Loving Vincent

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems there is no end to the ways to express love for van Gogh. Buy the print, wear the jewellery, wear the watch (!), write the song, make the film, or go on a pilgrimage to the museums dedicated to his legacy.

This animated feature joins the list of varied tributes, and is also the first-ever animated feature film overpainted in oils. Whether or not this bold experiment in animation is a fitting tribute to the post-Impressionist artist considered the father of the modern painting, will depend on where you are coming from.

The plot is sketchy, trying – not that hard, it has to be said – to piece together the fragments of the artist’s life in the months before his death.

Loosely framed as an investigation of the death of the elusive artist, it involves the son of the local postman who is sent on a mission to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) and his son Armand (Douglas Booth) and the other characters who are interviewed by Armand are the recognisable subjects of van Gogh’s paintings. As are the fields, trees, flowers, villages and night skies of the French countryside to which the artist returned for the last two years of his life.

The British accents of the actors, O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and others, are a bit incongruous, but it’s not a critical issue.

Young Armand, at first begrudging the task he has, becomes keen to uncover the facts of Vincent’s death. As he talks to people who knew the artist, each has their particular view about what happened and why, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery that surrounds the artist as he furiously painted his life away in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

The brief, intense life of a troubled creative artist is a familiar subject for cinema, but there’s a paradox here in how the late work of van Gogh brims with life on screen.

And the lines read from the letters drawn from the trove of written material that he left behind – many written to his younger brother, his confidant and patron – are elegant, engaging and thoughtful.

The filmmakers, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, who based their production in Poland, commissioned a small army of around 120 artists who each became responsible for painting a few seconds of film.

The frames capture the creative process of painted images that pulsate and spin with energy, like the stilled turbulence of so much of the artist’s most famous work. At times the effect is intoxicating.

Resistance to such an unconventional tribute as Loving Vincent does not perhaps bode well. Early this year and before the film was released, a British arts reviewer trashed it after watching an early trailer. Such entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved by the experience of the film itself.

To see Loving Vincent and appreciate it involves something like an act of surrender, a laying down of one’s prejudices and preconception, to what is really something like a graphic novel on film, lavishly rendered in the artist’s uniquely expressive and exuberant visual style.

Against the odds perhaps, this unusual tribute becomes a moving evocation of a man who deserves to be remembered for his astonishing body of work, rather than for any predisposition to self-harm.

Yes, it’s the work of painters creating a pastiche of van Gogh’s famous works. The plot is sketchy and as a quest to find out what really happened during the artist’s last months, inconclusive, but necessarily so. As an artistic group effort it may seem to fly in the face of the individuality, direct voice and authenticity that van Gogh strove for.

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

Suburbicon

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

It can’t be as bad as all that, can it? I mean, Suburbicon is directed by the sophisticate George Clooney. Those brilliant, witty purveyors of comedy noir, Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote the original screenplay and Matt Damon is in the lead. All are men of discernment, with talent to spare.

Yet the news just in from the box office this week is that ticket sales for Suburbicon are poor. The reviews aren’t good either. Something has gone quite wrong here.

It’s not like Clooney is an inexperienced director. This is the 6th film he has directed in a decent body of work, of which Good Night and Good Luck is the standout.

As an actor in the Coen brothers’ films O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and most recently on Hail, Caesar!, Clooney has worked a treat. One of the reasons I’ve looked forward to their collaborations is their work together seems organic, probably because they have a shared vision.  One can only imagine what a hoot it is on set.

From an original Coen brothers’ script from the 1980s, developed by Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov, Suburbicon knocks down the picket fence and strips the neat and tidy surface off contented domesticity in the typical, unremarkable suburban bungalow. To show us what suburbanites are really like. Welcome to Suburbicon, the ‘perfect place to raise a family’.

Located in the 1950s America, when vast tracts of new suburbs were spreading outside the cities, attracting residents with the promise of affordable housing and the benefits of city life without the disadvantages, the film really looks the part.

