Tag Archives: period drama

“CINEMA” REVIEW: EMMA (2020)

“CINEMA” REVIEW: EMMA (2020)

Directed by: Autumn de Wilde

Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin

Screenplay by: Eleanor Catton

Based on: Emma by Jane Austen

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy, etc.

Music by: Isobel Waller-Bridge, David Schweitzer

Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt

**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****



With society and humanity constantly battered by recessions, pandemics, stock market crashes, famine, war, greed, prejudice, hatred, social media conflict, computer hacking, crime, exploitation, depression, addiction and any other number of apocalyptic threats, you can always rely on a good old-fashioned Jane Austen adaptation to create an escape from such woes. While I’m not a huge fan of Ms. Austen’s literary works, due mainly to ignorance on my part, I certainly recognise her genius as a storyteller. Indeed, she virtually single-handedly created, way back in the early 19th century, her own genre of romantic comedy in the Georgian-Regency period.

Emma was her fourth completed novel and released in 1815. It concerns the titular heroine, Emma Woodhouse. She is well-off, clever and someone who enjoys matchmaking and manipulating affairs of the heart. There have been many adaptations of the book on TV and film and aside from the loose Hollywood remake, Clueless (1995), I had not seen any of them. I only got roped into watching the latest version of, Emma (2020), directed by Autumn De Wilde, with Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in the leads, because my wife insisted on it. In marriage one must make sacrifices and compromises, so as it was our anniversary, I agreed to watch the film at home under “Cinema Rules.” I’m most glad I did too as I found it an extremely light but frothy work of entertainment.



As I had little knowledge of the book I went into the narrative of Emma (2020) unburdened by scanning the differences between novel and film. At two hours in length one expects there to be some omissions, however, I would not have noticed. What I did gather was that this was a bright and very attractive looking production. The costumes, props, landscapes and interior locations were all deftly presented with vibrant colour design. Likewise, the cinematography, camera movement and editing are also delivered very sharply. This lends the literary adaptation a cinematic pace, splendour and verve which I wholly enjoyed. Furthermore, the appealing cast are wrangled impressively too. Anya Taylor-Joy, as the energetic schemer Emma, is technically very gifted. She brings a metronomic pulse to the screen and her chemistry with Johnny Flynn really resonates. Flynn, who I really rate as an actor, imbued his character, Knightly, with both warmth and likeable fortitude. In supporting roles Bill Nighy brings his usual class to proceedings, while Josh O’Connor steals the early scenes with his hilarious turn as an eccentric young vicar.

Let’s be honest though, the story and characters are a bit of a lightweight soufflé that could collapse under close scrutiny. I mean we are really in first world problems throughout as Emma attempts to pair her young ward, portrayed by the lovely Mia Goth, with the vicar, only to find such attempts backfire, ultimately spiralling out of her control. As such one could find Emma quite annoying, immature and emotionally stunted. That, though, is where Austen’s strength of writing memorable characters really shines through. Because Emma is someone who, while potentially unlikeable, eventually learns her lesson and changes her controlling ways. Lastly, with a tremendously attractive cast and production, some mild complexity of character and finally Jane Austen’s singing wit and dialogue, Emma (2020), overall, offers a delectable frisson of escapist cinema.

Mark: 8 out of 11

AMAZON FILM REVIEW – THE AERONAUTS (2019)

AMAZON FILM REVIEW – THE AERONAUTS (2019)

Directed by: Tom Harper

Produced by: Todd Liebermann, David Hoberman, Tom Harper

Written by: Jack Thorne – based on the book Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes

Cast: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Anne Reid, Phoebe Fox, Robert Glenister etc.

Cinematography: George Steel

***CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS***



Obviously, with all the cinemas quite rightly shut, one now has to look about the streaming platforms for films missed when first released. While not a massive cinema release, The Aeronauts (2019) was a big budget Amazon original production, thus fits the bill perfectly. Based on true events set in London, circa 1860’s, this period adventure drama focusses on intrepid pilot, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and budding meteorologist, James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), as they attempt to conquer the sky and elements in a hot air balloon. Their overall aim is to fly a balloon higher than it ever has, while Glaisher attempts to make scientific progress in regard to predicting the weather. It doesn’t sound that interesting when you put it like that, but how wrong was I?

