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)

H is for Happiness

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The advance media for this new film for young adults suggests it’s about a girl with a knack for persuading other people to her brightly coloured, optimistic view of the world.

It concerned me a bit. Would I meet a Pollyanna type, sunny to a fault? Well, I didn’t. Candice Phee, the main character played by Daisy Axon, is more nuanced and interesting than that.

Candice first appeared in Barry Jonsberg’s popular novel from which this film has been adapted, My Life as an Alphabet. It has been popular with YA readers around the world. I don’t know the book at all, but Daisy Axon, all red hair and freckles, makes a lovely Candice on screen.

Since the death of her younger sister, Candice has been the only child at home with her parents. It’s not exactly a broken home, but in a sense, it is, with Candice the ham-in-the-sandwich of family relations turned sour. She is just a bright and precocious 12 year-old who wants to set things right again.

Mum Claire (Emma Booth) is depressed and dad Jim (Richard Roxborough) is dejected and when they’re not brooding, they are arguing behind closed doors. In the four years since sister Sky died, mum Claire, once a lively country and western fan, has fallen into deep despond.

Jim can barely bring himself to talk to his brother, businessman Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) because he believes his sibling robbed him of the intellectual property he is owed on a deal they did together. When family is a mess, who wouldn’t try to set it right?

Yet everything Candice tries to get her parents to perk up and get on together falls flat, even cooking dinner and arranging surprise trips.

Overachiever Candice is a bit uncool among her classmates, and it’s another issue. Perhaps the amazing vocabulary she has at her disposal is annoying? She uses words like ‘pizzazz’, ‘breach’, ‘schism’, ‘whopping’, and ‘lack thereof’, and she pronounces the letter H as ‘aytch’, not ‘haytch’.

The next class assignment seems made-to-measure for Candice. Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes makes an unforgettable though very brief appearance) sets class the task of a presentation about a letter of the alphabet. Candice is assigned the letter ‘h’.

Thankfully, she has become besties with another strange kid at school, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, the only kid who willingly sits next to her in class. As they explore a nearby pine forest, creaking and sighing in the wind, they can let their imaginations rip. Wesley Patten as Douglas is really good too.

A white miniature horse keeps them company. It’s no unicorn, and if not exactly magical, it could have drifted in from another world, perhaps the dimension that Douglas wants to revisit?

Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, has issues of his own but his kind mother, played by wonderful Deborah Mailman, has warmth and empathy to spare for Candice.

The film looks great. I loved the occasional symmetry of the framings. A richly imagined world thanks to art direction (Marita Mussett) production design (Nicki Gardiner) and the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott and Rick Rifici (Breath), all brought together by director John Sheedy who is highly regarded in the world of theatre and opera.

Although the book is set in Queensland, the film is set in the southernmost tip of Western Australia. Candice lives in Albany, but despite the endless stretch of perfect beach, could almost be anywhere.

There are scenes of Candice cycling past wind farms and spectacular coastline, but no particular effort has been made by the filmmakers to underline the fact that the film is set in Australia. The suburban gardens have as many exotics as they have bush plants, and it is stately pines that grow in a nearby forest. H is for Happiness has a sort of placelessness, and it is refreshing to see an Australian film that doesn’t feel the need to proclaim its cultural identity.

H is for Happiness is a first feature for theatre director John Sheedy, though he does have an award-winning short, Mrs McCutcheon, in his back pocket. He has brought a fresh YA angle to the Aussie coming-of-age comedy, and the entire production is a credit to everyone involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2020

For Sama

MA15+, 84 minutes

Dendy Canberra Centre

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This documentary is a letter for a little girl who was born during the conflict in Syria and now lives with her parents in London. She grows up on film, smiling occasionally but with that look infants can have, taking it in.

When the conflict began her mother, Waad al-Kateab, had all but completed economics studies at Aleppo University. She became a citizen reporter instead, via the camera on her mobile, sending images of the attacks on civilians to the media overseas. As the rebellion gathered strength, her eye-witness accounts were filmed on a video camera, but lose none of their immediacy.

Aleppo University is the second oldest in Syria, after Damascus University where Assad obtained his own degree in medicine. Students became radicalised after a bombing during the exam period in 2013.

For Sama is shot from a different type of frontline. Not the place from which despatches from war are usually sent, like the location of David Bradbury’s classic 1981 documentary Front Line, but from her home at the hospital where her husband Hamza works.

It was probably just as dangerous, in a hospital in the rebel-held area of Aleppo getting bombed by the Russian planes sent in to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A new graduate in medicine, Hamza, was one one of a few doctors who remained in rebel-held territory where schools were closed and emergency and essential services non-existent. His first wife had fled the country to safety, but Hamza stayed on, deeply committed to the cause.

The university bombings were swiftly followed by a massacre of handcuffed civilians, a warning to the rebels who were shocked by the lengths the regime would go to stay in power.

As Waad tells her little daughter in the voiceover, she and husband Hamza had no idea their old lives would be swept away that year. Her parents had wanted her to leave Aleppo and return home, but she is ‘headstrong’. She is also rather lively and attractive. Easy to fall for, it’s no wonder Hamza did.

However, for Hamza, the loss of friends made it even more important to go on. Could Waad do that too? She had begun crying while doctors were trying to save the life of a boy. Hamza tells her off, he can’t bear to see her break down.  And can’t she tell he is in love with her?

It’s one hell of a proposal, but the marriage takes place with Waad and Hamza pledging to walk the road to freedom together. It’s a Christian wedding, complete with confetti, in a safe room, when they were still sure they would win in the end.

Soon the celebrations are overlain with more destruction and atrocity. Two little boys bring their brother in to the hospital, a life hanging by a thread.

On another occasion, a pregnant woman wounded by shrapnel, is brought in. Caesarean section is performed, then eye-watering attempts made to save the young life. Hamza is by now in charge of what amounts to an ED that takes nearly 300 patients a day.

