Tag3 Stars

Widows

 MA 15+, 129 mins

Capitol Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A heist movie has to be fun. It needs to be, to join company with so many brilliant examples from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, to the Pink Panther movies, to The Italian Job, original and remake, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.

What better fun then than watching a group of women, partners in crime, bent on turning the tables?

Hang on a minute. As you scroll down the ‘best of’ lists for the genre, you find that the heist has been the province of men, decorated by a glamorous woman or two. Films about women getting away with the equivalent of Britain’s great train robbery are few and far between.

It won’t be surprising if people leave Widows wondering why the film doesn’t match their sense of anticipation – or the hype of the trailer. No, Ocean’s Eight didn’t do it for us, but Widows doesn’t gel despite promising ingredients either. The new film from director Steve McQueen doesn’t live up to its promise.

It’s disconcerting, when everything necessary for success is there. An Oscar-winning director, a black British man and a visual artist whose track record includes films like 12 Years A Slave and Hunger. McQueen had the Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn write his screenplay too, and this was developed from a miniseries that was a hit on British television in the 1980s.

Widows opens on scenes of marital bliss, the mature kind. Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlings is just about to leave for work – that is, he is about to commit a robbery – and dallies with his lovely wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) in moments soon cross-cut with blistering scenes of a violent heist gone wrong. All perpetrators, including Harry, are killed, and the peace in the neutrality of early morning in their luxury apartment erased.

The death of a partner is one thing. Veronica is soon under threat herself, unless she repays the $2 million that her husband apparently owed to a local crime boss, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), who needs it to—wait for it—enter local politics. This is Chicago.

Jamal’s threatening visit, when he handles Veronica’s little white dog, is almost as hard to watch as later scenes of torture. There are some moments of violence in Widows that don’t hold back, with Jamal’s brother and enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), in on the act too.

To repay this debt, Veronica recruits the three other women also widowed by the botched robbery, for a new heist she plans based on notes that Harry left behind. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are widows like her, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a beautician who is enlisted as their driver. Significantly, the fourth widow, does not elect to take part.

Debicki’s character Alice steals the show. The few seconds spent on a conversation between her and her Polish mother – Jacki Weaver here – were worth so much more.

Far too little time is spent on the women as characters and group. There was so much to capitalise on here, but Widows has too little faith in the dynamic value of their personalities and relationships. That little smile shared at the end is intriguing, it may even signal a sequel, but it also suggests there was more to play with here.

Far and away, it was the concept that grabbed us. The very idea of a band of women who join forces for a heist should have been a winner, especially in this #MeToo moment.

The payback moment arrives for Veronica when discovers howshe was fundamentally betrayed by Harry, playing into issues of gender and racerelations. However, with WidowsMcQueen hasn’t yet found a way to combine his social activism with the thrillsof the cheeky, brazen plan that we hopped on board for.

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

The Wife

Review by © Jane Freebury

She warns her husband there are crumbs in his beard, reminds him to take his medication, and is diplomatic towards intrusive journalists. Joe Castleman, played with ease by Jonathan Pryce, is a famous writer and as such he is allowed to be distracted from minor chores, besides his wife is a woman who has made a career out of smoothing his way.

Castleman is on the point of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He will travel to Stockholm with wife Joan (Glenn Close) and son David (Max Irons) who is also a writer and has just had his first book published.

The film is specific about the year in which it is set. It is a quarter of a century ago. A long or a short time in feminism, depending on your perspective. There weren’t many young fathers to be seen pushing strollers through the streets back then.

The Wife is based on a recent novel but it is such a throwback to the 1950s that the filmmakers at least had the sense to put a woman like Glenn Close in the role. She makes this odd material work.

There is no doubt about the strength that Close brings to her characters on screen. Especially since the jilted lover in Fatal Attraction in 1987, she has brought extra flintiness to her roles like the leader of a prison camp choir in Paradise Road, as Hamlet’s mother 1990 and as the evil Cruella in 101 Dalmatians.

Working against type, Close finds herself here in the role of a wifely wife who has spent a lifetime nurturing her husband’s career, ostensibly doing the editing. In flashbacks to her younger self, as student and new wife to the ambitious young professor of creative writing, Joan is played by Close’s own daughter, Annie Stark.

Like Starke, young Max Irons, son of Jeremy, must have a take of his own on being the son of a famous actor.

From early in her marriage, Joan has learned to look the other way during Joe’s affairs. In Stockholm the aging lothario is at it yet again, with an attractive young minder.

The thing is, the film tries to convince us, that Joan is both doormat and indispensable to Joe’s career. The circumstances beggar belief. A nosy journalist, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), suspects the truth and wants to write Castleman’s biography, but he keeps getting the brush off, from both Joe and Joan.

The pact between this husband and wife is implausible, impossible to believe, and certainly doesn’t reflect the choices contemporary women are likely to make. It is inconceivable that a self-respecting woman would do what Joan has done, and yet Close gives it all she’s got, in a battened down, nuanced way, and it is this that makes The Wife worth watching.

3 Stars

 

Screening at Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric in New Acton, and Event Cinema, Manuka

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Aurore

          Review by © Jane Freebury

You’re never too old to start again. If life starts unravelling, it’s what the baby boomers want to hear: there’s a new dawn.

As played by Agnes Jaoui, Aurore is as voluptuous and as statuesque as the Roman goddess of dawn, after all, though I think the original French title, I Got Life!, has the edge. Her husband has recently deserted her for a new arrangement, so she has to make a go of it again, at work and in love.

Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in France at the age of 50 or so, Aurore puts a brave, possibly even heroic, face on it and manages her life well with a positive attitude. I’ve found statistics that show France doesn’t do too badly on gender equality in comparison to its European neighbours, so perhaps things won’t be too hard for her, after all.

Aurore’s biggest problem seems to be her hot flushes. A ruefully funny one for women, and Aurore is beset with them, at home and out and even while asleep. It has to be said that the bravest thing about this gentle comedy directed by Blandine Lenoir, is its subtext: menopause.

Like every mother, Aurore is concerned for her daughters, Marina (Sarah Suco) and Lucie (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). The elder one has just become pregnant, and though she is around 30, she is a bit of a worry, while the boyfriend of her younger daughter doesn’t exactly fill mum with confidence. But there you go. Quoi faire?

Aurore’s best friend Mano (Pascale Arbillot), who works in real estate, has some dirty tricks up her sleeve for men she reckons deserve the treatment. When the two friends are at a café together, Mano spies an older man with a young woman who she reckons must be his lover. Mano leaps up and accosts them, throws her ring at him and stalks off. She didn’t even know him.

Nina Simone’s song lends the film a bit of backbone, but also hints at what it might have been

Aurore, however, doesn’t go in for payback and seems on peaceful and decent terms with just about everyone, former husband included.

She is comfortable enough with herself to go to a school reunion, even at this delicate time. There she encounters the man she was with before she married, and the film’s incipient spirit of independence, fierce or otherwise, veers towards mature-age romance.

The voice of Nina Simone singing the song that gave Aurore its French title, I Got Life!, lends the film a bit of backbone, but it also hints at what it might have been. Aurore has little to do with the sentiments expressed in Simone’s songs such as ‘Feeling Good’ or ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’.

Does Aurore really make a new start? You can be the judge of that, but don’t expect too much from this easy-going and mildly funny comedy.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Mary Magdalene

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

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

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

Final Portrait

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Portrait is rated M, and runs for 90 minutes

3 Stars

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

Beatriz at Dinner

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Think ‘when worlds collide’ with this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

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

Victoria & Abdul

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Trip to Spain

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

 

© 2018 Jane Freebury

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