Tag Archives: Film Review

Queen & Slim

Combines style and charisma to make the point

MA15+, 132 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

The date at a diner wasn’t going well. She had only responded to his request on Tinder after a bad day at work. His attempts at conversation were getting a curt response, his easygoing manner was irritating.

They would soon discover just how different they really were. He, a teetotaller and a devout Christian, who wears a crucifix and drives a car with the registration plate TrustGod. She has no truck with religion.

She is a defence attorney, an excellent one, mind you, and it isn’t completely clear what work he does. Perhaps he sells shoes. There is a collection of boxed Nikes in the boot of his car.

The only things that Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) do appear to share besides profiles on Tinder, is being residents of Ohio and African Americans.

Turner-Smith is a relatively recent arrival on screen but Kaluuya made his name in the smart, brutal horror film Get Out. Like this film, Get Out has something serious to say about contemporary race relations in the US.

Queen and Slim are not, by the way, the real names of the protagonists, but everyman and everywoman descriptions. Their real names are revealed at the end.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and the blue Pontiac Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

It’s the colour of their skin that prompts an aggressive encounter with a white police officer while Slim is driving his date home. Something is said about swerving and failing to indicate, but it’s a set up. Queen and Slim are cooperative and reasonable, but this law enforcement officer is only looking for an excuse to use his gun.

He finds one. As Queen retrieves her mobile to record the event, telling the officer all the while what she is doing, he fires at her. Slim and the policeman wrestle to the ground, the gun slips out of the policeman’s hands, and the precipitous descent into a life and death situation concludes with the policemen lying on the ground, lifeless. Slim shot the officer in self-defence with the policeman’s own weapon.

From bitter experience as a defence attorney, Queen knows exactly what to expect from the Ohio justice system There’s nothing for it but to leave the scene and take to the road. While heading south along the highway they might come up with a plan.

It’s no coincidence that their journey begins in Ohio, the point at which escaped slaves who had travelled the ‘underground railroad’ in the 19th century, could leave its network of support for freedom.

When the fugitives run out of fuel after crossing into Kentucky, an off-duty sheriff gives them a lift. He is all cheery bonhomie until he realises who he has on board his pick-up. A black Bonnie and Clyde.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty made counter-culture heroes of the outlaw couple in the 1960s film, Bonnie and Clyde, and inevitably, Queen & Slim invites comparison with the iconic Arthur Penn film. But the similarities are superficial. The original couple, whose Depression-era crime spree across the American South ended in a hail of bullets, were small-time criminals.

Although Queen and Slim agree to have their photo taken in front of their car, just like the original Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s, they are a law-abiding couple. Queen and Slim are caught up in the climate that has seen innocent black Americans die at the hands of police.

Once the couple are on the road in their sleek blue Pontiac, dressed in gear they found at a brothel where they hid briefly, their new look fools no one. They are folk heroes known to all. The cop who was shot was a bad cop. They have appeared on YouTube in film uploaded from his dashcam and have become celebrities among their own.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

As they make their way through the backblocks on their way south they are safe, protected and supported by the poor, black communities. They even find a moment to dance to the blues, and the freedom to fall in love.

Music is the language of the director Melina Matsoukas, who has won multiple top awards as a director of music videos. Her feature debut here with screenwriter Lena Waithe, also a black American, is striking. Activist cinema that combines charismatic leads, stylish visuals and great music usually never looks and sounds this good.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 March 2020

*Featured image: Slim (Danieal Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith). Courtesy Universal Pictures

Honeyland

M, 86 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A wild and rugged landscape, a cast of thousands of airborne extras and their solitary beekeeper feature in this engaging and unusual observational documentary. It hails from Macedonia.

It was first conceived of as an official documentary on the Balkan region where it is located. But when the filmmakers came across a woman of Turkish descent whose livelihood was harvesting honey, they decided to focus on her instead.

She is touted in promotional material as the last of the traditional beekeepers. Whether she is or not, she is certainly one of a kind.

In the opening frames, Hatidze Muratova is a speck, a figure in a headscarf walking through a majestic mountainous landscape. Ethereal music combines with capella singing on the soundtrack to make this an entrancing invitation into another world.

Hatidze is crossing the high plateau because it is harvest time. After scrambling along a narrow track above a steep drop, she removes a slice of rock from the mountainside. It opens like a door, revealing a hive of bees.

Mashallah, she whispers, the Arabic expression for giving thanks. The hive is dripping with honey.

Her presence and purpose are not unwelcome, it seems, as she collects honey with her bare hands, murmuring half for you, half for me as she does it. Her age-old traditions are the very definition of sustainable.

After the autumn harvest, Hatidze takes her jars of honey into town. Although Skopje, the capital, is not so very far away, it’s a nine-hour journey for her, by train and on foot.

At the city markets she haggles with stall owners, bargaining hard with the best of them. There is the added incentive of being able to afford some bananas, a special treat, and a sachet of hair colour. Her preference is for chestnut brown, a modest choice, but who is there to appreciate it back at the ghostly hamlet that is her home?

Hatidze’s adventures out and about are punctuated by scenes of her in the cottage that she shares with her 85-yeqr-old mother, a dog and a couple of cats. Old Nazife is bedridden and only has sight in one eye. She and her daughter are blunt with each other, and they bicker constantly, but their interdependence is stark.

They are the only inhabitants of their hamlet, a clutch of stone houses that has been abandoned for quite some time. There are no roads, and no running water or electricity. Jet aircraft that are seen occasionally high in the sky are a remote sign of the 21st century modernity that exists elsewhere.

The cycle of life continues without incident until the day that Hussein Sam, his wife Ljutvie and their seven boisterous children drive in and make it their home, for now. The tribe of kids and the herd of cattle and chickens and general chaos and commotion are a major disruption for two women.

Hatidze welcomes the family of nomads and maintains her forbearance despite this though mum shows less tolerance. But then would, wouldn’t she? Moreover, Hatidze shares her knowledge on beekeeping with her new neighbour, Hussein. He sets up his own hives, seriously messing with Hatidze’s work.

Hatidze with the neighbours

All the goings-on observed in this documentary amount to great theatre. The squabbling adults, the siblings at play or having it out, and the creatures on four legs and two create a tapestry of small, dramatic incidents, that are sometimes hilarious.

