Babyteeth

with pitch-perfect performances all round, this is a beautifully crafted drama about a teenager’s last fling at life

M, 118 Minutes

Dendy, Palace Electric

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Babyteeth has more than a few things going for it, including a terrific ensemble cast, cinematographer and director. Yet this family drama about a teenager with terminal cancer risks meeting a bit of resistance from audiences who may decide the subject is not for them.

It really shouldn’t deter them. This is an outstanding new Australian film, not to be missed. The director Shannon Murphy has suddenly emerged as an exciting new talent whose name appears on Variety’s top ten directing talents to watch in 2020.

Up to this point, Murphy has been making short films and working in television, here and overseas. She has distinguished herself on the hit television series Killing Eve, directing two recent episodes, balancing the droll, bleak humour and bizarre goings-on with great aplomb. I thought the way she handled Villanelle’s return visit to the family home in a Russian backwater hit just the right notes.

Babyteeth, her feature film debut, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, is never less than pitch perfect either. It’s about sixteen-year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) who is receiving treatment for a rare cancer that will kill her. But she is still out and about. She continues to attend school, when she feels up to it, and her violin classes, and has her sights on the school formal.

Set during the time when the Finlay family prepares for impending loss, Babyteeth balances the joy and the fear, the grim with the humorous, and the mundane and the fantastical in life’s contradictions.

In the film’s arresting opening scenes, Milla is standing at the railway station one day, minding her own business, when a young bloke slams into her, giving her a nose bleed. After gallantly wiping her face with the shirt off his back, Moses (Toby Wallace) is in the next instant asking for money. She hands over $50.

What’s more, she takes Moses home to meet the parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna Finlay (Essie Davis). The visit culminates in a droll dinner scene with the two couples sitting opposite each other at table. If it wasn’t weird enough, Anna has mixed up her meds and is high.

Ben Mendelsohn in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films

Moses quickly recognises an opportunity. It isn’t long before he is back, performing a break-and-enter to help himself to the prescription drugs that psychiatrist Henry prescribes and Anna uses.

her parents are trapped but relent, against their better judgement

Milla’s parents are trapped. They want to protect their vulnerable, fragile daughter but at the same time they want to allow her the chance to experience life. They capitulate to Milla’s wishes and, against their better judgement, invite Moses in.

In every conceivable way, the young, drug-dealing petty crim would appear to be a dreadful companion for Milla, but she is determined to have him around. The relationship develops through various stages, announced with inter-titles suggestive of diary entries, and Moses begins to reveal a better self.

It takes a special directorial talent to tell a story like this, and special skills to bring out the best in all the actors, each so individual, in this ensemble piece.

Toby Wallace and Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films

It is a good to see Emily Barclay (Suburban Mayhem) make an appearance as the very pregnant young mother who lives across the street from the Finlays. Her dog is always going missing, she always seems to be eating an ice cream and her function is to hint at the fragility in the Finlays’ marriage.

as married partners, Davis and Mendelsohn are beautifully matched

Essie Davis (recently in The True History of the Kelly Gang) and Ben Mendelsohn (an international star ever since Animal Kingdom) are beautifully matched as married partners. Wallace and Scanlen (Little Women) are also marvellous together as the two fragile young people. All the lead performances are superb, though I would have to say that Mendelsohn excels himself once again.

The ensemble cast is one thing, but Babyteeth would not be the film it is without the contribution of cinematographer Andrew Commis (Beautiful Kate, The Rocket)

Whether his camera is rolling in tight, intimate close up or goes wide to take in the night lights of Sydney or a virgin beachscape, the beauty and poignancy of his images was constantly telling. The camera pausing on the eggshell of Milla’s perfect, shaven head said so much.

Babyteeth had its world premiere in official competition at the Venice International Film Festival last year. It’s one of the best Australian films we have seen in some time.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 July 2020

Featured image: Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth.  Courtesy IFC Films

Ben Mendelsohn, larrikin no more

By © Jane Freebury

New work by actor Ben Mendelsohn can be easy to miss. Not often the lead, he can pop up in unexpected places, like Buckingham Palace where he was an elegant and diffident George VI opposite Gary Oldman’s Churchill in the Darkest Hour.

In this role, as with most, he appears to be completely comfortable in his character’s skin. It also has to be said that the effect on Mendelsohn of groomed hair and a well-tailored suit can be transformative. His flair for accents, probably from having lived in both the US and Britain during his childhood, counts for something too.

Since 2017 when he played the British monarch, Mendelsohn has shown up in surprising places. In a Steven Spielberg science fiction (Ready Player One), as the sheriff in the latest Robin Hood, as a pustulent King Henry IV (The King), in a relationship drama directed by his former wife (Untogether), and as the villain Talos in two Marvel superhero blockbusters.