From the featureless suburban streetscapes to the television sets and kitchen utensils inside the home, the meticulous sets and period perfect detail are a joy. From the tie that Gardner Lodge (Damon) keeps on at home, to the striped t-shirts worn by his son Nicky (Noah Jupe, an excellent young actor), to the heels and flared skirts that women wear as they do the housework and the grocery shopping.

It might be a problem for Gardner and his family that the new neighbours over the back fence, the Mayers and their young son, are African-American. But he doesn’t actually connect with this, a situation that is a critical issue for the rest of the neighbourhood – and the shopkeepers and the postman. Small town racial prejudice is rife in Suburbicon, and it’s not at all pretty.

Like the main character in the Coen brothers’ classic dark comedy, Fargo, Gardner is preoccupied with how he can get rid of his wife Margaret (Julianne Moore), wheelchair bound as a result of an accident when he was driving, and install her sister Rose (also played by Moore) in her place.

To achieve this, he and Rose descend into a murderous mayhem, even despatching one of the film’s best characters, the insurance assessor played by Oscar Isaac. Young Nicky bears witness to it all.

Suburbicon is sometimes hard to watch, with its 1950s television score on the soundtrack, underlining critical points with heavy handed emphasis.

When all is done, a neighbour complains that none of this sort of thing happened before the Mayers moved in.

As that’s the point Clooney says he wants to make to bring the film into the current day – that mainstream American society blames the minorities for its own issues – then why didn’t he work the Mayers into his narrative, instead of leaving them in the background with barely any speaking roles?

Clooney has said he didn’t feel qualified to write narrative for African-Americans, and it has turned out a misjudgement because this timidity has skewed his film. He doesn’t have the Coen brothers’ light comedic touch either.

Mob at the fence taunts Mrs Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) Source: Google Images

Suburbicon is set in the pre-dawn before the sixties civil rights movements that swept the country. Unmasking the evil in suburbia is nothing if not a familiar trope in countless films, and that includes teen horror films.

Some films like American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Pleasantville, and The Truman Show have made satirising suburbia an art form. Suburbicon is instead a harsh lesson with heavy messaging, the kind of thing that rarely works.

Rated MA 15+, 105 minutes

2.5 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mountain Between Us

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Review © Jane Freebury

After a hasty set-up at an airport closed due to bad weather, The Mountain Between Us delivers us onto a snowbound mountainside when a small plane crashes in the wilderness. The first and pressing challenge for the two passengers who survive is finding their way down to safety.

The second order challenge, as the title suggests, is getting to know and understand each other along the way.

It was an unscheduled flight, risky in bad weather, and the aging pilot who succumbed to heart failure died in the crash. The two survivors have landed in the middle of nowhere with the pilot’s pet labrador for company, a welcome valiant third party, there to help.

I guess we could call this uncertain venture a romance adventure. It certainly has two handsome leads up front: Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex, and Idris Elba as Ben, a British neurosurgeon. They start out as total strangers. Alex was on her way to her own wedding while Ben had an urgent assignment to attend to.

Neither has that much time for the other to begin with. Alex is a rather noisy, emoting, headstrong American, while he’s more introspective and withholding. A typical bloke or typical Brit?  Was this was going to become a battle of the sexes in wild and wintry conditions?

Alex is frustrated by Ben’s non-disclosure. After all, they only have each other for company and could well die together.

If the occasional mountain lion, bear or wolf doesn’t find them, then they will surely succumb to the freezing temperatures, slip off a treacherous slope or slip into an icebound lake.

Although the situation the pair find themselves in is dire,  The Mountain Between Us doesn’t deliver on that score. This is despite Mandy Walker on board as cinematographer. She is Australian and the cinematographer behind Lantana, The Well and Tracks. Despite her powerful images of the grand mountain wilderness of Columbia, the drama doesn’t engage.

To its great credit, The Mountain Between Us makes absolutely nothing of race, the most obvious difference between the pair. Perhaps the fact that Ben is British gets around this, somewhat.

