Tag Archives: Film Review

Danger Close: the Battle of Long Tan

Rated MA 15+, 1 hr 58 mins

All cinemas

3.5 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

In 1966, Long Tan was just an abandoned village inside a rubber plantation not far from Saigon, today’s Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam. After 18 August that year, when Australian and New Zealand solders encountered Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops there, it became the scene of a pitched, three-and-a-half hour battle. There were many losses all round and both sides claimed victory at the time.

difficult and contested territory, the legacy for the US and its allies

An irony if ever there was one. No one really seems to ‘win’ in war. Though by 1975, the Vietnamese could at least claim their independence after centuries of wars during which they eventually saw off the Chinese, the French, and the Americans and their allies.

Any film about the Vietnam War enters the difficult and contested territory that is the legacy for the US and its allies. The American film industry is probably still recovering from the impact that the experience had on the national psyche.

The latest film from Kriv Stenders (who directed the beloved Red Dog), along with his team of writers including Stuart Beattie (Collateral, Tomorrow When the War Began) is a brave contribution that pretty well confines itself to events from the Australian perspective and avoids making judgements about our involvement. It is great to see a local film exploring a difficult period of Australian history.

Until the battle of Long Tan, as I understand it, conscripts could comprise a staggering 50 percent of troops on the frontline. It’s clear that Stenders wishes to honour the losses and the bravery of the men at Long Tan. They were recognised by the US and South Vietnam, but for many years elided by their home country.

Private Paul Large (Daniel Webber)

Conscripts like Private Paul Large (Daniel Webber), from somewhere beyond the black stump in northern NSW, who died that day aged 21. And he was one of the oldest. The youngest casualty among the 18 who died was only 19, like the voice in the Redgum song that has become an unofficial anthem for veterans.

it wouldn’t have been won without a level of disobedience

A battle was not anticipated when, after an attack on the newly established base at Nui Dat, Brigadier David Jackson (Richard Roxborough), sent soldiers out to reconnoitre where the mortars were coming from. A platoon of the men were caught in a pincer of VC troops, and cut off from them the rest of the company. Seasoned officer Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel) and his inexperienced men were trapped and sure to die, but back at headquarters in the base, command feared that sending in reinforcements would expose the base itself to attack. The artillery saved the day.

As this new film tells it, Long Tan was not the most glorious moment for Australian high command, suggesting it wouldn’t have been ‘won’ by the ANZACs without a level of disobedience. Orders are brushed aside at several key points, when men take action, risking their lives to support others in the field.

Entertainment for the troops

All this occurred on a day when singers Col Joye (Geoffrey Winter) and Little Pattie (Emmy Dougall) had been flown in to entertain the troops.  It is a bizarre interpellation of the look and feel of life back home, when it was a matter of life and death on the front.

If you take yourself along to this film—very well staged and nerve-jangling after a slightly awkward start—you may find yourself recalling Peter Weir’s ageless Gallipoli set in World War I, or aspects of Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Vietnam in his masterpiece Apocalypse Now.

Danger Close: the Battle of Long Tan, just like any good so-called ‘war’ film, has a message that is powerfully anti-war, highlighting the terrible human cost.

Jane’s reviews are published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

OPHELIA

Rated M, 1 hr 46 mins

3 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

The true story of Ophelia is a ripe, juicy fruit that has been hanging low for the picking for a very long time. Four hundred or so years, actually.

Other characters from Hamlet like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have had their day on stage, but the tragic young woman who went mad when the Prince of Denmark rejected her, hasn’t had quite the same attention. Sure, Ophelia has inspired novels and a multitude of references in art, literature and music since Shakespeare’s play was first performed, but this new feature film, based on a novel by Lisa Klein and directed by Claire McCarthy, takes her into the mainstream on screen.

McCarthy is an Australian director whose previous work includes the sensitive and underrated film, The Waiting City, released in 2010.

Ophelia opens with that indelible image of her drowning in the river,  flowers floating around her as she sinks to her death. It references the famous painting by artist John Millais.