The kaleidoscope of vignettes is a tribute to the insight and intelligence of the two Macedonian filmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

They spent three years with Hatidze, camping at her village, earning the trust that allowed them special access to the intimate lives of others, while also absorbing the rhythms of their remote Balkan world.

The process has really paid off. Kotevska and Stefanov amassed hundreds of hours of footage and have allowed the vision to speak for itself. The result is a superior documentary, without voiceover.

Honeyland was nominated for a best documentary and a best international feature award at the recent Academy Awards. Hatidze’s character and situation may not appeal to everyone, but those who tune in to it will recognise that Honeyland is a rare achievement.  Even the wait for the little surprise at the end of the credits is worth it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2020

*Featured image: Hatidze shares her knowledge

Undertow

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Big on atmosphere, light on plot

MA 15+, 95 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The backstory to this atmospheric, moody psychodrama is the dark side of football culture. The very serious issue of bad off-field behaviour by male players is overlain here with the delicate story of a woman, grieving for the loss of her baby, who fears she may never conceive again.

As a solace and distraction, photojournalist Claire (Laura Gordon) takes herself to the beach, where she captures with her camera images of life and death on the shore. The coast is spectacularly beautiful, but it’s clear that all is not well with her.

Out to sea: Claire (Laura Gordon)

Although she and husband are close and attend a grieving parents support group, there is some strain in their relationship. Then suddenly it looks like Dan is seeing someone else. There he is, in plain sight as Claire drives past, at the entrance of a Corio Bay motel with a skimpily dressed young blonde. Is this all the evidence that Claire needs?

Masters of the thriller form, Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, would have had a field day with this material, tweaking the dangerous, voyeuristic and confronting elements. However, writer-director Miranda Nation shows a mature, assured hand with this first feature, relying on the strong central performances from her lead actors rather than ramping up the sensational potential of the film’s scenes of drugs, sex and nudity.

Neither Dan (Rob Collins from Cleverman) nor his good mate since childhood and footie bad boy Brett (Josh Helman) are demonised. They might be. Sporting Pain + Glory tatts on his pectorals, Helman naturally imports some of the vibe he had in roles in recent Mad Max and X-Men films, but the wild man image is left understated.

Dan told Claire that he was at a fundraiser that afternoon. As a football official, this was entirely plausible, but she had spotted him at a motel with another woman. Later that evening, she doesn’t confront him with the lie, but it is soon apparent that she has embarked on an investigation of her own instead. With telephoto gear in hand, she becomes something of a stalker.

When Claire tracks her down, she finds that the focus of her obsession is just a young girl, who declares she is 19, but later admits to being 16.  Angie (Olivia DeJonge) is mouthy and full of attitude and doesn’t really mind the attention. Not a talent scout, are you? And she tosses her hair and adopts a more photogenic pose in case the hunch is correct.

Angie confides that she is pregnant to Dan’s friend Brett. The teenager’s unwanted pregnancy is a cruel irony for Claire who is desperate to become pregnant again. Her obsession with Angie seems to turn sisterly, looking out for the health of the teenager’s unborn baby.

As a relationship develops between them, Claire’s actions become more and more bizarre, and Angie, for all her issues seems the stronger. Certainly she is the more interesting.

Undertow is shot in Geelong, the home town of the writer-director on the glorious surf coast of south-west Victoria. It’s understandable that the director may have wished to exploit its natural, untamed beauty. Images of the city’s degrading, old industrial areas are juxtaposed with the windswept cliffs and curling surf.

As it gets harder and harder to distinguish between what is real and what is Claire’s subjective reality, the images of water become more dominant. We have drifted a long way from a backstory set in football clubs, locker rooms, drug-fuelled parties and sweaty, sexist bars.

Rob Collins is very good as Dan, the sports administrator with a successful career and a designer house and Mercedes to match. But his pastoral actions on behalf of his mate Brett seemed implausible to me. I think that the development of Dan’s character, so important to the drama too, needed more work at writing stage.

Despite these reservations, Undertow is in many ways an impressive achievement, and it augurs well for director Nation’s next project.

An unusually high proportion of female creatives provided input here, included ace cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, who has made Undertow look outstanding. Women creatives shared the roles of editor, composer and producer roles as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 March 2020

*Featured image: Claire (Laura Gordon) with Angie (Olivia DeJonge)

Motherless Brooklyn

Pet project made with a free hand

M, 144 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Edward Norton has had a lot of time to think this pet project over. In the late 1990s, around the time that he was first recognised for his gifts as an actor in Primal Fear, he acquired the rights to the award-winning book on which it is based.

It’s said that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 gave the production the nudge it needed to get it going.

Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is set in the late 1990s. Norton has however shifted it back to the 1950s, when everything seemed calm, prosperous and hunky-dory, but lots was going on beneath the surface.

The shift to the fifties also offers an excuse for integrating the narrative into the glorious heyday of gumshoe detective movies and the thrillers that we have come to know as film noir. Low lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke, men in sharp suits, fedoras and heavy coats, and women in tight-waisted dresses, heels and silk stockings. That sort of thing.

Mid-last century was probably a more testing time for people with a disability too, even in its milder forms. People like Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary physical and verbal tics. In his hands, Lionel’s character has a dignity that a less skilful actor might not have achieved.

Neither the pet tabby that he shares his apartment with, nor colleagues at work are at all bothered by this disability. Nor is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman he begins to form a relationship with, but Lionel feels compelled to call himself a ‘freak show’.

Bruce Willis makes a brief appearance in early scenes as Frank Minna, boss of the firm of private investigators where Lionel works. Lionel may have a disorder, but he has a photographic memory, an invaluable asset in a gumshoe.

Minna is bundled off one day by a bunch of nameless heavies and shot, but he manages to leave Lionel with a few clues as to who is responsible before he expires in emergency.

It seems Minna was on to something, something big. Sensing this, Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed him. The trail leads Lionel right to the top, the Borough Authority and its plans for urban renewal spearheaded by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

In 1950s New York, urban renewal was another term for destroying neighbourhoods to make way for development. Forcing minority communities out of their homes then demolishing them to make way for the buildings and infrastructure that were part of Randolph’s grand vision. New Yorkers will recognise in this character a thinly disguised Robert Moses, a controversial figure at the time.

Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) confronts Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton)

One of the worst examples of destructive urban renewal was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station. It was a magnificent beaux-arts building like its sister station, Grand Central, before it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and other more lucrative amenity. For a key scene, it is reconstructed here, in VFX and physical sets.

No doubt New Yorkers will also spot dozens of familiar locations here, in this salute to New York and all its boroughs. The period look seems authentic, though sharp eyed citizens will be able to spot anything that isn’t, a production designer’s and art director’s nightmare.

Alec Baldwin, these days a Saturday Night Live regular who delivers a biting satirical portrait of President Trump, is also great as Randolph.  The self-appointed city commissioner who runs everything and does anything he wants, as he tells Lionel one day in a lecture on the meaning of power. Randolph is however a more interesting and complex character at close quarters than we would expect.

Motherless Brooklyn is such an ambitious undertaking. A big city story that champions the people versus the developers, a really important, ongoing subject that impacts everyone.

I would have expected more indignation and less indulgence in the telling of such a story. Motherless Brooklyn is very well-written, performed and impeccably produced but it has been allowed to run to too long. It would have been better with a tight edit, but ,as writer, director and producer, Edward Norton had a free hand to do things his own way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 February 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Edward Norton as gumshoe Lionel Essrog

In My Blood It Runs

Difficult questions, no easy answers

PG, 90 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In September last year, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy from Alice Springs, Dujuan Hoosan, was invited to make a brief address to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. His short statement, easily found online, begins with him saying that the government in his country isn’t listening to Indigenous people.

The particular point that Dujuan wants to make at the UN is that there should be an end to the incarceration of 10-year-old children in Australia.

In all Australian jurisdictions the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years of age. This despite recommendations from a royal commission, medical doctors’ associations, and other professionals, that the age be lifted to 12 or 14 years.

In his short statement to the Human Rights Council, Dujuan also spoke of his people’s dreams, hopes and rights, and the need for Indigenous youth to learn their history, language and culture from their elders.

This is the documentary feature about him and his life with his family in Alice Springs, In My Blood It Runs, that set him on the road to the UN.

When he was 10, Dujuan (aka Dujuan Turner), was nearly locked up himself. And, as he notes, were he in prison at 13, he would have been eligible to be placed in solitary confinement. But for an intervention by members of his family, in particular his grandmother, Carol Turner, he too could have entered a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory, where nearly 100% of detainees are Indigenous.

What led to this? In My blood It Runs, a delicate observational documentary that was three years in the making, tells the story of Dujuan and his family. A presentation of Indigenous disadvantage in the first person.

Dujuan was doing poorly at school, scoring ‘straight Es’, feeling badly about himself and he mucked up. How surprised should we be by this, when we see scenes from his school. A lesson in Australian history is about the First Fleet, using a textbook dredged up from the distant past, that makes no meaningful mention of Aboriginals. It is startling.

In another class, a teacher reads an Indigenous story, saying at the same time that she doesn’t understand it. How insensitive, and disrespectful.

Add to this, some cringeworthy voiceover from old black-and-white newsreel clips intoning about the Aboriginal population. Inserted within the realities of Dujuan’s life on screen, they are a reminder that current prejudice reveals traces of the worst of old racist attitudes.

In observational style, we watch and listen as Dujuan shows the way. As the camera follows him around, he talks to us, directly and in voiceover, about what he thinks and feels. He would like to become a healer, and pledges he will never drink alcohol or fight.

He has learnt how to control his anger by going bush each week with his elders. The best place to learn is on country at Sandy Bore, his grandmother’s place, 100 kilometres north of Alice Springs.

In My Blood It Runs, a collaboration between the filmmaker, Maya Newell, and Dujuan’s family members, was filmed in the homelands of his Arrernte and Garrwa families.

Before film production was underway, director Newell – also a producer, and cinematographer – had developed intimate knowledge of the Indigenous communities through a long association extending back years.

This helps explain the depth and breadth of her collaboration with Dujuan’s family. In particular with mother Megan and grandmother Carol, who also have director credits.

It’s Nanna Carol who speaks to the film’s key issue, education.

When she takes Dujuan and the other children to her Sandy Bore homelands she insists they speak in Arrernte language. But she also wants Indigenous kids to grow up learning both ways, Indigenous and mainstream Australian. How can Indigenous people represent themselves in society without a command of English too?

In My Blood It Runs, a quote taken from Dujuan himself, has won local and overseas awards. It raises critical questions, questions raised by Indigenous people themselves.

With its quiet and non-confronting style, its commitment and sincerity, the film makes an important contribution to the debate on Indigenous disadvantage. It raises difficult questions to which there are no easy answers.

How does Dujuan envisage his future? He just wants a normal life. Just wants to be himself, an Aboriginal.

If only it were that straightforward.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 February 2020

*Featured image: Dujuan with his mother Megan Hoosan

The Call of the Wild

A wild journey with a pretend dog

PG, 100 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

By the look of the bio of the American author, Jack London, there was a time when he answered the call of the wild himself. After many adventures on the road and the high seas, he decided to settle for earning his living as a writer. It was only after he had done a lot of living.

A high school dropout at 14, he worked as a sailor in San Francisco Bay, then travelled to Japan. On his return to the US, he rode freight trains across the country with the down-and-out, educating himself at public libraries, and became a socialist along the way.

At 19 years of age he entered university after a cram course but quit his studies again to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. It was his muscular adventure stories set in the Yukon, like The Call of the Wild (1903) and its reverse narrative companion piece, White Fang (1906), in which a wild dog is domesticated, that first made him popular with the reading public.

One wonders what London would have made of the latest movie version of The Call of the Wild, in particular what they’ve done to the dog Buck.

The film written for the screen by Michael Green (who co-wrote Blade Runner 2049) and directed by Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch) sticks to the original story. There are some changes to the ethnicity of several key characters that will make it acceptable to 21st century filmgoers.

Nothing about the main character, Buck, a Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie cross, needed changing. He was the best of loved pets and had the perfect life with kind and caring owners on a farm in California until he was stolen by one of their staff who was short of cash. Buck changes owners a couple of times, is taken north and ends up on a team of sled dogs, delivering the US Mail in the Yukon.

As luck would have it, his newest owner is a good and kind man. Omar Sy (such a likeable presence in The Intouchables), a French actor of African descent , plays Perrault, the dog sled master. His companion Mercedes is played Canadian first nations actor, Cara Gee. They make a far more attractive, winning couple than the pair who drove the sled in the novel.

Buck has adjustments to make in his new life. He has to learn to be part of a pack dog and resist haring off after the first rabbit he sees, and he has to toughen up, and overcome his ‘Californian’ paws, and get used to running on snow and ice.

Buck, a massive 140 pound pooch who is all heart and courage, should be totally endearing. The problem is he is totally CGI and looks real enough but has been given a range of cute facial expressions from concerned to kind to quizzical to forlorn to crestfallen that are nothing more than CGI visual effects. It looks so fake.

Since London’s novel was first adapted for the screen in 1923 there have been a number of film and TV versions. A recent film was in the 1970s with the late Charlton Heston, the embodiment of rugged frontiersman, who became a high-profile proponent in the US for the right to bear arms.

As you might expect, Buck, was then played by a dog with four-legs. Here Buck has been played by Trevor Notary, an actor with a gymnastics background who is known for his motion capture performances as creatures in Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and The Hobbit.

Perhaps the kids won’t notice or mind that this doggy protagonist has been anthropomorphised so much you can hardly recognise him.

It’s good, though, to see Harrison Ford again, looking hirsute and homespun here, as John Thornton, the man who forms a close bond with Buck and takes him on the last leg of his journey into the wild.

Ford also provides the voiceover with lines that help reinforce the moral points that this family-friendly film wishes to make for children. Things like something like ’we come and go, but nature’s wilderness is always here’. Fair enough.

If this is a journey to find Buck’s inner wolf, why make him so fake?

First published in the Canberra Times on 23 February 2020

Emma

PG, 125 minutes

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Emma Woodhouse, created by the 19th century novelist Jane Austen, is blessed with beauty, intelligence and personal wealth. At 21 years of age she is mistress of her household, has an inheritance of £30,000, wealth that is all her own, and only her doddery old dad to look after.

Since her mother died when she was very young, and her older sister left home to marry and have children, and her beloved governess left to marry a neighbour, Mr Weston, she has been alone at home with her father.

Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), obsessed with his minor ailments, is not great company. ‘Do you feel a draught about the knees?’ is the perennial question to companions in the drawing room. Nighy, who hardly speaks a word here and is all the funnier for it, is the perfect choice for the role.

The classic novel Emma, a comedy of manners, has been made and re-made countless times as theatre, film and television. Back in 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow, a relative unknown at the time, was cast as Emma in a new film by writer-director Douglas McGrath. That Emma knew how to shoot an arrow from a bow, like Cupid the mischievous, meddling matchmaker, and the willowy American actor has defined the character ever since.

This new version of Emma takes more risk with this possibility of another side to Emma, a side that may even be a little bit cruel. While developing her novel, Austen acknowledged that she might be the only person who would much like this protagonist.

A 23 year old newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy, makes for a terrific new Emma in this new film directed by Autumn de Wilde. It is the first feature for this director who has a background in photography and short film.

Taylor-Joy is an interesting casting choice. Though she  has a track record in horror film, she makes a feisty, prickly Emma, totally convincing in the role. She also has the long neck you need to look good in bonnets and Empire-line dresses. It’s a clever casting choice, that hints at a side to Emma that Paltrow’s sunny smile could chase away.

The peppery screenplay, a considerable improvement on the screenwriting in 1996, is the work of Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealander, a Booker prize-winning author.

In 2020, the character of Emma is clearly as compelling as ever. Lively and charming company on one hand, but opinionated and arrogant by her own admission, sometimes insensitive on the other.

No doubt, these traits are the reasons why she lives on 200 years after her character was born. The nuance, insight, wit and wisdom of Jane Austen the author who created her probably has something to do with it too.

Emma has declared she has no interest in marrying. She says she can’t see the sense in it when the married women she observes aren’t half the mistress of the household that she is.

She has convinced herself instead of her talent for matchmaking on behalf of others. Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young local woman, comes into Emma’s orbit and becomes devoted to her, following her advice in all manner of things, including choice of husband.

The local vicar comes a courting, a handsome young farmer drops by as well. Emma doesn’t encourage Harriet’s interest in either man, getting things very wrong on her best friend’s account and ultimately her own.

Lightning strikes: Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) Image courtesy Box Hill Films – © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Will no one set her straight? Only close family friend, neighbour and brother-in-law, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) dares criticise her behaviour. When everyone else tell Emma she is perfection, he reminds her of her faults and shortcomings. Their combative relationship is very entertaining.

With its grand manorial interiors, picturesque village and rolling green fields, de Wilde’s film looks gorgeous. On that score it meets the standard for English period film, but a light, mocking tone is anything but traditional. Emma 2020 is a delicious send-up of the Regency upper classes and their silly manners. In this sense, it reminded me of another recent period drama, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

In recent weeks, a snappy, funny trailer has announced this new Emma on our screens. Like its protagonist, the latest Emma shows a deft hand, is sharp, good to look at, and confirms once again that she is a timeless heroine.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020, also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: friends Harriett (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy)

H is for Happiness

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The advance media for this new film for young adults suggests it’s about a girl with a knack for persuading other people to her brightly coloured, optimistic view of the world.

It concerned me a bit. Would I meet a Pollyanna type, sunny to a fault? Well, I didn’t. Candice Phee, the main character played by Daisy Axon, is more nuanced and interesting than that.

Candice first appeared in Barry Jonsberg’s popular novel from which this film has been adapted, My Life as an Alphabet. It has been popular with YA readers around the world. I don’t know the book at all, but Daisy Axon, all red hair and freckles, makes a lovely Candice on screen.

Since the death of her younger sister, Candice has been the only child at home with her parents. It’s not exactly a broken home, but in a sense, it is, with Candice the ham-in-the-sandwich of family relations turned sour. She is just a bright and precocious 12 year-old who wants to set things right again.

Mum Claire (Emma Booth) is depressed and dad Jim (Richard Roxborough) is dejected and when they’re not brooding, they are arguing behind closed doors. In the four years since sister Sky died, mum Claire, once a lively country and western fan, has fallen into deep despond.

Jim can barely bring himself to talk to his brother, businessman Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) because he believes his sibling robbed him of the intellectual property he is owed on a deal they did together. When family is a mess, who wouldn’t try to set it right?

Yet everything Candice tries to get her parents to perk up and get on together falls flat, even cooking dinner and arranging surprise trips.

Overachiever Candice is a bit uncool among her classmates, and it’s another issue. Perhaps the amazing vocabulary she has at her disposal is annoying? She uses words like ‘pizzazz’, ‘breach’, ‘schism’, ‘whopping’, and ‘lack thereof’, and she pronounces the letter H as ‘aytch’, not ‘haytch’.

The next class assignment seems made-to-measure for Candice. Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes makes an unforgettable though very brief appearance) sets class the task of a presentation about a letter of the alphabet. Candice is assigned the letter ‘h’.

Thankfully, she has become besties with another strange kid at school, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, the only kid who willingly sits next to her in class. As they explore a nearby pine forest, creaking and sighing in the wind, they can let their imaginations rip. Wesley Patten as Douglas is really good too.

A white miniature horse keeps them company. It’s no unicorn, and if not exactly magical, it could have drifted in from another world, perhaps the dimension that Douglas wants to revisit?

Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, has issues of his own but his kind mother, played by wonderful Deborah Mailman, has warmth and empathy to spare for Candice.

The film looks great. I loved the occasional symmetry of the framings. A richly imagined world thanks to art direction (Marita Mussett) production design (Nicki Gardiner) and the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott and Rick Rifici (Breath), all brought together by director John Sheedy who is highly regarded in the world of theatre and opera.

Although the book is set in Queensland, the film is set in the southernmost tip of Western Australia. Candice lives in Albany, but despite the endless stretch of perfect beach, could almost be anywhere.

There are scenes of Candice cycling past wind farms and spectacular coastline, but no particular effort has been made by the filmmakers to underline the fact that the film is set in Australia. The suburban gardens have as many exotics as they have bush plants, and it is stately pines that grow in a nearby forest. H is for Happiness has a sort of placelessness, and it is refreshing to see an Australian film that doesn’t feel the need to proclaim its cultural identity.

H is for Happiness is a first feature for theatre director John Sheedy, though he does have an award-winning short, Mrs McCutcheon, in his back pocket. He has brought a fresh YA angle to the Aussie coming-of-age comedy, and the entire production is a credit to everyone involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2020

For Sama

MA15+, 84 minutes

Dendy Canberra Centre

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This documentary is a letter for a little girl who was born during the conflict in Syria and now lives with her parents in London. She grows up on film, smiling occasionally but with that look infants can have, taking it in.

When the conflict began her mother, Waad al-Kateab, had all but completed economics studies at Aleppo University. She became a citizen reporter instead, via the camera on her mobile, sending images of the attacks on civilians to the media overseas. As the rebellion gathered strength, her eye-witness accounts were filmed on a video camera, but lose none of their immediacy.

Aleppo University is the second oldest in Syria, after Damascus University where Assad obtained his own degree in medicine. Students became radicalised after a bombing during the exam period in 2013.

For Sama is shot from a different type of frontline. Not the place from which despatches from war are usually sent, like the location of David Bradbury’s classic 1981 documentary Front Line, but from her home at the hospital where her husband Hamza works.

It was probably just as dangerous, in a hospital in the rebel-held area of Aleppo getting bombed by the Russian planes sent in to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A new graduate in medicine, Hamza, was one one of a few doctors who remained in rebel-held territory where schools were closed and emergency and essential services non-existent. His first wife had fled the country to safety, but Hamza stayed on, deeply committed to the cause.

The university bombings were swiftly followed by a massacre of handcuffed civilians, a warning to the rebels who were shocked by the lengths the regime would go to stay in power.

As Waad tells her little daughter in the voiceover, she and husband Hamza had no idea their old lives would be swept away that year. Her parents had wanted her to leave Aleppo and return home, but she is ‘headstrong’. She is also rather lively and attractive. Easy to fall for, it’s no wonder Hamza did.

However, for Hamza, the loss of friends made it even more important to go on. Could Waad do that too? She had begun crying while doctors were trying to save the life of a boy. Hamza tells her off, he can’t bear to see her break down.  And can’t she tell he is in love with her?

It’s one hell of a proposal, but the marriage takes place with Waad and Hamza pledging to walk the road to freedom together. It’s a Christian wedding, complete with confetti, in a safe room, when they were still sure they would win in the end.

Soon the celebrations are overlain with more destruction and atrocity. Two little boys bring their brother in to the hospital, a life hanging by a thread.

On another occasion, a pregnant woman wounded by shrapnel, is brought in. Caesarean section is performed, then eye-watering attempts made to save the young life. Hamza is by now in charge of what amounts to an ED that takes nearly 300 patients a day.

Searing footage is captured by Waad, but there are also moments of sharp contrast, such as planting a garden, fooling around in the snow, and at impro playgroup in the battle zone. Laughter with friends in the midst of everything, is all the more poignant for its fragility among the horrific realities beyond sand-bagged walls.

The final film is a collaboration between Waad and English documentary filmmaker, Edward Watts. The look has been significantly enhanced by an interesting score, and by atmospheric location shots from a drone that counteract the impact of some erratic but utterly convincing handheld camera.

For Sama has multiple international awards and was one of five films nominated for a documentary Academy Award.

Watching their belief in the rebellion, their desperation as it becomes obvious international support is not on its way, is difficult to watch in light of what we have seen and know since.

For Sama comes with a strong warning, but it is still an amazing document. A sensory and immersive as any war film, filmed and voiced by from the frontline by a young wife and mother.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 February 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM

Seberg

M, 103 minutes

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra, Palace Electric Cinema

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the French film that made Jean Seberg famous, she was an exchange student in Paris having a languid affair with a petty crook she eventually betrayed. Scenes of her in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, strolling along the Champs Elysees while touting the New York Herald Tribune, have etched themselves into our collective cinema memory.

In Godard’s iconic New Wave film, Seberg sporting the striped Breton t-shirt and a short pixie haircut was all light and air and mischief. A different take, but a take nonetheless on the luxuriant femme fatale. Were it not for Audrey Hepburn, she might have been the original alluring gamine on screen.

Kristen Stewart, a very talented and versatile actress, is an inspired choice for the role of Jean Seberg. She has also had something of a trans-Atlantic career, with roles in French films too.

In this new film from Australian director Benedict Andrews (who directed Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara), Stewart looks quite a lot like Seberg. Though she brings more steel to the role than you would suspect the late American actress had.

makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve

After a disturbing start, a flashback of Seberg at the stake in Saint Joan, her ill-fated first film, events kick off in Paris during the foment of student unrest that was 1968. The actress is saying goodbye to her husband, French author and former diplomat Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and young son to fly to America and take up her role in Paint Your Wagon. She was to star opposite Clint Eastwood, but that’s another story.

Screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel have made FBI surveillance rather than Seberg’s career the focus of this story. Seberg was identified as a high-profile subversive by the FBI when she became associated with Black Power groups in the late 1960s-70s.

It would have been difficult to ignore the salute she gave in support of black activists at the airport after she flew in from Paris. She was never one to try to conceal anything.

She had met activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the plane and there was an instant connection, though he was married too. Soon she was giving donations to the Black Panthers and to childcare centres for African-American children and holding civil rights fundraisers at her mansion in Coldwater Canyon. This girl from the Midwest yearned to make a difference.

Waterhouse and Shrapnel created a fictional character whose story runs in parallel with Seberg. Young  FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), whose wife (Margaret Qualley) is pursuing her own career as a doctor, starts out gung-ho but becomes conflicted about his role. It makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve.

Under orders from the top, Solomon and his colleagues begin to surveil and discredit their high-profile target. Her phone is tapped, her home bugged and in particular her bedroom. When officers hear she is pregnant from an affair they try to besmirch and discredit her by leaking the news to gossip columns. The illegal actions of the FBI were shocking, and creating a fictional character like Solomon, the human face of the FBI, affords the organisation a kind of rehabilitation.

The goons at J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, including Vince Vaughn as a particularly hard case, are completely out of step with the progressive forces of the times. They even go to a family barbeque in shirt and tie.

a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice

Their tactics played a big part in Seberg’s mental decline. Shortly after she died in 1979 – the French authorities said it was ‘probably’ suicide – the FBI acknowledged it had had a role in destroying her reputation. It also announced that some of its activities targeting Seberg were illegal and that it no longer conducted them.

A brief clip simulated from Breathless makes an appearance. It’s where Patricia looks straight to camera and runs her thumb around her mouth, the way her lover (Jean Paul Belmondo) used to do. It’s a clip that doesn’t make any particular point in a film that doesn’t show much interest in what really made Seberg famous.

Although Stewart’s performance is typically edgy and intelligent, this film is a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice, and treats her career as a footnote. The full, fascinating story of the poster girl of the French New Wave is still to be told.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 February 2020

*Featured image: courtesy 2019 Amazon Studios

Just Mercy

M, 137 Minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It took more courage than many of us would have thought necessary 30 years ago to leave home in Delaware and get set up in Alabama as a civil rights lawyer. Fresh out of Harvard, and with backing to set up a centre for equal rights, young black lawyer Bryan Stevenson may have been surprised by the reception he received.

a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night

With a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night and threatening worse still, State forces of law and order were ready to greet the upstart Northerner with tactics of intimidation and humiliation.

Stevenson had to endure a strip search in order to visit inmates on death row. The agonising scene is played out in what feels like real time. And he was pulled over and searched with a gun to the head, before police laughed and drove away, never explaining why.

Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is the basis for this film, is alive and kicking today. Dividing his time as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative he founded with the responsibilities of a law professor at New York University.

He is played here by Michael B. Jordan, recently a charismatic villain in Black Panther. Here, charisma helps his character too, though not as much as the dignity, restraint and the earnestness with which Jordan has invested his role.

Brie Larson as his partner at the EJI centre, also based on an actual person, Eva Ansley, has a minor support role.

Meetings are held with inmates on death row, long-stay and short-stay guests of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Although the film doesn’t make a point of it, Stevenson reviews the cases of black and white inmates, focusing in particular on the cases of two black men, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Walter ‘J. D.’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx).

without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with a recent murder

Traumatised Vietnam vet, Herbert, who admits his crime, though not apparent intent, has never had adequate legal representation. Walter, on the other hand, admits nothing. He has been framed, but doesn’t expect an iota of justice in a state where you are ‘guilty the moment you are born’.

Self-employed, he had been driving his own new pick up when the police arrested him.  Without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with the recent murder of a white teenage girl. The judge overrode the jury’s decision that he serve life with the death sentence. Only in Alabama, apparently.

On Stevenson’s journey in search of the truth he meets Walter’s family and friends in the local black community. Walter’s alibi was solid.

Courtroom drama: Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

Further details of the conviction emerge. The only evidence the court had permitted was that of a single key witness, a convicted felon who was coerced by police with incentives to give false evidence against Walter. Up to a dozen black American family and friends could testify he was at the fish fry fundraiser that day. African Americans were disbarred from the jury too.

It’s an ironic indictment on the corruption of legal processes in Monroe County, the very county where Harper Lee wrote her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film’s finest achievement is demonstrating just how justice can so easily and breathtakingly be perverted and just how critical legal assistance is for those who can’t afford it. They are the most vulnerable group when it comes to equality before the law.

There can’t be any doubt about the sincerity of Just Mercy, though it did not need to exceed two hours’ running time, however, to establish these points.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham for this traditional courtroom drama. The eloquent and compelling arguments against corruption of legal processes and the use of capital punishment that are no doubt set out in Professor Stevenson’s book, would have been a lot of help.

It is good to read that despite the use of capital punishment rising in certain countries, the global trend is actually moving away from it. Of the US States that still have the death penalty, there’s a list, including California, Kentucky and North Carolina, that have not used it in over a decade. No, the State of Alabama isn’t there yet.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 January 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image: Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.  Courtesy of TIFF

Dolittle

PG, 101 minutes

Review by Jane Freebury

3 Stars

The Dr Dolittle character was first created by a young British engineer while fighting in the trenches in World War I. Army engineer Hugh Lofting was appalled by what he saw on the battlefield and concocted the stories in his letters home, rather than relate the horrors that he had witnessed.

It set in train a popular series of children’s books, but the first Dolittle film with a stellar cast in 1967 failed to launch at the box office.

a champion of the environment and everything in it, could be just the guy to have around right now

Eddie Murphy turned that around in the late 1990s with back-to-back Dolittle comedies. Critics didn’t care for them but the movies were hits everywhere.

Now you might think that someone who talks to animals could be just the guy to have around right now. A champion of the environment and everything in it, an eccentric in touch with his evolutionary DNA. Time will tell.

Dr John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) in 2020 has become quite the recluse. He lives in isolation on a country estate, preferring the company of Poly the parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek), and Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena) and others. All creatures are CGI.

It can’t last, of course. Some pesky kids come knocking. There’s a local lad, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collet), with an injured squirrel that needs treatment and a chirpy girl who brings an urgent message from Buckingham Palace. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), lady-in-waiting to the queen, tells Dolittle that the monarch (Jessie Buckley) is gravely ill and asking for him, actually her veterinarian. Queen Victoria has sensed she is not in good hands while Lord Badgely (Jim Broadbent) and physician Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) hang around.

Though he resists and adopts a foetal pose, Dolittle is drugged, shaven and dragged off to the palace. Becoming aware of a plot against Victoria’s life once there he undertakes to save her life. He will need to find the antidote to poison that she needs to live, found in an exotic fruit in a far-away land. Something vaguely like a rambutan, from somewhere vaguely like the Indonesian archipelago.

The fruit of the Eden Tree is the very fruit that Dolittle’s wife, Lily, died trying to find seven years before. Dolittle sets sail with his menagerie for crew and young Tommy, who has enlisted as his apprentice.

it’s the creatures with fur and feathers that don’t engage, a fatal flaw

In this animated and live action kids’ adventure, Downey is always watchable and just fine as the doctor. Antonio Banderas as Rassouli, king of the bandits, is a gravely-voiced menace. No issues with the dodgy, plotting courtiers played by Broadbent and Sheen either.

It’s the creatures with fur or feathers or fins that don’t engage. It’s a fatal flaw. They are there for the kids.

A long list of top actors including Emma Thompson, Marion Cottillard and Ralph Fiennes and more lined up to voice parrots, foxes, monkeys, tigers, gorillas, polar bears and ostriches. If only their characters were more fun.

It’s fine for the animals to look cartoonish, not particularly lifelike. It doesn’t undermine the live action in a kids’ show.

Dolittle has been slow to arrive on screen. There are stories of re-writes and re-shoots and other delays. The critics, sensing a production unsteady on its newborn legs, have piled on one by one.

It doesn’t deserve the universal panning it has been getting. Though the characters don’t exactly come alive, the jokes, visual and verbal, do pull some surprises.

When it was over, children near me didn’t muck up or run from the cinema shrieking. They stayed to dance during the jaunty final credits.

They would have loved the look. The study in Dolittle Manor with its high-line model train track, musical instruments and wacky décor is great. Adventures on the high seas aboard the Water Lily and the visit to Rassouli’s island hangout would have been thrilling to watch too.

It may be the adults who can’t accept Downey Jr, best known as world-weary Iron Man Tony Stark, as a weirdo who just wants to speak to animals.

From director Stephen Gaghan (writer of serious films like Traffic and Syriana, and co-writer here) this adventure fantasy has its daft heart in the right place. It’s not hilarious but it is cheerful, good to look at, and has surely at least managed a pass.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 January 2020

1917

MA 15+, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For whatever reasons, World War I doesn’t figure nearly as much as World War II on the movie screen. Maybe because it was years ago and there have been so many other wars and quasi wars in between. Or maybe it’s because in WWI much of the conflict was confined to the trenches for months on end, a scenario that can have limited visual and dramatic appeal.

Either way it doesn’t really explain why the first global conflict hasn’t been mined more for its story-telling potential.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) saw the potential. He collaborated with writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to develop a script from a piece of family history. A story his paternal grandfather, Alfred, told him about a young soldier who was sent across enemy lines alone to warn a British battalion that they were heading into an ambush.

It’s a slight story based loosely on fact. A race against time, a picaresque journey across the front, and a powerful re-creation of the conditions in the field for the millions of young men on both sides who sacrificed their lives.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) cross no-man’s land

1917 begins in spring on the edge of a grassy field, where lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake  (Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping in the sunshine.  The countryside looks just like what tourists see today. Broad, green fields that were once the battlefields of WWI extending as far as the eye can see. How could such a beautiful, peaceful setting have once been the backdrop to scenes of extraordinary carnage?

Their nap is interrupted. Blake suddenly gets orders to report to General Erinmore (an economical appearance from Colin Firth). He is told to take a mate along with him so his friend, Schofield, goes too.

Their secret assignment is to let Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, another celebrity cameo) know that although it looks like the Germans have retreated, they have laid a trap and any advance will end in a catastrophic defeat.

And there is a further incentive. If they reach the battalion in time, Blake will also be able to save the life of his older brother, a lieutenant. It’s no coincidence that Blake sets the pace. The two men leave immediately, in broad daylight.

swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up

Schofield and Blake pick their way across no man’s land and enter the trench system the Germans left behind. It is infested with fat rats and set up for unsuspecting enemy soldiers and they barely escape with their lives. They are safer travelling above ground, picking their way through the ransacked farms and burning villages  to their destination.

From beginning to end, the camera of cinematographer Roger Deakins keeps the young soldiers firmly in its sights. One of the best in the business, Deakins has always been up for a challenge. He has shot 1917 in what looks like a single continuous take. If you search for them you could probably pick the edits, but the overwhelming impression is of being swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up. Immersion is total.

It’s the impression you get in other films shot in a single take, or something like it. Hitchcock’s body in the trunk thriller, Rope, is a famous one, though the cuts have been skilfully buried. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is a more recent example,  in which a trip through the Hermitage is actually managed in a single continuous shot.

had Schofield gone home a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him

Mendes’ 1917 is the boy’s own story. Neither fresh-faced young actor, Chapman nor MacKay, are as well known as the stars with bit parts, and that’s as it should be. 1917 commemorates the generation of young lives that were lost to the war machine.

Some of the classic films about the 1914-18 war, like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the 1930s, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in the 1980s carry a strong anti-war message. They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s superb archival documentary on WWI released last year, sends a similar powerful message of the loss of young lives.

Young George MacKay is simultaneously appearing in the lead role in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the latest film about the local folk hero who refused to take orders from anyone. Had MacKay’s character Schofield gone home to England a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him?

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 January 2020, also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Schofield (George Mackay) negotiates a ruined town

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

M, 119 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

A boat with a young female passenger on board makes its way along a rocky coastline. When a piece of luggage falls overboard she jumps in to rescue it, petticoats, boots and all. It might have been end of story in late eighteenth-century France where this film is set but, surprisingly, she can swim.

Artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is on her way to take up a new commission, painting the portrait of a young aristocrat who lives in a chateau on an island off Brittany. The new client, the Countess (Valeria Golino), needs a likeness of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel) to send to a prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman, so the wedding can go ahead.

it’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of The Piano, but there are significant differences

An arranged marriage in times past, stirring scenes on a beautiful, empty beach, a woman who expresses herself in the arts. It’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of Jane Campion’s The Piano. But there are significant differences. This is a love story between two women, and as the filmmaker points out, they are equals.

Correcting the pose: Heloise (Adele Haenel) on left and Marianne (Merlant)

It seems to me no accident that the writer-director, Celine Sciamma has set her story before the onset of the French Revolution, at a liminal moment for freedom and equality. She makes nothing of it, however.

Heloise, just out of a convent is refusing to marry, and she won’t cooperate for any portrait because the result will be marriage. Marianne learns that her elder sister didn’t wish to marry the Milanese nobleman either, and it seems she took her life on a walk along the cliff edge.

With instructions from the Countess to become her daughter’s companion, Marianne spends her days observing Heloise and taking mental notes as they go on walks together. She then paints by candlelight in the evening.

With little else to do but walk, talk and read, a relationship begins to develop between the artist and the aristocrat. In particular, they love to read and re-read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wondering about the motivations behind the tragic ending.

Although Heloise becomes aware of the deception she agrees to be painted anyway and during the sittings the two women spar, circle each other and eventually fall in love. The scenes as their relationship develops are exquisitely written by Sciamma, who won best screenplay at Cannes.

men are scarcely present, though still operating outside the frame

We don’t see much of men here. After Marianne’s arrival at the isolated castle, they are scarcely present though they are still operating outside the frame. Like the Milanese nobleman directing events from afar, or the local swain who has made the diminutive maid, Sophie ( Luana Bajrami), pregnant.

The absence of men allows Portrait to concentrate exclusively on a world of women in which the female sensibility and solidarity rules. It is expressed with intensity one evening when Marianne and Heloise join a group of local women gathering in the fields around a bonfire. It isn’t really clear what the gathering is about, but when the women join in an exquisite capella chorus and sing in Latin, it becomes a moment of surreal beauty and a celebration of feminine unity.

The painterly imagery is beautiful if rather stern and uncluttered and the soundtrack, with little music, is simply content to heighten the realism of the domestic world the women inhabit, with its crackling hearth and rustling, breathy silences. It is all the more powerful for it, more than making up for the minimalism with a few sublime musical moments like the ethereal capella singing.

On another occasion we hear ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when Marianne bumbles through it on a harpsicord. She doesn’t do it  justice, but the scene lays the foundation for the amazing and intense concert finale.

The sea plays its part: can Heloise (Adele Haenel) swim too?

This intelligent and sensuous film is special. An intimate and delicate study of how two people can fall in love. Marianne and Heloise could be any two individuals who fall in love, and the world that their story builds is rich reward to those who are willing to enter.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019. Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Truth

PG, 106 minutes­­­­­

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicate, relatable family drama with a mother-daughter relationship at its core is set in the warm tones of a Paris autumn. A New York-based screenwriter flies in for a visit as her mother, a screen actress, is having her memoir published.

With husband and daughter in tow, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) arrives at her childhood home. Not far from the metro but a world unto itself, set amongst lawns and trees, it holds an abundance of memories for her. It looks like a castle her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) observes. There’s a prison behind it, Lumir rejoinders.

it’s a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed through a translator. You could never guess

Within the old family home, the imperious matriarch, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), awaits them. She is a vision of establishment glamour. Perfectly proportioned features discretely made-up and a coiffured mane of blonde hair. Her daughter looks drawn, wears hardly a skerrick of makeup, and the hair needs attention.

It’s not just a contrast between lifestyles either. Fabienne is also a working woman, currently in the role of a daughter with a time-travelling mother in a faintly absurdist science fiction film ‘Memories of My Mother’.

So far, so clear. Things get going when Lumir protests  that there are lies in the memoir about watching  school plays and meeting her daughter at the school gate. Fabienne’s riposte? As an actress, she will never tell the naked truth, and isn’t a little neglect better than interference in Lumir’s private life?

The memoir also states that Lumir’s father, Pierre, is dead. Perhaps it’s all in a manner of speaking, as there is a giant tortoise that lives in the shrubbery that goes by the name of Pierre. The man himself (Roger Van Hool) comes knocking sometime later, looking mischievous and very much alive.

But for Fabienne, Pierre no longer exists – she now has a partner in her bed and a male assistant Luc (Alain Libolt). The beleaguered Luc resigns dramatically, then returns to his duties during the course of events.

Fabienne can’t recall which other actors of her generation – let’s call them rivals – are still alive either. At least, it may not be intentional but a cultivated absent-mindedness. Writer, editor and director Hirokazu Kore-ada has instilled a strong undercurrent of humour in this gentle, witty study of a family dominated by two strong women.

This is not the first time, and surely not the last, that Deneuve will be cast as the estranged mother we have seen her as in Claire Darling, in The Midwife, and in On My Way. While The Truth plays with perspectives on the critical parent-child relationship, it is also about ageing actresses, their rivals and those set to inherit their legacy who wait in the wings. But that’s a secondary theme.

Catherine Deneuve: a Vertigo moment?

The men in the story, especially self-described second-rate TV actor Hank (Ethan Hawke) helps with rapprochement, and makes for some amusing interchanges over the dinner table. Maybe all the blokes, like Hank, have a bit of a crush on Fabienne. Even the director who likes those shots of the whorl of hair in a bun above the nape of her neck. A reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo?

by the end, family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters

Over the course of the film, the two sparring partners, Lumir and Fabienne, grow closer and when they finally hug, it is genuinely touching. They even share confidences about their male partner’s love-making, how it might compare to their cooking. By the end, the family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters, that won Kore-ada the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.

Making The Truth was both a departure from, and a challenge to Kore-ada’s cultural sensibility. His characters speak up rather than remain silent as they might be inclined to do in his home country. In this sense, the film actually needed characters to be French.

It is a wonder that Kore-ada has brought two major French actors, Binoche and Deneuve, together like this for the first time. It was entirely his idea, and a ‘wild’ one at that, as far as his French crew were concerned.

It’s also a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed this warm and witty family drama through a translator. You could never guess.

An earlier version of Jane’s review was first published by the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019

  • Featured image: family gathering: from left, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), Hank (Ethan Hawke), Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and  Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)