The mountain between them has nothing at all to do with race, and everything to do with personality and temperament. To a lesser extent it’s about being female and male.

If it had been a battle of the sexes, with a Cary Grant and a Katharine Hepburn, how much more entertaining it could have been.The Mountain Between Us was an opportunity for some sparring between the male and the female of the species.

If a battle of the sexes is your thing, go see the excellent current The Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell, while it’s still screening.

It is interesting that the director, Hany Abu-Assad, was brought on board. The credits of this Dutch-Palestinian fiction feature and documentary filmmaker include an astonishing film, Paradise Now, about Arab suicide bombers preparing themselves.

His wasted presence and that of his stars and cinematographer all go to show that you can bring promising elements together, but you can’t guarantee anything without the underpinning of a good screenplay.

The Mountain Between Us is old-fashioned, clunky action adventure with romance thrown in for good measure. It feels so by the book with thrills that only occasionally feel real.

The dull writing doesn’t offer two terrific actors very much to work with. Why they each became involved in the project is difficult to understand.

Rated M, 1 hour 52 minutes

2 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

Final Portrait

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Final Portrait, from the actor and occasional director Stanley Tucci, is a footnote to the life and work of sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti. It spans a few days in 1964, and is confined to the studio except for a few exterior scenes in Paris, the Swiss artist’s home since the 1920s.

Geoffrey Rush is an excellent casting choice as Giacometti, as he keeps his theatrical instincts under wraps. And he looks so much like the artist did in later life.

Writer and director Tucci is unduly interested in what the artist didn’t accomplish, in the self-doubt and angst he experienced taking his work to completion. Neither agony nor ecstasy, just messy.

On the home front, his domestic life involves a put-upon wife (Sylvie Testud) and the young prostitute who lived nearby. Bi-lingual actress Clemence Poesy lights up the screen as Caroline the flighty lover who Giacometti is obsessed with.

A brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), a fellow artist who lives upstairs, has some countervailing influence.

Most of the screen time is spent in Giacometti’s studio, where his spindly, sculpted figures stand around in various stages of completion, waiting for final sign off.

At the heart of it all, is the relationship with James Lord (Armie Hammer), a writer and art critic visiting Paris at the time. Giacometti has asked Lord if he can paint his portrait, because, he says, he looks ‘interesting’.

The painting will only take a short while, perhaps an afternoon.

But soon he is grumbling crossly at Lord that he’ll never be able to paint him as he sees him,’ as though his subject’s matinee idol good looks were his fault. Lord takes his manly self to the swimming pool to settle his nerves.

Was Giacometti trying to disassemble those good looks, but found he couldn’t credibly do it? It’s a bit of a shock when he tells Lord with some antipathy that he has the head of ‘a brute’, and it needs a hint of explanation.

In fact, it eventually took 18 sittings to paint Lord who we see re-scheduling and re-scheduling yet again his flight back to New York.

In between times, the two men stroll through Pere Lachaise cemetery and drop into bars, while work on the portrait is deferred, or simply erased before the next sitting session.

Did Giacometti revel in difficulties he was unable to resolve? Seems he had a perverse determination ‘to remain unsatisfied’.

Lord admired Giacometti, and was probably flattered by the interest that the artist took in him. From the perspective of a gay man, Lord may have been intrigued and privately amused by the knots that the artist and his retinue had made for themselves.

Tucci, whose fifth turn at film directing this is, allows the interactions to develop at a leisurely pace in his elegant, gentle but slight film.

Final Portrait is based on the book by Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, which was published in 1965, a year after the events of this film. Lord subsequently wrote a full biography of the artist twenty years later.

Perhaps Tucci should have used that as his inspiration. Final Portrait is on the slight side, and barely engages.

I admired the first film Tucci directed, Big Night. It had verve and vibrancy, while Final Portrait is contemplative, with an altogether different mood.

It wants us to consider an artist and his foibles, and the torturous artistic process behind those spindly sculpted figures that Giacometti is famous for. But at the end of it, this portrait of the artist as an older man doesn’t reveal a character much more fleshed out than his sculptures.

Final Portrait is rated M, and runs for 90 minutes

3 Stars

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

Blade Runner 2049

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It took a decade to perfect the original Blade Runner by jettisoning the voiceover and upbeat ending and restoring some scenes that had landed on the cutting room floor – as they did in those days. Even though the film was first released in 1982, it wasn’t until after its re-release as a director’s cut in 1992 that it began to take on the burnished glow of a science fiction classic.

Despite VO and optimism tacked on at the end, the success of the original Blade Runner had earned its director, Ridley Scott, the right to have his way and take full creative control.

The compelling beautiful/horrible vision in the original film of a Los Angeles in 2019: a city riddled with rogue androids (replicants) and detectives (blade runners) hunting them down, a city some citizens had quit for a better future in colonies off-world.

It may have taken some time to catch on, but catch on it did and generations of filmgoers have been keenly anticipating this sequel.

It opens with high impact. Police Officer K (an overly impassive Ryan Gosling) is cruising through the sky on his way to eliminate, or as they say ‘retire’, a rogue replicant living in remote seclusion. With the help of his drone, as obedient as a pet dog, K unearths a secret that could bring the whole house of cards down. It may be that replicants can reproduce.

Rather than mooch off with this intel somewhere, as his famous predecessor Deckard might have done, he faithfully reports his find to his boss, Lieutenant Joshi, a scary, slicked-back Robin Wright. He’s told to destroy the evidence and go find out more. This eventually leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) who’s hiding out in a nuclear devastated Las Vegas.

A stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision

Blade Runner 2049 is a breathtaking, fascinating vision of dystopia, a little further advanced. Plant and animal life have all but disappeared, the rain brings acid with it instead of life’s promise, the golden voice of Frank Sinatra is on a loop. The Asian market-themed streets are busy with hookers and addicts, and the LAPD inhabits one of the biggest high rises in town.

A few brands project their logos into the night sky – Sony, Atari, Coca Cola, Peugeot – and it’s eerie beautiful. At least someone can keep their lights on.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and the team – including Ridley Scott as producer and one of the original writers, Hampton Fancher –  remains faithful to the brilliant and suggestive production design of the original with a stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision.

The vision a world in the grip of drastic climate change, and human exploitation on a vast scale with hundreds of skinny, scrappy boys at work in a sweatshop as wide as the eye can see. A vast scrap metal dump that hides an underclass left behind by technology and shunned by the corporate creatives shaping a fascist future.

Nearly a century has passed since Fritz Lang made his science fiction classic Metropolis but the influence of his vision with its skyscrapers, highways in the sky, capitalists above and workers below, is still discernible.

From the late 1970s until the early 2000s, the English filmmaker Ridley Scott was probably at the height of his powers with work such as Alien (the original), Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator. Each of those films told a compelling story and delivered it with powerful atmospherics. I can’t say he has shown his knack for a strong story with fabulous visuals as often since, though he was in fine form making The Martian.

It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway

Blade Runner 2049 only makes a marginal advance on the narrative of the original, and it doesn’t really fire. Most of the US $150+ budget went into the compelling visuals, thundering sound and disturbing ambient score (Hans Zimmer collaborated on the music). Not enough went into concept and script development.

The characters are functions of the meagre plot and their interactions lack emotional punch. It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway.

If the director Villeneuve has the opportunity of a director’s cut what changes might he make? At close to 3 hours running time, it wouldn’t get any longer, but he might swap some scenes like those portentous ones inside Wallace Corp – with the boss played by Jared Leto, the inventor who may be mad but is also blind – for more with Harrison Ford. The exchanges between Ford and Gosling were some of the best by far.

As were the scenes in Las Vegas where K finds Deckard, alone apart from a mangy dog, forced to drink whisky because that’s all there is to drink, and obliged to read books, because that’s all there is to do. In these scenes, with holograms of Sinatra, Presley and Liberace performing in the background, wowing the casino crowd, there is at least something that comes close to mood.