Now, I am not a fan of adventurers or flying or heights. Therefore, The Aeronauts (2019), did not really interest me as a film narrative. However, I am glad I watched it, as it proved one’s prejudices against themes or subject matter can be short-sighted. Indeed, Jack Thorne’s intelligent script and Tom Harper’s cute direction really pull you into this high-flying and breath-taking drama. While the special effects are amazing, as you are given all manner of exciting and dangerous moments for the lead characters, the real power lies in the empathetic and heartening characterisations. Moreover, Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne give tremendously warm and energetic performances. Both their protagonists not only battle against the dangers in the balloon, but also against fierce patriarchal and scientific hierarchal rivals on the land. Lastly, in Amelia Wren’s case, she fights against deeply painful emotions relating to grief and sacrifice too.

Jack Thorne’s script frames events from the spectacular launch of the giant balloon, and the air journey itself provides the spine of the story. Throughout though, the film flashes back and forth between the voyage and Amelia and James’ past. At times I felt the flashbacks hindered the momentum of the adventure, but I recognised they were essential in order provide history and texture. Nonetheless, the amazing skyline vistas and horizons are impressively rendered by the special effects’ personnel. Also, the suspense is palpable as Amelia and James’s lives are threatened constantly by the unpredictable weather conditions. Jones and Redmayne’s on-screen chemistry is especially good as they initially argue, before finding common ground and mutual respect. Jones herself gives a very magnetic performance full of vulnerability and strength. While Amelia Wren is a fictional character compared with James Glaisher, she remains a powerful one. Ultimately, The Aeronauts (2019), is a classic adventure story with a grounding in scientific discovery, but above all else, contains exciting spectacle and a very moving emotional core.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11



PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Celine Sciamma

Produced by: Veronique Cayla, Benedicte Couvreur

Written by: Celine Sciamma

Cast: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Cinematography: Claire Mathon

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



I haven’t seen any of Celine Sciamma’s previous films, but based on the romantic drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), she is a filmmaker of formidable power and vision. I believe this is her fourth feature film directorial release and it is as sumptuous, moving, exquisitely shot and constructed a love story as you are going to witness. Moreover, it is proof that the art of screenwriting, compared to many by-the-numbers Hollywood film productions, is NOT dead.

The story is very simple. At the end of the 18th century, a young painter, Marianne, (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is, as is the tradition of the time, required by her mother (Valeria Golino), to marry a Milanese nobleman. He needs to see the portrait in advance in order to agree to the wedding. The only catch is, the insular Heloise, does not want to be painted for all manner of understandable reasons. What this establishes is two very intriguing characters, both with different emotions and desires.



Following the beautifully rendered story foundation, what follows is a magnetic series of scenes which subtly push these two empathetic characters together. Marianne is the artist who, at first keeps her distance, spying and analysing Heloise. Heloise is cool, sensitive and a prisoner on the Brittany island, trapped by the waves of the sea and her mother’s insistence on a society wedding. Over the space of a few days the walking companions become drawn to each other both artistically and emotionally. But, it’s no sordid desire for lust, rather a respectful and honest joining in romance. We, as the audience, literally see love grow before us thanks to some incredible acting from the leads.

Often the cinema critics will heap praise on a film and I will wonder what they have been watching. However, in regard to both Parasite (2019) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the plaudits are so well deserved. Both are brilliantly written and shot works of cinema, that in the past may have been consigned to just the arthouse circuit. Further, given the film is about painting, it is unsurprisingly Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is framed, lit and composed with an eye for the artistic. Yet, it isn’t just the look and colour of the film that impresses. Sciamma and her cinematographer, Claire Mathon, also create a series of haunting shots which will be indelibly scorched on my mind.

In terms of the themes, the film is very powerful too. As well the notion of art as a means of representing love, the narrative explores concepts of female equality and solidarity. There is an interesting subplot involving a member of the household staff, which adds to the thematic texture. Furthermore, the performances by all the actresses are superb too as Sciamma directs with such confidence. I also liked that the critique of patriarchal society was implicit rather than didactic. Also subtly realised are the tasteful love scenes, which never feel exploitational. My only minor criticism is that the opening hour could, arguably, have been trimmed slightly. However, what do you leave out of a film as beautifully composed, delicately written and emotionally compelling as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)? I, a mere mortal, am not qualified to say in the face of such mesmerizing cinema.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11



BBC / HBO TV REVIEW – GENTLEMAN JACK (2019)

BBC / HBO TV REVIEW – GENTLEMAN JACK (2019)

Created and Written by Sally Wainwright – based on The Diaries of Anne Lister

Director(s): Sally Wainwright, Sarah Harding, Jennifer Perrott

Producer(s): Sally Wainwright, Faith Penhale, Laura Lankester, Phil Collinson

Main Cast: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle, Joe Armstrong, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Jones, Tom Lewis, Timothy West, Shaun Dooley, Vincent Franklin, Rosie Cavaliero, Lydia Lawton, Amelia Bullimore etc.

No. of episodes: 8

Original Network: BBC / HBO

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

The BBC has a long history of producing classic period dramas and they have had much success with them. Likewise, HBO have an almost flawless record of producing great TV drama. Gentleman Jack caught my eye as it starred the ever impressive Suranne Jones in the lead role of Anne Lister. The titular character was a prominent industrialist and landowner in 1800s, Halifax, Yorkshire. Lister was full of energy, courage and determination as she fought the dominant patriarchal values of the day. As well as battling the men on the business plain, she also caused scandal with her preference for same-sex relationships. Much of this was documented in her extensive ‘secret’ diaries and came to light in their full explicit glory when they were de-coded some years later.

Adapted by Sally Wainwright, a very experienced writer and director, the eight episodes begins at a giddy pace. Lister has returned from abroad to her estate at Shibden Hall, after the breakdown of her most recent relationship. She wastes no time getting back into the swing of running the show and attempting to raise capital for a venture into the coal industry. Lister dotes on her Aunt and Uncle, but clashes with her more conventional sister, Marian (Gemma Whelan).

Marian disapproves of her sister’s robust, androgynous style and unsaid desire for female “companionship”. Amidst the cutthroat business conflicts with her rivals and tenants, Lister then finds a new romance with neighbour Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). Ann Walker though is younger, delicate and somewhat inexperienced; thus, the path of love is very precarious.

The character of Anne Lister as presented by Suranne Jones is a fantastic watch. She strides around from location to location energetically controlling her estate and making plans. She clashes and stands her ground with the men of the drama, proving herself to be more than their equal. Gemma Whelan, as Marian, is also brilliant. Whelan steals many a scene with an exasperated look, sarcastic smile and witty quip. It’s a testament to her acting range she can inhabit such a bright character after the darkness shown in her role of Yara in Game of Thrones.

The actor with the most difficult role is Sophie Rundle. At times her character is so confused, mentally and emotionally, that she is hard to warm to. I personally wondered, apart from her wealth and sickly nature, what Lister was attracted to. I think there was probably sexual attraction but also a desire to protect this delicate flower. Nonetheless, the opposite nature of Lister and Walker’s personalities created intriguing and touching romantic situations.

The story had been told before in a film called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010), directed by James Kent and starring Maxine Peake. I did not see that particular drama but as this latest adaptation is a co-production between the BBC and HBO, the values of the production are of course exemplary. The costumes, camerawork, style, musical score and pace create a very engaging tele-visual experience. Sally Wainwright deserves credit for adapting the diaries and creating compelling drama, romance and some darker events along the way.

I would say that perhaps the various narrative strands could have been resolved within six episodes, rather than eight. Plus, there was, on occasion, a use of Anne Lister directly addressing the audience which became jarring at times. I mean, there did not seem to be much context to the use of this stylistic device. Nonetheless, these are minor issues which did not stop me enjoying the show. Indeed, with a brilliant cast, writing and direction throughout I would highly recommend this excellent TV programme.

Mark: 9 out 11

COLETTE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

COLETTE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW


Directed by: Wash Washmoreland

Produced by: Elizabeth Karlsen, Pamela Koffler, Michel Litvak and Christine Vachon.

Screenplay by: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Wash Washmoreland

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough etc.

**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**

In a coincidental twist of cultural fate I only recently became aware of turn-of-the-century novelist, libertine, bohemian and society trailblazer that was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. I’d been listening to a brilliant audio-documentary by Adam Roche, which was about Audrey Hepburn’s early life prior to becoming a Hollywood star. Interestingly, it was an elderly Colette who spotted the then unknown Helpburn filming a supporting role in Monte Carlo. Furthermore, it was Colette who insisted Hepburn was, despite her lack of stage experience, the ideal person to portray her famous creation Gigi on Broadway. Thus, even in later life Colette was to the fore of the cultural aesthetic; both a major talent and celebrity ripe for respect and admiration.

From her Claudine (1900) novels, to La Vagabond (1910) to Gigi (1944), Colette was a prolific writer of many books and short stories. She was also an actor, dancer and mime, who seemingly delighted in confronting the stuffy middle and upper classes of French society. Unashamed by on-stage nudity and choice of sexual parters, Colette had love affairs with both men and women. Not only did she break down sexual taboos, she also furthered gender equality and would be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Denise Gough stars as Missy and Keira Knightley as Colette in COLETTE
Credit: Robert Viglasky/Bleecker Street

The cinematic version of her life finds Keira Knightley portraying the titular character with a committed energy, verve and magnetism. Knightley has never been the most nuanced of actors but she is a striking movie star, delivering a fine performance here. Likewise, the ever reliable Dominic West is on excellent form as Henry Gaulthier-Villars – AKA ‘Willy’ – Colette’s first husband. West represents him as a charismatic cad with an insatiable lust for women, gambling and booze. While able to wow publishers with his sales pitches he relies on others to do the writing, while happily wasting the advances and royalties.

Willy sweeps the naive country girl Colette off her feet and introduces her to the artistic and literary circles of Paris. As such it is his connections which enable Colette to gain her first publishing success. However, it is Willy who takes all the plaudits, publishing under his own name. This authorial switch inevitably creates a dramatic schism as Colette fights for her name to be on the books. Willy refuses, highlighting both his own egomania and the sexist prejudice of the day. Like the similarly plotted biopic Big Eyes (2014), this film illustrates the nefarious nature of dominant masculinity; however, it also made me consider whether the artists would have been successful if it HADN’T been for these dastardly blokes. Who can tell? One would hope the talent of said artists would shine through come what may.

Structurally, Colette is very linear representing a “greatest hits” of how Colette progresses creatively, romantically and sexually. As aforementioned Knightly gives a fearless performance and the period setting is beautifully evoked within an excellently directed production. My only criticism is a fair amount of time was spent on Colette’s sexual exploits when I would have preferred more drama relating to her authorship battles with feckless Willy. Nonetheless, as period biopics go the film stands as a stylish and admiral tribute to a trailblazing feminist and literary icon.

Mark: 8 out of 11

CINEMA REVIEW: LADY MACBETH (2016)

CINEMA REVIEW: LADY MACBETH (2016)

DIRECTOR:  William Oldroyd

WRITER:      Alice Birch, adapted from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov

CAST:           Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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Are there great films announced as classics or loved by critics which you do not like? That isn’t to say they aren’t great films but subjectively you just don’t enjoy them? I guess the biggest ones for me are probably Mulholland Drive (2001) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I love the work of Spielberg and Lynch mostly but just do not enjoy these critically acclaimed films at all.

Similarly, a brilliantly made low-budget-period-horror from last year called The Witch (2016) got huge plaudits and the filmmaker Robert Eggers deserved much praise for his atmospheric direction. However, I found it a tremendous bore. As for the box office smash Blair Witch Project (1999); don’t get me started on that over-rated genius-marketing-over-quality-cinema-trash.

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Anyway, how is this ranting connected to my viewing of the grim and pretentious Lady Macbeth (2016)? Well, it’s a film that critics are no doubt going to enjoy for its subversive genre skewering of the traditional period drama. Moreover, the direction by William Oldroyd is stark and impressive, while the fearless Florence Pugh in the lead is clearly going to be an actress to watch in the future. However, it is an intellectual film with little humanity and is ultimately nihilistic in terms of entertainment.

The story is set in 1865 rural England up North against the backdrop of patriarchal dominance where women must and shall know their place. Pugh’s character Katherine is essentially sold into a loveless marriage and rather than play the dutiful wife she rebels viciously. Firstly, she drinks the Master’s house dry of the booze and then enters into an extremely erotic affair with one of the servants, portrayed with muscular naivety by Cosmo Jarvis.

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From then on the cycle of events descend to hellish depths. Murder and revenge are clearly hinted at in the film’s Shakespearean title as Katherine gives Lady Macbeth a run for her money in terms of evil plotting and fiendish acts.  Indeed, this expertly made film is a pure exercise in passionate hysteria featuring a spoilt and lustful lead character. While I love challenging cinema — especially by the likes of Nicolas Winding Refn, Michael Haneke and Lynn Ramsay — there remains an emotional vacuum in this narrative because I found it hard to care about anyone.

The most sympathetic character in my view was the brutalized maid Anna and perhaps the story would’ve been more interesting for me if told from her perspective? So while the film was beautifully shot and framed, I was quite often stumped by the characters’ motivations; especially by Katharine’s decisions at the end. I mean is she the kind of heroine feminism longs for? I doubt that because ultimately she is an evil human being and not a standard bearer for woman kind. Or is she?

Lady Macbeth undoubtedly makes valuable points in regard to the racist and sexist oppression of the time but it is very difficult to have empathy for a lead character who has had a severe personality by-pass.  A far better representation of female empowerment against dominant patriarchy is Park Chan-Wook’s brilliant film The Handmaiden (2016). So, while this film is likely to be on a lot of critics’ “Best films of 2017” lists, I found it overall a pretentious bore.

(Mark: 5.5 out of 11 for the film)
(Mark: 9 out of 11 for Florence Pugh)

2016 BFI – LFF – THE BIRTH OF A NATION  (2016) – REVIEW

2016 – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – THE BIRTH OF A NATION  (2016)

SPOILER FREE REVIEW

TITLE:  THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/WRITER: Nate Parker

CAST:  Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Aja Noomi King

STORY:  At the turn of the 1800s a charismatic preacher must decide between a life of slavery or to stand up and fight against his brutal captors.

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REVIEW:

This drama, written, produced, directed and starring by Nate Parker has, since its release at the Sundance Festival, created a whole host of controversies. There is a historical rape prosecution of which Nate Parker was found innocent of in 1999; there are accusations of historical inaccuracies in the story; plus the passivity of female characters within the narrative has been criticized too.  Not surprising though because any film about slavery, rape, abuse and murder is bound to set the cultural world, internet, film industry, social media, historians etc. alight with debate.

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Personally, when I watch a film I prefer to judge it purely on whether it has entertained, informed, provoked thought and created emotion. The filmmakers’ personal history or whether a film meets certain quotas on political correctness or even whether the history has been altered to suit a narrative are important factors but not my main viewing considerations. Of course, if it is an exploitative piece of crap then I would call it; but mainly I ask myself: did the film entertain me and is it a good story done well?

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Well, inaccuracies and controversies aside I was thoroughly moved and taken with emotion by The Birth of a Nation. It is ambitious, independent filmmaking which takes a figure from history that stood up against oppressors and fought back against the injustices that befell him and his people. In little over two hours we get a microcosmic view of the character of Nat Turner and the horrific period he lived in and get a short, sharp and shocking drama. Turner is shown to be an intelligent, proud and spiritual force who inspires those around him to fight against the brutality all around.

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You cannot underestimate Parker’s vision and determination to bring Nat Turner’s ‘story’ to the screen. On such a relatively low budget (reported to be £10 million) it is an admirable and risky project to pursue and deliver. Not as startlingly stylistic as the big-budget-spaghetti-slave-Western Django Unchained (2012), The Birth of a Nation is a heart-breaking narrative which posits the power of the scriptures and damns the beast of humanity which allowed free people to be stolen from their country and made to serve others.

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Overall, the film works as a lower-budget epic in the vein of Braveheart (1995) and Spartacus (1960), while covering similar ground thematically as Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave (2013). It may not have the artistry of Steve McQueen’s directed epic, but it is still an important film about a fascinating historical figure. Whether it is accurate or not the film still made compelling viewing and Parker deserves all the praise he gets for such an assured debut.