Once the moment on the river is past, a very different story begins to unfold in flashback in a Danish royal court where there is witchcraft, drug addiction and potions that allow you to play dead. While the state of the kingdom was a matter for debate in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, here it is clearly rotten.

a street-smart Ophelia for the 21st century

Although Ophelia is noble born in Shakespeare, here she is a pert street kid dressed in sackcloth. An urchin who catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who is not such a bad sort here, and she is brought into the royal household at Elsinore, to the delight of her ambitious father Polonius (Dominic Mafham).

The new king Claudius (Clive Owen)

Ophelia’s new backstory hints broadly that as a young girl she learned some useful things about resilience. She will need it if she isn’t going to be a victim at the court presided over by the new king, Claudius (Clive Owen, in a terrible lank wig, looking suitably evil) who murdered his brother to gain the throne and delectable Gertrude.

Hamlet’s character is necessarily backgrounded on this occasion but young British actor George MacKay still manages to put in a very good performance as the conflicted prince, fatally disillusioned, thoughtful and hesitant, losing his mind.

gorgeous costumes and lush production design can’t overcome dull writing

As a lady-in-waiting, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley, terrific as the feisty heroine) has become an auburn-haired beauty who is spirited, sexual and ultimately the agent of her own destiny. It is, after all, the only way her story can be told anew in the era of #MeToo.

Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) and Hamlet (George MacKay) together

The young adult audience that Ophelia is aimed at will embrace this revisionist female protagonist and swoon over the gorgeous clothes and lush postmodern production design but won’t find it particularly compelling. Although Ophelia’s story moves in some bold new directions, the unimaginative and prosaic writing by screenwriter Semi Chellas doesn’t make the most of its opportunities.

Now that this new Ophelia offers a fresh, 21st century take on the tragic figure, we wonder why it has taken so long to rescue her from her long-suffering image, as the ultimate tragic victim. And we wish that this key female figure had been resurrected with a stronger and wittier, story.

If ‘to be or not to be’ was the question, we’ll have to wait for another answer.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7

The White Crow

Rated M, 2 hrs 7 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre and Palace Electric New Acton

3.5 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Before the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in June 1961 and became a household name, he had one or two decisions to make. He was challenging convention with a new approach to male roles on the ballet stage but behind the scenes he was working out his sexual preferences, and whether he preferred a life of freedom in the West to constraint behind the Iron Curtain.

Actor and director Ralph Fiennes has taken on this fascinating time in Nureyev’s life, handling it all with intelligence and restraint. The screenplay for White Crow is by the great English screenwriter David Hare  whose writing was behind unforgettable films such as Wetherby, Damage and The Hours.

Construction on the Berlin Wall would soon begin and to some extent East-West relations were still in the balance, when Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) was visiting the West as a member of the Kirov Ballet. Depicted as more outgoing and incautious than the rest, Nureyev formed friendships with other dancers and an enigmatic young widow Clara Saint, played by Adele Exarchopolous, (in such contrast to her role in Blue is the Warmest Colour) with whom  he might have had an affair had she been more forward or he more inclined to women. Their finely balanced relationship is ultimately critical in Nureyev’s escape from his Russian minders.

Fiennes would have been the first to admit he didn’t know the first thing about ballet. Expertise was brought in to advise him, but Fiennes is clearly more interested in the man’s character than the fiery flamboyance Nureyev deployed while wearing tights. It was something about Nureyev’s ‘ferocious sense of destiny’ that interested him, he has said.

The outsider perspective builds a broader platform for White Crow than specialist interest. Most of the dance sequences actually take place during classes or rehearsals, when temperament isn’t held so much in check.

With chiselled jaw, full lips and imperious manner, dancer Ivenko looks the part, even if he is not, I’ve read, as similar in style to Nureyev as other dancers cast here, like Sergei Polunin, who has a lesser role here. The casting choice also suggests Fiennes was more interested in Ivenko’s ability to portray personality rather than his dance performance.

Fiennes has put himself in the frame, speaking Russian too. Not one to make life easy for himself, he plays Nureyev’s teacher, Pushkin, who offers the young man a bed at his home while recuperating from an injury. Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Kamatova) instigates an affair with the charismatic young man.

Contentious roles have seemed a magnet for Fiennes as an actor, which makes him often interesting to watch. His directorial debut with Coriolanus, based on the Shakespeare play set in ancient Rome, when a principled general felt compelled to commit treason, was another fascinating tale of transgression and betrayal at high level.

Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) with Yuri Soloviev (Sergei Polunin)

Aspects of Nureyev’s character are fleshed out with beautiful moody flashbacks in near-monochrome from his impoverished upbringing in Siberia, but I was still left wondering what was really going on behind the strong features and imperious stance. The White Crow is interesting and impeccably made, but for this viewer, the gestures towards Nureyev’s famous future don’t provide enough to show why he was so thrilling and fascinating a figure after his defection.

Still, it’s good to see how The White Crow taking back some of the ground lost for ballet by Darren Aronofsky’s hysterical Black Swan with Natalie Portman that won many accolades in 2010. In Fiennes’ new film, Russian tempestuousness and flamboyance meet British reserve with finely honed results.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7

Apollo 11

Rated G, 93 mins

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

5 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

There are no talking heads recalling the event or opining its significance in this new doco about the first moon landing. Apollo 11 tells a well-known story in a fresh and dynamic way that is entirely in the moment, so we might as well be there too.

It is an exemplary record of the first time that men walked on the moon, and the astonishing story, a form of ‘direct cinema’ composed with archival material, is made to feel like ‘being there’ in July 1969.

No interviews, no voice over, and no re-enactments

Director Todd Douglas Miller, commissioned by CNN to direct a commemorative 50th anniversary documentary, apparently found much more footage than he could have hoped for in the archives. New vision in super wide 70mm of the launch complex, the crowds who attended and the astronauts’ recovery, helps make the film feel fresh.

There are no interviews, no voice-over narration (except an occasional announcement recorded at the time) nor any dramatised re-enactments. Skilfully put together, with a marvellous original score by Matt Morton, it layers the drama bit by bit, slotting the developments into place, taking into account the precision of the aerospace engineering that is on display.

We can expect to hear more from Miller, who has directed just one other commercial film to date. He was also the editor and one of the producers of Apollo 11.

Like opening a time capsule, not a selfie in sight

Things get rolling with the Saturn rocket on its way to the launch pad. We can see for ourselves how massive it is.

Now and again, the camera sweeps the crowds of onlookers gathering at a short distance from the launch area. They are filming on their Bell & Howell and Canon home movie cameras, and there isn’t a single selfie in sight.

Inside NASA, there are  teams of the men (plus an occasional woman) who made it happen. Rows and rows of them, in white business shirt and tie, anxiously consulting lines of consoles, while outside bands of journalists and hushed families, relaxing in the summer heat, wait for blast-off. Apollo 11 is like opening a time capsule.

Images of the pitted lunar surface and our beautiful blue planet from afar are so much more familiar 50 years on, but Apollo 11 manages to engender wonder and exhilaration for what was a momentous achievement at the time, and in the pre-digital age too.

Unfortunately, it cannot be ignored that the malefactor Richard Nixon was US President at the time of landing, and some of the glory unfortunately falls to him. However, the film seems to get around this by not naming him when he congratulates astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the success of their mission.

The late President Kennedy, makes a brief appearance, as he should, delivering a few lines from his famous ‘we choose to go to the moon’ speech. But it’s not until the end credits, because in 1969 he of course was no longer there.

A new documentary for the 50-year anniversary of the moon landing was inevitable, but there was no guarantee that it would be exceptional.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7

Parasite

MA 15+, 2 hrs 11 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Writer-director Joon-ho Bong makes bold and confident films with tremendous visual flair. The Palme d’Or he received at Cannes for this film last year suggests that the venerable film festival is at last catching up with the quality of cinema from South Korea.

Films by female directors are taking a little longer.

As you might expect from a best film at Cannes, Parasite looks good, very good. Even the scenes that take place below street level, in the basement where Ki-taek (popular actor Kang ho Song) lives with his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and two adult children, are constructed with visual flair and in long takes that allow the details to resonate. And it is shot through with Bong’s bleak humour.  He co-wrote with Jin Wan Han.

Bingo! Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (So-dam Park) find wifi

The family lives pretty much hand to mouth, scrounging and swindling. The best place in their flat for using their neighbours’ wifi involves a squat near the toilet. Fumigation from the street is another opportunity. They leave the windows open for the fumes to billow in to rid their home of pesky bugs, though they will contaminate the pizza boxes they are folding for a bit of cash.

they are a family of consummate grifters, fun to watch as their moves go undetected

No sooner does the son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) get a job tutoring in a wealthy family, the Parks, than the rest of his tribe pile on board. Ki-taek replaces the driver, Chung-sook the housekeeper and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park), whose forging skills enabled the opening for her brother in the first place, also nabs a job tutoring the Park’s little boy.

The Ki-taeks are a family of consummate grifters, fun to watch as their moves go undetected by the Parks, who seem to operate in a world of their own, which is, of course, the point.

One day, Mr (Sun Kyun Lee) and Mrs Park (Yeo-jeong Jo) leave their extraordinary modernist marvel of a home in the care of their servants. It seems they don’t suspect the Ki-taeks belong to the same family, even though little Da-song (Jung-heon Jun) remarks that all of them smell ‘the same’.

Then, during a downpour, the former housekeeper returns to feed her husband who lives hidden in the bomb shelter below. The encounter between the grifters and this pair, their class allies, is rich with savage social satire. Below ground or under the radar, it’s the only way to survive.

a vertiginous descent from high society to the underclass below

Then, the Parks return early, their camping holiday washed out by the heavy rain, but the servants just still manage to escape detection.

The moment of reckoning arrives at a very fancy party in the Park’s garden when vicious violence erupts. All the more ghastly for taking place in a garden in bright daylight and within a colourful, celebratory mise en scene.This is another film from a director whose social satire carries a sharp edge. Bong’s futuristic thriller in 2013, Snowpiercer, saw social privilege get its just deserts, though who deserves what here will be more debatable.

And like another recent South Korean film, Burning (that used the same cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo), Parasite makes reference to the widening social divide in Korean society and societies everywhere.

With its graphic violence and creepy threat from the basement, Parasite could easily have tipped into horror mode. Awards for genre at Cannes are rare, but this is largely black comedy with wit and humour, and enthralling camerawork that takes in the vertiginous descent from  high society to the underclass below.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

Yesterday

Rated M, 1 hr 55 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Palace Electric New Acton

3.5 stars

Review © Jane Freebury

The concept for Yesterday is terrific. It’s hard to imagine a better reason for getting the Beatles’ back catalogue into a movie, played one by one and in each song’s entirety, as though only just composed. The very idea that no one in the world has ever heard of the Beatles is a great excuse, and Yesterday is based on a brilliant idea with great comic potential.

After a collision with a bus while cycling through an electrical storm, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), wakes up in hospital minus two front teeth, but his cultural memory intact.

When he’s recovered, Jack sings ‘Yesterday’ for his friends at the pub with his new guitar, but they act like they’ve never heard it before, and regard it as his composition. It’s not that they are overwhelmed by it either. ‘It’s not Cold Play.’ In another scene, he tries to do a rendition of ‘Let it Be’ on piano for his parents and their friends, the Beatles generation after all, but they are hilariously inattentive.

In a global outage during the storm, the Beatles were erased from everyone’s memory, and somehow deleted from cyberspace, along with band Oasis who emulated them. ‘That figures,’ mutters Jack. But the Stones roll on.

Before this happened, Jack had given up a lot for his own music – his teaching job, his independence, and something of his father’s respect – and now he has suddenly found himself in sole possession of a treasure trove of songs that changed the world.

Actually it’s a sheer pleasure to hear the songs in Patel’s hands, as he performs them really well. It’s a reminder that voice and accompanying guitar or piano is all you need for melodies so good they stand on their own, without the video or the elaborate backing.

Finding a manager with imagination and vision who recognises a great song when he hears one takes a little time. Time in which managing Jack’s potential passes from his manager, and would-be girlfriend, Ellie (Lily James) to Ed Sheeran , who in a big-hearted performance plays himself, a lessor songwriter than the Beatles.

Ellie is a sweetie, but Jack’s roadie Rocky (Joel Fry) is more entertaining, and so is the rapacious agent in LA, Kate (played brilliantly by Debra Hammer), for whom Jack has to suffer the indignity of a makeover. It’s the support characters in Yesterday who are by far the most fun.

The slick marketing campaign for Jack’s ‘One Man Only’ album is a marvel of cultural engineering that can only be spot on. And the sales pitch of a sole genius is a reminder of how the chemistry of collaboration made the Beatles incandescent.

The songs catch on eventually and Jack staggers into stardom with his guilty secret.

As an exponent of the Beatles’ golden oldies, Patel’s Jack Malik does what’s called for in a character to whom amazing things happen, yet something is missing.

Even though Yesterday has a dream team at the helm. Writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle who were behind some of the biggest movie hits in recent memory – Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill (Curtis) and Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle).

It is a joyous experience, sprinkled with sweet moments, and infused with warmth and fuzzy feeling, but Yesterday is mildly disappointing.

As a tribute to the Beatles, it only tells half the story. We don’t remember the band just because they were cute or their songs were sweet, they could sneer. There was so much more to them and the wave of social and cultural change they rode.

Yesterday is like biting into a scrumptious delicacy, as in high concept to die for, only to discover there isn’t much substance in the middle.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7

Never Look Away

Rated M, 3 hrs 9 mins

Dendy Cinema Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It isn’t possible to look away from this imposing film for long. Maybe to check the time―it does run for over three hours―or to block out a harrowing moment, but it has a commanding and sensual beauty that isn’t around much at the moment. Top marks to the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And like writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, it has something serious it wants to say.

The central character, Kurt Barnert, is a little boy when we meet him on a sunny day in beautiful Dresden in 1937, visiting an art exhibition with a lovely young woman, probably too young to be his mother. As they stand in wrapt attention in front of the Kandinskys and Picassos on display, the tour guide launches a rant denouncing degenerate modernism. The child hardly notices, he is entranced.

The paintings captivate his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) too and she assures Kurt he should trust his curiosity and never avert his gaze, because ‘everything true is beautiful.’ It’s all he needs to know.

Averting the gaze takes on wider implications as the narrative progresses, and is caught up in the obscenities of the Nazi regime.

At home later that day, Elisabeth’s heightened awareness turns bizarre and there is an episode of self-harm. Kurt’s beloved aunt is schizophrenic, eventually brutally eliminated by the Nazi regime for what is judged her unsuitability to bear children.

After the war, Kurt (played by Tom Schilling) is studying art, but he struggles to find meaning in the Socialist Realism he is required to produce in Communist-era East Germany. The role of the artist in society is of course what this is all about, as Kurt tries to work out his own style and vision while living through his country’s turbulent recent history.

At this time, he falls in love with another Elisabeth (Paula Beer), who he nicknames Ellie. A fashion student, an uncanny doppelganger for his late aunt, who is the daughter of a highly-ranked medical officer with a shadowy Nazi past. The ‘reveal’ as he leans towards his daughter’s bedside lamp is one of the best there is.

Sebastian Koch had a key role in The Lives of Others, as a playwright under surveillance by the Stasi. Here, as Professor Carl Seeband, he is another compelling character, and really more interesting than Schilling’s Kurt, who doesn’t have the same presence or complexity. A game something like ‘cat and mouse’ develops between Kurt and Carl, and the two generations they represent.

It has been well-documented that von Donnersmarck based this fascinating story loosely on the life and work of the German artist Gerhard Richter, and many of the details match. But it is probably safe to say that both filmmaker and artist have been at pains to distance themselves from direct attribution. This is no biopic.

Never Look Away feels like a labour of love from von Donnersmarck, who both wrote and directed, and it is so good to see his return as a filmmaker after his last film, The Tourist. A dull romantic thriller with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, it also brought beautiful people together on screen, but gave them nothing to do.

When the Nazis were consolidating their power in 1937, they understood only too well the importance of mind control. An exhibition of degenerate art famously represented much of what was wrong with the old order: individual expression, artistic freedom, and ‘dangerous’ things like that.

In its original German language version, the title for Never Look Away is Work Without Author. There is a documented reason for this that is part of the production backstory, rather than an invitation to consider any ‘death of the author’, but it adds an intriguing dimension to ways to respond.

Never Look Away or Work Without Author, what you will, it’s going to stay with you, long after viewing.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast by ArtSound FM MHz 92.7/90.3

Red Joan

Rated M, 1 hr 50 mins

Capitol Cinema Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

2.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Any film with Judi Dench commands attention. She  has brought a mix of authority, vulnerability, and humour to every role, from James Bond’s boss, M, to author Iris Murdoch, to a couple of Queen Victorias, to older women who age disgracefully or with regret. It seems we are still up for more, even while Dench is in her mid-80s.

In Red Joan, directed by veteran theatre director Trevor Nunn, she is a Soviet spy working against British interests, a tricky part to play sympathetically. When M15 bursts in on the retirement she spends gardening and painting and begin quizzing her, it is hard not to feel outraged for her character, Joan Stanley. What could such a homely, gentle woman have done to deserve such treatment?

The interrogation immediately plunges into her past, shown in extensive flashback as actor Sophie Cookson takes over as young Joan, a student of physics at Cambridge in the 1930s.  She falls under the spell of a pair of fervent young Communists who seduce her studious young self with their flamboyant foreign ways. The attempted induction at a screening of the propaganda masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, where Sonya (Tereza Srbova) introduces Joan to Leo (Tom Hughes), is not successful. Joan falls in love, but does not become a party member.

As young Joan, Cookson makes an appealing, intriguing character, a scientist who leads with heart and mind.

the spy who inspired this film, the late Melita Norwood, was a lot clearer about where she stood

After graduating with a first, Joan lands a job with a team engaged in top secret nuclear research, the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, based in London. It’s a secretarial and admin position, until her bosses discover – in one of several toe-curling moments – she can actually make a contribution to the science.

While in thrall to Leo, she copies secret material about the development of the atomic bomb for passing on to the Soviet Union. She also has an affair with her insipid, married boss, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The flow of secrets to the Soviets continued and she managed to avoid detection for nearly 40 years until finally arrested in the  1990s. She admitted what she had done and remained unrepentant, declared her internationalist outlook was founded on a level playing field that would give the Russians and their new system an equal chance. Eventually, the British government released her without charge.

it won’t be surprising if you feel you have been had

Joan (Judi Dench) with her barrister son (Ben Miles)

The Soviet spy who inspired this film, the late Melita Norwood, was a lot clearer about where she stood and was indeed a member of the Communist Party. She also had a daughter, not a barrister son who stood by her as the film imagines.

Unlike ‘red Joan’, Norwood did not study physics, nor go to Cambridge. She studied Latin and logic briefly at the University of Southampton, which the filmmakers may have decided was not quite as picturesque. At least the look of this British period drama, the sets and costumes, is impeccable.

Yet the effort is misplaced. If the film had stuck to the true story of the Soviet’s longest serving British spy, who passed top secret information to the KGB from the 1930s until the 1990s, that would have been a better bet.

Something far closer to the truth deserved to be told. There is a fascinating true story of Melita Norwood that the film gives little credit to, and it won’t be surprising if you feel you have been had.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

Rated MA15+

2 hrs 12 mins

Palace Electric

3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This film is from the Middle East, written and directed by Rami Alayan and Muayad Alayan, and about infidelity.  An affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman who met as he made deliveries at her café in West Jerusalem, and the consequences of the liaison in a place where fidelity to one’s tribe is paramount.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem was made with the assistance of production finance from countries like Germany and the Netherlands, as the Palestinian film industry is virtually non-existent.

It opens at the home of bakery delivery driver, Saleem, making tea for himself and his wife. The image of domestic harmony is suddenly ruptured, like a fist through a wall, in a raid by security forces who drag Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) away to interrogate him about an Israeli woman that he is supposed to have recruited.

What could the man have done to deserve such treatment? Flashbacks explain, as by that point the affair is over.

One night after meeting and making love in Saleem’s delivery van, as per usual, Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), had accompanied him on a delivery run into the West Bank, with hiding in the back of his van. The risky venture accomplished without incident, Saleem suggests a drink at a Bethlehem bar. Sarah agrees reluctantly, but they are betrayed by another patron who realises that she isn’t Dutch at all, as she claims, but Israeli.

After Saleem is hauled in for questioning and Sarah’s husband, a colonel in the Israeli army on undercover assignments, becomes aware of his wife’s infidelity, there is hell to pay. It is clear that no one can believe that the affair is just an affair, there has to be more to it.

It’s hard to imagine a worse predicament. Ensnared in a web of misunderstanding and paranoia, Sarah and Saleem become trapped between sides in the vicious and intractable feud that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How the affair had begun is not explored, unfortunately, only explained by scenes showing how the couple met across the counter at the café that Sarah runs. The opening titles claim the film is inspired by true events, so more insight into such risky liaisons would have been interesting. If relationships like this can and do happen, can we imagine there is hope yet for ending conflict?

Saleem’s wife Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi)

It was also surprising to learn that alcohol is served at bars with intimate dance floors in the Palestinian Territories. A vigorous sex scene or two in the back of the van is another surprise.  A lot less pleasant is the jolt when, on the road to Bethlehem, Israel’s massive security wall suddenly looms into view, a foreboding and futile barrier to interaction.

All actors are captured up close and personal and they do a great job,  though the film style is a bit prosaic way and some scenes are needlessly long.

Towards the end, however, the deliberate pacing seems spot on. As our attention turns more and more to Saleem’s pregnant wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), and as a relationship develops between her and Sarah, the film becomes very moving and powerful.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

All is True

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is Shakespeare as you have never seen him before, and might find hard to believe. It takes place during the last three years of his life, when he had returned from London to live at his family home in the countryside, working on the garden. There is not a jot of creative writing in sight.

When the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613, after a canon misfire during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, he retreated to Stratford-upon Avon, to live with his wife and daughters.

a tantalisingly vacant space to fill

Little is known about him during the years before his death, a relatively sudden event, at 52. It is a tantalising vacant space to fill in the Bard’s life, into which steps veteran actor Kenneth Branagh.

The only portrait we have of Shakespeare depicts a man with a sensual mouth and a wide intelligent brow. In his period wig and beard, the appearance of a heavily disguised Branagh with prosthetically lengthened nose, is a close enough to the mark.

Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) with daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson)

Ben Elton’s screenplay imagines the great man in everyday life, in a contemplative frame of mind, even getting an occasional reproach for absences and lapses from his wife, Anne Hathaway (played here by the redoubtable Judi Dench), and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susannah (Lydia Wilson).

An occasional visitor brings the outside world in. His patron, the Earl of Southampton (a sprightly Ian McKellen), the ‘fair youth’ who inspired Shakespeare’s poetry, arrives for a chat in one of the film’s highlights.

This intimate meeting, like all other interactions indoors during the evening, takes place in candlelight. The production designer has kept all the period detail authentic, without concessions to modern cravings for atmosphere or expressive lighting.

Shakespeare is less pleased to see a young admirer and aspiring writer who drops in. It interrupts his gardening, and the youth is given short shrift with the advice to simply get started if he wants to write.

dismissive of his own legacy, consumed by the loss of his son

Some of the film’s key moments are filmed from a very low angle. It might be meant to signify Shakespeare’s greatness, to remind us of his lofty stature as a poet and dramatist for all time, but it just looks a bit odd.

While Shakespeare is dismissive of his own legacy in this life story, he is consumed by the loss of his son, 11-year-old Hamnet who died many years before, while he was away.

Few of us may have known that he had a son, and the fact of it makes an interesting focal point of this homecoming by a man so absent from family, and so much of the world.

All is True is the alternative title of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, a collaboration with one John Fletcher, who doesn’t get a mention here. It’s a playful title for a film founded on conjecture rather than fact.

All in all, it’s a slight piece, and tends to sound contemporary, to help make the great man more accessible. He had family issues like everybody else, but I’m not convinced that Shakespeare’s family would have communicated with him the way they do during very different times, four centuries ago.

Shakespeare (Branagh) and wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench)

Production design and costumes and candle-lit interiors give the film a strong sense of authentic period detail, despite doubts about the authenticity of language, and of manners and family relationships.

The mystery that is William Shakespeare may never be resolved. Perhaps the intellectual acuity, wisdom and poetry of his plays and sonnets, a contribution to the English language that none can match, is all we need to know and better kept that way.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7