Here it’s nostalgia for a world that is lost. And it’s touching to realise that the quest overall is for something like our lost humanity.

Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel to look at, but its people are one dimensional. It’s a problem common to much of the tentpole cinema aimed at the core audiences today, but here we might have expected something more.

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

Beatriz at Dinner

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Think ‘when worlds collide’ with this one.

Unexpected dinner guests can create quite a stir. There is something of a cinema sub-genre out there that shows how they can seriously upset the status quo. From Wetherby, to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to last year’s Get Out.

In Beatriz at Dinner, Salma Hayek is in the lead role as a Mexican immigrant who winds up as an unexpected guest at an elegant, intimate dinner party at a mansion in Southern California.

She’s not exactly uninvited. Her well-meaning host, Kathy (Connie Britton in a sympathetic role), invites her to stay for the dinner her husband has organised for business colleagues. This happens when Beatriz finds herself stranded at their home with a car that won’t start.

As the other couples arrive, Beatriz looks predictably out of place in her jeans and shirt—it was her choice to remain dressed in her own clothes. She’s even at one point predictably mistaken for the help.

Kathy (Connie Britton) tries to make Beatriz (Salma Hayek) feel at home

Earlier in the day, she was at the cancer treatment centre where she works as a holistic health therapist. Beatriz and Kathy had become and remained friends when Kathy’s teenage daughter needed cancer treatment.

This particular evening, it’s Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who is guest of honour. He’s the man. A real estate development mogul, he is an obnoxious, odious loud-mouth, but everyone defers to him because he holds the purse strings for the deal that’s on the verge of being done.

Beatriz keeps asking if she knows him from somewhere, and there is a strong hint that some of Doug’s business activities, in Mexico at least, have been outside the law and morally reprehensible.

Jeana (Amy Landecker), who is wife number three, does her best to smooth over the dozens of offences—large and small— that Doug causes in conversation.

I was expecting Chloe Sevigny to have more impact in her role as one of the wives, but not on this occasion. Instead, the floor belongs to Beatriz who loses her cool when Doug boasts about a forthcoming holiday in South Africa, where he will go big game hunting again. He passes an image around on his mobile of the magnificent creature he shot on the last occasion. ‘Disgusting’, Beatriz shouts and throws the phone back at him.

In an instant, Doug is not just a clone of Trump, but a reminder of that millionaire dentist from Minnesota who paid big money last year to shoot an African lion, to universal dismay.

The role of a woman of principle who confronts attitudes she finds disreputable and appalling, was created with Hayek in mind by writer Mike White, who has written a few comedies, including School of Rock. There is some incisive writing here from White, especially for the characters of Doug, Beatriz, Kathy and Jeana.

Beatriz at Dinner is described by some as a comedy-drama. I didn’t see much comedy, except the rueful, sardonic kind in this modest, earnest and disturbing film, directed by Puerto-Rican born American Miguel Arteta.

It’s well known in film and in life, that the pleasant, planned dinner party, can bring heads together in a monumental clash of minds. At loggerheads, anticipated and unanticipated.

The conversation at this dinner is urgently worth having, but the schism between characters only deepens. The declarations of views lead nowhere, except into a wider divide, leaving worlds as far apart as ever.

Beatriz at Dinner had the potential to extend and expand the important debate on our responsibilities to others and the world we share, but it winds up a missed opportunity.

3 Stars

Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM

Mountain

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

A modest 74 minutes long, this new documentary from local filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, is actually one continuous montage of fabulous, indomitable mountains and the people who interact with them.

A wealth of gorgeous mountain wilderness images flashes by. You could say it is on the brisk side. But to take in its immense beauty and power, there is nowhere else to see it but on the cinema screen.

Mountain is a unique collaboration between the filmmaker—who is Canberra-born, by the way—and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti created the glorious score, including the music of Vivaldi, Arvo Part, Beethoven and Grieg, and pieces that he composed himself.

Peedom and Tognetti worked on the film together for a number of years, creating a unique fusion of image and music that explores the hold that mountains have had on our imagination.

Our guide throughout the journey is Robert Macfarlane, author of Mountains of the Mind, a book that was a major literary success a decade or so ago.

In many ways, the images speak for themselves, but the lines from Macfarlane’s book that provide the occasional commentary and food for thought are voiced by actor Willem Dafoe, who is a bit of a survivor of the extreme on screen himself.

‘Mountains live in deep time in a way we do not’ the voiceover intones, and they make us humble and are a reminder of our insignificance. What is it that draws men upward? What is the allure in the danger? Is there a drive to oblivion?

Vision of Alex Honnold on his free solo climb up El Sendero Luminoso, Mexico, is seen in Mountain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After a pre-credit sequence with the ACO limbering up, Mountain opens with a bird’s eye view, an extreme high angle shot looking down at a young man flattened against a sheer rock wall, hundreds of metres high. It is vertiginous and spellbinding. He has no safety ropes, he is free climbing and he flashes a smile for the camera. Ecstatic is the word that comes to mind. Crazy is another.

Further in, there are heart-stopping moments of frenzied extreme sports.

Set to some glorious Vivaldi, adventurers dangle above the precipice, walk across it on high-wire stretched between mountain mesas, while skiers tumble down mountain sides a hair’s breadth ahead of an avalanche, others using the back ends of their skis to break their fall.

And there are cyclists zipping along the spines of high ridges toward the cliff edge over which they tumble into free-fall before their parachute—you didn’t know it was there—opens.

Life on the literal edge certainly sharpens our sense of being, but there are times to pause for thought at the awesome views on top of the world – or for contemplation as the Tibetan prayer wheels spin.

The images are largely the work of cinematographer and adventurer Renan Ozturk, who has the mountaineering bug himself. His work is breathtaking, and the situations he films verging on the surreal, and the sublime.

The flow of the images as they have been edited together doesn’t always work entirely smoothly, however. Although the vision is intrinsically so powerful you hardly notice, the juxtapositions are nonetheless sometimes a bit clunky. It wouldn’t work quite so well as a silent film.

Clambering up a dangerous peak may have once been considered some kind of lunacy. Today the extreme sports risk-takers are doing it all the time, responding to the ‘siren song of the summit’.

Eventually, the film begins to ask a few questions. Why, as our everyday life becomes more comfortable do we court danger? Has risk become its own reward? What’s so great about a selfie at the summit, when the climbing experience has meant ‘queueing’ for one’s turn?

Peedom saw at first hand the costs of the modern obsession with mountains, as a witness to the calamitous avalanche at Everest in 2014. ‘Sharpening our sense of being’ is one thing, but at what cost?

The spirit of Sherpa, Peedom’s 2015 doco, a winner of the very prestigious Grierson award in the UK, is never far from the surface in Mountain. After the thrills, it gives us food for thought.

This film is a magnificent collaboration and a monumental achievement, and it is not to be missed.

4 Stars

Also broadcast on ArtSound and published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victoria & Abdul

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Review by © Jane Freebury

With a cheeky play on names, Victoria & Abdul hints that Queen Victoria so missed her late husband and consort Prince Albert that she looked for ways to replace him. The title of the 1997 film in which she befriended another servant of the royal household earlier on in her widowhood was similarly suggestive. Her Majesty, Mrs Brown.

Was Queen Victoria, widowed from her early forties and mother to nine adult children, still looking for some companionship in her sixties? Maybe, maybe not. Centuries earlier, Queen Elizabeth I spent a lifetime on the throne without a consort, and this is still a subject of endless fascination.

Victoria & Abdul is set during the last 15 years of the reign of Queen Victoria and is an encore in the role from Judi Dench, who was also ‘Mrs Brown’. It begins more or less the moment she claps eyes on Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) as he backs out of her dining hall.

Under strict instructions not to look at the Queen when presenting her with a commemorative coin from India, the reason for his being at court, curiosity gets the better of Abdul and he steals a glance during retreat.

The elderly queen has no interest in her meal or her companions, but she perks up a bit when the jelly arrives at the end of a long and tedious meal, and then looks back at the newcomer, registering his height, his grace and dark eyes.

It might have finished there, had Abdul not seized this window of opportunity to regale the bored and listless queen with stories about India, a place she would never visit because her advisors feared she risked assassination there.

In the midst of a racist, classist milieu, Victoria stands tall

He feeds her interest, extolling the sublime beauty of the Taj Mahal (not wrong there), and that delicious queen of fruit, the mango, and at her request instructs her in Urdu. However, he lets her believe that he is a Hindu when he is a Muslim, with a wife or two back home in Agra.

As the odd couple spend more and more time together, Victoria’s entourage is apoplectic with indignation at the Queen’s choice of companion. Filmed from unflattering low-angles, her puffed-up flunkeys – Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), her son and heir Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) – just cannot make the Queen see she is provoking a minor scandal. Just as she did with John Brown, though there may have been grounds for scandal there.

Victoria just won’t allow Abdul’s dark skin and low rank get in the way of a good friendship. In the midst of a racist, classist milieu, she stands tall.

If only this film had explored the personality of this surprising monarch. And if only it had delved into the way the British behaved towards the colonials, rather than given everything the light comic opera treatment.

So these people use extract from cow to make jelly? Barbarians!

In this environment, the occasional acerbic comment from Abdul’s companion, Mohammed (Adele Akhtar), who is disconsolate in foggy, damp England and unable to turn his circumstances to advantage, is very welcome. So these people use extract from cow to make jelly? Barbarians! All very funny, but we don’t hear enough from him.

Was Victoria a bit of a flirt? You get the distinct impression that she enjoyed unsettling her retinue, and enjoyed a bit of power play.

Under Stephen Frears’ direction, the diminutive Dench is in her imperious element as Victoria, the woman who once ruled around a quarter of the world. With pale blue eyes in locked-on stare and commanding if small in stature, Dench is the best reason to see Victoria & Abdul. Fazal is fine as Abdul, though it’s an undemanding role.

Victoria & Abdul has its moments but the fascinating backstory is still to be told. The friendship between the first British Empress of India and her Muslim servant deserved more in-depth treatment than the light and breezy comic touch it gets here.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Ali’s Wedding

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Smitten by a lovely girl at the local mosque and eager to make his father and family proud, a young man tells a lie. It’s such a colossal deception that he couldn’t possibly get away with it, but he’s such a guileless, pure-hearted dreamer that the few people who want to exact shame and punishment for it end up looking like the bad guys.

Ali (Osamah Sami) reaps his just desserts anyway.

Romantic love and filial duty are rather old-fashioned virtues for propping up 21st century romantic comedy, yet the conflict between them may be back with boy meets girl from a different cultural background. Like the popular American rom-com The Big Sick, this terrific film co-written by actor and stand-up comic Sami and award-winning screenwriter Andrew Knight, and directed by Jeffrey Walker, makes them front and centre here.

Set in the Muslim community of north Melbourne, Ali’s Wedding is based on Sami’s own life, ‘unfortunately’.

Humour from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself

What a story it is. To begin with, Ali is born the son of a Muslim cleric, an Iraqi, in the Iranian holy city of Qom where he spends his early life. When he is 12, the family emigrates to Australia.

The humour of Ali’s subsequent life adventures derives less from the fish-out-of-water possibilities of living in a different culture than from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself.

For the amusement and instruction of his congregation, Ali’s father (played by Don Hany), wrote a musical comedy called Saddam: the Musical, with him in the title role. Really. It went down well and the production travelled to the United States. Well almost. Ali’s encounter with Homeland Security makes for some classic humour of miscommunication. Proving the adage that there are times when you gotta laugh, or you cry.

Bolstered by impulse rather than design, Ali gets into a pickle when he lies about his score at the university entrance exam for medicine. With the crowd assembled for prayers at the mosque, women to one side and men to another, Ali steps up to the challenge to his family honour thrown down by the rival cleric and his high-achieving son, declaring he achieved the highest score.

What’s touching is it seems what he really wants is for everyone to acknowledge that the stunning score Dianne (Helana Sawires) achieved in the same exam has actually tops them all.

It’s Dianne who Ali really fancies, even though the girl his family intends him to marry is really sweet. Dianne is Australian-born, and you know what that means, even if Ali’s younger sister is too! Life for Ali has become beyond complicated.

It’s not another predictable, dull exercise pushing the right buttons, it makes you laugh

Yet neither Ali nor his cheerfully Aussie mechanic brother Mohsen (Robert Rabiah)—one of many delightfully overdrawn characters—look like they would sink into deep depression if they fell short of family expectation. Laid back, you would say. Their baby sister looks all set to make up for any family shortfalls anyway.

Ali’s Wedding caught me unawares. Expecting another dull exercise pushing the right buttons rather than making me laugh, I found instead a genuinely engaging heart-felt comedy showing how people and families can be just the same everywhere.

The characters live, the feeling is generous and humanistic, and I’m glad to say that unlike some of the movies that pass for comedy these days—Girl’s Trip anyone?—it’s funny.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The King’s Choice

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

Not too many monarchs appear on screen in foetal pose, the way the King of Norway does in early scenes in this wartime drama. Another oddball monarch with issues, looking for escape from the world? It is a bit disconcerting until you hear mention of his back problems.

He has trudged through the snow playing hide and seek with his grandchildren, and now lies on his side on the floor in his study, clutching his shins. Behold, an ordinary man!

Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), was Norway’s king during World War II and for most of the first half of last century. It’s intriguing to read that when Norway dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905 and opted to become a constitutional monarchy, the crown went to a prince of Denmark who became the country’s first king.

Another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks

Long before April 1940 when the German war machine rolled, sailed and flew in demanding he and his government collaborate or be swept aside, Haakon VII was firmly established in the affections his people.

This intimate and engaging film directed by Erik Poppe is eager to affirm Haakon’s reputation as a man of the people. And to show how little say he had in negotiating with the invading German forces or in maintaining the neutrality Norway wished to preserve. It certainly succeeds.

Joining a sudden plethora of World War II films opening this year—Churchill, Dunkirk and the soon-to-be-seen Darkest Hour—it is another war film, yes, and another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks of hostilities. The narrative covers just three days.

From the start, the drama that engulfs Haakon and his family, including Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), his government and the people, is about how to respond to the German forces that enter Norway demanding collaboration.

Should he agree to the urgings of the German ambassador Bauer (Karl Markovics) and cooperate? Or stand his ground and refuse to surrender sovereignty? To complicate things, a Norwegian politician by the name of Quisling has stepped into the breach of indecision and is offering to collaborate.

Weaving handheld camera is neither superfluous nor exaggerated, but integral to the drama

During these events, the handheld camera closely shadows Haakon and key personalities like Olav, in disagreement with his father, and Bauer, odious yet oddly pathetic. Close ups and a weaving handheld camera are neither superfluous nor exaggerated but integral to the drama, enhancing its impact to great effect.

A couple of military encounters, both of which heighten tensions significantly, are telling. When the Norwegians, scarcely prepared for war, take aim at the invaders entering Oslofjord, and when the Norwegian resistance assembles hastily at a crossroads.

As Haakon drives through the checkpoint, trying to keep himself ahead of the invading forces until he has decided what to do, the camera focuses on one of the men assembled. Young Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), is overwhelmed to find himself face-to-face with the king. It seems to speak for the nation.

Seeberg is then seriously wounded in the ensuing skirmish, his fate dangling in the balance until final moments. In its subtle and engrossing way, this film has us on tenterhooks till the end.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle