures that the immersive, attractively lit mise en scene constructed for these staged events enhances the total film experience for the cinema audience too.

Victor’s choice, as expected, is not wildly imaginative. He chooses the moment when he met Marianne at a bar in Lyon in 1974.

In another cross-current, Margot (Tillier), who Antoine is infatuated with, plays the part of the young Marianne. Antoine plays out his own feelings and manipulates her on screen.

Then Victor himself begins to develop feelings for Margot and tracks her down to the home she shares with a husband and baby. Or does she?

Time travel to the 1970s has some more entertaining possibilities than we see here, more than the boiled egg bar snacks. But the scenes in that decade are a fun and affectionate take on a decade swamped with change.

Keeping this ambitious and clever story together, flipping back and forth between the reality and the artifice and the grey areas in between is a directorial tour de force. Bedos’ next film will be eagerly anticipated.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 August 2020

*Featured image: With Margot (Doria Tillier) aboard, Victor (Daniel Auteuil) travels back in time

We’ll End Up Together

(aka Little White Lies 2)

M, 134 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In 2010, Little White Lies was an ensemble piece about a group of friends who decided to go ahead with their reunion even though one of their number had been critically injured in a motorbike accident. The bittersweet comedy about friendship hit the spot, and became a big hit in France and abroad.

We’ll End Up Together is the follow up to that film, picking up the story, not where it left off, but some years later. It is the next instalment of Little White Lies. Partners have changed or left, children have arrived on the scene, aspirations have adjusted and fortunes fluctuated.

a surprise birthday party that is neither nice nor convenient

Max (the very dependable Francois Cluzet), who has a holiday home on Cap Ferret, a spit of land on the French Atlantic coast, is once again the host, only he doesn’t know it this time. His friends arrive to spring a surprise 60th birthday party on him.

Marie (Marion Cotillard) and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) join in ‘Who Am I?’

But Max is in the doldrums. His restaurant business has floundered, his marriage is over and he must now sell his holiday home at the trendy resort area. The surprise is neither nice nor inconvenient, because Max is on the point of selling up.

Well that’s too bad, I hear you thinking. And well you might, during the string of social and environmental upheavals that have marked 2020.

Max isn’t the most sympatico of people. More on the dour side. A wet blanket who puts the fire out while his friends are dancing because it’s time for him to go to bed. One wonders how he has actually kept the friends who have showed up. Then again, it has been seven years since they saw him last.

However, it’s not just about Max. It’s about friendship, the kind that lasts.

All of the characters, with the exception of several newcomers, are played by the same actors. Eric (Gilles Lellouche), who has become an established and successful actor, arrives with his baby daughter and a hilariously belligerent nanny, but, crucially, without his wife. She might be dropping MDMA in Ibiza, for all he knows.

And life has caught up with a toughened and disillusioned Marie (Marion Cotillard) who was in a partnership with Ludo (Jean Dujardin) at the time he died. Her son, who she has a tendency to forget about, is seven.

Vincent (Benoit Magimel), who had a big crush on the resolutely hetero Max in the last film, arrives with his new gay partner. His former wife, Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), has blossomed as a single and is into online dating. She is there too, with their son.

Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is the only one who apparently hasn’t much changed, and he remains the butt of most of the jokes, involving koalas, caterpillars, and other ephemera. It really is a wonder how different Lafitte is from the sinister and controversial character he once played in Elle opposite Isabelle Huppert.

Cluzet had the lead role in Canet’s murder mystery of 2006, Tell No One. It was the actor-turned-filmmaker’s second feature film and brought his work as director to international attention. His relationship with Marion Cotillard, with whom he has two children, has earned him some attention too.

a big-hearted film about friends, getting on 

It is amusing to read that Canet had to convince his fine ensemble cast to make this second film together. They didn’t sign on at first, but sent him back to do a redraft.

The first Little White Lies was compared with The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s classic American film about friends who also reunite over the death of one of their group. Canet readily admits that he admires it and has referenced it in both of his White Lies films.

He has certainly used some great American pop and rock music on the soundtrack, which I felt intruded on the francophone world. But the warm and affirming We’ll End Up Together engenders a completely different mood to the Kasdan film.

Developing the original Little White Lies was a tough experience for Canet. He wrote it quickly in six weeks, angry that friends had let him down when he landed in hospital with a life-threatening condition.

It’s interesting that We’ll End Up Together, a big-hearted film about friendship, can have begun in such a way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 August 2020

House of Cardin

a fascinating tribute to Pierre Cardin, fashion visionary, whose work is ‘never done’

G, 97 minutes

Palace Electric

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

How famous people start out in life is fascinating, all the more for the fact that it can offer few clues about what they become later in life.

Pierre Cardin, a legend of French fashion and an international celebrity who has really earned his fame, is still working at 98 years of age. He is one such person, and the subject of this documentary.

There are some 800 products and businesses that carry the Cardin brand, from men’s and women’s fashions and accessories to pens, cars and furniture, to hotels and restaurants. You need only glance at eBay to confirm that the Cardin name is still everywhere.

an extrovert in his career, reclusive in his private life

He was the youngest of nine children born to a wealthy Italian wine merchant. As a child he apparently liked to create costumes for dolls. I get that, but where did the vision come from?

We will never quite know. This internationally celebrated fashion and lifestyle designer presents the riddle of an extrovert in his working career and a recluse in private life.

Naturally, the first question the film poses is ‘who is Cardin’? A subversive, a socialist, a futurist…always ahead of his time. There are a few, scintillating details like his long affair with French cinema actor Jeanne Moreau and his friendships with other creatives like Jean Cocteau, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marlene Dietrich.

The place to look for answers is, however, his work. He explains his appetite for his chosen vocation like this, ‘whatever I start, I have to finish’.

Some of the relatives and associates interviewed here call him an enigma, others refer to a very secretive side, and a penchant for referring to himself in the third person.

He has not and never will write an autobiography, but Cardin has authorised this documentary feature of his enthralling life and career. It is directed by gay partners in life and work, P David Ebersole and Todd Hughes.

The first two years of Cardin’s life were spent on a rural property near Venice, before the family moved to France to escape the rise of fascism. His father hoped that his youngest son would work in the family business, or train to become an architect.

Cardin became apprenticed to a tailor instead, then found employment in the houses of Schiaparelli and Dior in Paris before he launched his own fashion house in 1950. It’s like he never looked back.

His career presents a string of bold experiments from his ‘bubble dress’ in 1954, to dashing little numbers with bold geometric shapes and mouldings that freed women up during the 1960s, to the fashion parade on the Great Wall of China in 2018, and more.

He always thought big, really big. His achievements are hard to credit to a single person, long lived as Cardin is.

Early on he was denounced as a fashion socialist, but it is his democratisation of fashion, making his designs accessible to everyone everywhere, that speaks to the world we live in today.

He introduced his work to India, Russia, and China and the Philippines, and was the first couturier to employ a Japanese model.

his fashions, freed of bespoke tailoring constrictions, offered women freedom of movement 

The burgeoning Cardin archive could have sunk any filmmaker. Ebersole and Hughes have handled it adeptly, though at a rather fast clip.

A few more dissenting voices from the cut-throat world of haute couture, however, would have counteracted a tendency to hagiography, when the fashion icon hardly needs it, with such an outstanding record.

Before watching House of Cardin, I would have offered the view that his women’s fashion ideas, with their geometric shapes and mouldings, made few concessions to the female figure. But I discover that it is exactly the point. His fashions, freed of bespoke tailoring constrictions, offered women freedom of movement.

Cardin was the first couturier to offer pret-a-porter fashion for men, who he put on the catwalk for the first time. He was himself once a male model.

An early adopter of just about everything, Cardin’s drive has had a visionary bent, perhaps explained by snippets like this, ‘I am very happy with my present, but I am never done’.

An internationalist, an innovator and a futurist, there is much more to the man than clothes. House of Cardin is an unexpectedly fascinating record, well worth a look.

First published in the Canberra Times on 25 July 2020

Shirley

A convoluted, eerie psychological drama about reclusive writer of gothic horror

 

M, 107 minutes

Palace Electric

4 Stars

Review by ©

Jane Freebury

 

When the actor Elisabeth Moss appears on screen, it’s often as a character to be reckoned with. In this atmospheric, convoluted psychological drama about the life of American horror and gothic fiction writer, Shirley Jackson, it is no different.

In big hair, owlish spectacles and the worst mid-20th century ladies’ fashion, Moss looks just like the images online of the reclusive woman who became a nationally acclaimed writer, best known for creepy mysteries with high impact.

This film, part biopic and part gothic mystery, is set just after Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, was published to acclaim in The New Yorker. In the early 1950s she was at the start of her career.

the moody, intimate and elusive style would work perfectly in a story that Shirley Jackson wrote herself

It is also early in her marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg is great in the role), but she is already struggling with her demons.

The screenplay by Sarah Gubbins is based on a recent thriller written by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley: A Novel takes place over a few months, at home with the writer and her critic husband while a couple is staying.

A young couple are of course a device to reveal the intimate workings of their hosts’ marriage and to explore the writerly imagination.

At the time, Jackson is developing a second novel that is based on the mystery disappearance of a young woman in the area. Her second novel, Hangsaman, about a young woman who disappeared from a liberal arts college in Vermont, appeared in 1951.

When Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife arrive in the college town of North Bennington, Stanley invites them to stay a while in exchange for help around the house. Stanley is supervising Fred’s PhD.

Shirley and Stanley like to show off their bohemian tendencies, mocking the idea of a clean and tidy house, ‘a sign of mental inferiority’, when the mind should be occupied with higher things, but it’s okay if someone else does it for them.

Moreover, despite her recent literary success, Shirley is letting herself go in a haze of booze and cigarettes, and showing signs of agoraphobia that plagued her later life.

The deal that Stanley and Fred cut is a dud for Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) but, good faculty wife that she is, she acquiesces to what will help advance her husband’s career. Besides, a baby is on the way.

And yet, Rose is no pushover. Australian actor Odessa Young brings depth to her role as a young married woman confronted with the inequality of women at the time, and she gives a stand-out performance.

On better days when the inspiration flows, Shirley spends the afternoon tap-tapping at the typewriter, and makes for a spikey companion at the dinner table with husband and house guests. On some other days, she can’t seem to get herself out of bed.

The writer’s waspish character, an amalgam of Edward Albee’s Virginia Woolf and a Bette Davis’ super bitch, loves to play bait the guest, especially one as pretty and vulnerable as Rose. It doesn’t help that husband Stanley, a flagrant womaniser, fancies her either.

Surely it wasn’t intended that the fictional support character of Rose would take over, but she has

Thrown together by day, the two women, bored housewives both, in time begin to bond. Rose becomes fascinated with ‘Paula’, the young local woman whose disappearance is the inspiration for Shirley’s new project and the film begins to take an interesting and unfathomable turn, as the younger actor steals the show.

After Peggy Olson emerged from her shell in Mad Men, Moss has been everywhere. Especially since the deeply alarming television series, The Handmaid’s Tale.

To my way of thinking, it is however Rose who becomes the story here. Odessa Young is on screen for a similar amount of time as Moss but the ambiguity of the character that she portrays, struggling with women’s issues before the second wave of feminism articulated them, is the most compelling.

With eerie atmospherics, complete with incidental notes from a few string instruments, it feels like we are right there in the frame too, alongside the rest of Shirley Jackson’s inner circle.

Director Josephine Decker’s moody, intimate and elusive style would work perfectly in one of the stories that Shirley Jackson wrote herself.

Shirley is a compelling snapshot of an intriguing author’s troubled life. It surely wasn’t intended that the fictional support character of Rose would take over, but I believe she has.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2020

It Must Be Heaven

A silent doco observes a world gone mad

M, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For obscure reasons, It Must Be Heaven begins during an Easter church service that doesn’t go according to script and the bishop leading the congregation has to kick down a door.

Perhaps kicking down a door is a good way to begin a film that few believed could work. The writer-director of It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman, must be gratified that it screened in competition at Cannes last year and was Palestine’s official entrant at the Academy Awards.

a Palestinian comedy, a contradiction in terms?

When most of what we hear from the Middle East is conflict and strife, a Palestinian comedy may sound to many of us like a contradiction in terms. Suleiman, an award-winning Palestinian filmmaker (Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) from Israel, shows how hard it is to pitch an idea that runs contrary to expectations.

If, as his friend Gael Garcia Bernal suggests in a cameo as himself, that Suleiman’s next film is about peace in the Middle East, that could be a tough sell too.

Human comedy with Elia Suleiman Image: courtesy Rectangle Productions

 

After the odd start, the protagonist ES – the filmmaker himself – is at home in his flat in Nazareth enjoying a quiet coffee on the balcony. What do you know, there’s a neighbour helping himself to lemons from his garden? ES doesn’t react or even offer a mild protest, he just observes, owl-like behind his spectacles and beneath his panama hat.

Watching the world go by, ES is a silent witness. To customers in a restaurant who behave like gangsters when they don’t like the food. To the gang armed with baseball bats that roams the streets.

the absurd is sometimes tinged with menace

To two soldiers swapping shades in a speeding car, in which a young Palestinian woman with a halo of curly hair sits, sits blindfolded in the back seat. Sometimes the absurd is tinged with menace.

So much of the film would seem discontinuous were it not viewed through the prism of ES whose function is to hold it all together. For much, though not all of the time, he is a single organizing consciousness conveying to the rest of us a world gone mad.

Until we eventually learn what it is that he has planned.

This is silent comedy that draws on the tradition of comic greats Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. The images, beautifully composed by cinematographer Sofian El Fani, and their juxtapositions convey the humour. Dialogue is minimal, with ES saying barely a word. If this sounds lite or inconsequential, it isn’t. It Must Be Heaven carries a powerful political message.

With images of the tensions that characterise life in Israel firmly established in our visual memory, ES leaves for Paris, where, after a brief love affair with the beauty on parade on the boulevards, he finds things are not so dissimilar. There are tanks filing through the city and fighter jets in formation overhead, and the police are jumpy. He has arrived for Bastille Day and the city is in lockdown.

