Swimming with Men

M, 1 hr 37 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 Stars

Angst and how to lose it. Swimming with Men is pool immersion therapy that pokes fun at itself and encourages us to have a good laugh at its expense.

Synchronised swimming works wonders for a harried accountant, Eric (Rob Brydon of The Trip comedy series with Steve Coogan), who does laps at the local pool, but the silent blue world, counting tumble turns and following the black line up and down, doesn’t seem to soothe the work and relationship worries. These are mostly of Eric’s own making, but with little help from his busy wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) or his bemused teenage son, he is heading for a mid-life crisis.

 No questions asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret

There’s a group of men who meet at the pool for synchronised swimming. They have also hit the wall and recognise their symptoms in a glimpse of Eric at the pub, tossing back double G&Ts.  They offer a gentle invitation to join them for a little camaraderie with the exercise, no questions will be asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret and it is all about a focus on the swimming.

Eric Rob Brydon) caught practising moves at work

There is basis in fact for this apparently daft idea. Swimming with Men, with deft direction from Oliver Parker and engaging screenplay from Aschlin Ditta, is a riff on a documentary from 2010 about a team of middle-aged Swedish men who eventually took their hobby to competition to find, just like the characters do here, that they were in competition with teams from countries like Japan, the Czech Republic and Italy. The idea has already caught on.

Although it doesn’t have the same energy and grist and grind as that fave feel good movie The Full Monty, Swimming with Men has the same heart for its motley crew of characters. Including the wayward young Tom (Thomas Thurgoose) who the cops are after.

And a couple of the men are simply there, ‘new guy’ and nameless, caught by the camera doing funny things in the background. Change rooms offer such possibilities.

Basis in fact for this apparently daft idea

Synchronised swimming may look silly, but I discovered online that an it was an Australian, Annette Kellerman, who pioneered both water ballet, as it was once called, and the one-piece bathing suit, her design. Nothing silly there. It has been an accredited Olympic sport for decades.

However, this is not a review to give water ballet/synchronised/or artistic swimming a boost. This is to say that Swimming with Men is sweet silliness, even if it doesn’t always maintain the hilarity, and is most definitely feel good. If this is what’s needed during this dark month, then go see it.

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

 

Green Book

M, 2 hrs 10 mins

Capitol Cinema Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

A highly entertaining movie released weeks ago and in a major upset won the Oscar for Best Film. Green Book has since had a new lease of life at the box office, which was to be expected. Although it can’t be deemed a progressive film, on the strength of its performances the award is very well deserved.

Made on a relatively small production budget, it was cruising along well enough before the Oscar windfall, attracting some negative reviews but strong word of mouth, for its humour, its humanity and outstanding lead actor performances.

Indeed, it has had surprising box office success around the world, where it is well ahead of other best film nominees, BlakkKlansman, The Favourite and Vice. It has been doing well in China, which is interesting.

A key issue with Green Book is that it could so easily have been made 50 years ago, during the decade of civil rights movements

The film’s title appropriates the name of a travel guide for black Americans in the Deep South that infamously identified the places where they would be welcome. There are some scenes demonstrating the appalling depths to which racial prejudice can stoop, but the title Green Book is in my view a clumsy attempt to attach a kind of high seriousness to itself that it doesn’t actually have.

When In the Heat of the Night came out in 1967 it was a riveting, indignant crime drama combining Sidney Poitier’s elegant black northerner detective with Rod Steiger’s rough, racist southerner policeman. They were investigating a murder together in Mississippi. That film showed how mutual, professional and personal respect could grow and prosper across the racial divide, something that Green Book does as well.

If Green Book isn’t alert and ‘woke’ enough to racial injustice in society, its qualities need not be dismissed for these reasons alone. It is a gentle, odd couple relationship comedy in which the lead character has the opportunity to improve.

Based on true events, it tracks a 3-month trip undertaken by Tony ‘The Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a rough and tumble bouncer from the Bronx, and the elegant black American concert pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who hired him as a driver and minder for a concert tour of the American South.

It is a road movie and hence belongs to that genre that narrates a quintessential journey towards understanding, enlightenment, or disillusion – what you will.

Mortensen’s character, a crude, casually racist and rather ignorant person, gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it

Despite the reservations, Green Book has a lot going for it. Namely, a truly outstanding character study of a rather crude, casually racist and ignorant person, Mortensen’s character, who gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it.

Mortensen declined the fat suit option, by the way, and acquired 20 kilos for the role to help keep the production budget down.

Playing opposite him as the refined and educated black maestro, Shirley, Mahershala Ali won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance.

Given the popular contenders, A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, and other excellent nominees, Roma and The Favourite, Green Book’s Oscar for best film, was a surprise for all, not just Spike Lee. Granted, it’s not great cinema, but Green Book is a showcase for two outstanding performances – one formally recognised with the best supporting actor that also went to Mahershala Ali.

A best film Oscar is a major windfall for director, Peter Farrelly, who  contributed some of the earliest ‘gross out’ comedies like There’s Something About Mary and hasn’t exactly distinguished himself to this point. The direction is workmanlike, but he had a hand co-writing the lively and engaging screenplay with collaborators including Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son).

It is Viggo Mortensen who had the biggest hand in making Green Book the film it is.

The Academy may wake up to this a few years down the track and give him the Oscar that should be on his mantelpiece now. It’s the way it works.

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

 

 

Everybody Knows

Review by © Jane Freebury

M, 2 hr 13 mins

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

3.5 Stars

In the ambience of the Spanish countryside, star couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, look so completely at home it is easy to forget that in Everybody Knows they are being directed by a filmmaker from a very different part of the world. Though he says that he felt very much at home in Spain when on a family holiday some years ago, the acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhadi hails of course from Iran.

Now who wouldn’t feel at home in Spain? Spanish people can be so warm, expressive and direct, and what’s not to love about a country so in touch with its past and with so much zest for life in the present.

Be that as it may, it’s wonderful that this celebrated filmmaker is able to work outside Iran. He has done so before. He worked with French actors on his film The Past set partly in Paris—though it may be a while before he works in the US. Despite his green card he will not be visiting the land of Trump.

In Everybody Knows, Farhadi remains in familiar genre territory, that is, exploring the tensions within couples and within families, but on this occasion his characters are not Iranian, but Spanish, and they are free to express. To audiences in the West at least, Farhadi’s finely wrought, unsettling Iranian melodramas have a restraint and an ambiguity that resists easy interpretation and provokes questions.

Not so, Everybody Knows. The psychological and covert here take second place to the overt, the expressive, and mystery pertains to characters out-of-frame.

Events revolve around the character of Laura (Cruz), who is visiting from Argentina with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding, though not with husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) for the time being. It is joyful reunion that culminates in a big dance party, captured on a hovering drone, in the village square. Farhadi, although from a country where singing and dancing in public are banned, handles these scenes with ease and confidence.

One by one the characters reveal their foibles. Family patriarch is a rather grumpy old man. Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene (an exuberant Carla Campra), has a wild streak. Other associates of the family, like Paco (Bardem) and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie) who run a successful vineyard, we get to know more slowly.

When Irene disappears during the wedding celebrations and her kidnappers begin to send threatening messages, the family relationships are stripped bare. It’s when Cruz comes into her own as the distraught mother.

Initially, it is outsiders who come under suspicion. There are multiple possible suspects working among the migrant grape pickers in Paco’s vineyards. For some time, the film entertains this possibility, and it makes for tense kidnap drama, though the film falls short of the appellation of thriller.

If some family were apprehensive about Laura’s return, others were delighted to see her, while there were also those who, in their way, were prepared. There is a backstory that would have made Everybody Knows that much more interesting.

With its gorgeous leads and rural backdrop, it has convincing performances with tense moments. Only this film doesn’t have that finely wrought complexity so distinctive of Farhadi, in which much is actually left unsaid. That’s what is missing. Finely wrought, high intensity drama that unwinds like a coiled spring, leaving matters unresolved and leaving us high and dry.

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

Capernaum

M, 2 hours, subtitled

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Set in contemporary Lebanon, Capernaum takes its name from a town that stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in biblical times.  With a nod to the past and to the future, it’s an intriguing title and an apt one. In the ancient languages of the region it meant ‘chaos’.

The opening shots are serene enough, high in the sky above the noise and confusion below. But wait, the first images look like encampments where roofs of plastic sheeting are secured by rubber tyres. A reminder that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Capernaum is a mix of family melodrama and political activism, filmed on location in the jumble of disadvantage on the streets of Beirut. It is where Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) and his siblings spend most of their time, selling refreshments to boost the family income instead of attending school.

The parents are hopeless. Father, Selim (Fadi Youssef) does little but sit around, while the mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into prison in the laundry.

Even that doesn’t yield enough money. To Zain’s dismay, his parents sell off his precious sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Haita Izzam), to the weird adult son of their landlord. When they exchange her for a few hens and some help with the rent, it’s the trigger for 12-yer-old Zain to leave home.The boy’s forlorn journey to who knows where ends in a shanty town that is home to people without papers, like himself.

A young Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who he encounters at the funfair takes him in and he cares for her toddler son Yonas (gorgeous Boluwatife ‘Treasure’ Bankole) while she goes to work. The unlikely arrangement works well until the day Rahil doesn’t return home.

It leaves Zain and Yonas to fend for themselves, a terrifying prospect, with danger on all sides. The time these two spend together is the film’s emotional centre, captured with a weaving, subjective camera from Christopher Aoun that establishes powerful rapport.

Rapport and compassion is what this film from Nadine Labaki is all about. She explored the women’s perspective on the civil strife that has racked Lebanon for decades in her first feature, Caramel, set in a hairdressing salon. In this, her third feature, the examines the plight of children of displaced families, and the responsibility of parents towards the children that they give life.

The boy who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is himself a refugee who fled southern Syria with his family. There is a story about him on the UNHCR website. Neither he, nor any of the other performers in Capernaum were actors. As director Labaki puts it, her entire cast were simply playing ‘their own lives’.

The courtroom scenes that bookend the film, in which Zain sues his parents for gross neglect, are unlikely in reality. But they are a powerful and thought-provoking device to bring to bear on parental, and community, responsibility. Labaki has a small role here as Zain’s lawyer.

Capernaum makes a stirring plea for compassion and is such a visceral, potent experience that it has high impact. With amazing performances from its beautiful young leads, this is an exceptional testament to the will to live.

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

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2019

You cannot take France out of cinema nor the cinema out of France. French filmmakers were among the pioneers, and from the very start in silent films to the ‘new wave’ and since, the movies have always been intrinsic to French culture.

Today as filmmakers scramble to be cutting edge, digital technology can often drive what we see on screen at the expense of stories about real people. It is this humanist tradition that we can count on at the French Film Festival every year.

Juliette Binoche and Guillaune Canet in Non-Fiction

Highlights of the exciting and diverse program of 54 films include the latest from celebrated directors, like The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard), High Life (Claire Denis), Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas), By the Grace of God (Francois Ozon), and The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard). And there is a retrospective of Alain Resnais’ avant-garde classic, Last Year at Marienbad.

Otherwise you might home in on the latest films from exciting new talent like Amanda (Mikhael Hers), In Safe Hands/Pupille (Jeanne Herry), and thrillers Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzales) and Revenge (Coralie Fargeat).

Then again, there are plenty of opportunities to laugh with comedies that address various personal crises  light-heartedly, such as Sink or Swim, Kiss & Tell and The Trouble With You, or you can simply share the joy of the music festival in Le Grand Bal.

Each to his own.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is screening across Australia from 7 March to 10 April. In Canberra, the AFFFF is hosted by Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton

The Mule

Rated M, 1 hr 57 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Capitol Cinema Manuka, Hoyts Woden and Belconnen, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

This is the latest film from an actor whose career began in the 1950s. He has maintained a high profile as a performer and filmmaker each decade since which in itself it gives us pause for thought. That’s a very long time in the public eye, but Clint Eastwood has kept ahead of the curve.

What has he in store for us this time?

As Eastwood approaches his 90th year, he has done his own version of ‘breaking bad’, in which he repeatedly commits execrable crime but justifies it to himself – we surely can’t believe he is duped – with largesse for family members and worthy organisations like veterans of foreign wars.

The Mule is the story of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a grandfather and noted horticulturist, who becomes a courier for a Mexican drug cartel, making deliveries to Chicago. How could anyone suspect that such a venerable person might have cocaine stowed in duffel bags among the pecans in the back of his pickup truck?

No one could suspect him because of his age and clean record, and it gives him a free pass on the highway, working under the nose of the team from the DEA, led by Bradley Cooper’s agent Colin Bates. Even the ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) who we expect knew him well doesn’t catch on when Earl tells her the truth.

The concept is not a fanciful, either. The Mule is based on a media report that is hard to improve upon.

In 2014, The New York Times ran the story of one Leo Sharp, a veteran and horticulturist famous for his day lilies who became a drug mule, and eventually the cartel’s star recruit. Sharp’s name is changed to Earl Stone in the film, written by Nick Schenk, the screenwriter Eastwood worked with on Gran Torino, another film in which he plays, with some alarming ease, a bigoted old codger.

It’s a role tailor made for Eastwood. Relaxed, behind the wheel of his Ford he looks the part as much as he did on the back of a horse. The laid-back soundtrack suits the languid pacing, though running time is indulgently long. As a crime drama it is largely amiable and easy going, with little tension, and nothing like the high-stakes game that drug running is in real life.

This is because The Mule, with its incidental threesome and gun-toting criminals, is less crime drama than it is a family drama. Earl regrets his failures as a husband and father. It is noteworthy that Eastwood’s daughter Alison has a key role as Iris, who is—wait for it—Earl’s estranged daughter.

Earning a small fortune with every delivery, Earl uses it to buy back the family home and to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding, but he also gives of his time, the thing that was so much harder for him to yield to those who needed him.

Eastwood so often manages to weave social commentary into his films. It’s what that makes them resonate, time and again. Here he is an elderly, working class male with racist and chauvinist attitudes, who is trying to learn a few life lessons in a fast-changing world that offers shrinking opportunity to him and his kind.

An eye to the big picture seems to me why, over the long years, Eastwood often has something to say beyond the plot and character. This is not his best work, but it encourages thought rather than satiation. When you think about it, the simple cowboy of Rawhide has come a long way.

Jane’s reviews can also be read at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and heard on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Diaries)

 

 

 

 

The Favourite

 

MA 15+, 1 hour 59 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A power struggle at the top. Deadly serious for those involved but for observers from afar, it’s a spectacle that can have all the makings of comedy.

So it is with The Favourite, where two women vie for favour at the court of Queen Anne in England three centuries ago. In the hands of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, a rollicking and irreverent take on the historical drama, that veers deliciously towards the absurd. It’s a load of outrageous fun, and one of the best satires of the ruling class since Peter O’Toole had the House of Lords in his sights.

Lanthimos, a director with a gift for the cryptic, makes distinctive dramas that offer a variety of meaning. More’s the fun of it.

His film from 2009, Dogtooth, was a sinister take on family in Greek society, while his first English language film, Lobster, took aim at the tyranny of social conformity, among other things. Not that successfully, in my view.

Lanthimos often writes as well as directs, when he isn’t working on plays, music videos or the television commercials that probably help him keep his touch light.

Although he didn’t write the screenplay this time, Lanthimos is at one with the spirit his writers, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, bring to it. They have turned the carefully curated British period drama on its head with this jaunty, juicy farce. The historical authenticity of locations and costumes for the period is impressive. As if the tall wigs and rouged courtiers weren’t preposterous enough, Lanthimos and his DOP play with camera angles and fish eye lens to even more bizarre effect.

The ailing and isolated queen, Anne, played brilliantly by Olivia Colman, despairs that she has not been able to perpetuate the Stuart line with an heir. The 17 pet rabbits she keeps in cages in her bedchamber bring some consolation for the multiple still births, miscarriages and young lives lost.

Her close confidante is the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), whose husband is often away keeping the neighbours under control. On this occasion he is fighting the French, and Sarah is pressing for the campaign to get better funding. A prominent Tory, the Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult) is opposed to increasing tax to make this happen, and doing his best to undo the campaign of persuasion that the duchess conducts in the queen’s private quarters, and in her bed.

The upstart Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), stumbles into this fevered mix. As a relative of Sarah’s, she had hopes for some favours but she is swiftly relegated to the scullery. Unfortunately for Sarah, cousin Abigail makes a saucy wench when she gets half a chance. It is a fatal mistake. The Queen appoints Abigail to keeper of the privy purse and takes her to her bed.

This may or may not be true, but as a study in the struggle for power and influence it is witty and entertaining. Although it’s the men like the Earl who hold power in parliament and at court, it’s the women who explore the ways and means to exert influence. In terms of gender roles, not so flattering, but it could just as easily be told the other way round because it would be difficult to contest the underlying truth. A witty expose on the lot of us.

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

Roma

MA 15+, 2 hrs 15 mins

Netflix

Review by ©Jane Freebury

5 Stars

In all the best possible ways, Roma reminded me of being a film student again. Of seminar weekends sitting watching something from the archive that proved a revelation. A meditation on the personal and collective human experience, wonderful to watch, like this film here.

Roma is not a film from an unknown, of course, or a first-timer with something new to say. Far from it. The most recent film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron was Gravity, an immersive, spellbinding journey in space that was huge at the box office, worldwide.

This film is something very close to the director’s heart, a story from his childhood in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family home, the street on which he lived and other locations in the city are meticulously recreated to look the way they did in the early 1970s.

Attention to detail contributes to Roma’s distinctive look and style. Filmed in widescreen, in digital black and white, it is an intimate story yet mostly told in long shot. Instead of using the close up much to establish connection, there are long sweeping, panning shots that keep everyone and everything in view, as though they are all of a piece. And editing is so minimal, and pacing so unhurried, you could be lulled into thinking it is in real time. The rhythms of everyday life get the dignity they deserve.

Besides directing and co-producing, Cuaron was writer, cinematographer and co-editor here.

Cuaron’s young self is not the main character, either. It is the former maid and nanny who looked after him and his brothers and sister, while their parents were often absent without leave. The narrative begins with the marriage between Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, on the point of breaking up.

After a long day at the hospital, Antonio enters the driveway in his Ford Galaxie, too large for the space. Not without comedy, he inches in tortuously, avoiding a scratch on the duco, but squishing the wheels over the piles of dog doo-doo scattered around. It is a constant source of irritation to Sofia, unreasonably so, and besides, Borras has nowhere else to do his business.

The family home is a generous space where children have large bedrooms, while the maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actor like most of the cast here), and her domestic companion the cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), share a tiny room at the top of steep stairs above the roof and the washing lines. We note this and a hundred other inequities.

Netflix

Cuaron collaborated with his former nanny and family maid during screenwriting. He dedicates this film to Libo and to her class, domestic workers who have looked after and been surrogate mothers to generations of the wealthy middle-class. A dramatic scene on a beach with surging surf demonstrates the risks she would go to for the children.

Cleo’s affair with an intense young man makes connection between events outside the home and political upheaval at the time, like a notorious massacre in the city of student demonstrators by paramilitaries. Their brief affair results in a pregnancy that only embeds her deeper within the family.

After his films on the epic scale, Gravity and Children of Men, and since the very memorable Y Tu Mama Tambien, an intimate, sensitive portrait of coming-of-age, Roma is a powerful reminder of the scope of Cuaron’s talent.

With its roots in both poetic realism and neo-realism, Roma is also a reminder of what cinema can be when not driven by commercial imperatives.

 

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

Vice

M, 2 hrs 13 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 stars

 

Controversial and reviled, American politician Dick Cheney is fair game for filmmaker Adam McKay who had his say on bad corporate behaviour in The Big Short, in 2015. Very entertaining it was too. A deft explanation of how the global financial crisis came to pass, leaving us in no doubt about the amoral behaviour in financial services that had such a big hand in it.

For former Saturday Night Live writer, McKay, a natural satirist who knows exactly how to take down anybody and anything, Cheney presents rich material.

Despite a long career in politics – notably as a chief of staff, a former defence secretary and a vice president  – and a key role in US strategies leading to and after the Iraq War, Cheney has apparently had little to say for himself.

Vice gleefully and unreservedly makes the most of this with Christian Bale as Cheney, big as a whale, filling the screen. However, little else emerges from this opaque political personality, who is presented yet again as a shadowy space that others have become accustomed to filling.

I went along to Vice to get the goods, as I had in The Big Short. Who was this man, committed Republican and Washington insider during the most controversial and destructive period in recent US political history? On the man and his view of the world, Vice offers scant insight.

Turning to the internet, I found there was more to him. It’s interesting to see that aside from a penchant for pastries, a predisposition to heart attacks and getting pulled over while driving under the influence when young, he has been elected five times to the US House of Representatives.

In its errors of omission, Vice would have us believe that Cheney was a bit of a no-hoper, a no-hoper with an ambitious wife. Someone who somehow or other struck it lucky after he failed at Yale (twice actually), after which he took a job as a linesman, before he proceeded, inexplicably, to an internship in the US administration.

Actually, Cheney has two degrees in political science, and was once registered for a doctorate. His formidable wife Lynne, played here by Amy Adams, went on to get hers, and has subsequently written a raft of books on American history.

Coy disclaimers at the start of Vice, that they did their ‘f—-ing best’ to present the facts, only sidesteps the issue of omission here.

Entertaining and audacious it is, with a brave central performance from Bale (also in The Big Short) as the dubious ideologue and with terrific support from Adams as his wife and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. Much of the early low-angle camerawork ensures that everyone looks their least attractive. While Sam Rockwell, apparently without any prosthetic at all, nails it as George W Bush.

So who, in an unfortunate sign of these times, wants to complain when a film is this entertaining? It depends on what you are looking for.

Ultimately, Vice, in the style of broad brush cartoon, rehearses the widely held view that Cheney is an opaque politician, a behind-the-scenes operator who is insufficiently accountable. We have been aware of this reputation for a long time so more insight into his way of thinking, his world view, would have been welcome.

I thought that in the era of fake news we were all agreed that the facts must matter again. So, what has happened here?

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

Cold War

Rated M, 1 hr 28 mins

Review by © Jane Freebury

4.5 Stars

This story of the longing and desire of lovers who could no more live together than they could live apart is dedicated to the filmmaker’s parents. While it’s not about his mother and father per se, writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski explores a tempestuous love affair like theirs from the perspective of his own late middle age.

The result is sublimely and coolly elegant. Shot in rich black-and-white on the boxy 4:3 Academy ratio, it looks the way home movies and still image photography looked at the time. And it is irresistible, a 1950s romance set to sultry jazz music and upstart rock n’ roll.

A relaxed and urbane Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is touring the Polish countryside auditioning singers to join a troupe that will perform folk music blended with messaging to help build the new Polish communist state, when a sultry young blonde singer catches his eye. There is a certain something about young Zula (Joanna Kulig), the quality of her voice or her vivacity combined with the whiff of danger of someone who has spent time in prison. It makes Wiktor champion her talents, and fall in love.

The question is, however, were they ever meant to be. Is it personal whim or is it political circumstance that drives them apart, again and again?

During the time that Zula and Wiktor are trying to get it together, the communist machinery is setting up in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, culminating in the wall in Berlin. Hardly circumstances favourable for this Polish couple, but when a door to freedom in the West opens, Zula rejects the opportunity.

Her resistance, which could be explained as youthful contrariness, seems inexplicable, but then Pawlikowski is less interested in providing answers than he is in creating a tribute to a love affair, and allowing the gaps in understanding to remain. Be prepared for some ellipses where the narrative seems to drop out of sight.

It is poignant to read that Pawlikowski’s parents died long ago, before Cold War hostilities between East and West were declared over in 1991.

In a way, this film is asking an age-old question: where do I come from? Parents were people before they became mothers and fathers, so what kind of people were they? They fell in love, they had aspirations and their union prevailed or it didn’t. Couples like Zula and Wiktor had geopolitical forces to deal with, in addition to each other.

Five years ago, Pawlikowski made a film, also in black and white, also stark and beautiful, about a young woman raised an orphan and on the point of taking her vows as a Catholic nun, who discovers that she is Jewish. This film, Ida, was also a memorable screen experience reflecting on Polish history post World War II.

The similarities probably end there, except that they each demonstrate the filmmaker’s flair for making black-and-white a complete cinema experience at a time the screen is dominated by bombastic blockbuster.

A letter to love in fractious times, Cold War makes no concessions to modern tastes for pace and colour and percussive editing, but is way powerful nonetheless. Yo yo yo.

 

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