Mary Magdalene

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Review by © Jane Freebury

She was canonised a saint centuries ago, but it seems that the in-fighting among Christians over Mary Magdalene, the only female disciple, has continued. Who was she? A fallen woman or a steadfast virgin?

The new film from Garth Davis, who directed Lion with such restraint and empathy, wants to set the record straight about the kind of gal she really was. It’s admirable, though I’m not sure I understand why any ongoing controversy should be resolved. She could have been one of life’s contradictions, for all we know.

The reputation of Mary Magdalene may not be sorted anytime soon, but I do like the way this film explores the woman she might have been. What her life was like before Jesus came along, what she wanted for herself and why she left her family behind.

The other thing I found intriguing – as a non-religious person interested in ideas – was the depiction of how a religion, any religion, might begin. Slowly, hesitantly, as a form of social resistance perhaps like any movement.

Life is harsh in 33 BC. Mary helps out when a woman gives birth, and she and her sisters haul in fishing nets heavy with the day’s catch.

However, an unusual lack of filial duty marks her out as a rebel who will not follow the path that her father and brothers have determined for her. She refuses to marry and chooses instead to follow a man called Jesus who is in the area. As the man of the people with a low-key but revolutionary message, Joaquin Phoenix is surprisingly plausible.

More interesting is the take on Judas Iscariot, audaciously depicted as personable and attractive, and just another impatient young man who wants Jesus to get on with the revolution

Davis’ film is set in the beautiful, stark, bare bones of southern Italy. The Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, who worked so impressively on films like Bright Star and Zero Dark Thirty, was behind the camera. The otherworldly score is the work of the (late) Icelandic composer, Johan Johannsson and the cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir.

The film’s attention to period detail also helps make for an immersive experience. It takes you back in time to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the city of Jerusalem, and the lives of ordinary people under the Romans. It offers its own kind of social realism.

Unfortunately the film lets itself down in trying to establish why Mary joins the disciples following Jesus. We get instead a number of vague, dreamy sequences of her descending into the blue depths as though her baptism was a rehearsal for oblivion.

And the conversations that she has with Jesus aren’t particularly persuasive support for her actions either. She could be simply be seen as a girl who didn’t like the man her family had chosen for her to marry. There could have been so much more to this.

Much more interesting is the film’s take on the figure of Judas Iscariot, who is audaciously depicted as personable and attractive, and just another impatient young man who wants Jesus to get on with the revolution. The French actor of Algerian descent, Tahar Rahim, with an open, smiling face incapable of dissimilitude, shapes a character who is bound for disappointment when the kind of revolution Jesus has in mind becomes clear.

Sometimes trance-like, cultish and surely not what the filmmakers intended

Rahim, by the way, emerged on the scene of the international film industry as a petty criminal caught up in inmate politics in prison in A Prophet, a powerful film directed by Jacques Audiard.

The black English actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is also memorable at the disciple Peter. A small part.

After two hours of screen time, there is not enough to know about Mary Magdalene. The alabaster serenity of Rooney Mara as the main character reveals so little of her motivations that watching her story unfold is sometimes like taking part in a waking dream. Sometimes trance-like, cultish and surely not what the filmmakers intended.

Actually, screenwriters Helena Edmundson and Philippa Goslet, have, while undertaking to write one story, written another. Mary Magdalene isn’t especially about its stated subject, who is still just the witness, but about how a religion or a movement might be born.

Despite wanting to reveal more of the true nature of Mary Magdalene, the film offers a low-key study of Christianity in its early days, and why Jesus was eliminated as a dissident.

From the paintings of the masters like Rubens and El Greco to the blockbusters based on the writing of novelist Dan Brown, it is clear Magdalene has intrigued artists and writers for centuries. Surely the curiosity over her true nature will continue. She was a woman in a man’s world, after all.

Rated M, 2 hours

3 Stars

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

In the Fade

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Review by © Jane Freebury

One of the earliest films by the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin was called Head-On, released in 2004. It was tough and compelling, pulling audiences into the intense orbit of its star-crossed lovers who were trapped as only people caught between two cultures can understand. I was transfixed and have continued to look out for his work ever since.

Head-On is easily confused with the Australian film of the same name, Ana Kokkinos’ film of 1998 with Alex Dimitriadis as a troubled young Greek-Australian. By fascinating coincidence, both films explore life in the cross-cultural space, and are somewhat similar in tone.

Besides this latest film, In the Fade, Germany’s entry in this year’s foreign language Oscar, Akin’s most high profile film so far would be The Edge of Heaven, a drama detailing the complicated life in Germany of people of Turkish descent. Parallel worlds, you would say.

From his base in Hamburg, where he was born and raised, it is natural that Akin should have these concerns. His perspective is not always dark. He created a good-natured, neighbourhood diner party out of his 2009 film, Soul Kitchen, but In the Fade does return with pessimism to vexed cross-cultural issues that concern us all.

It is played out across the finely chiselled features of blonde German actress Diane Kruger. Her face is the canvas on which the drama is performed after her husband of Turkish descent, Nuri (played by Numan Acar), and their little son Rocco are the victims of a bombing targetting the family business. Katja’s face fills the frame as the tragedy takes hold.

As she waits for confirmation, police take toothbrushes away from their family home to determine IDs, then return, within hours of the crime, with their questions. Katja’s parents and in-laws and friends in attendance are against the insensitive timing of this interrogation but she allows it. Why? Is it because her instincts tell her straightaway who the perpetrators are?

Katja remembers a young woman she spoke to outside her husband’s office minutes before the attack. She was parking her bicycle. It was new, but she wasn’t securing it. Strange, Katja thought, and the hunch is sound. When the matter goes to court, with her lawyer friend Danilo (Denis Moschitto) handling the case for her, things do not pan out as they should.

The evidence incriminating the young neo-Nazi couple who are arrested and charged with the crime appears to be reasonably sound, but the court proceedings take a perverse turn that pulls you up short. Clearly, the film intends to show how someone might feel and act when the system appears to be stacked against them.

Moreover, the reactions of her own mother and mother-in-law have already revealed a telling lack of empathy for Katja’s predicament. Though she does have the support of close friends, including Danilo in court – and maybe even some possibilities waiting in the wings?

Increasingly, however, and despite signs that there is hope the case can be reviewed and there are possibilities for renewal, she seems to grow more and more desperately – and scarily – alone.

Katja does give the impression of being something of a rebel. The drugs, the plentiful tattoos, including the tattoo of her circle of commitment. And there is the strong suggestion that neither her parents nor Nuri’s truly approved of the match.

In the Fade is told in three chapters. To begin with it is raining, continuously, heavily, like a tropical downpour, until the sky clears on Katja’s trip to Greece, when blazing sun appears like a bold horizontal wipe in the editing. The relentless clarity of the bright Mediterranean sunshine could bring on renewal, or a different kind of clarity altogether.

Taking its title from the song by an American hard rock band, Queens of the Stone Age, apparently, In the Fade is a perilous journey of the soul. It makes me wonder what the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who also consistently explored the plight of marginalised people, would make of the politics of Germany today.

It is a tough film, graced with a fine performance by Kruger, but the emotional authenticity that she portrays, doesn’t seem explained by the arc her character travels, particularly the surprising events in the courtroom that drive her to the final act.

In the Fade is a portrait of despair, well told with a powerful central performance, but such an inexorable journey that we are desperate to come up for air after the final frames.

Rated MA15+, 1 hr 46 mins

3 Stars

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

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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Review by © Jane Freebury

One of the original blonde bombshells of the golden years of Hollywood, Gloria Grahame, played the bad girl until the very end, it seems.  There were four husbands, there were scandals – including the rumour that she had been discovered in bed with a young stepson – and there was a lot of plastic surgery.

So with hindsight it is easy to imagine that her persona in films like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Big Heat, and the real Gloria were one and the same person.

Maybe so. It’s more or less the take that this film has on the screen siren, which is, after all, adapted from a memoir by a young lover, Peter Turner, an aspiring actor.

He could only see the good, and stood by her to the end. The film covers the few short years of their time together, their romance told in flashback from the present when Grahame is at work on stage in England, but gravely ill.

The unlikely couple crossed paths at a boarding house in Primrose Hill, London. Gloria, played by the wonderful Annette Bening, invites Peter into her room to help her practice a dance routine.

It is the first time in a long time that Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) has had an opportunity to show his dance moves, and Bening reveals she is no slouch on the dance floor either. It was the late 1970s, the era of disco and Saturday Night Fever.

It is a tribute to both actors that the romance between these two is so convincing. It is always a pleasure to spend time with Bening on screen, and this new lead role for Bell is a revelation. His ability to portray emotion with tenderness and conviction does, in my view, eclipse her here.

Still, Bening is the perfect choice for the role of the ageing film star who never stopped being the coquette and femme fatale. Just on the cusp of 60 years, she looks great and has a warm and sunny charisma to match. So refreshing to see an ageing female star who isn’t some kind of monster, like Gloria Swanson was in Sunset Boulevard or Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Just before Grahame died at 57 years, from either peritonitis or a relapse of breast cancer, she was a guest at Turner’s family home, a modest terrace house in Liverpool. When she collapsed on stage, her former lover rushed to the rescue and prevailed on the basic decency and kindness of his parents to help him look after her.

The dependable, sparky Julie Walters is lovely as Peter’s mother, a sensible, kind woman who may well have been caring for a woman around the same age as herself. The Turner family’s bemused and down-to-earth attitude to the star is touching.

So, it is for us to wonder where old film stars do go to when they want to drop out of the public eye. The back streets of Liverpool might be as good a choice as any.

There is something to admire about Grahame as she is portrayed here. Her resilience, her upbeat nature, her embrace of risk, flouting convention with her young lover, though it isn’t hard to imagine some of these admirable traits also contributed to her fall from grace.

It is hard to ignore the fact that she was found in bed with her 13-year-old stepson, the son of Nicholas Ray, the director. A decade or so later, the pair did marry, have two children, and it was Grahame’s longest lasting marriage too. The same can be said of Woody Allen, but it doesn’t make the behaviour any more excusable.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool just glances across the surfaces of Grahame’s personality with its contradictions and vulnerabilities.

Retreating behind dark glasses isn’t enough. There could have been more to this sweet film if it had taken a peak into the dark places of one of the screen’s first ladies of film noir.

Rated M, 1 hour 45 minutes

3 Stars

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

The Square

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Review by © Jane Freebury

As he is portrayed by the Danish actor, Claes Bang, Christian is assured, sensitive and genial. He is the head curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, with the jaunty name X-Royal Museum, and he is also a caring father to the two little daughters he sees on time-share and is an engaged global citizen who drives a Tesla.

Not the kind of man likely to land himself in deep trouble.

One day out and about in the city on foot, however, he is drawn into helping a young woman screaming for help. A cry for ‘help’ is one of the film’s central motifs. It is scattered throughout in different situations, some of which would work extremely well in a thriller by Hitchcock. The upshot is that he is pickpocketed during this incident and comes away from his charitable act minus mobile phone and wallet.

With location finder activated, he and his assistant at work, Michael (Christopher Laesso, another Danish actor in this European coproduction), hatch a devious plan to prompt the thief to return the stolen goods. The phone signal is blinking from an inner city high-rise that looks like social housing. The pair drive to the apartment block with leaflets to post in every letterbox, but it’s the kind of place Christian would never enter, and some very funny scenes ensue.

Miraculously, the plan works and the goods are returned, in a drop off at the local 7 Eleven. It puts Christian in even closer touch with one of numerous people begging on the street. But leafleting an entire apartment block of tenants with the threat of public exposure, draws ire from an unexpected quarter.

Work is giving him grief, too. The museum’s latest acquisition is ‘The Square’, an installation created from cobblestones dug up from the museum courtyard and self-consciously re-laid within a 4 x 4 metre LED square, a designated ‘sanctuary of trust and caring’. The millennial marketing team hired to help launch this bland artwork have an arsenal of shocking ideas that Christian has to keep pouring cold water on, until one of these concepts escapes unapproved while he is distracted, and it goes viral.

American actress du jour, Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale and more), has a small but pithy role in The Square as a journalist. The naïveté she suggests at the start in a sharp, amusing interview asking Christian to explain – better still, to decipher – the jargon in museum marketing material, quickly falls away to reveal an astute and practised player. Why she keeps a pet chimpanzee in her apartment is still a mystery to me, but I take it as a given.

Poor Christian. He has so much going for him it is quite impossible to feel sorry for him. What brings him a world of trouble has more to do with his gender, class and ethnicity than with faults of his own.

In this sharp and savvy social satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund, Christian’s peaceful, refined and ordered world descends into chaos, for minor errors of judgement, none of them hanging offences. The downwards spiral is replete with telling scenes of embarrassment but the tone is almost always light and the treatment kept brisk.

If anything, there are too many strands for drawing it all together and there is a bit of slump at the end.

It is a mark of Ostlund’s considerable skill, however, that the tense scenes in The Square would work equally well in a thriller, including a  quite terrifying scene of performance art that runs amok at a sedate dinner.

The Square has many attributes. Witty, smart, original, and delivered with airy panache – just for starters.

Rated MA15+, 2 hours 31 minutes

4 Stars

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

Molly’s Game

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Review © Jane Freebury

The bluff and counter-bluff of a poker game is no guarantee of a visually appealing and viscerally engaging experience, even if there’s something tangible at stake like a callow celeb losing a mountain of money. But if we’re watching the young entrepreneur who orchestrates these illegal events, then we’re talking.

Molly’s Game is an adaptation of a book by a young woman, Molly Bloom, who used to run clandestine poker games for wealthy and celebrity clients in Los Angeles and New York, high rollers with ten grand to spare for starters. Aaron Sorkin has adapted it for the screen.

The celebrated television and screenwriter behind The West Wing and The Social Network is in charge here as both writer and director. He is one of the best writers in the business, so who knows where this will project go.

The biggest surprise comes right at the action-packed start, revealing the trajectory that Molly (Jessica Chastain) was on before she became a poker entrepreneur. Before she left home in Colorado, Molly was a champion skier, Olympic material, but was badly injured in a jump on the slopes that put an end to her ambition, and that of her dad.

In a film that offers sparing insight into its main character, we see at least where the drive and ambition came from: her relationship with a terse, exacting, and emotionally withholding father. Larry Bloom, a psychology college professor, is played by Kevin Costner with some conviction. Although her mother was the skiing and snowboard instructor, she barely gets a look in.

After the accident and before taking up her place at law school, Molly leaves home. Declaring that she wants to experience more sunshine while she’s young, she heads for California.

While working as a cocktail waitress, she starts setting up poker games for her boss. Then she sets up her own, taking clients with her. Her great assets in this line of work, are not the obvious ones that she plays to – with plunging necklines, tight skirts and kohl eyeliner – but her quick intelligence and business acumen. Learning on the job, she googles poker terms and gamblers’ preferred mood music, and has soon worked out exactly how to do it all herself.

These developments would be, however, a lot more entertaining if Molly wasn’t in our ear telling us what she was doing all the while. Pervasive voiceover is one of the film’s problems.

Sorkin is obviously confident of his writing, and with very good reason. But in a medium more inclined to show than tell, the use of voiceover is excessive, even though Chastain is terrific in her role, delivering her lines brilliantly at breakneck speed.

What do we know about Molly? Her personal relationships barely develop, even with the personable lawyer, Idris Elba’s Charlie Jaffey, she approaches after the FBI catches up with her. He eventually agrees to handle her case and the ensuing relationship draws out some of the traits that evade us, but the veneer is barely lifted.

Sorkin could have opted for a light-headed crime caper but he seems more intent on extracting a serious point. But what point, exactly?

Molly is clearly a gutsy heroine, but the suggestion that she is in some way a feminist crusader seems misplaced. Sorkin’s main character might have prospered better in another field to stake this claim.

In her book, the real Molly Bloom had amazing opportunities to observe some very powerful men, clients the film declines to name. A few more are named in her book, but would this have made a difference to the film? It’s unlikely.

The problem is for me, that as it stands, this story of a questing young woman, a prime mover in a man’s world, lacks insight.

Molly is sharp and entertaining company but eventually there is too little depth to her and too much emphasis on the game—the game of life, perhaps?—and how it’s played to sustain the lengthy running time.

Perhaps one of Larry Bloom’s psychology colleagues could have been drawn in to help out.

Rated M, 2 hours 20 minutes

3.5 Stars

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

Lady Bird

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This lovely, low-key, authentic tale of coming-of-age from Greta Gerwig, one of the most talented actresses in US indie cinema, has its own particular shock value. Awful behavior and poor attitudes are par for the course when teens behave badly. Here the shocks arise from angry arguments that seem to ignite in a flash, out of nowhere. On a scale of zero to ten.

Take the first scene in Lady Bird. It unspools before the credits even begin, where a mother and daughter are in the car together on a trip looking at local colleges. As the teen finds the discussion heading in a direction she rejects—that is, not endorsing her fervent wish to go to university on the enlightened east coast—she dives out the door of the moving car. We catch our breath.

Lady Bird is a loosely autobiographical drama, with Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actress a thoughtful choice, in the lead role as the eponymous heroine.

Writer-director Gerwig has brought excellent actors together for her film, her second as director, and inspired them to give her their best. Ronan, who has already made quite a name for herself in a long list of films, including Atonement and Brooklyn, has perfectly captured the ‘rebel without much cause’ heroine.

Little is made of the act of self-harm but we know that it wasn’t a youthful revenge fantasy, because Lady Bird appears in subsequent scenes with a jaunty pink cast on her arm. A similar striking moment of incandescent anger takes place when mother and daughter go to thrift shops to find a prom dress, though on this occasion the conflagration is quickly extinguished as they make up over a luscious, pink lace number that they both adore.

Will Lady Bird’s beau for the evening find her irresistible in this gown? Her latest, Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet (who recently come to our attention in another coming-of-age, Call Me by Your Name), is gorgeous, but moody, self-absorbed and a bit of so-and-so. Lady Bird has only recently taken up with him since she found her former beau (Lucas Hedges, in another fine performance) on intimate terms with another boy.

If the boyfriends disappoint, the break-ups may have been lucky escapes, in fact, from the lie Lady Bird that she told each of them about herself, by not owning up to her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ background. It’s not only boyfriends she deceives, either. She has kept her struggling family a secret from the new best friend, also from a wealthy family.

If prom night doesn’t work out the way Lady Bird hoped and imagined, it becomes at least a watershed moment in which she realises which relationships really matter to her.

The problem for Lady Bird is that she would desperately rather be anywhere but Sacramento, in northern California, which is for her the ‘mid-west’ and all that implies. That’s too bad, when it seems her parents have her best interests at heart, supporting her in her senior year at a private Catholic school.

Unfortunately, the stakes have just risen because her programmer dad (Tracey Letts), has lost his job in IT and her mum (Laurie Metcalfe) has to double up on her shifts at the hospital, nursing in psych ward. Tracey Letts and Laurie Metcalfe are both convincing as the long-suffering parents, Larry and Marion, with Metcalfe outstanding.

Anywhere but here. It is the adolescent catch-cry, and it strikes a chord with everyone. Having discarded her given name Christine, she had insisted that everyone at home and at school address her as Lady Bird.

Gerwig has revealed that the name isn’t a reference to a former first lady, ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, but drawn from a rather sinister little nursery rhyme ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’. Intriguing, but difficult to explain, as the ditty seems to speak to her mum Marion best of all.

Lady Bird is essentially about mothers and daughters. Even though they drive each other to distraction, the bond between them is rock solid.

Gerwig has received an Academy Award directing nomination for this film. It is also in the running for best film, though it seems unlikely to win a category that tends to go for the big vision rather than the small and intimate. Let’s however not Moonlight.

Were Gerwig to win best director it would be only the second time in the history of the Oscars that a woman has won the award. Indeed, it is only the fifth time a woman has even been nominated for an Oscar in 90 years.

Rated M, 94 minutes

4.5 Stars

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

Happy End

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There are probably plenty of exceptions to the adage that happy endings belong in fairy tales, so it may not be fair to pin it all on the stories we tell our young kids. Lots of characters do get their just desserts, or worse, in fairy tales. Just think of the work of the Brothers Grimm.

Fairly or unfairly, the movies have long worn a reputation for stories with a happily-ever-after ending long since the practice stopped being stock in trade, and filmmakers have left the last act of their stories fashionably open, or with the next sequel in mind. Reputations do, however, have a habit of sticking…

Since Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, we definitely have not expected a happy ending in anything directed by the filmmaker, Michael Haneke, the scion of misanthropic cinema. An Austrian with a reputation for bleak, uncompromising, brilliant films, he knows this, we get it, and he plays up to it. On this occasion his film is, however, also surprisingly wickedly funny.

For his latest film, the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar winner gives us the Laurent family, who live in Calais. They run a thriving business in construction that was established by the patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are wealthy and unremarkable.

On the face of it, Georges and his two adult children, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas, a doctor (Mathieu Kassovitz), are pillars of society in the city by the sea. Underneath the surfaces, however, there are murky, disturbing things going on. So it’s business as usual for Haneke.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has an inconvenient drinking problem and isn’t doing a competent job at work in the family business either. The ageing patriarch Georges is developing dementia and confides in his granddaughter that he wants to die. He had better watch out because Eve, the film’s main character, cheered on by elements she has found online, appears to be developing the characteristics of a psychopath.

On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet

A critique of social media from Haneke is timely, and consistent with the position he has taken in his films on recording devices, film and television, and mass media generally.

His view that audiences watch the screen uncritically, seems rather dated now that unpicking film texts for what they really say is common practice.

Eve has just entered the family home after her mother, Thomas’ first wife, suffered an overdose. On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet. She talks into her mobile about her mother in ways that give you the creeps, and then observes the effects of antidepressants on her pet hamster. It is a stunning, chilling performance from young Fantine Harduin.

The Laurent family drama plays out against real-life events in Calais, which is, of course, the last stop before the tunnel to England. There is a large encampment there known as ‘the jungle’, a way-station for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While not foregrounding this situation, writer-director Haneke has deftly inserted the plight of refugees into the narrative tapestry.

French cinema has a long and venerable tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie that Austrian writer-director has gleefully and energetically signed up to. The family event that concludes the film truly is a gem. It takes place at an elegant restaurant beside a sparkling sea, with a palette uniformly white, beige and pale blue—until unexpected guests arrive. This also provides cover for the elderly guest of honour to leave.

This is a clever, dark satire but what has endeared me to  Michael Haneke’s latest film most is the black humour.

If it is, as they say, that the only thing that improves with age is one’s sense of humour, then at 75 years Haneke must be at his peak.

Rated M, 1 hour 47 minutes

4 Stars

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

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Phantom Thread

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Review by © Jane Freebury

High end fashion is not a place to expect to find the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Over his long career he has fought on the American frontier alongside the Mohicans, he has led a vicious gang in 19th century New York and he has done ruthless business as an oil tycoon. Yet here he is, overseeing rippling lengths of silk and lace that are gathered into gowns for the rich and famous, a fastidious couturier.

The time is the 1950s, the place is London. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is the go-to designer of modish and extravagant gowns for high society customers. His tough-minded sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is in charge of the business, and to some extent she also runs her brother’s love life. When it becomes apparent that his latest conquest is boring him, she asks whether it’s time to have the lady move on.

With a sister prepared to do the dirty work for him, that whiff of danger in the Day-Lewis screen persona is kept in check in this role. Though Woodcock has mastered the sneer, and he doesn’t hold back when the tranquility of his creative space is interrupted. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a portrait of creative genius, after all.

In the final reveal, Phantom Thread is a sly, darkly comic study of intimate relationships

The designer cannot abide the sounds his companion makes at breakfast, just buttering and munching her toast is enough to set his teeth on edge. Early morning is the best time for him to sketch out his ideas, so the racket – so subtly amplified by the sound department – is intolerable. In short, for all his suave charm, Woodcock can be a right pain in the butt.

An expose of the brittle character of genius is not new, and not so much the point here as the issue of control. Phantom Thread is about a new relationship that he embarks on, with Alma (Vicky Krieps) who is someone a bit different from the usual compliant and subservient woman, and someone whose character is not that easily read.

In the final reveal, Phantom Thread is a sly, darkly comic study of intimate relationships, the co-dependency and the give and take.

On a visit to the country, Reynolds is smitten by a willowy waitress at a local restaurant. He is more interested in Alma for her modelling potential than he is in her as a conquest. He likes certain qualities, the hint of a tummy and the small breasts. She will inspire him. She has the faintest accent – where is she from? – and she speaks her mind. Without exactly talking back, she refutes the control he tries to exercise over her, and maintains his interest.

As her appeal finally does begin to wane, Alma musters resources in the dark arts that we could have never guessed she had to fall back on and the film drifts into the murky territory of intrigue and betrayal in romantic relationships where the master Alfred Hitchcock loved to work. Just where was it Alma said she came from? The film deftly touches on 1950s’ xenophobia and its fear of the unknown, with its echoes today.

The film doesn’t falter at the strange and unexpected turn in events in its resolution, because Day-Lewis and Krieps are both so good at maintaining the fiction. No doubt, it’s also due to writer-director Anderson, who directed Magnolia, There Will Be Blood (also with Day-Lewis), and The Master, keeping a firm hand on things.

There are some surprising moments of naturalism, in what looks like improvisation between the lead actors when the couple argue heatedly. Again, Day-Lewis and Krieps are so good they hold this risky new tonal register in check too.

Phantom Thread is an intriguing title for a film with one of the screen’s most successful and most elusive actors. Day-Lewis carries three Oscars under his belt. It is said it may be his last performance on the cinema screen, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Rated M, 2 hours 10 minutes

3.5 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Country

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a burning intensity to Sweet Country, a tale of revenge in the Australian outback where men turn against each other with guns and are violent with women and children. Although much of the violence is not shown in the frame, it is not this that gives the film its intensity as much as it is the passionate outrage that director Warwick Thornton brings to his work.

It was the same with Samson and Delilah, the breakthrough feature for the Indigenous writer-director, a film that took the breath away with its exquisite and forlorn beauty. It won Thornton the prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2009.

Although the focus in Samson and Delilah was on the impact of social dysfunction and neglect on two teenagers in Alice Springs, it spared its young people from despair. Sweet Country is a tougher film and the mood less compromising.

In the far reaches of the outback, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a veteran of the Great War, is struggling to get his cattle run established – and to pull himself together. A kindly neighbour, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), sends his Aboriginal farm hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to help him out with his cattle yard. If only the neighbourly act could have turned out as it was intended. Kelly’s wife is raped.

While Smith, a mild man of god, is away in town, March arrives at his neighbour’s house in search of an mischievous Aboriginal boy he chained up, suspecting him of theft. March fires into the house several times. The boy is hiding nearby, but Kelly is inside and he shoots back in defence of himself and his wife, killing March outright.

Kelly has shot a white man and knows he is doomed. It was the ultimate sin in the outback even late in the 1920s. Like the popular folk hero whose name he shares, he heads into the wilderness all the same, as he and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) make a run for it.

They remain on the run until they realise that Lizzie is pregnant with March’s child (the result of the rape) and they return to town to submit themselves to white justice. One of the film’s most powerful scenes captures this return, as they sit in the dust of the main street waiting in the early morning for the police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) to arrive at work.

The space between words was so powerful in Samson and Delilah too. Here again, the Aboriginal people have little to say in their own defence, the sad fact being that they expect to be ignored.

Working from a script by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, Thornton tells another 20th century story of the impact of white Australia on the Aboriginal people. It is drawn from fact and took place within the lifetime of people who are still with us.

Rolf de Heer’s brilliant film, The Tracker (2003), with David Gulpilil covered similar territory, also drawing attention to the hunting parties and retributive justice on the frontier early last century.

In the mythology of the American western, justice is won through the gunman, sheriff or outsider. Here we see it won through due process, only to be lost.

Although the red centre can be appreciated in all its glory through Thornton’s images – he is also cinematographer – ‘sweet country’ is not so much a place as a state of mind.

The title could mean several things. It is heavily laced with irony. As a place where one can find sanctuary or solace, it exists only in the imagination. As a place that could be great, maybe it ain’t just yet. Not until some things are fixed.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 50 mins

4 Stars

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

 

Other films to catch this week:

I, Tonya showcases an outstanding performance from Australian actress Margot Robbie. Made in faux documentary style it is loosely based on the story of an American Olympian figure skater who had all the moves, but never quite made it. The film shows why, taking us behind the scenes into the dysfunction and disadvantage of her family life and marriage, the circumstances that betrayed her shot at fame. 3.5 stars

All the Money in the World is among the best work ever by the veteran director Ridley Scott. Based on a vicious 1970s kidnapping and extortion, it is a great example of the kind of serious drama that Scott excelled in before he succumbed to the lure of digital possibilities and CGI armies, undermined by weak narrative and characters. No such problems here. 4 stars

The Shape of Water

Standard

review by © jane freebury

Guillermo del Toro had the actor Sally Hawkins in mind for this sensuous dark fantasy from the beginning. Once, when he bumped into her at a party, he told her he was writing a film about how a woman falls in love with a fish. She said ‘great’, though she might have wondered what this director famous for gothic horror could have possibly have been planning.

The director has conjured up some dark fantasies, like the political allegories The Devil’s Backbone and the very wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, but this time it’s different, as he says himself. And surely, Hawkins has no regrets at all about signing on to this dazzling adult fairy tale. It is outstanding on many levels, reflected in the number of Oscar nominations.

The Shape of Water is set in a shadowy, green-tinged world – that is, early 1960s America in the grip of Cold War paranoia – where everyone, from the janitor to the boss, has a secret. The mood is perfectly rendered in expressionist chiaroscuro though the palette warms when Elisa (Hawkins) is on screen.

Elisa has her own sweet approach to life even though she had the misfortune to grow up an orphan and she cannot speak. A creature of habit, she cleans her shoes every day before work and takes a bath. She times this – she is obviously a water person – but is regularly a little late in clocking on for work at the research facility where she is a cleaner, for reasons that will become apparent.

In her life she has her loyal friend at work Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a kind neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and in between she can romance herself with Hollywood musicals and absorb the ambience of the cinema downstairs. The sensitivity of Hawkins’ performance and del Toro’s skills orchestrate the utterly plausible—she falls in love with a scaly creature from a lagoon in the distant Amazon. The amphibious man has been captured and is a ‘top secret’ asset in a tank at the lab.

More man than fish, the hunky creature she falls for has a humanoid face, arms and legs and can live on land for limited periods. Inside his skin-tight scaly suit, with webbed, clawed hands and dorsal spine, the actor Doug Jones creates a marvellously imposing figure, frightening but obviously terrified.

Showing little interest in this extraordinary creature and treating it as a threat, CIA officer Strickland (Michael Shannon, performing even more extreme than usual) wants to beat it into submission and then dissect it. That is before he has worked it over with a cattle prod.

His attack on ‘amphibious man’, fuelled by irrational fear, is the complete antithesis of Elisa’s approach. From the very first, even when the creature lashes out at her from behind the glass of his tank, she doesn’t seem to have the slightest fear—which is rather surprising, really. They have things in common, and with boiled eggs and a bit of jazz from Glenn Miller, she brings him round.

The Shape of Water becomes a love story that transcends difference, and we are all in raptures over the gorgeous monster from the deep. Glorious to look at and experience as an integrated sensory experience, the film leaves behind an afterglow, even if the good and evil binaries of the fairy tale leave little to mull over after the closing credits. It’s all about feeling, and is a swooning, romantic experience that is rarely seen on screen.

Although del Toro does not let us off entirely lightly in the few moments of savage violence here, it is only as a brief interlude. There is wit and humour and other means of seduction to show that this master of gothic horror and dark fantasy, who cut his directorial teeth on monster movies, knows exactly how to keep his audiences under his spell.

Rated R,  2 hours 3 minutes

4.5 stars

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