In The Land of Steady Habits, by Nicole Holofcener, a creator of subtle relationship dramas, his performance as a feckless father and husband is a very rewarding, if discomforting experience. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

A memorable performance by Ben Mendelsohn as ‘Pope’ Cody in Animal Kingdom

Ever since 2010, when David Michod’s very impressive crime drama Animal Kingdom (streaming on Stan) catapulted Mendelsohn – and his compatriot the redoubtable Jacki Weaver – into the international film industry, he has been in high demand.

Only three years after its release, the Washington Post was declaring that ‘Ben Mendelsohn was everywhere. Finally’. People in the US had begun to take notice.

They certainly took notice when he appeared in Season 1 of the television series Bloodline, in which he played the wayward elder son of the wealthy Florida establishment. His performance that garnered a Golden Globe nomination and won an Emmy was mesmerising.

Since the chilling menace for his character in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has slipped into roles that have offered him an opportunity to do more of same. He has done so with relish, including his portrayal of a hopeless, sleazy heroin addict in Killing Them Softly.

Since he joined the A-list stars on screen, actors like Ryan Gosling (in The Place Beyond the Pines) and Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in (The Dark Knight Rises), Mendelsohn has moved on from the local industry where he began as a teenager.

However, his first Australian film in nearly a decade, Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy, is due for release this year.

It is generally agreed that the beloved Australian classic of 1987, The Year My Voice Broke, by writer-director John Duigan, was Mendelsohn’s breakout role in the Australian film industry. Though he wasn’t the main character, he was memorable as Trevor, the roguish risk taker fatally drawn to danger.

Noah Taylor was the lead as Danny, as socially awkward as Trevor was confident, and representing the sensible devoted alternative for love interest Freya (Loene Carmen).

Back then, fans tended to confuse Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn, who are the same age and somewhat similar physically, despite their different roles. It’s amusing to hear that today Mendelsohn is still being mistaken for Taylor. Fans have been asking him for his signature because they think it was him playing Locke in the television series Game of Thrones. It was, of course, Taylor.

That Mendelsohn can inhabit a small or support role, and still leave filmgoers with the overwhelming impression of his presence has become something of a pattern during his career. He has managed to make a little go a long way.

He is best known internationally for his villainous characters, but he wasn’t always the bad boy. There is a sweet side  too. In The Big Steal of 1990 directed by Nadia Tass he shows considerable natural charm as the lead character opposite Claudia Karvan. They were both teenagers at the time.

With Claudia Karvan in The Big Steal

Just after this film, Mendelsohn had a role in the film Spotswood (aka The Efficiency Expert) directed by Mark Joffe. It starred an as yet little known, mild mannered Welsh actor who would traumatise the filmgoing world with one of the screen’s most enduring and grotesque villains, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, opposite Jodie Foster.

In a recent interview posted online, Mendelsohn cites Anthony Hopkins as one of his most important mentors. It is an intriguing comment. Did the idea of becoming a supervillain take shape after that encounter?

Both GQ and Slate magazine have nominated Mendelsohn as the new, favourite bad guy, while the Financial Times wrote last year that he had become the king of villains.

What does it take to be really good at villainy? Gravitas, he says.

Perhaps he was on his way to something different before he moved to the US. In Beautiful Kate, the fine dark family drama by Rachel Ward, that was released in 2009, he was a complex and ambiguously drawn character. Of course, we will never know because in 2010 Mendelsohn’s world changed in a very big way with Animal Kingdom.

The trajectory his screen persona has taken, especially overseas, is a big step away from the type of knockabout, roguish Aussie bloke, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Away from the larrikin roles of his early career during the 1990s-2000s, in films like Idiot Box, Return Home, and Mullet. It is a big step but it isn’t entirely inconsistent.

He’s moved on. Larrikin no more.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

*Featured image: Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), a troubled man, in The Land of Steady Habits

 

Without going ‘the full Mendo’, here are some of Ben’s best

Compiling recommended viewing is tricky because, Mendelsohn may be the best thing in a small role but the film hasn’t a lot to recommend it. Ridley Scott’s disappointing Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Mendelsohn plays an Egyptian viceroy, is a case in point.

He is, however, a fine villain in Spielberg’s typically polished space adventure, Ready Player One, and in Orson Krennic’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which he shows great sartorial panache.

A look backwards at The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) makes for a charming introduction to the sunny side of the Mendelsohn screen persona. It is also a very good film, with a sweetness not often found in Australian film these days.

Return Home (Ray Argall, 1990) is also well worth a look, a fine contemplative study of suburban life.

See The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) if you haven’t yet. A landmark film of the early industry revival with Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor when they were just starting out long, light years from their international careers.

Hunt Angels (Alec Morgan, 2006), a docu-drama about an intriguing, entrepreneurial local filmmaker, is a small favourite Mendelsohn film of mine.

Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) is an exquisite dark family drama with excellent performances from everyone, including Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn apparently shocked himself by his own performance in Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), that superb noir about a Melbourne crime family.

Mendelsohn makes a strong impression in the early scenes of The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). Not an easy thing to do when playing opposite Ryan Gosling.

In Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017), he appears as the King of England during World War II. He fully matches the very good performance from Gary Oldman as Churchill.

Mendelsohn is in very good form in the finely tuned drama, The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018), as a wealthy Connecticut businessman who lets his family down.

Mendelsohn, almost a bit too convincing as an ailing monarch in David Michod’s latest, The King (2019), is a scene stealer till his death bed.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

The King

A brilliant, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare on leadership and power

MA15+, 140 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Now the streaming platforms are windows on the world in our shuttered lives, movies that were at the cinema a few months ago are re-appearing on our TVs. Giving The King a second chance if you missed it last October is a good bet.

It’s an Australian film from David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, 2010) that had a short release last year. There were favourable reviews, it did some business at the box office and then it joined the Netflix stable from whence it came.

Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity

Like The Irishman and Roma, it is a Netflix production. Much of its budget would have gone into the impressive historical detail, including lavishly mounted battle scenes with full-scale catapults hurling fireballs, and hordes of extras in clanking armour.

Filmed in cathedrals and castles in England and Hungary, The King has an authentic period look that has been handsomely photographed by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, Macbeth). In its stern way, it looks great.

The filmmakers have also invested a great deal in actor Timothée Chalamet in the title role. Only 24 years old and hot property since his leading role in Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), his ambiguously gendered beauty is not what we might expect in a celebrated warrior king, and is a destabilising factor that keep things interesting.

Catherine de Valois (Lily-Rose Depp) who will become Queen

In recent times, it’s been good to see young filmmakers prepared to give Shakespeare a go. Macbeth and Romeo + Juliet, directed by Australians Geoffrey Wright and Baz Luhrmann respectively, each struggled in different ways with the language, but The King is based on a completely new screenplay and I’m happy to say that it works.

the simple and naturalistic take on Shakespeare’s language has considerable power

Shakespeare’s observations and insights on leadership, power and when to go to war are still there, told in simple and naturalistic language that has considerable power.

Michôd co-wrote his screenplay with actor-director Joel Edgerton, who has the key role of Hal’s constant companion, Falstaff, a dream part for any actor.

Their screenplay is drawn from the three Shakespearean plays, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V, that trace the career of one of England’s most popular kings. It was Henry V who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, a victory that joined the French and English thrones, for a short time at least.

The uniformly fine cast comprises Australian, American and British actors, some in memorable cameo roles.

The Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), heir to the French throne

Ben Mendelsohn appears as Henry IV, the king who will not acknowledging his elder son, Hal, until his dying breath. Robert Pattinson appears in a scene-stealing role as the Dauphin, the vicious, wily heir to the French throne. Lily-Rose Depp’s appearance as Catherine de Valois is only brief but big on impact.

Chalamet himself is very good as the wayward prince who morphs into a great king, though I have some reservations about casting him in this role.

The King tells a story for modern audiences.  It’s quite unlike Henry V starring Laurence Olivier in 1944. While that film was made to revive the war effort, Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity.

There is nothing glamorous about warfare here. When Prince Hal takes down rebellious young Hotspur (Tom Glyn-Carney), there is nothing valiant about one-on-one combat either. Their swordfight finishes in a grim, desperate wrestling match.

At Agincourt, the French and English armies slog it out in what must have been total mayhem. How would the combatants have known who was who as they struggled in the mud?

Ever since Shakespeare wrote the fictional character of Falstaff into his Henry plays, the king has been in danger of being upstaged by his mischievous, wassailing companion. Edgerton clearly enjoys himself as the bad influence who constantly leads the young prince into trouble.

the changes that risk upsetting the purists are nothing if not bold

However, The King has elevated Falstaff’s standing, giving him a role of consequence as a royal adviser. No longer simply a comic character who keeps Henry in touch with the common man, Falstaff can advise on military strategy too.

All these changes risk upsetting the purists around the Anglosphere, but The King is nothing if not bold.

Kings and kingship are not in themselves such a fashionable subject for audiences today. But the question of good leadership and how to govern is as relevant today as it has always been, and it will not go away.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 March 2020. Also broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, and published by the Film Critics Circle of Australia

*Featured image: Timothée Chalamet as Henry V

Una

Review © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle