Final Portrait

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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

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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

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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

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Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

Unscripted,  improvisational, that is the thrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

A Quiet Passion

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Review © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Bell as young Emily

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle site

Churchill

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Review © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

Jasper Jones

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Review by © Jane Freebury

The film of the popular novel by Craig Silvey is not so much about Jasper. It’s about his loyal, younger friend during a life-changing moment while growing up. So, it’s yet another Aussie tale about coming-of-age? Yes, but the difference is that it firmly references the here-and-now and what is shaping our lives today.

Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is a 14-year-old with his life choices ahead of him. Right now, what exercises him most is what book to read and how to bump into a certain young lady, accidentally on purpose.

Then Jasper (Aaron L. McGrath) comes tapping on his bedroom window, a pair of eyes peering through the louvre window one evening. It’s an odd shot that hovers between the dramatic and the comic, and the scenes that ensue are a rather wobbly beginning that pitches Charlie into a deeply compromised situation. We never get to fully understand his motivations. The assistance he provides Jasper implicates him in ways he could not begin to imagine at his age.

The two teenagers live in a town somewhere on the wheatbelt in Western Australia where Jasper, the child of a white man and Aboriginal mother, is deemed an outsider. In 1969, it has been a short while since the referendum that fully recognised Australia’s Aboriginal people.

Corrigan is relatively prosperous, a comfortable, seemingly safe place where people can afford a Holden car and their own house. Some of the outside world intrudes, however. There’s a war in South East Asia and the Vietnamese family of Jasper’s good friend Jeffrey is having a terrible time at the hands of town racists. Sweet, young Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), Charlie’s crush, is reading Truman Capote.

It is a telling moment in history to return to. Not so long ago, but it seems like absolutely ages since the closed-in verandahs, the neatly-mown front lawns, and the jaunty cars of the 1960s. On one level this can be a nostalgia trip. On the surface, Corrigan is the kind of place that lives in the collective memory of people of a certain age. But below the images of old Australia beautifully captured in the cinematography, the film exposes harsh and shocking truths that challenge the impulse to nostalgia.

The kids have to deal directly with the town’s problems, while the adult characters seem somehow absent without leave. Hugo Weaving’s ‘Mad Jack’ is also an outcast living on the outskirts of town, but conflicted and ineffectual. Toni Colette, all beehive and bold eyeliner, does a familiar turn as Charlie’s mental mum, a woman unhappy in her marriage—though again we don’t quite understand why. Dan Wyllie, sympathetic as Charlie’s dad who spends most of his time closeted away writing his novel, is the good patriarch in absentia when all goes wrong.

On the other hand, the terrific young actors, Miller and Rice in particular, have to convince us they have been witness to horrific of events that must remain secret while they go about their business. They give little sign of being traumatised by it. Strange. Director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) did not pursue the dark subtext of this story for all it was worth, choosing instead to keep things light where possible, but therein lies some incongruity.

Jasper Jones is a mixed bag, satisfying in parts. What a different story it would have been, if it had been Jasper, the kid of colour centre frame, with his friend Charlie on the sidelines.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

Paterson

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Review © by Jane Freebury

 

Would this film have attracted much attention without the name of Jim Jarmusch attached to it?  About a loving and contented couple, each with creative aspirations, it is just a gentle story devised to remind us of the secret to a good life. Which is not to say that Paterson doesn’t have its qualities.

This independent writer-director will be noticed whatever he does. Since distinctive films like Ghost Dog, with its samurai-inspired hitman, and Dead Man, a postmodern take on the western, his reputation has been secured, but he leaves us with too little to work with here. With simplicity the guiding principle in style and subject, this is the story of a modest man who only needs life’s simple pleasures, however, it leaves you feeling a bit bemused and unconvinced, against your better instincts.

So Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and resident of Paterson, New Jersey (a bit cute), wants nothing more from life than to go home in the evening for dinner with his wife, to enjoy a beer at the local, and have the steady job which affords him creative outlet. While at work he can eavesdrop on his passengers’ conversations, meditate on his own life and find the head space for creative reverie. He also writes poetry.

For a few short minutes while alone in the cab of his bus each day, Paterson distils the feelings that have arisen in him. His poetry probably won’t go anywhere, even though Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) encourages him to publish. We see this confirmed when at his invitation, a schoolgirl reads a poem about falling water from her own collection. It is superior. Even so, you gotta have a dream to sustain you in the humdrum everyday.

Laura’s aspirations are loftier. She would love to be a country and western singer, and spends her day at home learning guitar and giving everything in their cottage a makeover in black and white. The black and white cupcakes she cooks for the local fair are snapped up and there is perhaps is the inkling of a suggestion that one day in the future, she will want more from life.

Paterson is nothing like the apocalyptic, digitised, de-sensitising fare that the US movie industry has been feeding into the mainstream for years, and I am grateful for it. There’s no crime, period.  No bus hijacking here, just some mechanical problem for which Paterson has to call the depot. In a context like this, Jarmusch’s film is a standout.

Time has passed Paterson’s residents by, yet the film searches for dignity in its circumstances. There is crumbling infrastructure, there are tall weeds, and some of the people seem to have lost the vitality of their former selves.  Yet the city has a proud industrial past. Its famous sons include Lou Costello of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello, the great poet William Carlos Williams, boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The idea for the film was apparently precipitated by Jarmusch’s visit there to research Carlos Williams, one of his favourite poets.

The film’s treatment of Laura is problematic, in my opinion. Her character isn’t well drawn. In an effort to stress the importance of simple pleasures in life, Jarmusch has written Laura as child-like, though undoubtedly not intended that way. The relationship between Paterson and Laura at times resembles that of parent and indulged child, patron and fledgling artist. It is also entirely chaste, which is rather difficult to figure, given Farahani is gorgeous. Perhaps the writer-director’s self-confessed disinclination at representing sex on screen has contributed to this.