Searing footage is captured by Waad, but there are also moments of sharp contrast, such as planting a garden, fooling around in the snow, and at impro playgroup in the battle zone. Laughter with friends in the midst of everything, is all the more poignant for its fragility among the horrific realities beyond sand-bagged walls.

The final film is a collaboration between Waad and English documentary filmmaker, Edward Watts. The look has been significantly enhanced by an interesting score, and by atmospheric location shots from a drone that counteract the impact of some erratic but utterly convincing handheld camera.

For Sama has multiple international awards and was one of five films nominated for a documentary Academy Award.

Watching their belief in the rebellion, their desperation as it becomes obvious international support is not on its way, is difficult to watch in light of what we have seen and know since.

For Sama comes with a strong warning, but it is still an amazing document. A sensory and immersive as any war film, filmed and voiced by from the frontline by a young wife and mother.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 February 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM

Seberg

M, 103 minutes

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra, Palace Electric Cinema

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the French film that made Jean Seberg famous, she was an exchange student in Paris having a languid affair with a petty crook she eventually betrayed. Scenes of her in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, strolling along the Champs Elysees while touting the New York Herald Tribune, have etched themselves into our collective cinema memory.

In Godard’s iconic New Wave film, Seberg sporting the striped Breton t-shirt and a short pixie haircut was all light and air and mischief. A different take, but a take nonetheless on the luxuriant femme fatale. Were it not for Audrey Hepburn, she might have been the original alluring gamine on screen.

Kristen Stewart, a very talented and versatile actress, is an inspired choice for the role of Jean Seberg. She has also had something of a trans-Atlantic career, with roles in French films too.

In this new film from Australian director Benedict Andrews (who directed Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara), Stewart looks quite a lot like Seberg. Though she brings more steel to the role than you would suspect the late American actress had.

makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve

After a disturbing start, a flashback of Seberg at the stake in Saint Joan, her ill-fated first film, events kick off in Paris during the foment of student unrest that was 1968. The actress is saying goodbye to her husband, French author and former diplomat Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and young son to fly to America and take up her role in Paint Your Wagon. She was to star opposite Clint Eastwood, but that’s another story.

Screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel have made FBI surveillance rather than Seberg’s career the focus of this story. Seberg was identified as a high-profile subversive by the FBI when she became associated with Black Power groups in the late 1960s-70s.

It would have been difficult to ignore the salute she gave in support of black activists at the airport after she flew in from Paris. She was never one to try to conceal anything.

She had met activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the plane and there was an instant connection, though he was married too. Soon she was giving donations to the Black Panthers and to childcare centres for African-American children and holding civil rights fundraisers at her mansion in Coldwater Canyon. This girl from the Midwest yearned to make a difference.

Waterhouse and Shrapnel created a fictional character whose story runs in parallel with Seberg. Young  FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), whose wife (Margaret Qualley) is pursuing her own career as a doctor, starts out gung-ho but becomes conflicted about his role. It makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve.

Under orders from the top, Solomon and his colleagues begin to surveil and discredit their high-profile target. Her phone is tapped, her home bugged and in particular her bedroom. When officers hear she is pregnant from an affair they try to besmirch and discredit her by leaking the news to gossip columns. The illegal actions of the FBI were shocking, and creating a fictional character like Solomon, the human face of the FBI, affords the organisation a kind of rehabilitation.

The goons at J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, including Vince Vaughn as a particularly hard case, are completely out of step with the progressive forces of the times. They even go to a family barbeque in shirt and tie.

a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice

Their tactics played a big part in Seberg’s mental decline. Shortly after she died in 1979 – the French authorities said it was ‘probably’ suicide – the FBI acknowledged it had had a role in destroying her reputation. It also announced that some of its activities targeting Seberg were illegal and that it no longer conducted them.

A brief clip simulated from Breathless makes an appearance. It’s where Patricia looks straight to camera and runs her thumb around her mouth, the way her lover (Jean Paul Belmondo) used to do. It’s a clip that doesn’t make any particular point in a film that doesn’t show much interest in what really made Seberg famous.

Although Stewart’s performance is typically edgy and intelligent, this film is a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice, and treats her career as a footnote. The full, fascinating story of the poster girl of the French New Wave is still to be told.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 February 2020

*Featured image: courtesy 2019 Amazon Studios

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

Dolittle

PG, 101 minutes

Review by Jane Freebury

3 Stars

The Dr Dolittle character was first created by a young British engineer while fighting in the trenches in World War I. Army engineer Hugh Lofting was appalled by what he saw on the battlefield and concocted the stories in his letters home, rather than relate the horrors that he had witnessed.

It set in train a popular series of children’s books, but the first Dolittle film with a stellar cast in 1967 failed to launch at the box office.

a champion of the environment and everything in it, could be just the guy to have around right now

Eddie Murphy turned that around in the late 1990s with back-to-back Dolittle comedies. Critics didn’t care for them but the movies were hits everywhere.

Now you might think that someone who talks to animals could be just the guy to have around right now. A champion of the environment and everything in it, an eccentric in touch with his evolutionary DNA. Time will tell.

Dr John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) in 2020 has become quite the recluse. He lives in isolation on a country estate, preferring the company of Poly the parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek), and Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena) and others. All creatures are CGI.

It can’t last, of course. Some pesky kids come knocking. There’s a local lad, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collet), with an injured squirrel that needs treatment and a chirpy girl who brings an urgent message from Buckingham Palace. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), lady-in-waiting to the queen, tells Dolittle that the monarch (Jessie Buckley) is gravely ill and asking for him, actually her veterinarian. Queen Victoria has sensed she is not in good hands while Lord Badgely (Jim Broadbent) and physician Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) hang around.

Though he resists and adopts a foetal pose, Dolittle is drugged, shaven and dragged off to the palace. Becoming aware of a plot against Victoria’s life once there he undertakes to save her life. He will need to find the antidote to poison that she needs to live, found in an exotic fruit in a far-away land. Something vaguely like a rambutan, from somewhere vaguely like the Indonesian archipelago.

The fruit of the Eden Tree is the very fruit that Dolittle’s wife, Lily, died trying to find seven years before. Dolittle sets sail with his menagerie for crew and young Tommy, who has enlisted as his apprentice.

it’s the creatures with fur and feathers that don’t engage, a fatal flaw

In this animated and live action kids’ adventure, Downey is always watchable and just fine as the doctor. Antonio Banderas as Rassouli, king of the bandits, is a gravely-voiced menace. No issues with the dodgy, plotting courtiers played by Broadbent and Sheen either.

It’s the creatures with fur or feathers or fins that don’t engage. It’s a fatal flaw. They are there for the kids.

A long list of top actors including Emma Thompson, Marion Cottillard and Ralph Fiennes and more lined up to voice parrots, foxes, monkeys, tigers, gorillas, polar bears and ostriches. If only their characters were more fun.

It’s fine for the animals to look cartoonish, not particularly lifelike. It doesn’t undermine the live action in a kids’ show.

Dolittle has been slow to arrive on screen. There are stories of re-writes and re-shoots and other delays. The critics, sensing a production unsteady on its newborn legs, have piled on one by one.

It doesn’t deserve the universal panning it has been getting. Though the characters don’t exactly come alive, the jokes, visual and verbal, do pull some surprises.

When it was over, children near me didn’t muck up or run from the cinema shrieking. They stayed to dance during the jaunty final credits.

They would have loved the look. The study in Dolittle Manor with its high-line model train track, musical instruments and wacky décor is great. Adventures on the high seas aboard the Water Lily and the visit to Rassouli’s island hangout would have been thrilling to watch too.

It may be the adults who can’t accept Downey Jr, best known as world-weary Iron Man Tony Stark, as a weirdo who just wants to speak to animals.

From director Stephen Gaghan (writer of serious films like Traffic and Syriana, and co-writer here) this adventure fantasy has its daft heart in the right place. It’s not hilarious but it is cheerful, good to look at, and has surely at least managed a pass.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 January 2020

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

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

M, 119 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

A boat with a young female passenger on board makes its way along a rocky coastline. When a piece of luggage falls overboard she jumps in to rescue it, petticoats, boots and all. It might have been end of story in late eighteenth-century France where this film is set but, surprisingly, she can swim.

Artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is on her way to take up a new commission, painting the portrait of a young aristocrat who lives in a chateau on an island off Brittany. The new client, the Countess (Valeria Golino), needs a likeness of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel) to send to a prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman, so the wedding can go ahead.

it’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of The Piano, but there are significant differences

An arranged marriage in times past, stirring scenes on a beautiful, empty beach, a woman who expresses herself in the arts. It’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of Jane Campion’s The Piano. But there are significant differences. This is a love story between two women, and as the filmmaker points out, they are equals.

Correcting the pose: Heloise (Adele Haenel) on left and Marianne (Merlant)

It seems to me no accident that the writer-director, Celine Sciamma has set her story before the onset of the French Revolution, at a liminal moment for freedom and equality. She makes nothing of it, however.

Heloise, just out of a convent is refusing to marry, and she won’t cooperate for any portrait because the result will be marriage. Marianne learns that her elder sister didn’t wish to marry the Milanese nobleman either, and it seems she took her life on a walk along the cliff edge.

With instructions from the Countess to become her daughter’s companion, Marianne spends her days observing Heloise and taking mental notes as they go on walks together. She then paints by candlelight in the evening.

With little else to do but walk, talk and read, a relationship begins to develop between the artist and the aristocrat. In particular, they love to read and re-read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wondering about the motivations behind the tragic ending.

Although Heloise becomes aware of the deception she agrees to be painted anyway and during the sittings the two women spar, circle each other and eventually fall in love. The scenes as their relationship develops are exquisitely written by Sciamma, who won best screenplay at Cannes.

men are scarcely present, though still operating outside the frame

We don’t see much of men here. After Marianne’s arrival at the isolated castle, they are scarcely present though they are still operating outside the frame. Like the Milanese nobleman directing events from afar, or the local swain who has made the diminutive maid, Sophie ( Luana Bajrami), pregnant.

The absence of men allows Portrait to concentrate exclusively on a world of women in which the female sensibility and solidarity rules. It is expressed with intensity one evening when Marianne and Heloise join a group of local women gathering in the fields around a bonfire. It isn’t really clear what the gathering is about, but when the women join in an exquisite capella chorus and sing in Latin, it becomes a moment of surreal beauty and a celebration of feminine unity.

The painterly imagery is beautiful if rather stern and uncluttered and the soundtrack, with little music, is simply content to heighten the realism of the domestic world the women inhabit, with its crackling hearth and rustling, breathy silences. It is all the more powerful for it, more than making up for the minimalism with a few sublime musical moments like the ethereal capella singing.

On another occasion we hear ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when Marianne bumbles through it on a harpsicord. She doesn’t do it  justice, but the scene lays the foundation for the amazing and intense concert finale.

The sea plays its part: can Heloise (Adele Haenel) swim too?

This intelligent and sensuous film is special. An intimate and delicate study of how two people can fall in love. Marianne and Heloise could be any two individuals who fall in love, and the world that their story builds is rich reward to those who are willing to enter.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019. Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

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)

Sorry We Missed You

MA 15+, 100 minutes

3 Stars

Review by  © Jane Freebury

Ken Loach is into his 80s now, still powering on as a firebrand for social justice with films about ordinary people up against the system. He has been an activist all his life, from the theatre, to TV to the cinema. No story has been too big or too small, as long as it got the point across.

Director Loach and his frequent collaborator and screenwriter here, Paul Laverty, have a reporter’s instinct for the social realist stories that will expose injustice and tell it how it is. They are directed with a naturalistic aesthetic as though they were the unvarnished truth, just like documentary.

There have been exceptions, like the charming love story Ae Fond Kiss and hallucinating soccer fandom in Looking for Eric, but Loach is strict with himself and likes to keep clear of indulgences that filmmakers allow themselves with sound, or music or special effects.

When he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years ago for I, Daniel Blake, it was the second time he had received the honour. The first was a decade earlier for The Wind That Shakes The Barley, set at the time of Irish independence and the ensuing civil war.

on the other side of the desk sits Gavin who is right across hollow management­-speak

If the accolades in 2016 were like the culmination of a life’s work for Loach, and the moment to put his feet up, he didn’t. The gig economy is upon us and he has found that there is still no time to rest, and with this painful and touching story about a delivery van driver and his family, it’s hard not to agree. Like I, Daniel Blake, it’s set in Newcastle, England.

From the moment Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) has his interview to join parcel delivery company PDF as a courier, it is impossible to imagine that things could go well for him. Predictability in the narrative is the big problem here.

On the other side of the desk sits Gavin Maloney (Ross Brewster) who is right across hollow management­-speak. Ricky won’t be working ‘for’ PDF, he’ll be working ‘with’ them. As an owner-driver he will get a ‘fee’ for his services, rather than a wage, but it’s all spin that hides the fact that Ricky has to put $1,000 down on the van he will drive, work 12 hour shifts during which his movements will be reported by his tracker or ‘preciser’, and he will be treated as though he has no life outside work.

To get set up with the van, Ricky and his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) must sell the car that she relies on for her work as a home-care nurse. She sees elderly clients who are difficult to manage, and now she has to take the bus. The upshot is a lot less family time with their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) and 11-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).

 in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears set to inherit his father’s disadvantage

This saddens Liza while it angers Seb. He skips even more school and spends even more time on his graffiti rounds. Of all the family members impacted by Ricky’s job, it is Seb’s plight that speaks the loudest. Caught in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears to be heading out of school without quals, and set to inherit his father’s disadvantage.

At home for curry: (from left to right) Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) and son Seb (Rhys Stone)

It’s a relief when the gloom and mounting tensions clear once in a while. With a family get-together over a takeaway curry when a vindaloo gets the better of Ricky, and when proud dad takes his daughter along on his delivery rounds. It is, however, only a temporary diversion with a trajectory primed from the start. There are few energising surprises for audiences here.

Were Loach to be anything other than true to his socialist worldview, we would be surprised, and he’s hit on a rich, new seam here with people like Ricky who are entrapped on the service economy roundabout. It also shows how, in a wider sense, workers with pride and aspiration can get crushed by an automated system which elides rights and entitlements, operates strictly by the book, and refuses to acknowledge that ‘service providers’ have a life and responsibilities outside work.

Sorry We Missed You has that blunt urgency Loach often displays, but his actors are very good, and with this forensic job on the system, he has made his point.

This review, first published in the Canberra Times on 31 December 2019, is also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

  • Featured image: a lighter moment for Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor)

At home with The Truth: interview with director Hirokazu Kore-ada

By © Jane Freebury

After winning the top prize at Cannes festival last year for his film, Shoplifters, the director Hirokazu Kore-ada went to work on a new project in France.

He had something quite different up his sleeve. It was to be set in a grand old Parisian home with a leafy garden, the domicile of someone rich and famous, and a world away from his impoverished band of thieves who live together as family on the fringes of society in Tokyo.

Actually, The Truth had been in development for some time with Juliette Binoche, the French star of renown. And Kore-ada had a screenplay to polish up and already one or two other actors in mind. American actor Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise trilogy), who is an ease in French language cinema, for starters.

Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) with daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

Kore-ada’s other idea was getting Catherine Deneuve on board. An icon of French cinema since the 1960s, Deneuve is an imposing 76 years old, with a leonine head of hair and a ‘don’t-even-think-about-it’ expression on her classic features.

He wanted her for the character Fabienne, an ageing film star still performing who is estranged from her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Binoche), who lives in New York. Things come to a head when Lumir returns to France to celebrate the publication of her mother’s memoir.

A French person would never think of that. That’s wild

How did Kore-ada get the two of them, Binoche and Deneuve, in their first ever collaboration on screen?

‘I was developing this with Juliette Binoche for years. When I suggested that we ask Catherine Deneuve to play the mother, Juliette said it would be a big challenge for her, as well as a great honour.

‘When I told the French staff it was the direction I wanted to go in, they came back and said, you know, a French person would never think of that. That’s wild.’

Wild, indeed. Yet there is ample space for both onscreen in this subtle, layered family drama. The Truth is an intriguing double act with two iconic French actors, a generation apart, who share the screen. Ethan Hawke is there too, as Hank, Lumir’s husband, a TV actor as often at rehab as he is in work.

What was it like working with Deneuve? ‘She will always be able to give you the take you want,’ says Kore-ada. ‘The really interesting thing is that she knows when she has given it to you. She’ll have a moment of inspiration, then, bang, it will come out, and she’ll tell you “oh, that was the one”’.

I have read elsewhere that she tends not to arrive on set until noon and prefers to work in Paris, though Kore-ada does not mention this.

Bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent

In The Truth, Binoche and Deneuve each play both a mother and a daughter at different points. Lumir has arrived with her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) and Fabienne’s current role is as a daughter in a time-travelling story, ‘Memories of My Mother’, a tale with a far-fetched plot that pokes a bit of fun at the high seriousness of science fiction.

The beauty of Kore-ada’s films is their exploration of family, family in its many manifestations, family with blood ties and ‘families’ without. He has observed that one of his major realisations in life is that bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent, and that the concept of family needs constant reaffirmation. Will he continue exploring this fundamental human relationship?

‘It’s one of those subjects that you never arrive at a final definitive answer.’ But we shall see.

Kore-ada, incidentally, speaks neither English nor French. This interview a couple of weeks ago was conducted through an interpreter.

How is it possible to make a film in France when you don’t speak French, or English? Kore-ada works closely with his Japanese-French speaking translator, Lea Le Dimna, who he met at the Marrakech film festival. ‘In the past five years since I met her, I’ve consistently hired her services.’ Her familiarity with how Kore-ada communicates his working methods has made her indispensable.

How did he find it working with a French cast and crew? ‘One of the key differences working with French people is that they pretty much say what they think and tell you face to face, whereas if you are Japanese you might hold back, and stay silent about those things.

‘I was sort of aware of that difference and wanted to incorporate it, that they would say what they think, and that much is a very integral part of this film.’

It’s such an interesting observation that seems to fit with the observation that Shoplifters offers another perspective on the official narrative about well-being in Japanese family and society.

I suggest that The Truth plays with the naked truth, the embellished truth and the unspoken truth, while it develops a recognition of the position that each character is coming from.

‘You’re absolutely right,’ he says, to general laughter. It’s more important than agreeing on the truth.

‘The story as I approached it was that there was this daughter who was to confront her mother with the truth. Whatever it was. Yet when she recounts her own history, she realises there are other truths or things that have been glossed over.

‘So, that’s the account I really wanted to cover. That she does have these moments where the trick is that the truth is actually less important than finding out where she stood in relation to her mother.’

‘In the story, it is the performance that actually helps heal those gaps.’

The Truth was selected to open the Venice International Film Festival in August this year. It opens in Australia on Boxing Day.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

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

Mrs Lowry & Son

More about mother than son

PG, 91 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It was lucky for the artist L .S. Lowry that his family fell on hard times and moved out of their leafy Manchester suburb to a new home near the city factories. Lucky, I think, because he was inspired to paint the everyday scenes that he saw all around him, showing how the working classes lived and worked, and made a name for himself.

A profusion of landscapes and seascapes were painted by artists in reaction to an Industrial Revolution grinding on, but Lowry faced it head on. It’s a neat coincidence that a much chubbier version of Timothy Spall played J. M. W. Turner in Mr Turner (2014), about the famous Romantic artist of the early 19th century.

It seems Lowry’s mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), never got over her fall from grace to the grimy industrial district of Pendlebury, but over time the change in circumstances turned into a windfall for the artist as a young man. He was drawn to the strange world of massive, humming factories and he saw a dignity in the people that the mills swallowed by day and spewed out at night. He felt there was a beauty in everything.

From the bed that she was confined to, from which she ran her family of one, Elizabeth was a force to be reckoned with. Domineering, class-conscious, undermining. And yet although Elizabeth was very hard work, her son and only child remained loyal, looking after her until she died.

For her part, Elizabeth couldn’t acknowledge that her son was an artist, though she appeared to like his more conventional paintings, like ‘Sailing Boats’, well enough.

Make her happy. Find another ‘hobby’

Elizabeth felt vindicated when a critic lambasted Laurie’s painting ‘Coming from the Mill’ as an ugly rendition of a squalid industrial scene with stick figures that looked like marionettes. It could have been painted by a child.

The label ‘naïve’ dogged Lowry’s reputation. Why didn’t Laurie give it up, she argued, for her sake, make her happy, and find another ‘hobby’?

Far from a hobbyist, Lowry had trained for 15 years at art school. After he returned home from his day job as a rent collector, he would cook the dinner that he and his mother ate together off trays in her bedroom. Then he would climb to his attic studio to work until the wee small hours of the morning. No Sunday painter this, he painted every day, an escape into the imagination from his life downstairs.

Too much on Lowry’s struggle with mother, too little on his struggle with his art

There were quite a few moments when I was reminded of another bickering pair, Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald in their roles in the fondly remembered old 1980s-90s TV sitcom, Mother and Son. But that was toe-curling and funny.

The issue with Mrs Lowry & Son, directed by Adrian Noble from a screenplay by Martyn Hesford, is that it spends way too much time with Elizabeth. There’s too much emphasis on Lowry’s struggle with his mother and too little on his struggle with his art, which is, after all, the main reason we watch the artist’s biopic.

At the close, the film skips to the present with some footage from The Lowry gallery, showing room after room of the artist’s paintings. It is a relief to see them there and realise he didn’t destroy them all in that bonfire in the garden, but it’s an awkward add-on at the conclusion.

A gaunt Timothy Spall is convincing as the odd, lonely artist who lived with his mother until she died in 1939, but the screenplay has given him restricted material to work with. I liked reading over the final credits that he refused to accept various honours, including a knighthood, from the Queen. But then we read he’d said that there was no point accepting them without his mother around to acknowledge this success.

It seems Lowry could be mischievous too, the sweet scenes with children early on held some promise. I’ve also read that his clock collection all told different times, just for fun, so he wasn’t without spark. There must have been other sides to this intensely inhibited, private man but Mrs Lowry & Son keeps them from us.

Also published by the Canberra Times in print and online on 1 December 2019

*Featured image: Timothy Spall as Laurence Lowry

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marty Scorsese among the Superheroes

The director’s director up against the comic book heroes

By © Jane Freebury

Every city has to have one. A film festival.

Just about every region on earth hosts a film festival, including Oceania where there’s one for very short films in Vanuatu, and one for documentaries in French Polynesia. Antarctica has claimed one too, for filmmakers ‘left out in the cold’.

The festival and the space it makes is great for film creatives to open, and say what they think.