Once that’s over and life supposedly more tranquil, squads of Segway riding policemen patrol the streets and make a check of restaurant patio dimension compliance seem like they are pegging out a crime scene. The citizens of Paris themselves, instead of relaxing at the park, go to all sorts of lengths to keep a few seats in the sunshine to themselves.

ES wanders in and out of these scenes like an innocent, then we become aware of his purpose in being there. It Must Be Heaven could be the filmmaker’s own story about trying to get his film made. In a little joke for those in the know, a producer who rejects his project is played by Richard Maraval, co-founder of Wild Bunch, the international film sales company. It’s name is on the credits.

The journey to pitch a project doesn’t end there. In another deft segue for moving on, involving a sparrow and an open window, ES flies off again. Next destination, New York. There it is even less possible to ignore the militarization of the forces of law and order. What’s more, the citizenry are toting their own high-powered weapons. It would be funny, were it not also serious.

As a Palestinian who makes funny films, Elia Suleiman has his job cut out, but this gentle, observational comedy about our fractious world is on message, and at the same time a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 July 2020. Broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Petit Paysan (aka Bloody Milk)

Subtle, taut drama that resonates beyond the family farm

M, 86 minutes

Streaming on Stan

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is an impressive, subtle drama that was invited to Critics Week at Cannes in 2017 and has subsequently appeared at French film festivals. An unusual piece made by relatively unknown talent, it could easily have disappeared from view, but it has turned up on streaming services.

It is good to see a film about the travails of a young French dairy farmer re-surface in this accessible way, because it is terrific film making featuring a fine central performance by Swann Arlaud. As it turns out, three years after it was released, Petit Paysan is timely and topical as well.

The writer-director Hubert Charuel grew up on his parents’ dairy farm but he quit the land to study film at the prestigious French film school, La Femis, in Paris. This, a first feature that was filmed on the family farm, is likely to contain a lot of autobiographical elements.

At the age of 35, Pierre (Arlaud) has sole responsibility of the family farm and its top-ranked herd. He has an exacting milking schedule and of an evening, has dinner with his retired parents who still live on the property, or eats alone in front of the screen.

Conversation with an equable dad and difficult-to-please mum  (Isabel Candelier) is entertainingly combative and packed with rueful insights, like so many of the interchanges between Pierre and the other characters in his world. A sceptical gendarme, the bunch of burly mates he never has time to socialise with, the Belgian dairy farmer he watches on YouTube, and the pretty, dimpled baker his mother wants him to pair up with.

The screenplay by Charuel and co-writer Claude le Pape brims with humour and insight into its cast of characters.

surrealist touches to thriller tropes

Pierre has just learned over the internet that entire dairy herds have been put down after they were found to be suffering from a highly infectious disease, a dorsal haemorrhagic fever. He is starting to freak out at this news, even though events in  Charente are some distance away.

Without overplaying its hand, Petit Paysan displays some inspired cinematic touches that reflect Pierre’s state of mind. From the surrealist dream sequence of him asleep while his cows are milling around inside his house, to the thriller tropes that come into play when lives are dispatched in the barn.

Pascale the vet (Sara Giraudeau) and Pierre the farmer (Swann Arlaud)  Courtesy: UniFrance

Pierre’s sensible, down-to-earth sister, Pascale (Sara Giraudeau, also marvellous), is a local vet. He calls her in to check on Topaz, one of his Friesians who is with calf. She hasn’t been herself lately. Both Pascale and her assistant dismiss it as a case of mastitis, brought on by E. coli infection.

Like the bracing and unsentimental exchanges between Pierre and his parents, the exchanges between him and his sister are just as salty, brisk and amusing. Pascale is disinclined to take her brother’s early concerns as seriously as she might, and is clearly exasperated.

Blood along the spine means ‘DHF’  contagion, the ‘Belgian disease’

Pierre has phoned her 15 times, in perhaps as many minutes. Why should she respond in a timely fashion when Pierre’s behaviour is becoming stranger by the day?

Yet there is a suggestion that for all Pascale’s learned experience, Pierre’s lived experience is on the money this time. Anyway, he knows his beloved cows best. The next day, when he strokes Topaz along the spine his hand comes away smeared with blood. Yes, she has it, ‘DHF’, the ‘Belgian disease’.

As Pierre takes desperate action under the cover of night, the suspense grows as we find ourselves with some sympathy for the young farmer who is in fact breaking the law. His elderly neighbour may have witnessed something so Pierre coaches him in the correct response. Should someone ask, it’s ‘something that stinks but we don’t know what!’

Trapped between family loyalty and professional ethics, Pascale inevitably becomes compromised by what she knows and she and Pierre try to send their parents away on holiday in Corsica so they won’t suspect anything.

It’s a debacle that only makes sense in the context of Pierre’s dread of losing his entire herd, his reputation and his livelihood, and has some resonance with the strange times we find ourselves in.

Petit Paysan, a portrait of rural life that is free of sentiment, is a quiet achievement with characters that live on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 June 2020 and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

The King

A brilliant, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare on leadership and power

MA15+, 140 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Now the streaming platforms are windows on the world in our shuttered lives, movies that were at the cinema a few months ago are re-appearing on our TVs. Giving The King a second chance if you missed it last October is a good bet.

It’s an Australian film from David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, 2010) that had a short release last year. There were favourable reviews, it did some business at the box office and then it joined the Netflix stable from whence it came.

Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity

Like The Irishman and Roma, it is a Netflix production. Much of its budget would have gone into the impressive historical detail, including lavishly mounted battle scenes with full-scale catapults hurling fireballs, and hordes of extras in clanking armour.

Filmed in cathedrals and castles in England and Hungary, The King has an authentic period look that has been handsomely photographed by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, Macbeth). In its stern way, it looks great.

The filmmakers have also invested a great deal in actor Timothée Chalamet in the title role. Only 24 years old and hot property since his leading role in Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), his ambiguously gendered beauty is not what we might expect in a celebrated warrior king, and is a destabilising factor that keep things interesting.

Catherine de Valois (Lily-Rose Depp) who will become Queen

In recent times, it’s been good to see young filmmakers prepared to give Shakespeare a go. Macbeth and Romeo + Juliet, directed by Australians Geoffrey Wright and Baz Luhrmann respectively, each struggled in different ways with the language, but The King is based on a completely new screenplay and I’m happy to say that it works.

the simple and naturalistic take on Shakespeare’s language has considerable power

Shakespeare’s observations and insights on leadership, power and when to go to war are still there, told in simple and naturalistic language that has considerable power.

Michôd co-wrote his screenplay with actor-director Joel Edgerton, who has the key role of Hal’s constant companion, Falstaff, a dream part for any actor.

Their screenplay is drawn from the three Shakespearean plays, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V, that trace the career of one of England’s most popular kings. It was Henry V who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, a victory that joined the French and English thrones, for a short time at least.

The uniformly fine cast comprises Australian, American and British actors, some in memorable cameo roles.

The Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), heir to the French throne

Ben Mendelsohn appears as Henry IV, the king who will not acknowledging his elder son, Hal, until his dying breath. Robert Pattinson appears in a scene-stealing role as the Dauphin, the vicious, wily heir to the French throne. Lily-Rose Depp’s appearance as Catherine de Valois is only brief but big on impact.

Chalamet himself is very good as the wayward prince who morphs into a great king, though I have some reservations about casting him in this role.

The King tells a story for modern audiences.  It’s quite unlike Henry V starring Laurence Olivier in 1944. While that film was made to revive the war effort, Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity.

There is nothing glamorous about warfare here. When Prince Hal takes down rebellious young Hotspur (Tom Glyn-Carney), there is nothing valiant about one-on-one combat either. Their swordfight finishes in a grim, desperate wrestling match.

At Agincourt, the French and English armies slog it out in what must have been total mayhem. How would the combatants have known who was who as they struggled in the mud?

Ever since Shakespeare wrote the fictional character of Falstaff into his Henry plays, the king has been in danger of being upstaged by his mischievous, wassailing companion. Edgerton clearly enjoys himself as the bad influence who constantly leads the young prince into trouble.

the changes that risk upsetting the purists are nothing if not bold

However, The King has elevated Falstaff’s standing, giving him a role of consequence as a royal adviser. No longer simply a comic character who keeps Henry in touch with the common man, Falstaff can advise on military strategy too.

All these changes risk upsetting the purists around the Anglosphere, but The King is nothing if not bold.

Kings and kingship are not in themselves such a fashionable subject for audiences today. But the question of good leadership and how to govern is as relevant today as it has always been, and it will not go away.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 March 2020. Also broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, and published by the Film Critics Circle of Australia

*Featured image: Timothée Chalamet as Henry V

Queen & Slim

Combines style and charisma to make the point

MA15+, 132 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

The date at a diner wasn’t going well. She had only responded to his request on Tinder after a bad day at work. His attempts at conversation were getting a curt response, his easygoing manner was irritating.

They would soon discover just how different they really were. He, a teetotaller and a devout Christian, who wears a crucifix and drives a car with the registration plate TrustGod. She has no truck with religion.

She is a defence attorney, an excellent one, mind you, and it isn’t completely clear what work he does. Perhaps he sells shoes. There is a collection of boxed Nikes in the boot of his car.

The only things that Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) do appear to share besides profiles on Tinder, is being residents of Ohio and African Americans.

Turner-Smith is a relatively recent arrival on screen but Kaluuya made his name in the smart, brutal horror film Get Out. Like this film, Get Out has something serious to say about contemporary race relations in the US.

Queen and Slim are not, by the way, the real names of the protagonists, but everyman and everywoman descriptions. Their real names are revealed at the end.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and the blue Pontiac Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

It’s the colour of their skin that prompts an aggressive encounter with a white police officer while Slim is driving his date home. Something is said about swerving and failing to indicate, but it’s a set up. Queen and Slim are cooperative and reasonable, but this law enforcement officer is only looking for an excuse to use his gun.

He finds one. As Queen retrieves her mobile to record the event, telling the officer all the while what she is doing, he fires at her. Slim and the policeman wrestle to the ground, the gun slips out of the policeman’s hands, and the precipitous descent into a life and death situation concludes with the policemen lying on the ground, lifeless. Slim shot the officer in self-defence with the policeman’s own weapon.

From bitter experience as a defence attorney, Queen knows exactly what to expect from the Ohio justice system There’s nothing for it but to leave the scene and take to the road. While heading south along the highway they might come up with a plan.

It’s no coincidence that their journey begins in Ohio, the point at which escaped slaves who had travelled the ‘underground railroad’ in the 19th century, could leave its network of support for freedom.

When the fugitives run out of fuel after crossing into Kentucky, an off-duty sheriff gives them a lift. He is all cheery bonhomie until he realises who he has on board his pick-up. A black Bonnie and Clyde.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty made counter-culture heroes of the outlaw couple in the 1960s film, Bonnie and Clyde, and inevitably, Queen & Slim invites comparison with the iconic Arthur Penn film. But the similarities are superficial. The original couple, whose Depression-era crime spree across the American South ended in a hail of bullets, were small-time criminals.

Although Queen and Slim agree to have their photo taken in front of their car, just like the original Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s, they are a law-abiding couple. Queen and Slim are caught up in the climate that has seen innocent black Americans die at the hands of police.

Once the couple are on the road in their sleek blue Pontiac, dressed in gear they found at a brothel where they hid briefly, their new look fools no one. They are folk heroes known to all. The cop who was shot was a bad cop. They have appeared on YouTube in film uploaded from his dashcam and have become celebrities among their own.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

As they make their way through the backblocks on their way south they are safe, protected and supported by the poor, black communities. They even find a moment to dance to the blues, and the freedom to fall in love.

Music is the language of the director Melina Matsoukas, who has won multiple top awards as a director of music videos. Her feature debut here with screenwriter Lena Waithe, also a black American, is striking. Activist cinema that combines charismatic leads, stylish visuals and great music usually never looks and sounds this good.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 March 2020

*Featured image: Slim (Danieal Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith). Courtesy Universal Pictures

Honeyland

M, 86 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A wild and rugged landscape, a cast of thousands of airborne extras and their solitary beekeeper feature in this engaging and unusual observational documentary. It hails from Macedonia.

It was first conceived of as an official documentary on the Balkan region where it is located. But when the filmmakers came across a woman of Turkish descent whose livelihood was harvesting honey, they decided to focus on her instead.

She is touted in promotional material as the last of the traditional beekeepers. Whether she is or not, she is certainly one of a kind.

In the opening frames, Hatidze Muratova is a speck, a figure in a headscarf walking through a majestic mountainous landscape. Ethereal music combines with capella singing on the soundtrack to make this an entrancing invitation into another world.

Hatidze is crossing the high plateau because it is harvest time. After scrambling along a narrow track above a steep drop, she removes a slice of rock from the mountainside. It opens like a door, revealing a hive of bees.

Mashallah, she whispers, the Arabic expression for giving thanks. The hive is dripping with honey.

Her presence and purpose are not unwelcome, it seems, as she collects honey with her bare hands, murmuring half for you, half for me as she does it. Her age-old traditions are the very definition of sustainable.

After the autumn harvest, Hatidze takes her jars of honey into town. Although Skopje, the capital, is not so very far away, it’s a nine-hour journey for her, by train and on foot.

At the city markets she haggles with stall owners, bargaining hard with the best of them. There is the added incentive of being able to afford some bananas, a special treat, and a sachet of hair colour. Her preference is for chestnut brown, a modest choice, but who is there to appreciate it back at the ghostly hamlet that is her home?

Hatidze’s adventures out and about are punctuated by scenes of her in the cottage that she shares with her 85-yeqr-old mother, a dog and a couple of cats. Old Nazife is bedridden and only has sight in one eye. She and her daughter are blunt with each other, and they bicker constantly, but their interdependence is stark.

They are the only inhabitants of their hamlet, a clutch of stone houses that has been abandoned for quite some time. There are no roads, and no running water or electricity. Jet aircraft that are seen occasionally high in the sky are a remote sign of the 21st century modernity that exists elsewhere.

The cycle of life continues without incident until the day that Hussein Sam, his wife Ljutvie and their seven boisterous children drive in and make it their home, for now. The tribe of kids and the herd of cattle and chickens and general chaos and commotion are a major disruption for two women.

Hatidze welcomes the family of nomads and maintains her forbearance despite this though mum shows less tolerance. But then would, wouldn’t she? Moreover, Hatidze shares her knowledge on beekeeping with her new neighbour, Hussein. He sets up his own hives, seriously messing with Hatidze’s work.

Hatidze with the neighbours

All the goings-on observed in this documentary amount to great theatre. The squabbling adults, the siblings at play or having it out, and the creatures on four legs and two create a tapestry of small, dramatic incidents, that are sometimes hilarious.

The kaleidoscope of vignettes is a tribute to the insight and intelligence of the two Macedonian filmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

They spent three years with Hatidze, camping at her village, earning the trust that allowed them special access to the intimate lives of others, while also absorbing the rhythms of their remote Balkan world.

The process has really paid off. Kotevska and Stefanov amassed hundreds of hours of footage and have allowed the vision to speak for itself. The result is a superior documentary, without voiceover.

Honeyland was nominated for a best documentary and a best international feature award at the recent Academy Awards. Hatidze’s character and situation may not appeal to everyone, but those who tune in to it will recognise that Honeyland is a rare achievement.  Even the wait for the little surprise at the end of the credits is worth it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2020

*Featured image: Hatidze shares her knowledge

Motherless Brooklyn

Pet project made with a free hand

M, 144 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Edward Norton has had a lot of time to think this pet project over. In the late 1990s, around the time that he was first recognised for his gifts as an actor in Primal Fear, he acquired the rights to the award-winning book on which it is based.

It’s said that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 gave the production the nudge it needed to get it going.

Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is set in the late 1990s. Norton has however shifted it back to the 1950s, when everything seemed calm, prosperous and hunky-dory, but lots was going on beneath the surface.

The shift to the fifties also offers an excuse for integrating the narrative into the glorious heyday of gumshoe detective movies and the thrillers that we have come to know as film noir. Low lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke, men in sharp suits, fedoras and heavy coats, and women in tight-waisted dresses, heels and silk stockings. That sort of thing.

Mid-last century was probably a more testing time for people with a disability too, even in its milder forms. People like Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary physical and verbal tics. In his hands, Lionel’s character has a dignity that a less skilful actor might not have achieved.

Neither the pet tabby that he shares his apartment with, nor colleagues at work are at all bothered by this disability. Nor is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman he begins to form a relationship with, but Lionel feels compelled to call himself a ‘freak show’.

Bruce Willis makes a brief appearance in early scenes as Frank Minna, boss of the firm of private investigators where Lionel works. Lionel may have a disorder, but he has a photographic memory, an invaluable asset in a gumshoe.

Minna is bundled off one day by a bunch of nameless heavies and shot, but he manages to leave Lionel with a few clues as to who is responsible before he expires in emergency.

It seems Minna was on to something, something big. Sensing this, Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed him. The trail leads Lionel right to the top, the Borough Authority and its plans for urban renewal spearheaded by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

In 1950s New York, urban renewal was another term for destroying neighbourhoods to make way for development. Forcing minority communities out of their homes then demolishing them to make way for the buildings and infrastructure that were part of Randolph’s grand vision. New Yorkers will recognise in this character a thinly disguised Robert Moses, a controversial figure at the time.

Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) confronts Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton)

One of the worst examples of destructive urban renewal was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station. It was a magnificent beaux-arts building like its sister station, Grand Central, before it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and other more lucrative amenity. For a key scene, it is reconstructed here, in VFX and physical sets.

No doubt New Yorkers will also spot dozens of familiar locations here, in this salute to New York and all its boroughs. The period look seems authentic, though sharp eyed citizens will be able to spot anything that isn’t, a production designer’s and art director’s nightmare.

Alec Baldwin, these days a Saturday Night Live regular who delivers a biting satirical portrait of President Trump, is also great as Randolph.  The self-appointed city commissioner who runs everything and does anything he wants, as he tells Lionel one day in a lecture on the meaning of power. Randolph is however a more interesting and complex character at close quarters than we would expect.

Motherless Brooklyn is such an ambitious undertaking. A big city story that champions the people versus the developers, a really important, ongoing subject that impacts everyone.

I would have expected more indignation and less indulgence in the telling of such a story. Motherless Brooklyn is very well-written, performed and impeccably produced but it has been allowed to run to too long. It would have been better with a tight edit, but ,as writer, director and producer, Edward Norton had a free hand to do things his own way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 February 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Edward Norton as gumshoe Lionel Essrog

Emma

PG, 125 minutes

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Emma Woodhouse, created by the 19th century novelist Jane Austen, is blessed with beauty, intelligence and personal wealth. At 21 years of age she is mistress of her household, has an inheritance of £30,000, wealth that is all her own, and only her doddery old dad to look after.

Since her mother died when she was very young, and her older sister left home to marry and have children, and her beloved governess left to marry a neighbour, Mr Weston, she has been alone at home with her father.

Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), obsessed with his minor ailments, is not great company. ‘Do you feel a draught about the knees?’ is the perennial question to companions in the drawing room. Nighy, who hardly speaks a word here and is all the funnier for it, is the perfect choice for the role.

The classic novel Emma, a comedy of manners, has been made and re-made countless times as theatre, film and television. Back in 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow, a relative unknown at the time, was cast as Emma in a new film by writer-director Douglas McGrath. That Emma knew how to shoot an arrow from a bow, like Cupid the mischievous, meddling matchmaker, and the willowy American actor has defined the character ever since.

This new version of Emma takes more risk with this possibility of another side to Emma, a side that may even be a little bit cruel. While developing her novel, Austen acknowledged that she might be the only person who would much like this protagonist.

A 23 year old newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy, makes for a terrific new Emma in this new film directed by Autumn de Wilde. It is the first feature for this director who has a background in photography and short film.

Taylor-Joy is an interesting casting choice. Though she  has a track record in horror film, she makes a feisty, prickly Emma, totally convincing in the role. She also has the long neck you need to look good in bonnets and Empire-line dresses. It’s a clever casting choice, that hints at a side to Emma that Paltrow’s sunny smile could chase away.

The peppery screenplay, a considerable improvement on the screenwriting in 1996, is the work of Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealander, a Booker prize-winning author.

In 2020, the character of Emma is clearly as compelling as ever. Lively and charming company on one hand, but opinionated and arrogant by her own admission, sometimes insensitive on the other.

No doubt, these traits are the reasons why she lives on 200 years after her character was born. The nuance, insight, wit and wisdom of Jane Austen the author who created her probably has something to do with it too.

Emma has declared she has no interest in marrying. She says she can’t see the sense in it when the married women she observes aren’t half the mistress of the household that she is.

She has convinced herself instead of her talent for matchmaking on behalf of others. Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young local woman, comes into Emma’s orbit and becomes devoted to her, following her advice in all manner of things, including choice of husband.

The local vicar comes a courting, a handsome young farmer drops by as well. Emma doesn’t encourage Harriet’s interest in either man, getting things very wrong on her best friend’s account and ultimately her own.

Lightning strikes: Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) Image courtesy Box Hill Films – © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Will no one set her straight? Only close family friend, neighbour and brother-in-law, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) dares criticise her behaviour. When everyone else tell Emma she is perfection, he reminds her of her faults and shortcomings. Their combative relationship is very entertaining.

With its grand manorial interiors, picturesque village and rolling green fields, de Wilde’s film looks gorgeous. On that score it meets the standard for English period film, but a light, mocking tone is anything but traditional. Emma 2020 is a delicious send-up of the Regency upper classes and their silly manners. In this sense, it reminded me of another recent period drama, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

In recent weeks, a snappy, funny trailer has announced this new Emma on our screens. Like its protagonist, the latest Emma shows a deft hand, is sharp, good to look at, and confirms once again that she is a timeless heroine.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020, also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: friends Harriett (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy)

Just Mercy

M, 137 Minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It took more courage than many of us would have thought necessary 30 years ago to leave home in Delaware and get set up in Alabama as a civil rights lawyer. Fresh out of Harvard, and with backing to set up a centre for equal rights, young black lawyer Bryan Stevenson may have been surprised by the reception he received.

a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night

With a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night and threatening worse still, State forces of law and order were ready to greet the upstart Northerner with tactics of intimidation and humiliation.

Stevenson had to endure a strip search in order to visit inmates on death row. The agonising scene is played out in what feels like real time. And he was pulled over and searched with a gun to the head, before police laughed and drove away, never explaining why.

Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is the basis for this film, is alive and kicking today. Dividing his time as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative he founded with the responsibilities of a law professor at New York University.

He is played here by Michael B. Jordan, recently a charismatic villain in Black Panther. Here, charisma helps his character too, though not as much as the dignity, restraint and the earnestness with which Jordan has invested his role.

Brie Larson as his partner at the EJI centre, also based on an actual person, Eva Ansley, has a minor support role.

Meetings are held with inmates on death row, long-stay and short-stay guests of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Although the film doesn’t make a point of it, Stevenson reviews the cases of black and white inmates, focusing in particular on the cases of two black men, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Walter ‘J. D.’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx).

without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with a recent murder

Traumatised Vietnam vet, Herbert, who admits his crime, though not apparent intent, has never had adequate legal representation. Walter, on the other hand, admits nothing. He has been framed, but doesn’t expect an iota of justice in a state where you are ‘guilty the moment you are born’.

Self-employed, he had been driving his own new pick up when the police arrested him.  Without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with the recent murder of a white teenage girl. The judge overrode the jury’s decision that he serve life with the death sentence. Only in Alabama, apparently.

On Stevenson’s journey in search of the truth he meets Walter’s family and friends in the local black community. Walter’s alibi was solid.

Courtroom drama: Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

Further details of the conviction emerge. The only evidence the court had permitted was that of a single key witness, a convicted felon who was coerced by police with incentives to give false evidence against Walter. Up to a dozen black American family and friends could testify he was at the fish fry fundraiser that day. African Americans were disbarred from the jury too.

It’s an ironic indictment on the corruption of legal processes in Monroe County, the very county where Harper Lee wrote her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film’s finest achievement is demonstrating just how justice can so easily and breathtakingly be perverted and just how critical legal assistance is for those who can’t afford it. They are the most vulnerable group when it comes to equality before the law.

There can’t be any doubt about the sincerity of Just Mercy, though it did not need to exceed two hours’ running time, however, to establish these points.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham for this traditional courtroom drama. The eloquent and compelling arguments against corruption of legal processes and the use of capital punishment that are no doubt set out in Professor Stevenson’s book, would have been a lot of help.

It is good to read that despite the use of capital punishment rising in certain countries, the global trend is actually moving away from it. Of the US States that still have the death penalty, there’s a list, including California, Kentucky and North Carolina, that have not used it in over a decade. No, the State of Alabama isn’t there yet.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 January 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image: Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.  Courtesy of TIFF

1917

MA 15+, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For whatever reasons, World War I doesn’t figure nearly as much as World War II on the movie screen. Maybe because it was years ago and there have been so many other wars and quasi wars in between. Or maybe it’s because in WWI much of the conflict was confined to the trenches for months on end, a scenario that can have limited visual and dramatic appeal.

Either way it doesn’t really explain why the first global conflict hasn’t been mined more for its story-telling potential.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) saw the potential. He collaborated with writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to develop a script from a piece of family history. A story his paternal grandfather, Alfred, told him about a young soldier who was sent across enemy lines alone to warn a British battalion that they were heading into an ambush.

It’s a slight story based loosely on fact. A race against time, a picaresque journey across the front, and a powerful re-creation of the conditions in the field for the millions of young men on both sides who sacrificed their lives.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) cross no-man’s land

1917 begins in spring on the edge of a grassy field, where lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake  (Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping in the sunshine.  The countryside looks just like what tourists see today. Broad, green fields that were once the battlefields of WWI extending as far as the eye can see. How could such a beautiful, peaceful setting have once been the backdrop to scenes of extraordinary carnage?

Their nap is interrupted. Blake suddenly gets orders to report to General Erinmore (an economical appearance from Colin Firth). He is told to take a mate along with him so his friend, Schofield, goes too.

Their secret assignment is to let Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, another celebrity cameo) know that although it looks like the Germans have retreated, they have laid a trap and any advance will end in a catastrophic defeat.

And there is a further incentive. If they reach the battalion in time, Blake will also be able to save the life of his older brother, a lieutenant. It’s no coincidence that Blake sets the pace. The two men leave immediately, in broad daylight.

swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up

Schofield and Blake pick their way across no man’s land and enter the trench system the Germans left behind. It is infested with fat rats and set up for unsuspecting enemy soldiers and they barely escape with their lives. They are safer travelling above ground, picking their way through the ransacked farms and burning villages  to their destination.

From beginning to end, the camera of cinematographer Roger Deakins keeps the young soldiers firmly in its sights. One of the best in the business, Deakins has always been up for a challenge. He has shot 1917 in what looks like a single continuous take. If you search for them you could probably pick the edits, but the overwhelming impression is of being swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up. Immersion is total.

It’s the impression you get in other films shot in a single take, or something like it. Hitchcock’s body in the trunk thriller, Rope, is a famous one, though the cuts have been skilfully buried. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is a more recent example,  in which a trip through the Hermitage is actually managed in a single continuous shot.

had Schofield gone home a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him

Mendes’ 1917 is the boy’s own story. Neither fresh-faced young actor, Chapman nor MacKay, are as well known as the stars with bit parts, and that’s as it should be. 1917 commemorates the generation of young lives that were lost to the war machine.

Some of the classic films about the 1914-18 war, like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the 1930s, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in the 1980s carry a strong anti-war message. They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s superb archival documentary on WWI released last year, sends a similar powerful message of the loss of young lives.

Young George MacKay is simultaneously appearing in the lead role in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the latest film about the local folk hero who refused to take orders from anyone. Had MacKay’s character Schofield gone home to England a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him?

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 January 2020, also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Schofield (George Mackay) negotiates a ruined town

The Truth

PG, 106 minutes­­­­­

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicate, relatable family drama with a mother-daughter relationship at its core is set in the warm tones of a Paris autumn. A New York-based screenwriter flies in for a visit as her mother, a screen actress, is having her memoir published.

With husband and daughter in tow, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) arrives at her childhood home. Not far from the metro but a world unto itself, set amongst lawns and trees, it holds an abundance of memories for her. It looks like a castle her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) observes. There’s a prison behind it, Lumir rejoinders.

it’s a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed through a translator. You could never guess

Within the old family home, the imperious matriarch, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), awaits them. She is a vision of establishment glamour. Perfectly proportioned features discretely made-up and a coiffured mane of blonde hair. Her daughter looks drawn, wears hardly a skerrick of makeup, and the hair needs attention.

It’s not just a contrast between lifestyles either. Fabienne is also a working woman, currently in the role of a daughter with a time-travelling mother in a faintly absurdist science fiction film ‘Memories of My Mother’.

So far, so clear. Things get going when Lumir protests  that there are lies in the memoir about watching  school plays and meeting her daughter at the school gate. Fabienne’s riposte? As an actress, she will never tell the naked truth, and isn’t a little neglect better than interference in Lumir’s private life?

The memoir also states that Lumir’s father, Pierre, is dead. Perhaps it’s all in a manner of speaking, as there is a giant tortoise that lives in the shrubbery that goes by the name of Pierre. The man himself (Roger Van Hool) comes knocking sometime later, looking mischievous and very much alive.

But for Fabienne, Pierre no longer exists – she now has a partner in her bed and a male assistant Luc (Alain Libolt). The beleaguered Luc resigns dramatically, then returns to his duties during the course of events.

Fabienne can’t recall which other actors of her generation – let’s call them rivals – are still alive either. At least, it may not be intentional but a cultivated absent-mindedness. Writer, editor and director Hirokazu Kore-ada has instilled a strong undercurrent of humour in this gentle, witty study of a family dominated by two strong women.

This is not the first time, and surely not the last, that Deneuve will be cast as the estranged mother we have seen her as in Claire Darling, in The Midwife, and in On My Way. While The Truth plays with perspectives on the critical parent-child relationship, it is also about ageing actresses, their rivals and those set to inherit their legacy who wait in the wings. But that’s a secondary theme.

Catherine Deneuve: a Vertigo moment?

The men in the story, especially self-described second-rate TV actor Hank (Ethan Hawke) helps with rapprochement, and makes for some amusing interchanges over the dinner table. Maybe all the blokes, like Hank, have a bit of a crush on Fabienne. Even the director who likes those shots of the whorl of hair in a bun above the nape of her neck. A reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo?

by the end, family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters

Over the course of the film, the two sparring partners, Lumir and Fabienne, grow closer and when they finally hug, it is genuinely touching. They even share confidences about their male partner’s love-making, how it might compare to their cooking. By the end, the family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters, that won Kore-ada the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.

Making The Truth was both a departure from, and a challenge to Kore-ada’s cultural sensibility. His characters speak up rather than remain silent as they might be inclined to do in his home country. In this sense, the film actually needed characters to be French.

It is a wonder that Kore-ada has brought two major French actors, Binoche and Deneuve, together like this for the first time. It was entirely his idea, and a ‘wild’ one at that, as far as his French crew were concerned.

It’s also a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed this warm and witty family drama through a translator. You could never guess.

An earlier version of Jane’s review was first published by the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019

  • Featured image: family gathering: from left, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), Hank (Ethan Hawke), Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and  Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

The Two Popes: a mixed blessing

M, 126 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s an irresistible pleasure watching veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce together on screen as Pope Benedict and his successor, the head of the Catholic Church today, Pope Francis.

Each Welshmen has a commanding presence, and despite a lingering hint of some character or other they once played who was mad, or bad or downright dangerous to know, they are each thoroughly believable as good men of god. Everyone is saying that Pryce is a dead ringer for Pope Francis, and he is.

In the hands of another director, this drama about the struggle between Benedict and Francis, between the conservative and the liberal forces they represented in the church, could have been dull and unenticing. In the hands of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, it is anything but.

Two well-known films by Meirelles convey his range. He made that stunning, kinetic, crime drama, City of God, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as well as The Constant Gardener, a contemplative study of a man who avoids involvement with the world by immersing himself in his plants.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) watches soccer with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins)

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has had his fair share of success recently with Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, has done lively and engaging work here. It is not known what Benedict and Francis actually said to each other during the three conversations they had in 2013, but McCarten has some engaging views on it.

Music direction is lively too. In an early scene set in 2005, when the Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) bumps into Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) in the washroom, he is humming a pop tune. The same tune, ABBA’s Dancing Queen, is the soundtrack when cardinals from around the world assemble to elect their next pope.

irresistible performances though acknowledgement of issues of child abuse far too brief

Playful brio in this Meirelles film, from the variety of camera angles and positions to the soundtrack, is everywhere.

Back in 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, the church was looking at its options in challenging times. Would it continue with the process of liberalisation that the late pope had overseen, or revert to a more stringent traditionalist approach?

It chose to install the conservative bishop from Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, as its new leader and re-affirm the church’s fundamental doctrine. Benedict XVI brought more Latin back in again, and the traditional red papal shoes re-appeared on his feet!

The Church’s new conservatism under Benedict caused the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio to fly to Rome to offer his resignation. The popular, liberal cardinal hadn’t even reached retirement age.

What Bergoglio didn’t know was that his pope, who was more advanced in age than most popes had ever been to hold office, was planning to step down. He wanted to persuade Bergoglio, his strongest critic, to succeed him.

Benedict had a plan, but his house guest at the papal summer residence had yet to become a willing participant.

Benedict was taking the all but unprecedented decision in 2013 to resign the papacy, stepping down before his maker claimed him. A pope or two had stepped down before, but the last one to resign on his own initiative did so back to the 13th century.

As to be expected, the worldly archbishop from Argentina and the former academic from Bavaria are worlds apart. Benedict reveals another side as the musician who enjoys playing his favourites on piano, including Berlin cabaret music. Bergoglio’s loves soccer, and as a dancer of tango he must of course practice. How else but with a partner?

The film delves into Bergoglio’s past when as a young man just about to marry he makes a U-turn into the confessional box and joins the Jesuits. Another B+W flashback shows his shameful actions under the Argentinian junta.

Yet, despite some conversation about child abuse in the church between Benedict and his cardinal, this moment is far too brief. You only have to be reminded of the Australian royal commission held into institutional responses to the abuse, or the devastating 2012 doco, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.  A missed opportunity.

The Two Popes is still a rich and entertaining experience. A terrific extended conversation despite wasted opportunities, bringing an engaging, humanistic perspective to the issues the church faces in the modern world.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

Suzi Q: rock’n’roll pioneer in a leather catsuit

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the bad old days, rock stars were by definition blokes and a bit of poor behaviour went with the territory. It was then, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, that a girl playing a bass guitar, almost as long as she was tall, claimed a spot on a crowded stage.

Though Suzi Quatro did smoke and had plenty of attitude, this girl from Detroit, a music city if ever there was one, was wholesome by rock‘n’roll standards. The sex and the drugs were not for her, something she attributes to her strict mother and a Catholic upbringing.

Quatro appears in interview throughout this new music doco. It is directed by Liam Firmager and has been produced in Australia, a country she has toured many times. Her most recent visit concluded this month.

Suzi Quatro with fans. Image courtesy © The Acme Film Company

It seems fitting that a country that appreciates Quatro and where she has toured on some 30 occasions has made the first documentary about her.

a family schism that has never healed

Like some of the famous older rockers, Quatro just keeps on keeping on. Though it’s hard to attribute her longevity to clean living when other rockers, now septuagenarians who did it all, have lived to tell the tale.

As a teenager, she was performing on bass in the Pleasure Seekers, an all-girl band comprising sisters and friends, when she suddenly took herself off to London. It seemed to result in a family schism that has never healed.

Record producer Mickie Most recalls how he spotted her and launched her, re-packaged in a leather catsuit with her all-male support band, including husband-to-be Len Tuckey.

You couldn’t miss her. Long blonde hair flying, a pocket rocket in a leather jumpsuit, the first woman in front of a rock band.

Considering the number of docos on other rock stars that have been made, recognition for the indomitable Suzi Quatro is long overdue. This, the first doco of her life and career, is jam-packed with archival and interview material that perhaps helps to make up for this. However, not all is that insightful.

Her music regularly topped the charts in European countries and has had a particularly consistent fanbase in Australia, but it didn’t really catch on in her home country, and the question this raises remains.

Debbie (Blondie) Harry makes some interesting points, as does record producer and songwriter Mike Chapman, an Australian  who was a key player in the music industry in England in the 1970s. Was Quatro ‘too soon’?  Was something lost in translation? Or was it because the US didn’t take to glam rock. Mmm…but wasn’t she raw and hard rock rather than glam?

The ratio of talking heads to vision of Suzi in action is too high. Alice Cooper and Joan (I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll) Jett are good value but more vision of the performer’s concerts, more of the music, and even vision of quiet moments can go a long way.

On the other hand, the frank views of her sister Patti  and some other members of her family about her music and career make you wince. Her family who were also into music in a big way wrote her out of their lives, an estrangement that must have had a defining effect on her.

Suzi Quatro with the Fonz. Image courtesy of © Happy Days

Yet she seemed to want out. She went to work very young and was doing five shows a week, when she ‘should have been in school’. She has been indefatigable ever since. She has made guest television appearances as ‘Leather Tuscadero’ in Happy Days with the Fonz, appeared in Absolutely Fabulous with Patsy and Eddy, has hosted a chat show and was a hit in a starring role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

a pioneer when other females in the business were singers like Lulu and Cilla Black

In 2019, it’s a bit shocking to see her get her bottom slapped and pronounced ‘rear of the year’ before a TV interview. An in-depth report on how she survived the music industry could make interesting viewing.

She says that when there were no female rocker role models, her very first inspiration was Elvis. In 1973 she emerged a pioneer when other females in the business were singers like Lulu and Cilla Black.

Bold, mouthy, a looker free of artifice, she was an original, the first woman to lead a rock band, sing lead and play an instrument. This is a very comprehensive tribute to her career.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 November 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Report: a record too hot to handle

M, 120 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The missing middle word in the title of this strenuous and thoughtful film is torture. The inconvenient truth of it redacted, just like the videotape records of CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ destroyed in the years after September 11.

No, not a spoiler. Just letting you know about the really unsavoury backstory to this 7,000 page report into CIA activities.

Based on real events post 9/11

Based on real people and real events, The Report is about how researchers working for the Senate Intelligence Committee compiled an official report inhouse into the methods used by the government’s intelligence agency while interrogating terrorists and terror suspects detained after 9/11.

Adam Driver hits the spot as Dan Jones

A lot of young Americans stepped up to join the defence forces or otherwise help after that national catastrophe, including a young graduate student, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who switched his studies to security overnight.

the real Dan Jones has set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance internationally

As a young everyman who wanted to help protect the homeland, Driver is an inspired choice. We already had him pegged as an engaging, versatile and intelligent actor, and though we get to see little other dimension to his personality outside of work, he is always interesting to watch. Late in the piece we see him jogging through a Washington park, and that’s about it, but Driver is a nuanced and expressive actor as the bureaucrat whose job became his all.

Incidentally, the real Dan Jones has left the public service and set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance around the world.

As a Senate staffer, Jones led the team investigating the CIA use of torture in the wake of 9/11. It may well have been the last thing a patriotically inclined young citizen sought, but he was lucky to be under the guidance of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), an admirable, thoughtful and supportive boss. After a long a distinguished career, the real Feinstein is the oldest serving member of the US Senate.

CIA videotape records had been disappeared

The tapes of interrogations had been disappeared or destroyed, but, incredibly, the written records still existed, and it was these that Jones and his tiny team trawled through for years to come up with the facts. It was no easy job. They had to face bureaucrats disinclined to help, or simply resistant, and work in the windowless bowels of some departmental basement.

When has torture ever worked? Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America?

What they found on the page is translated to scenes that are mercifully short. Feinstein and the team found themselves asking if torture ever worked. Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America? The film leaves you in no doubt, and has a dig along the way at Zero Dark Thirty for concluding that it had led to Bin Laden.

If waterboarding works, then why was it necessary for a prisoner to undergo it 183 times, Feinstein asks. A reasonable question, no one had thought to ask it of the two contract psychologists who were freelancing its use. This notorious method and mock burials and the rest has become ‘a stain on the values and history’ of the US in the years since.

The Report is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, whose writing credits include The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects and will soon include the new Bond film, No Time To Die.

Despite the welcome presence of Bening, there is nothing glamourous to this shadowy world of intelligence gathering. With its chilly palette and serious, weighty tone, The Report is in the tradition of work in the wake of the Watergate scandal, like All the President’s Men, and after the release of the Pentagon Papers (on US involvement in Vietnam), like The Post.  Typically, it’s mostly chilly interiors and the forbidding facades of impenetrable Washington government buildings in the frame.

A stain on American history and values

When the report is released, other senators, including the late John McCain, (famously a former long-term prisoner of the North Vietnamese) lend their support to it and condemn the use of torture, and its stain on American values and international standing. The noticeably warmer glow in the frame at this point, is unfortunately undercut by some final revelations.

This is smart stuff, wordy and engrossing – and non-partisan – with a great message for governments to own their mistakes. It can feel like sitting on a jury, listening to the arguments back and forth, but in the final analysis, The Report is in no doubt about the position it takes.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 November 2019