So, Paterson, in its determination to make its point about the importance of simple pleasures and the life well lived, strives too hard to bend its material to make it. A pity, because the point is right.

3 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

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by  © Jane Freebury

It’s fine to belt out a song in the shower when you can’t hold a tune, the acoustics are good and no one is listening. But who among us wants to inflict this private pleasure on the rest of the world?

The extraordinary career of Florence Foster Jenkins during the 1930s-1940s in America begs a question or three. Few of which are answered in this pleasant comedy about a silly woman with more money than talent who insisted on appearing on stage in elaborate costumes to sing arias for a round of applause.

Apparently Jenkins got more than that, because sophisticated New Yorkers at her by-invitation-only soirees and music society events clapped hard to disguise the sniggers and the guffaws. She was a standing joke for years before the disastrous Carnegie Hall concert in 1944 and the press exposure that ended her career and, in short order, her life. Why so? We touch on this fleetingly in this new Stephen Frears film – was it the syphilis her husband gave when young?– but it remains pretty much unexamined.

Not one to criticise, British director Stephen Frears brings his light touch to bear on her story. He says Jenkins was preposterous, that he was nonetheless touched by her and it shows, but the best will in the world has bought mixed results, and for this viewer the conclusion that the film hasn’t really got to grips with its subject.

Even the immense talent of Meryl Streep, the antithesis of the woman she was cast to play, can’t compensate for the fact that the script is incurious about what really drove Jenkins, the reputed ‘I can do it. I’ll show them’ mentality, and why she was indulged for so long. Shades of the 21st century comedy of cringe?

Patron of the arts and still an aspiring soprano in her 70s, Florence Foster Jenkins may have been tone deaf and deaf to criticism too, but the problem was really her associates, her common-law husband (Hugh Grant), and all the folk who depended on her for their livelihood in the arts. She was a victim of her own patronage because no one dared to confront her with the truth. She was, like, too big to fail.

We know Streep can do anything, however I think she has done better. Her portrayal of Jenkins as a girlish innocent, manipulated by her fond but faithless husband, and by others who benefitted from her largesse, is sympathetic but not compelling.  Did she need to be quite such a ditz? The steel that Jenkins apparently had in pursuing her career regardless is nowhere to be seen, nor does the Nicholas Martin script explore what it was about New York society at the time that allowed such nonsense to prevail.

In the Orson Welles’ classic of 1941, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane bought an opera house so that Susan, his wife of meagre talent, could take the stage as an opera singer. She was miserable. Florence needed no such encouragement, and was thrilled with it all. I’m still not sure quite what to make of it.

It’s in character for Frears to tackle stories of significance and lend his generous perspective as in, say, My Beautiful Laundrette, Philomena or The Queen. It’s what we like about him. Florence Foster Jenkins undoubtedly had a fascinating backstory, however in neither this film nor the current French film Marguerite, also based on her life, do we ever quite get to the bottom of it.

3 Stars

Pawno

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© Jane Freebury

It’s good to know that a hide like a rhinoceros isn’t a prerequisite for working in a cash converter business in multicultural Footscray. A thicker than usual epidermis helps ensure better than breakeven results, but the experience need not shrivel a bloke’s empathy or drain him of human kindness.

It seems it might even inspire creativity. This is the proposition in this good-natured study of people who are doing it tough and reflects the kind of optimism that probably helped get this entirely independently funded production get up in the first place.

Screenwriter and support actor Damien Hill, who lives in Footscray, has a surprise up his sleeve in the closing scenes that turns some of the grim things that you swear you saw on their head. The turn-around may not  work for everyone—it didn’t quite for me—but there’s no reason why the coda can’t, I suppose, when action is confined to a 24-hour period.

Indeed, it is not nearly long enough to get to know the characters who count in this ambitious drama that managed to get a Tom Waits track for next to nothing to set the tone.

John Brumpton brings a cynical but not unsympathetic tolerance to his character Les, the shop owner, a pawnbroker, a world away from the role made forever famous by Rod Steiger’s staggering treatment in 1965. If Les has anything to hide, you feel pretty sure it’s nothing more than some life choices that didn’t deliver. His best attribute is that he’s got time for folks, whatever their hard luck story. That said, right now he has a bad toothache.

His  assistant is young Danny (Hill), a bit of a day-dreamer with a crush on Kate (Maeve Dermody) who works in a bookshop nearby. Danny’s soft romantic heart is a push over for an earnest young man who wants to propose to his girlfriend that evening but can’t quite afford the diamond ring he finds on the tray and thinks will be perfect.

A film set in a pawnshop is ripe with possibilities.  Hill has built into his screenplay so many characters with hints at their own distinctive backstories that the narrative risks haring off in a dozen different directions. That this doesn’t happen is a tribute to the writer, and first-time director Paul Ireland. Is there a TV series in the offing?

A fair proportion of the action takes place outside the shop premises, grounded in the two men who hang out and provide comment, chorus-like, on the neighbourhood. Meet Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) and Pauly (Mark Coles Smith) who anchor the street as they bludge smokes and share meals from the Vietnamese takeaway owned by Lai (Ngoc Phan). Lai is one of the characters who has something to give back to the community, however the way this is expressed is a big misjudgment on a number of levels. On the other hand, the vignette about transgender woman Paige (Daniel Fredericksen) battling life with two young sons, is touching and makes you want to see more.

Pawno flaunts a bit of cheek with a title that sounds like the generic adult movie. There is a bit of sex and also a brutal violent interlude that I’m not convinced we needed, but the engaging cast, including Kerry Armstrong, too little seen these days, bring many of the stories to life.

3 Stars