The King’s Choice

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Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Trip to Spain

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Review by © Jane Freebury

For a road trip to work, so much depends on who you are with. So, if you’re thinking of being the third party aboard a Range Rover with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a restaurant tour from Santander to Malaga, it’s wise to revise what you know.

As this is the third in the popular series, you’ll most likely know what you get for your money. I hopped on board with some reservations.

The earlier ‘trip’ films, one to England’s north and the other to Italy, are a reminder that it’s true what they say. People can be quite revelatory when they are facing the road ahead, rather than each other.

Unscripted,  improvisational, that is the thrill

The formula has worked well. Coogan and Brydon pass the time on the highway or waiting for meals to arrive, by being entertaining, er, sometimes just showing off. We just happen to be watching. They riff off each other with celebrity impersonations, exchange snippets of trivia and reveal things about their personal lives that may be true to themselves or their personas. A bit of enhanced reality keeps it interesting.

Few filmmakers besides Michael Winterbottom can afford the risk of setting forth with so little prepared and get such good results. Unscripted,  improvisational, that is, in essence, the thrill of The Trip films. It feels so immediate, as though you are actually present on set, wondering what they will come up next.

Can we look forward to trips beyond the road and on the waves, as they join the cruise set?

As the pair sat in restaurants carrying on at high volume while other diners pretended not to notice, my thoughts went to director Michael Winterbottom and his team. Were there free meals for the other diners if they undertook not to look at the camera? Was there the promise of being glimpsed in a popular film?

Now that they’re in the early 50s, Coogan and Brydon are paying more attention to their health, cycling and running. As they get bit by bit older, how far they will be prepared to go with Winterbottom, I wonder. Can we look forward to trips beyond the road and on the waves, as they join the cruise set?

To some extent too, we are prepared to accept Winterbottom’s approach to filmmaking – lots of improv, topical subjects, and an approach that is skilful, witty and urbane.

The downside is that it sometimes feels like a throwaway line or two, and too superficial by half. For that reason, I rather liked the unsettling and unexpected ending.

Though the upshot is that after this cock-and-bull story you may, like me, be hungry for more, after only having sampled the tapas.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

Kim Beamish, filmmaker

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Kim Beamish on the other side of the camera Photo: Melissa Adams Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Jane Freebury

The Circle’s winter conversations for 2017 wound up with another filmmaker in the guest chair. Kim Beamish, director and producer at Non’D’Script Films, now Canberra- based, who has received international recognition for his documentary work.

His film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, was joint winner of the prestigious Margaret Mead award for documentary film in 2015. It also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll at Visions du Réel, and the El-Ray Award for narrative documentary excellence at the Barcelona Film Festival.

Kim, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a degree in digital arts from the Australian National University, took us on a quick tour of his varied professional background. It includes work in media production for universities and government departments, at Bearcage Productions, long-term volunteering with community television—and a stint in the kitchen at a famous Sydney restaurant.

He came to Canberra after his wife landed a job in the public service. A typical Canberra story, quipped Helen.

In the media area, Kim has been involved in productions featuring a number of identities including artist John Olsen, actor Lexi Sekuless, and the late Betty Churcher. He is currently teaching again at University of Canberra.

At the start of our discussion, Kim explained his aesthetic preferences. The type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. His preference is for the observational approach that allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input from the filmmakers, either on set or in post-production.

Verité or actuality is the approach he uses in his forthcoming film, Oyster, a doco set in a family of oyster farmers based on the far south coast of NSW. It observes their way of life and work and how they are dealing with the impact of climate change on the environment at Merimbula Lake. The human dimension of the impact of great change.

For now, Kim is best known for The Tentmakers of Cairo, the documentary he made about the small community of male artisans, known as tentmakers, who stitch traditional cloths that have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times. There is no voice of god voiceover nor music introduced to guide viewer responses. The music that can be heard is already playing on set or nearby. The emphasis on ambient sound in the covered market in Old Cairo where the tentmakers work is highly immersive.

Kim explained the serendipity involved in The Tentmakers. It was made in Egypt during the early stages of the ‘Arab spring’, beginning in 2011 when he accompanied his wife and young family on a 3-year posting. Kim knew he wanted to record some aspect of the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, but just wasn’t quite sure what or how to go about it. At that point, no one knew what direction events would take either.

Initially he had wanted to work with Egyptian filmmakers, but found they weren’t interested in documentary.

We were keen to hear how he had managed to film in Cairo during such a turbulent time. After he was introduced to the tentmaker community by quilt expert Jenny Bowker, Kim immediately developed a strong rapport with the subjects of his film. It was Jenny, a Cairo resident and wife of a former ambassador to Egypt, who was his first key contact.

Kim’s status was then confirmed with a walk through the market neighbourhood in the company of a prominent member of the tentmaker community. A demonstration that the young stranger at the side of the ‘elder’ was a welcome guest to be protected.

Kim had to find his way around Cairo with Arabic that was minimal at best – ‘shway’ – and no guarantee of entrée. Moreover, brandishing a cinematographic camera without journalistic or other accreditation, Kim could have landed himself in trouble. Every journalist he knew had had their camera smashed, he said.

Despite the risks, the production proceeded to post. The Tentmakers of Cairo premiered at the Canberra International Film Festival in 2015, and it has been screened in Egypt.

One of the virtues of observational doco style, we all agreed, is that it is open to a variety of readings.

Finally, Kim talked briefly about his first documentary feature, Just Punishment, ‘a film about life and death’, the case of the Australian Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking. The production, involving three years back and forth between Singapore and Australia, was an experience that still troubles Kim, who has remained close to the man’s mother.

He did not have the same level of creative control over this first film either, and it is observational only in part. His new film Oyster, is thoroughly in the observational mode, however.

It was particularly interesting to hear how Kim worked as an independent filmmaker, how he obtained funding in the development stages of production and received ongoing support. We were impressed by Kim’s openness and by his dedication to the integrity of his craft.

Oyster, which Kim is making with veteran filmmaker Pat Fiske, will premiere at the CIFF this year.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Dunkirk

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Review © by Jane Freebury

With films about perception, memory, and fluctuating identity, Christopher Nolan has carved out a very particular space for himself on the big screen. His interests could so easily have confined him to the indie sector, but he has had the confidence and the narrative and stylistic brio to crash through, taking narrative jigsaw puzzles like Inception and Memento straight to the mainstream.

A war film determined by the facts of the famous evacuation from France early in World War II might seem like a bit of a straitjacket. Not that Nolan doesn’t have plenty of cred as an action director—his Batman trilogy was outstanding—it’s just that he’s at least as interested in the tricks the mind can play as in representing the action up on screen.

As it turns out, his approach, another occasion on which his direction is based on his own screenplay, has resulted in a really distinctive war film. And a very good one. The evacuation from Dunkirk is brought to life with little of the usual battle mayhem, but with a lot of stillness, silence and participant point-of-view that encourages us to reflect on what was going on within the men who waited, hoped for and despaired of deliverance.

Sheer luck propels us to the beachhead in the first scenes, on the back of the only soldier to survive an ambush in the streets of Dunkirk town. There were six of them, scrounging for cigarettes, drinking from a garden hose, needing to relieve themselves, when enemy snipers opened up and took them all down, bar one (Fionn Whitehead). He is known as Tommy, a sufficiently generic name, once slang for an ordinary soldier, that resists marking him out as an individual either.

At the beach there is line upon line of men waiting to be rescued. Around 400,000 of the remaining (mostly) British Expeditionary Forces in retreat, queueing on the sand and along the breakwater. So British to queue.

The surrender of France is only days away. Trapped by German tanks, strafed by the Luftwaffe, the forces had but a thin khaki line of French soldiers between them and the enemy.

Neither the German ground troops nor pilots are given any identity either. They are unnamed, and virtually unseen. It could almost be a one-sided war, without the binaries, were it not for the relentlessly accurate assault largely from offscreen.

So much else has been elided. There is hardly any blood or viscera. There is no perspectival privilege, so the audience has no more knowledge of what’s going on than the participants on screen. None of the characters has a backstory and there is no light-hearted banter, to lower the tension. There are no scenes of Churchill, only a couple of weeks into his role as Prime Minister, in the war room.