Film festivals happening everywhere yet superheroes dominate box office

Fall in the north marks the start of the season of international film festivals. Venice, Montreal and Toronto have been and gone, and New York and London have recently wrapped. It’s different Down Under, of course, where the superhero movies are out in force at the same time as the venerable big two, Melbourne and Sydney.

In 2019 movie studios outdid themselves, again, as Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, became the highest grossing film of all time

The names of marquee events roll off the tongue. It’s no surprise that the United States has the most, Seattle, Sundance, Telluride, Tribeca, SXSW and all the rest. Making movies on an industrial scale began in New York, before the entrepreneurs decamped to the West Coast for the sunshine and freedom from interference, from where today they still dominate the international box office.

Despite it all, the festivals known as the big three – Berlin, Venice and Cannes – take place over on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe, filmmakers have more scope to make movies the way they want to, putting a stretch of ocean between themselves and the home of blockbusters.

This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all time, beating Avatar and Titanic. Its sister film, released last year, Avengers: Infinity War is the fifth highest earner ever, and one of a handful that have grossed in excess of two billion in cinemas worldwide.

After endgame and apocalypse, where to from here?

This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all timesuperhero apocalypse of endgames and wars into the ever after has won, hands down, but, honestly, where to from here?

Before this century when they began to appear in earnest, the movie superhero made an occasional appearance. Their goofy, impossible heroes could be treated with indulgence, but the explosion in pseudo-serious superhero in the 21st century is something entirely new, where plot and character driven by technology rather than story-tellers interested in human drama.

Why so? It’s a question for the sociologists, but interesting that they first appeared early in the early years of the Second World War when superheroes like Superman, a Batman, and Captain Marvel joined the war effort, one way or other.

As another summer of blockbusters draws to a close, the guardians of film culture have the opportunity to nurse serious cinema back to health. With injections of new work by the ingenue directors, with a selection of classics digitally restored, and with the latest work from the established auteurs.

Martin Scorsese in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (2014)

The red carpet rolls for films in competition, fans throng to see the talent in the flesh, and cineastes hang out to hear what the filmmakers have to say for themselves. This year we have heard from Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman opened the festival in New York (that I was able to attend in 2019), and closed the festival in London.

It is a rare treat to hear from filmmakers directly. Too often, new work is introduced to us by the marketers, by the jargon of the business, or by fragmented reviews that try to tell a complimentary story. When filmmakers with serious intent articulate what they were doing in their own words it is an altogether different matter.

A new outing from Martin Scorsese, generally considered one of the world’s greatest living directors, is a big event in any filmgoer’s calendar.

His Irishman takes place in New York, of course. The city that has been the set for more film and television than any other in the world, where, on any given day, New Yorkers can feel that they are on a film set. They can play it up and revel in the theatre of life in one of the world’s great megapolises, or play it down.

In an interview with Empire magazine at the time, Scorsese was drawn on the subject of superhero movies. The living godfather of modern cinema said what he thought, and then doubled down on it in London.

He had tried to watch them, really he had, but found he couldn’t. They were theme park experiences, they were not cinema, didn’t tell stories, and didn’t communicate emotional and psychological experience. With that, Scorsese drew a line in the sand.

The superhero movie industry may not much like what he said. Some like New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, who had the helm for Thor: Ragnarok and will direct Thor: Love and Thunder), have spoken up. Of course it’s cinema, you see it at the theatre, don’t you?

Fans of superheroes won’t be bothered, though they did Scorsese in media studies

Fans of the genre may not be much bothered by Scorsese’s views, even though his classics such as Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Cape Fear and The Departed will have been on their media studies curriculum.

Waititi is of course also the creator of the terrific indie hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It has been an interesting crossover. Why did the moguls ask him to direct? What were they looking for?

Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Solder (2014)      Image courtesy Marvel Studios

He is not the only one, either. Talented indie writer-director originally from Canberra, Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), has also been scooped up by the superhero industry. She is directing MCU’s Black Widow with Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz, due out next year.

In interview, Scorsese is a beguiling, mild-mannered man. Mild mannered for a man whose powerful, disturbing and beautifully made films about brooding, conflicted men have shaken us up, and he has stuck his neck out here.

The Irishman, a three hour thirty minute epic delving into the familiar subjects of organised crime, family and corruption, and is distributed by Netflix, the movie juggernaut for the small screen. The director’s latest film has benefited somewhat from this behemoth and other developments, like ‘de-aging’ visual effects, but no one could counter that his films skate the surface.

Reporting what Scorsese thinks about the competition at the box office for the movie dollar is a bit of a beat-up, but sincerity is a powerful tool these days. After all, there is only that much that you can say about movie superheroes, hey.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2019. Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

* Featured image: Chris Hemsworth in Thor (2011)

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

Ailo’s Journey

G, 86 minutes

3 Stars

Review by ©  Jane Freebury

It’s often hard to see how creatures born in the wild, just a bundle of knobbly limbs and eyes and ears, can ever survive. How those baby seals can get safely past the orcas lurking in the shallows, or how hatchling turtles dodge the predators on shore to reach the sea.

This wildlife documentary for children recounts a year in the life of a reindeer fawn, born before its mother reaches the summer pastures with the rest of the herd. Alone with her for the first days of its life, Ailo has to learn quick. Stand, walk, then run and swim. His mother nearly leaves him behind to follow the herd but the maternal instinct prevails and she stays, lowering her antlered head, nudging him to copy her. Yes, female reindeer, at least these ones in the Lapland region of Finland, grow an impressive rack just like the males.

Of course, we don’t have the same patience as Ailo’s mother while he learns essential skills. While the lessons take place, the entertaining antics of a white stoat come into view as it tries to raid a nest of eggs just out of reach. It’s one of many cameos of the other animals that share the taiga with reindeer. Lemmings, snowy owls, bears, wolves, wolverines, and arctic foxes.

I took only a little notice of the voiceover and concentrated on the images

In three days, Ailo and mum trot out of the forest, making their way down into the lower lying land. When he is five days old, they have caught up with the herd. This is when the narrator informs us that, not only has Ailo discovered how to use his limbs, he has learnt perseverance, courage and self-confidence.

There’s often some anthropomorphising in wildlife docos, even David Attenborough’s, but this was too much. From this point, I took only a little notice of the voiceover and concentrated on the images. While the writing by Morgan Navarro and Marko  Rohr can be silly and condescending, the cinematography by Teemu Liakka is great. The images from this white world just below the Arctic are lovely, some spectacular.

It’s not just a reindeer story. The arctic fox that is desperate for a mate, the snarling she-wolf training her cubs in the hunt. We are spared the actual kills.

And the wolverine that has such fun doing somersaults in the snow forgets he is courting the female, and she stalks off. By the way, if you ever thought Hugh Jackman’s wolverine claws were over-the-top, check out the claws on this little creature.

There is plenty of interesting wildlife behaviour to watch too, and, given the young audience this documentary is aimed at, the filmmakers can be excused for trying to turn it all into a story. The editor would have been working hard on bringing the raw material together, constructing a single character from disparate vision, and eliminating any images that gave the game away, but the result is a sweet story.

Ailo’s Journey, from first-time feature director Guillaume Madatchevsky, is about the right length for children. The images of the snowy wilderness will be compensation enough for the adults who go along with them.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 November 2019

Pain and Glory

MA15+, 114 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The actor Antonio Banderas and director Pedro Almodovar first worked together in the 1980s and helped make each other famous with sexy, taboo-breaking films like Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was the post-Franco era in Spain and time to tear down decades of fascist repression.

Pain and Glory reflects on the central relationships in Salvador’s (Banderas) life – mother, lovers and actor collaborators. It’s a very personal collaboration between the actor and filmmaker, like a confessional from a couple of famous men of the big screen.

We first see Banderas, as successful film director Salvador Mallo, holding a pose while meditating at the bottom of a swimming pool.  The watery world draws memories of his early childhood to the surface, memories of laundry day at the river’s edge with his young mother (played in these scenes by another Almodovian muse, Penelope Cruz).

A gift for directors, fromTarantino to Almodovar, Banderas has had health issues of his own

As he catches up with an old friend, Salvador reveals that he has stopped writing and directing. Her surprise that he, of all people, has become reclusive and inactive, is a clue to the kind of person he was.

In later flashbacks, while in conversation with his elderly mother, he listens in such a touching way to her complaints that he disappointed her. Later, in a sweet scene between Banderas and Julieta Serrano, who plays Jacinta in her old age, she explains exactly how she wishes to be laid out when she dies.

In conversation with his long lost friend, Salvador recounts his various ailments, a list of enemies within that have beset him. His asthma, headaches, tinnitus and the sciatica that has given him a bad back. It’s a scary anatomical collage of medical imagery, almost as arresting as the opening titles over melting images that turn from solid to liquid before our eyes.

The state Salvador is in is a million miles from the irresistible hunk Banderas played in Almodovar’s early films, or from the swaggering hero he has played in Hollywood.

Another key relationship, not so explicitly referenced, is with the gay lover Salvador had when they were young men, before Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) left for Argentina and took a wife. The scenes between them 30 years later at Salvador’s apartment in Madrid, including the prominent kitchen with its bright red cupboards that looks a lot like the director’s own, are lovely to watch too.

Salvador (Antonio Banderas) and Alberto (Asier Etxeandia)

Yet another key relationship is the actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) from whom Salvador has also been estranged many years. Both Etxeandia and Sbaraglia give terrific performances too.

Handsome, tousle-haired, with a shy twinkle in his eye, Banderas has always been a welcome sight on screen. A gift for directors, from Quentin Tarantino to Almodovar, looking for a swashbuckler with devil-may-care (Desperado) or for a man for women to desire. Yet, here in Pain and Glory the presence we became used to is barely present. Banderas has been chastened by a real-life health issues of his own – a recent heart attack.

These life stories of these two creative collaborators, the film director and his alter ego, wind around each other like a double, double helix. Except that Banderas isn’t gay.

Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early work has developed and matured

It is like two of them put their heads together to create an intelligent, amusing and moving film with deep meaning for them both. Their energy coalesces around the wonderful performance that won Banderas the best actor award at Cannes earlier this year.

Since I became captivated by Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early films, he has remained one of my favourite filmmakers. All the while, his distinctive filmmaking – Volver and All About My Mother and Talk to Her among his best – has evolved, developed more depth and matured.

It isn’t surprising to hear in interview that another key relationship in Almodovar’s life has been the cinema, the world in which he says he still lives today. It’s a place of warmth and sensuality, of wit and wisdom, and as we see here, not without regrets.

Pain and Glory is a superior work from Pedro Almodovar with an intensely sensitive performance from Antonio Banderas. Both men may have been the bad boy and seen it all, but we didn’t know about this gentle, reflective side deep within.

First published in print and online by the Canberra Times on 9 November 2019

Balloon

Up, up and away to freedom

M, 125 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is the story of two young families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, and a brightly coloured hot air balloon. It’s fantastic but true that in 1979 they used one to escape from East Germany, the former GDR, a daring act that lends new meaning to the image of balloons aloft.

On a September night when conditions were right, a balloon with eight on board, four adults and four children, drifted across the border into Bavaria. It flew at a height above 2,000 metres, high enough to be detected but not identified and out of reach of the guns of border guards. It landed just over the border.

East Germans who left were by definition enemies of the state

Before the Berlin Wall was torn down 30 years ago, the news about people being shot by East German border guards as they tried to escape to the West was a regular occurrence. After this, the revelations about the activities of the Stasi, the Communist regime’s secret police, were just about as bad.

Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) in a race against time

East Germans who took it upon themselves to leave were by definition enemies of the state, to be ‘apprehended or liquidated’. It’s ironic that as she and husband, Peter (Friedrich Mucke), are  on the point of leaving their home in the GDR forever, young wife and mother, Doris Strelzyk (Karoline Schuch), tidies up before she turns to leave. Says she can’t bear to be thought of as a bad housewife once she has gone, but she is destined to be thought of as far, far worse.

The incredible escape story has been made into a film before so I went along thinking it might have already had its day. Disney released Night Crossing with British actor, the late John Hurt, in 1982, just a few years later. But as I watched this German-language drama unfold, I came to think about its relevance differently.

It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that the families made it. That’s well known. It’s the journey that counts here, and knowing the ending doesn’t detract from this well-constructed and tense drama about a highly improbable flight to freedom from a totalitarian regime.

Get out or get arrested, there was no alternative

However, when they realise that the Stasi will discover Doris’ medication in the balloon’s wreckage and eventually be able to trace them, and when Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) and his family realise they have also been compromised, it becomes a matter of urgency. Get out or get arrested. There was no alternative but to start again.

Buying vast quantities of fabric,  some 1,300 metres, is difficult without inviting curiosity. Just how many tents or flags could you claim to be making? Then there’s the challenge of sewing it together and giving it a test run on the quiet somewhere. The odds against getting the work done and kept a secret from small children, nosey neighbours and government spies alike, were huge.

Actor Thomas Kretschmann, (pictured), seen in American action films and on TV in Berlin Station, is the Stasi lieutenant in charge of operations to track down the elusive balloonists. His character’s moral complexity suggests Balloon could have been taken in an even more interesting direction had it played the story less for its action and thrills and more for its political and psychological drama.

Still, it’s a remarkable story about the lengths people will go to, for freedom.

Balloon is directed by Michael Herbig, a well-known German comedian and director/producer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Roscheisen. It is a gripping drama with solid lead performances about a crazy-brave feat of courage.

A version of this review was first published in the Canberra Times on 3 Nov 19. It is also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

Blinded by the Light

PG, 1 hr 57 mins

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Life was all mapped out. Young Javed would become an accountant, an estate agent, or even a lawyer, and would leave finding a wife to his parents. With his job and wife-to-be taken care of, all he had to do meantime was go along with his father’s wishes. At home, the opinions of his dad were the only ones allowed.

As a boy from a Pakistani family living in Britain in the 1980s, Javed (an engaging performance by Viveik Kalra) felt trapped, but it helped to write and he kept diaries throughout his teenage years.

This exuberant musical comedy, Blinded by the Light, is based on a memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, by Pakistani-British man, Sarfraz Manzoor, who became a journalist and broadcaster – not another taxi driver – and a lifelong fan of the music of Bruce Springsteen. To date, he has attended more than 150 live Springsteen concerts.

It was an ugly time in his adopted country. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, there was widespread industrial turmoil and unemployment, and the National Front was prowling the streets. In times like those, it wasn’t so silly of Javed’s father, Malik (Gurvinder Ghir), to insist his family – wife Noor (Meera Ganatra), two daughters and son – kept a low profile.

Javed (Viveik Kalra, centre) and friends, Eliza (Nell Williams) and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

The family lived in Luton, which didn’t help. With traffic on the motorway pouring past to the north or to the shimmering capital to the south, Luton felt on the way to somewhere else, an arrow to nowhere off the M1. Life must be happening somewhere, anywhere but here.

For some reason, the film tries to explain how Springsteen, proud working class, Anglo man from New Jersey, could speak to a couple of South Asian teenagers

Even his good friend and neighbour, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an uninhibited Anglo, has a girlfriend, belongs to a band and his dad (played by an barely recognisable Rob Brydon) is cool. Though Matt, of course, doesn’t know it.

This was Javed’s lot. An outsider, until the day everything changed. In the school cafeteria, over baked beans and chips, the only other student from the Subcontinent, Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh, hands him a couple of Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes, saying ‘The Boss’ is ‘the direct line to all that is true in this shitty world’. Pretty soon, Javed is a convert too.

For some reason, the film tries to explain how Springsteen, proud working class, Anglo man from New Jersey, could speak to a couple of South Asian teenagers, one Sikh and one Muslim, trying to make sense of life in Britain. Lines from Springsteen’s lyrics float around Javed’s head as he listens in private on his Walkman, as though it needed an explanation. It doesn’t. Music is the universal language.

The filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges collaborated with Manzoor on the screenplay. Blinded by the Light has her familiar distinctive touch, and the sly but generous humour typical of Chadha. She has a knack for keeping it light even though her focus is the on tricky subjects like relations between Anglos and Asians, and the need to reconcile tradition with modernity.

Chadha’s last film, Viceroy’s House in 2017, dealt with the weighty subject of the final days of the British Raj in India. It was probably notable for Gillian Anderson’s performance as Lady Mountbatten, but though well-intentioned it was surprisingly dull.

Chadha has been at her best with stories about immigrant families from the Subcontinent in Britain. Stories like Bend It Like Beckham in 2002, about a Punjabi Sikh girl infatuated with Britain’s football superstar, and Bhaji on the Beach, in 1993. These are films with a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of social customs and cross-cultural interaction and it’s what we see here in Blinded by the Light. Social commentary is Chadha’s forte.

The irrepressible Rob Bryden has a small role here but as Matt’s dad, who appeared to have a positive, liberal influence on both his son and Javed, but his character is under-developed.

At 117 minutes, Blinded by the Light is over-long, even though it is important to get to know the characters in stories like these, and see them in all their contradictions. Insights take time to develop, and to understand.

With people on the streets and governments locked in dysfunction, is it okay to have such playful, innocent fun with Javed’s ‘runaway American dream in Luton’? What a question.

First published in The Canberra Times on 27 October 2019, and also published at the Canberra Critics Circle