In keeping with this approach, the evacuation strategy is only overheard by two soldiers hidden under the breakwater. They have positioned themselves there so they can climb onto a rescue boat, rather than wait their turn.

Against the implacable beauty of a seaside landscape, thousands of soldiers await rescue like skittles in a bowling alley, lined up to be mown down. Somebody says it feels like being a fish in a barrel, somebody else wonders where the RAF has got to.

It’s chaos within the awful stillness of a vacuum. Assisted by Hans Zimmer’s powerful and insistent score, film ensures that we experience the full catastrophe, from the unendurable wait to the confusion, desperation and terror that the soldiers felt. It leaves an indelible impression.

4.5 stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Beguiled

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Review © Jane Freebury

Like so much, it all depends on point of view. Is it the male of the species or is it the female who is beguiled, mind and body a welter of desire? This simmering drama of sexual repression set during the American Civil War begins with a delicate balancing act when a wounded Union soldier is found in the woods and taken into a seminary for Southerner women to recover. To begin with, the interactions are a delicate balancing act.

There is much to make of the location in Virginia, knowingly chosen we can be sure. Near a wood where mosses hang from lofty trees, stands a mansion fronted by a row of massive columns. There’s plenty for the semiologists to work with here. At the same time, it’s easy to discern within, the kernel of a contemporary fairy tale warning young men to stay away from the evil witches in the forest who will consume them then cast them out. Be careful what you wish for.

Behind the high gates and overgrown garden, a small group of women and girls, two teachers and five students, have remained during the long years of war with only each other for company. Now there is a desirable, willing male in the form of Colin Farrell in their midst. The man himself, in a waking dream of possibilities that float around him in pale gowns as they minister to his needs, might think he’s never had such luck.

As they watch over him, drifting in and out of consciousness, a perfect specimen apart from his wounded leg, desire awakes in them too in the subdued lighting of candle-lit interiors, the way it was at the time.

Things get rolling when the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) bathes him while he is unconscious, or may be foxing. Soon he receives visits from a flustered but aroused Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a very saucy Alicia (Elle Fanning) drops by to plant a kiss while he sleeps. Corporal John McBurney opts for a strategy of divide and conquer.

For some reason, key scenes – like the moment McBurney propositions Edwina –  develop in a rush that wrong-foots the drama and truncates delicately unfolding tensions. The direction of some crucial scenes sees the drama lose some of its power. If Coppola was working with suggestions that she be less indulgent while developing atmosphere, something she was so good at in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, then she shouldn’t have taken a blind bit of notice here. When the director was camping up the gothic with Kidman asking for the anatomy text before she got to work, the sudden appearance of the book would have been more fun.

I’m probably not the only one to have seen a Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in  Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth.

Clearly accustomed to ruling the roost where women are concerned, McBurney has just to turn his big brown eyes in the direction of any of the women, and he could have his way with them. The other four are too young and thankfully not part of these games. Writer-director Coppola has veered away from the moment of pre-pubescent sexuality of her film’s 1971 predecessor with Clint Eastwood. The children watch on, pliant and observing until they become players themselves, in ultimately disconcertingly effective ways.

It was common human decency that got the rooster into the hen house in the first place, quickly followed by charity that decided he could stay until recovered, but it is desire, and with it comes competition, that quickly takes over as he becomes step-by-step a prisoner. That’s not to say he isn’t happy to remaining in his conveniently safe haven and wait out the end of the war, but the pale gowns the women and girls wear signify an innocence that masks darker feelings beneath.

Over recent months we have watched My Cousin Rachel—did she or didn’t she?—followed by an indomitable Lady Macbeth and now The Beguiled. It’s interesting times we live in.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

A Quiet Passion

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Review © Jane Freebury

In her day, the American poet Emily Dickinson was a kind of free thinker and early feminist, but she hardly crossed her front porch into the world. Later in life she hardly left her room. She lived through her words. The writer and recluse has been kept alive by posterity, and is now thrust into public view in this film by Terence Davies.

The filmmaker says that A Quiet Passion is his creative take on the eccentric literary figure, but the film sticks pretty closely to the known facts, and though Davies’ modesty may ward off the fulminating critics, there was little to work with anyway. Dickinson never married, she had a habit of wearing only white—an interesting juxtaposition—and remained in the family home in Massachusetts till her death.

During her lifetime fewer than a dozen of her poems were published and her younger sister arranged for the publication of the vast bulk of her work after she died.

Some of the poetry is heard in voiceover, and suggests valuable insights, but there is too little about her writing. Davies could have at least put more of those poems to work. After all, it seems to have been where she fully expressed herself and how she reached out to the world.

Otherwise, the ambience of mid-19th century piety and seclusion in the Dickinson household is very compelling. The austere and painterly look, the work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, creates a cloistered private world in which little alters as the years pass.

However, a slow 360 ° panning shot around the parlour that takes in family members and objects registers subtle change. And at another point, the passage of time is deftly realised at a session with a photographer taking family portraits. This is where the family merges into their older selves, and when Emma Bell, the young Emily, leaves the frame and Cynthia Nixon takes over.

Emma Bell as young Emily

Though her lines can’t have been helpful, Nixon is great in a challenging role. The jarring dialogue and awkward interactions are a major part of the film’s distraction. When I suppose we are meant to lighten up, we are treated to the tiresome, formulaic wit of Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend who has an inexplicable knack for entertaining Emily and her devoted sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle).

It’s not unduly long. Most films seem to unspool at around two hours these days, and some of the best ever are still going strong well after that, with dialogue in a language other than English to boot.

There are lengthy deathbed scenes, and towards the end of Emily’s life the camera rubbernecks into her freshly dug grave. A strange shot that may coincide with the poet’s gloomy outlook. A home overlooking a cemetery would have had some impact, one imagines.

Aside from its impressive and uncompromising authenticity, A Quiet Passion is difficult and sometimes gruelling.  Veteran auteur Davies, the director of the wonderful Distant Voices, Still Lives, says he is an acquired taste, but may be asking too much of filmgoers here.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle site

Una

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Review © Jane Freebury

It is a committed, adventurous actor who takes on the role of a pedophile, even apparently reformed. They couldn’t have been exactly lining up to play the role when Ben Mendelsohn was cast as a pleasant middle manager who has turned his life around after serving four years in prison for his crime.

Even for such a talented actor, it could not have been easy to nail the layered, complex and elusive character of Ray, who, after changing his identity has re-instated himself in normal life and goes by the name of Peter. He has in the process acquired higher status, with a new home and a new wife, hosting elegant parties that he just calls drinks with a few friends. It gives him even more to lose.

A pedophile who seems inherently decent is a tricky one. Another actor, say someone like Ray Winstone, can play the domestic monster convincingly in The War Zone, but he couldn’t do a trusted 40-something next door neighbour who seduces a 13-year-old. There’s a difference. Few actors could achieve what Mendelsohn has, without overplaying their hand.

In a troubling film that makes for difficult viewing, Una’s young teenage self, played so well by Ruby Stokes, is a pliant but not unwilling party to her seduction and abduction.

Fifteen years later, Una (Rooney Mara) still lives at home with her mother, and there are plenty of tell-tale signs that she has not moved on. Mara has branched out since she wore that dragon tattoo, but the intensity is still there and she is a force to be reckoned with.

For Una now, it is unfinished business when she tracks her seducer down. The puzzle is understanding what she wants to achieve by confronting him. To find out, as she says, why he abandoned her after they had run off together? To express her rage and pain, or prove she still has a power over him, or to even ruin him? Or is there someone else she has in mind who she needs to protect?

There’s ambiguity at every turn. Ray/Peter, insists he is not one of them, a serial pedophile, and even though we may sympathise with his predicament when Una re-enters his life, we just cannot be sure. It makes the unfurling tragedy of two damaged people unable to escape their past all the more compelling.

Una was directed by Benedict Andrews, an Australian based in Europe who has a long list of opera and theatre credits to his name, including direction of the original play, Blackbird. The screenplay is by David Harrower, the original playwright, who has opened it out from two-hander for the stage to the screen.

The home counties setting where Pete lives is something of a cliché these days, and it seems a little far-fetched, but it pays homage to the established idea that dark and slimy secrets hide in neat affluent suburbs and small towns. Thank you, David Lynch.

Although there is occasional staginess in the dialogue, Una is a strong, fine drama, that hits the right note as powerful contemporary tragedy about high-order transgression.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

Churchill

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Review © Jane Freebury

The title doesn’t give much away. Just that it’s about the wartime leader, the lion of Britain during the winter of World War II. We can be reasonably sure though that he won’t get the ‘great man’ treatment, and we expect to see what’s under the bowler hat and behind that set expression of grim determination. Someone all too mortal.

The tidy title also suggests bio pic but this Churchill, directed by expat-Aussie Jonathan Teplitsky, with veteran Scottish film and television actor Brian Cox in the lead role, covers just a few short days in the life. The lead up to the D-Day invasion that spearheaded the Allied push into Europe and eventually won the war in 1945.

A film from another key point in WWII, the early evacuation of troops, Dunkirk, is coming very soon. It is directed by action supremo and cine-stylist, Christopher Nolan.

The story of Winston Churchill, voted in 2002 the greatest Briton of all time, ought to be immensely interesting. Maybe even more so with a forthright Scot and an upstart Australian in key creative roles. The Indian director Shekhar Kapur and Australian actress Cate Blanchett did a striking version of Elizabeth, England’s iconic sixteenth century queen. And that worked, no question.

Churchill, scripted by a young British screenwriter and historian, Alex von Tunzelmann, has fairly predictably earned itself a bit of controversy. We have come to expect the knives to come out to excise factual errors, correct perspectives and maybe do worse damage, but the film seems to have come through fairly unscathed.

What struck me is how little we learn about Winston, really. We knew he liked his booze and tobacco, but the film wants us to believe that he was terribly haunted by the debacle of Gallipoli, that he was in charge of in WWI. It was a monumental disaster, but that can’t have been all there was to his issues.

Even a casual reading of his life hints at all sorts of other demons. Neglected as a child, a poor student, questionable judgement during his political career. He suffered from depression and a deep-seated fear of failure. It’s well-known that Churchill was a handful for his darling wife Clemmie, and many others besides. The film could have given all this more coverage, rather than sheeting most of it back to Gallipoli.

Director Jonathan Teplitsky is a talented director with some outstanding work behind him—Better Than Sex, Getting’ Square and Burning Man. He also had substantial international success with Railway Man. It was sensitively made, if given a fairly conventional treatment, and with excellent performances. If only he could have been more flexible and light of foot here.

Apparently Teplitsky was brought on board later in project development. I have a hunch it may have had something to do with the sensitivity he has shown in his films for blokes with issues. Burning Man was about a young man behaving badly as his wife succumbs to terminal cancer, and Railway Man about a traumatised former soldier and prisoner-of-war.

Cox is an excellent Churchill and Miranda Richardson is terrific as his remarkable wife, but the film falls short for lack of insight. Sometimes it lags and feels as though the filmmakers didn’t have quite enough material to work with. The immensity of the subject was a bit daunting after all.

3 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

Viceroy’s House

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This sweeping historical drama is the work of a filmmaker with a happy knack for the comic and the absurd, and for discovering the spaces between cultures where people can meet and be themselves. With work as sharply observed and uplifting as Bride and Prejudice, Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham, how was Gurinder Chadha, being the kind of director she is, going to find her trademark warmth and optimism in the story of Partition? Was she even going to try?

Partition ripped the subcontinent asunder in 1947 leaving two great countries, India and Pakistan, at loggerheads. The sectarian violence it unleashed was no laughing matter. Chadha’s Sikh grandparents had seen the writing on the wall in the Punjab a few years earlier and they became part of the Indian diaspora living in east Africa, before they moved to London. The director has said that she just ‘had to’ make this film and the reasons for her personal connection with the events appear on screen just before the closing credits. Her commitment is understandable, but the result on screen is less compelling.

Great setting, though, bringing all the players together. The titular house of the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, was in fact palatial, far bigger than Versailles, and historically significant. It became the residence of the President of India when independence was declared that saw off the British Raj and centuries of colonialism.

Sent to India to do the deal, Mountbatten (a ruddy faced Hugh Bonneville) is revealed as a stickler for speedy efficiency. This is okay when you don’t want to waste time climbing into all that viceregal paraphernalia, but less a virtue when it comes to gentle persuasion and facilitating others to work out what they want for their future. Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson in top form) cautions him and, in the veiled suggestion in her two-shot with Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), looks like she would happily settle in.

The march of history towards Partition is overlain with the romance between a beautiful young couple who work for the Mountbattens. A Hindu man and a Muslim woman like Jeet (Manish Dayak) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) who fall in love despite cultural differences was probably not unheard of then, even when wholesale sectarian slaughter was taking place everywhere, but the characters and the reasons for their mutual attachment is never given the underpinning it needs to make it real. Chadha and her co-writers needed to work harder on developing this narrative centrepiece to make it seem less of a device to bring the strands of story together and conclude with hope for the future.

Of course, the romance is a counterpoint to catastrophic historical events and a pure emotion that throws into relief the political manoeuvring, arrogance, compromise and faint-heartedness all around them. It was the politicians and the officials, some of whom are made to seem quite buffoonish, who carved the subcontinent up expediently, and unleashed one of the biggest movements of displaced people the world had then seen.

Viceroy’s House was largely shot in Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Films that are set on location in India are usually vibrant and visually compelling but, for all the colour and movement, this is neither very satisfying period drama nor touching love story, when it could have been both.

2.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

I am Heath Ledger

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Who was Heath Ledger? His take on the Joker, Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight, was transfixing, with a vicious malevolence that seemed to spill from the screen. Jack Nicholson’s famous take on the character in 1989 was only cartoon caricature, after all.

Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was also memorable, riveting even, in entirely different ways. The director Ang Lee says it is the thing he remembers most about his extraordinary film. As cowboy Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s character was imprisoned by suppressed desire and an inability to say much, an impression carried despite him having most of the lines in the film.

What we learn or confirm in this documentary on the short life of the actor is that Ledger was much more than a tousle-haired surfer boy from Perth who liked hanging out with his mates. There were many sides to him. It was a surprise to learn that as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was a junior state chess champion. This was around the time that his parents separated and subsequently re-married.

Ledger opened himself up in front of the camera and he was generous with people he cared about. He had a grand piano delivered to the home of a musician friend. It was a gift. Fellow Aussies stayed at his home in LA anytime they needed to, even while he was away working in Europe. He was a natural dancer, a talented photographer, and was about to direct his own film when he died of cardiac arrest connected with the overuse of prescription medicine, at 28 years of age.

As interviews begin in front of a stark studio backdrop, I am Heath Ledger becomes a moving experience, particularly when we hear from the actor Ben Mendelsohn, friends N’Fa Forster-Jones and Trevor DiCarlo, and filmmaker Matt Amato reflecting on Ledger’s talent. Besides the numerous interviews, many with family and former lovers too, the film is rich with archival footage, often shot by Ledger himself who seemed to always have a camera to hand.

The doco is replete with revelations about the depths of Ledger’s talent, but by skirting the no-go areas of the inner self it unfortunately loses impact.

Michelle Williams, his partner of three years and mother of his only child, could have shed some light on this. Why wasn’t she included? Did she decline an offer, did she wish to protect her young daughter? While the determination to celebrate Ledger’s life, his personal qualities and artistic legacy, is fine—rather than focus on his demise, as some celebrity documentaries do—this a significant omission.

I am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, is endorsed by Ledger’s family. With this assertive title, the doco offers a definitive, once-and-for-all assessment, but its refusal to explore what drove Ledger to use prescription medicine in the first place, has closed the door on exploring what drove his talent too.

Understanding the depths of his talent is revelatory and rewarding, but it didn’t need preclude our understanding of why he died so young.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle