Green Book

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Director: Peter Farrelly

Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly


In the grand scheme of things, Green Book isn’t that bad of a film. It’s well acted, the structure and direction are competent and it ably transmits an appealingly heartwarming and humorous tone that would make it a rather pleasurable watch if not for, well… the rest of the film. Even its outdated, grossly misinformed views on racism wouldn’t be so infuriating if the film hadn’t been as lauded as it was, the final insult being its Oscar victory. Comparisons were made with the 1990 ceremony where Driving Miss Daisy won the top prize while Do the Right Thing went largely ignored. The former offered audiences a heartwarming tale of racial reconciliation and assured them that the racism of the pre-Civil Rights era was a thing of the past. The latter was Spike Lee’s scorching treatise on how racism had continued to be a potent, destructive force in the world which bleakly concluded that there were no simple solutions to its divisive, institutional problems. Why the Academy, a body whose membership has historically been dominated by white, middle-aged men, were more receptive to the movie that offered the more comforting take is obvious. That this same body were so moved by this film’s presentation on racial harmony in a year that saw Black Panther and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as Best Picture contenders (funny how history repeats itself) shows that, in the last three decades, not a lot of time has gone by.

Directed by Peter Farrelly with a screenplay he co-wrote with Nick Vallelonga, the protagonist’s real-life son, Green Book is a film “inspired by a true friendship” between Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Tony (knows as Tony Lip to his friends because of how much he loves to run his mouth) is an Italian-American bouncer working at the Copacabana nightclub. In the twenty or so minutes before we meet his co-star, the film follows Tony around and teaches us a few things about him and his life. Tony, we learn, is pretty good at his job and can pack a punch when needed but that he’s also not above earning cash through less legitimate means and socialising with some of the local mob guys. He lives with his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) in their Bronx apartment and wakes up one morning to find that half his in-laws have dropped in to watch the game on their TV, just happening to be there at the same time as two coloured plumbers who have come round to fix the sink. Dolores offers each workman a glass of water, after which Tony decides that there’s nothing to be done with the used glasses except that they be thrown into the trash. Thus we’re treated to our first instance of casual racism from the film’s protagonist, a man who is apt to refer to blacks as “eggplants” when conversing in Italian with his friends.

By this point Tony’s club has shut down for renovations and the guy is in need of some steady work for the next few months. He learns that there’s some doctor in need of a driver and so we are introduced to Dr. Donald Shirley, the famed, black pianist. Dressed in his embroidered tunic and seated on an ornate throne amongst his African artefacts, it is immediately clear that he is an impressive, cultured and wealthy man living an upper-class life and presenting himself to the world as an exemplar of elegance. His speech is formal, his poise is graceful and his taste is refined. Don reveals to Tony that he is set to embark on an eight-week concert tour through the Deep South (this is in 1962 when Jim Crow laws were still in effect) and that he needs a driver/bodyguard to safeguard his passage. As well as driving his car and dealing with trouble, Don needs somebody who can take care of his itinerary, launder his clothes and shine his shoes. “I ain’t no butler” objects Tony in his fuhgeddaboudit Italian accent. Tony has no problem driving a black man around Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina but, even when he needs the work, carrying the bags and shining the shoes of such a man is beneath him. Still, he accepts the job in the end and so off they go on what will prove to be a life-changing road trip for the both of them.

The film very much wants the friendship that develops between Tony and Don to be the heart of its story, which means that the mismatched duo need to enjoy a certain rapport through which they can find common ground and bond. Thus the film adopts a centrist standpoint whereby it treats the two parties as if the prejudice between them is equitable and that both of them have flaws that need to be overcome. Tony is racist (but luckily not as racist as those intolerant Southerners who won’t allow Don to try on a suit or dine in the venue hosting him) and he is also uncouth, vulgar and ignorant. The film therefore determines that Tony must be taught some manners by Don because it thinks the key to bettering him as a man is not to challenge his bigotry in ways that might turn the audience against him but to instead teach him to be less overt in his racism. Don meanwhile, as a black man who was classically trained as a pianist, has two honorary doctorates and is able to speak eight different languages fluently, is stuck-up, which is the film’s way of saying that he is too ‘white’. According to this film, Don has divorced himself from his cultural roots by being too accomplished and sophisticated and it is up to Tony to teach him about what the movie thinks black culture really is (i.e. Little Richard and fried chicken).

The premise of their journey together is that Tony and Don are supposed to clash over their differing values and backgrounds, sometimes in comical Odd Couple ways and sometimes in soberly dramatic ways, and their shared lessons and experiences lead them to develop a friendship founded on mutual respect. This is depicted almost entirely from Tony’s perspective because its his story that the film is interested in telling. We learn next to nothing about Don’s personal life excepted that he is estranged from his family (a claim that the real Don Shirley’s family have since disputed) and, when the film does follow him for any extended period of time, it’s to set up some kind of trouble that Tony needs to rescue him from. In order for this film to revel in its White Saviour complex, it has to turn Civil Rights activist Don Shirley into an idiot who somehow doesn’t understand the dangers of being a black man in the South despite hiring Tony for that very reason. He leaves his segregated hotel in order to get drunk at a bar and is accosted there by three white meatheads whom Tony deals with by threatening to shoot them with the gun he may or may not be packing. Even worse is the scene where the homosexual Don is caught having sex with a white man in public because a whole lifetime of being a closeted person of colour still hasn’t taught him to exercise greater restraint and caution when travelling in a part of the country where people like him have been lynched for less.

There are moments where it seems like Green Book might actually confront the contemporary realities of racism, including one where a cop pulls their car over. The officer demands to see Don’s licence even though it’s plain to see that he is the passenger and Tony’s protests are met with umbrage. Tony thus makes this bad situation worse by punching the cop and, despite clearly doing nothing wrong, Don gets arrested along with his hothead driver. This presents the film with a golden opportunity to delve into the issue of how the police discriminate against people of colour and their complicity in enforcing unjust laws, but that’s not what Green Book does. Instead the cop is revealed to be a bad apple who abused his authority beyond his legal duty to the displeasure of his precinct. This is because the film operates under the false assumption that racism is individual rather than institutional and is born more out of ignorance than it is from systemic injustice and imbalances in power. This is why Tony’s friendship with Don is presented as such a resounding victory for the both of them in the way that it is, because Green Book believes that the answer to racism is simply for black and white people to learn to understand each other and get along.

The movie’s culminating moment is when Don, frustrated with being treated as an outsider by both the white community he affably performs for and the black community that apparently doesn’t accept him, laments in the rain “If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough and if I’m not man enough, then tell me Tony, what am I?” This is the film’s ultimate declaration that both sides are really the problem and that the solution is the kind of middle ground neutrality that poses no threat to the status quo. It is one of the most patronising scenes in the film and Mahershala Ali, who very nearly sells it, deserves better. As does Don Shirley for that matter. The way that the film portrays Don as being isolated from his African-American heritage is not only false (this is a man who followed Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma and marched by his side), it’s also actively harmful to the very perception of black culture. The film suggests that black people have more in common with the racist Italian driver than they do with the college-educated musician because they could never see Dr. Shirley as someone to be admired, someone the black community could be proud of for his accomplishments and someone they could aspire to be like. The idea that Shirley was an outcast trying to make himself more amenable to the white community by performing for their richest patrons is frankly insulting to his role, along with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Little Richard, in building the bridge that allowed other black artists to find success.

Green Book is a film that, whether through design or otherwise, appeals itself to white liberals and conservatives who want to feel ‘woke’ without being made to confront any prejudices they might hold or question any privileges they might benefit from. It presents this historically false narrative of how racial harmony overcame the inequalities and injustices of the past to create the enlightened future we live in today, an idea that can only possibly ring true if you think of housing discrimination, inadequate education, inequitable employment, mass incarceration, and endemic police shootings as ‘enlightened’. It does so through a quaint, comforting lens that assures its viewers of their own amiability. I’ll admit that the film can be pretty funny if you’re wont to find its brand of humour to your taste (I recall one gentleman in the same row as me who was so amused by the fried chicken scene that he applauded). The film was after all directed by a filmmaker who specialises in comedies and he found that by leaning on Tony’s buffoonish antics and Don’s dry wittiness, he could make the film more upbeat and therefore more appealing to those in search of a light-hearted and uplifting feel-good film. While I don’t begrudge anybody for wanting to watch that kind of film, what Green Book offers is the same old regressive, outdated fantasy about a serious, infinitely complex problem that continues to plague the world today and nothing about that is reassuring to me.

★★

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Director: Marielle Heller

Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty


It’s no easy feat to make a film about ageing, loneliness and self-loathing as funny and enjoyable as this but damned if Marielle Heller didn’t pull it off. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film that’s never short on laughs, especially in the hilariously bitter ways that Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) treats the world around her. It’s only when the film hits you with a moment of such tragic melancholy that you remember it’s not actually a comedy. Most of the time in films loneliness is the image of a sole figure in an open, empty space gazing into the distance while some gloomy music plays. The image of loneliness presented here is altogether more despondent; it’s like a parasite that’s latched onto you and burrowed itself so deeply that you’ve convinced yourself it’s an actual part of your physical body. It’s a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy whereby a miserably lonely figure such as this film’s depiction of Israel won’t make any meaningful effort to change their lives because they’ve convinced themselves that the loneliness is simply who they are. That the film is able to make that dejected feeling felt as viscerally as it is while still scoring laughs and leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a feel-good movie is a testament to how superbly it balances itself on that delicately fine line between comedy and drama.

Based on the real Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts her short-lived career as a literary forger. Once a bestselling author of biographies of such cultural icons as Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, we first meet Lee in 1991 when she hasn’t had a successful book in years. She has taken a proofreading job for which she is vastly overqualified (to the point that she can (and often will) do it drunk) just to pay the bills and has had to resort to impersonating Nora Ephron on the phone just so that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) will take her calls. Her latest project about vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice is failing to gain any traction with the publishers she used to work with and it is all too apparent that whatever pull her name had back in her more prolific days has long since dissipated. Her bitter and belligerent conduct has resulted in the burning of whatever bridges she once had to the publishing world and the hapless author has only grown more resentful over time. The depths to which Lee has fallen is made readily apparent when she is compelled to infiltrate the kind of fancy party she has always hated with the kinds of literary bigwigs she has always despised (including Tom Clancy) just to get a straight answer from someone. Thus, as likeable a protagonist as she is, it’s no great surprise to see that Lee lives in a run-down apartment alone with her cat.

While carrying out research for the book that nobody wants, Lee happens upon a small bunch of letters written by Brice. She swipes one of the notes to have it valued at her local bookshop and learns that the writings could earn her some pocket money but not much more. That is until she adds a saucy P.S. to one of the notes with her typewriter and finds that collectors are willing to pay far more for its witty, scandalous content. Realising that she may have tapped into something potentially huge, Lee proceeds to compose forgeries in the likeness of such icons as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. Her new venture becomes so lucrative and successful that she enlists the drunken, out-of-work actor Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to peddle the texts to several different bookshops and collectors in order to avoid rousing any suspicion. What ends up surprising Lee the most about this whole scam, more than its profitability, is how good she is at capturing the voices of some of the greatest wits and minds of the 20th century and how ravenously hungry people are for something that she herself has written after so many years of obscurity and irrelevancy. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she announces with pride.

This film finally gives McCarthy a chance to flex her dramatic acting muscles and the result is the performance of her career thus far. Her comedy instincts might have tempted her to overplay the character by exaggerating her aggressiveness or hamming up the drunkenness, but that would have been a mistake. Instead her focus is on the human being behind the cursing and booze, one who feels inconsolably estranged and abandoned by the world. She has alienated all those who once loved and respected her and has been left behind by her community and peers due to this fundamental inability to connect with others and adapt to change. One of the more poignant moments in the film is when the romantic bond Lee as formed with local bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells) comes to a head as the self-destructive author, convinced of her worthlessness, is ultimately unable to accept the affection that she so desperately craves. This is the kind of role that could easily have been a typical loser-turned-criminal but the depth McCarthy brings instead allows the audience to appreciate Lee as a profoundly broken human being, one consumed and trapped by the loneliness that drives her to act out in such harmful ways. That we empathise with this antagonistic fraudster and find her as funny and sympathetic as we do is as much due to McCarthy’s talents as it is Holofcener and Whitty’s writing.

One of the great pleasures of the film is watching Lee interact with Jack, the only person she knows more wretched than herself and thus the only one willing to put up with her. The casting of Grant invites us to view the character as an older Withnail, still addicted to booze and cigarettes and still putting on an elaborate performance as the character of himself, but there’s a little more going on here. He is homeless and HIV positive and, like Lee, he has been similarly exiled by the New York literary scene. In addition to this Jack is a gay man who, like many other gay men in 1991, feels like has had been abandoned by the world at large and left behind to die. It is a begrudging friendship that they form and seldom do they have anything nice to say about one another but over time it becomes clear to them both that the reason they keep meeting in the same bar at the same time is because neither has anywhere else to go or anybody else who will drink with them. That Jack is so full of glee and bravado (a mask for his anxieties of course) while Lee is grumpy and vicious allows for same great contrast between the two which make their back-and-forths amongst the most delightfully funny moments. Like many things in this film it is both sweet and sad to watch these two nasty characters realise, even after all the insults they trade, all the harms they inflict and all the trouble the con gets them into, not only how much they actually like each other but also how desperately they need each other.

What impresses the most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is how seamlessly it captures its comically dramatic (or dramatically comical) tone. This is a film that could have easily been either too miserable to be enjoyable or too humorous to be taken seriously. Instead Heller manages to make it land in that perfect middle ground where The Apartment, Harold and Maude and Withnail & I live, all of them films that will make you laugh until you realise how tragic the characters are but then still somehow keep you laughing anyway. The premise about how Lee fools the world with her fabricated letters might lead you to believe that her story will work out something like The Producers, but this film is not a comedy (or at least it’s not that kind of comedy). Some of the circumstances are amusing and Lee is herself a funny character, but when the whole plot inevitably unravels and the truth comes out, it’s not a pay off, it’s a disaster. At the same time, however, it comes with a silver lining, a small but meaningful victory for Lee that nobody can take away. The film ends on a humble but touching note while still maintaining its sense of humour and every second that came before was a pleasure to watch.

★★★★★

Mary Queen of Scots

Cast: Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Writer: Beau Willimon


Last year saw the release of a superb historical drama which inventively used its period setting to cleverly and profoundly interrogate contemporary attitudes about women in power, the personal and political rivalries that compel them and what they can achieve within the sexist boundaries confining them. That film was The Favourite, a witty and stunningly original picture that demonstrated just how much room there still is for reinvention and experimentation in the costume drama, a genre that some feel has already been exhaustively treaded. Mary Queen of Scots has similar ambitions to the Yorgos Lanthimos film. It relates the tale of two female rulers at a time when such a concept was unheard of, the complex relationship they shared, one that encompassed familial affection, ideological enmity and feminine empathy, and how their bond was eventually destroyed by the interference of their male subjects. The film sets its sights on the world today by showcasing how little has actually changed since this point in history where irreconcilable partisan conflicts dominated the political sphere and how the men who led these movements could only agree on one thing: that women should be kept from exercising any authority or control by any means necessary. While it does this quite well, what sets this film apart from The Favourite is that this it is not ultimately daring or nonconformist enough to come across as more than ‘another costume drama’.

Penned by Beau Willimon, who specialises in writing soap operas disguised as political thrillers (whether intentional or not), the film mainly concerns itself with the titular Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Having lived in France for almost her entire life, the nineteen-year-old Catholic widow returns to Scotland in 1561 to claim the crown she inherited as an infant. This does not bode well for many of the men who have been governing Scotland in her absence, not least of which is her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who feel that they have been doing just fine without their teenage queen. Another such objector is John Knox (David Tennant), the Protestant cleric who feels it is against the will of God for a woman, never mind a Catholic woman, to rule. The one who potentially has the most to lose however is Mary’s 25-year-old cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England (Margot Robbie). While Mary is young, renowned for her beauty and outspoken in her feminine desires and ambitions, Elizabeth is world-weary, her make up hides a face riddled with smallpox and she remains unmarried and without children, choosing to instead be seen by her subjects as a man rather than a woman. The two have never met but often exchange letters in which they discuss their shared goals, their opposing values and their mutual understanding of what it is like to rule in a world where men see their gender as a threat.

Ronan delivers a commanding performance as a compassionate but fiery queen who is determined to rule no matter what the men who oppose her have to say about it. She has the kind of steely resolve and bold fearlessness that make her a force to be reckoned with, but she has a softer side as well. Being a young woman of little experience, she possesses the same kind of teenage naiveté that Ronan’s previous characters in such films as Brooklyn and Lady Bird had that offsets her more mature qualities and makes her seriously unprepared, if no less capable and determined, to face the challenges awaiting her. With her youth also comes this vigour and progressive idealism that make her stand out and seem all the more threatening to her older and more conservative contemporaries. Her ideals are as foreign to her kingdom and subjects (that the Irish Ronan doesn’t quite nail the Scottish accent is a nice, little way of emphasising her foreignness) as they are liberal and enlightened and, while perhaps a little too 21st century, do all the same succeed in serving their purpose, which is to depict Mary as a woman ahead of her time. Amongst Mary’s confidantes is David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a queer, black man with a proclivity for cross-dressing whom Mary loves and accepts with all her heart. There are no prizes for guessing how well his life in the dogmatic realm of 16th century Protestant Scotland turns out.

Standing opposite her is Elizabeth, probably the more challenging of the two roles. Presented as a mirror image of the Scottish queen, we learn that even as she enjoys greater popularity and exercises more wisdom Elizabeth still suffers from many of the same anxieties as Mary and understands her plight in the way that only another queen possibly could. While more experienced than her peer and more secure in her royal position, Elizabeth feels just as confined and suffocated by the burdens of her authority as Mary does by the constant opposition she is forced to face. Sensitive to the fact that her predecessor was her half-sister, a Catholic queen whose reign was so violent that her sobriquet, Bloody Mary, still lives on today, Elizabeth has had to contend with how that legacy has affected patriarchal perceptions of women in power (never mind that both queens were the daughters of one of the most violent kings in the country’s history) and has thus resolved to model herself as a man. Her position is an inconsolably lonely one, more so as her decision not to rule as a woman prevents her from marrying the man she loves, and she feels bitterly jealous of her cousin even as she sees her as perhaps the only companion she has in the world. Mary is forthright and independent in all of the ways that Elizabeth cannot or will not be and as they face each other in their climatic meeting, it is all the English queen can do not to be overcome by her simultaneous, conflicting feelings of envy, fear and respect.

The film is structured quite similarly to Heat in that the two lead characters are separated from one another for nearly the entirety of the runtime. This proves to be something of a disadvantage for Josie Rourke, who made her cinematic debut with this film following a prolific career as a theatre director. While her direction is proficient enough that one could never have guessed this was her first time behind the camera, the distance separating Mary and Elizabeth from each other prevents her from being able to depict their relationship in the dramatic terms she knows best: through staging, scenery and performance. The only scene in which the two sovereigns share the screen together comes at the very end and that is the moment where Rourke is able to put her theatrical vision on stunning display. A more unconventional narrative approach that borrowed even more from the theatre might have allowed this film to break free from the constraints determined by its historical premise and realistic aesthetics, but that’s not the route they opted for. The film is able to have its leads play off one another by having them engage in a written voiceover dialogue that almost suggests some kind of psychic bond between them, but the two actresses and their relationship are far more compelling when they’re finally allowed to meet face-to-face and get to perform with and off each other.

Rourke and cinematographer John Mathieson, who is no stranger to historical drama, compose the film’s imagery in often striking ways, especially where the colour red is concerned. In this story of two women who have both been kissed by fire, red becomes a prominent symbol of defiance and revolution. We see it in the menstrual blood that drips into the bucket as Mary gives birth to the boy who will one day be the king of both England and Scotland and we also see it in the radiantly scarlet dress that Mary proudly wears as she unflinchingly approaches the executioner’s block. Mary Queen of Scots is film that sets out to make a radical statement on feminist history and hits onto something with this portrait of Mary as a woman who was denied a birthright that she was entitled to according to the laws of the very patriarchy that sought to deny her. Her strength, ferocity and individuality, all qualities that would have won her praise and admiration had she been a man, are instead met with fear, distrust and resistance. Although she is ultimately executed while her cousin Elizabeth goes on to oversee a long and prosperous reign, Mary’s victory is that she lived a life that was unapologetically hers. While the film is definitely guilty of some historical revisionism (Mary and Elizabeth never once met in real life) and could probably be accused of forcing some of its 21st century progressivism, it tells the story that it wants to tell and does so with fire.

★★★★

Glass

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writer: M. Night Shyamalan


Two decades ago when Shyamalan made Unbreakable, his thoughtful, meditative take on comic books, he could never have predicted how quickly and thoroughly superheroes would take over Hollywood in the subsequent years. Since the film’s 2000 release, superheroes have grown into a global sensation. From Sam Raimi’s campy, cartoonish Spider-Man trilogy to Christopher Nolan’s gritty, introspective Dark Knight trilogy right up to the cultural phenomena that the MCU and DCEU have become and countless more movies in between, the pervasiveness of the comic book movie in today’s cinematic landscape is not to be doubted. The genre with all of its characteristic stories and tropes have become so identifiable and familiar to us that many viewers have since grown bored and fatigued with their pervasiveness and are demanding progression and change. Part of this has led to more superhero films devoting their stories to a greater variety of characters (i.e. women and people of colour) and part of it has led to a self-reflexive examination of the genre itself, e.g. the satire of Deadpool, the demythologisation of Logan and the modernised evocation of Into the Spiderverse. There is a greater demand than ever for these kinds of films and the stage has never been clearer for Shyamalan to return to offer his philosophical, auteuristic take on comic book movies as they stand today.

Except that’s not what he does. Glass it turns out has shockingly little, if anything to say about superheroes today because it seems to think it’s addressing the same audience as 19 years ago. It’s almost as if back in 2000 Shyamalan had a screenplay that was ready to go but was instead shelved and that last year he dug it up, dusted it off and turned it into a movie without bothering to revise or update it. The plot revolves around super-strong vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis), multiple personality stricken Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and brittle-boned psychopath Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who are all gathered together in a mental institution by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She believes that all three men are deluded in the ‘superpowers’ they claim to have and tries to help them reckon with the superhero/villain complexes they each harbour. The most insight Shyamalan offers about superheroes however ultimately boils down to the most basic structure of comic book narratives, which he relates with the pedantic weightiness of a 15-year-old who thinks that they’re the first person to discover Quentin Tarantino. “In comics, this is referred to as the ‘showdown,’” explains Mr. Glass in anticipation of the film’s climax as if nobody in the audience has ever read a comic book or watched a superhero film before. One of the great failures of Glass is Shyamalan’s inability to recognise that the world has moved on since the days when Adam West was the most famous Batman.

The road to Glass was a long and arduous one for Shyamalan and, however one might feel about his filmography, one cannot help but admire the endurance it must have taken to weather the career-destroying storm that threatened to sink him for over a decade. Fresh after having astounded audiences with two back-to-back knockouts in 1999’s and 2000’s The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, with many speculating that he was primed to become the next Spielberg or Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s career took a nose dive. Audiences grew tired of his go-to formula (a supernatural mystery-thriller that comes to a head with a game-changing twist) and his concepts grew more and more outlandish and nonsensical, leading to such flops as Lady in the Water and The Happening. By the time he was making the critically panned and financially disastrous blockbusters After Earth and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan had become a Hollywood punchline; a parody of his former self whom most of us had written off. With his low-budget found-footage movie The Visit, Shyamalan was able to regain some shred of credibility and Split had us paying attention once again when his twisted horror-thriller turned out to be a surprise sequel to one of his most acclaimed films. Thus we get Glass, the film that seeks to combine the stories of Split and Unbreakable into a single, cohesive whole, the conclusion of what turned out to be a trilogy, and mark the triumphant return of Hollywood’s forgotten auteur.

If only. Outside of his absolute worst films, Shyamalan has often shown himself to be a director of great talent and singular vision and the composition of Glass is truly something to behold. The director has always been one for finding tension in that which appears normal and banal and the modest scale of Glass allows him to lean into that strength. Through long, drawn-out takes, theatrical staging and imposing colours, Shyamalan is able to make the asylum where the near entirety of the film is set feel like a battleground in the most ordinary sense. There are no unstoppable forces of CGI threatening to destroy the world, but the stakes still feel amplified because even the most mundane encounters are framed in such an intimate, eccentric way so as to make us feel like something larger is at work behind what we’ve been allowed to see. Shyamalan’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker however is that his skills as a screenwriter have never been a match for his skills as a director and Glass is let down by the same kind of confused plotting, laborious exposition and general goofiness that can be found in even his strongest work. There’s enough of interest going on throughout that the film is never unwatchable but there are hints and suggestions of a much more profound and stimulating story that was never realised.

My feeling is that either Shyamalan needed a few more years to work out what it was he really wanted to say with this film and how to make it work or he needed to bring another writer on board to iron out the ideas that were worthy of pursuit and scrap those that weren’t. If, at any point in his career, Shyamalan had ever managed to find his own Emeric Pressburger or Mark Frost, who knows what wonders he might have achieved? As far as Glass goes, there is certainly some promise in its premise. While the mystery of whether the characters really do have superpowers is a non-starter considering that those who have seen the previous two films will recall David bench pressing everything but the kitchen sink and the Horde running up the walls with his bare hands and feet, the film still raises some interesting points. By bringing its three leads together, the film invites us to consider the ways in which these broken men are all seeking some kind of identity and fulfilment in their alter egos. David finds some purpose in his previously unfulfilling existence by meting out vigilante justice, Kevin kidnaps and kills people in order to satisfy the most monstrous of his 24 personalities and Elijah became a criminal mastermind in order to make sense of the crippling disease he was born with. A greater focus on this theme might have allowed for a deeper, more captivating study of how superheroes and supervillains are almost always born from the traumas and tragedies they’ve suffered and what that really says about the ways in which we mythologise and revere them. Sadly this idea is left unexplored.

When the movie threatens to be too aimless and self-indulgent to bear, it is the three leads who pull you through and keep you watching. Even though the film never quite manages to strike the right balance between David, Kevin and Elijah (resulting in some conspicuous absences for certain stretches), each actor gives a memorable performance and make the most out of their interactions even with that awkward Shyamalan dialogue they inevitably have to contend with. McAvoy especially continues to give 100% in what must be a physically and dramatically demanding character to play. Playing a young man with two dozen personalities through which he is constantly jumping between at unpredictable beats, McAvoy ably assumes each persona thrust upon him including the prim and menacing Patricia, the lisping nine-year-old Hedwig and the savage, vicious Beast whose convulsively muscly appearance displays the kind of shocking body horror you might expect in a Cronenberg film. Jackson also impresses playing the character who gives the film its name. He’s a background player in the first half as he waits for his moment to come but once it does he comes as close to capturing some sense of pathos as this film could possibly attain. Willis, who has been asleep in most of his movies of the last few years, is also on form. Paulson, sadly, is once again trapped in a film that doesn’t know how to put her talents on display as she is given too little to work with until the very end, by which point it’s too late.

Glass is a showcase of everything that Shyamalan is good and bad at and neither dominates over the other. The film is very middling, which makes feel let down when I think about how much more the director could offer if he could just learn to overcome his weaknesses and limitations. While he offers some interesting ideas, directs his actors into delivering some great performances and brings things to a head with a wonderfully subversive confrontation near the end, they ultimately aren’t enough. What insights the film does try to make about comic books and superheroes are insubstantial, outdated and even a little patronising and the obligatory finale twist is a disappointment, complicating and confusing more than it enlightens and satisfies and failing to underscore the very themes and ideas driving the movie in the way that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable did. It took a certain boldness on his part to try and offer the world a superhero movie unlike any other being made today and I would have loved nothing more than to see that film in its most fully realised form. Shyamalan, much like the characters he created, seems just as lost in his own search for identity and Glass could very well be seen as a film about the man himself; a mark of how far he has come and how much further he still has to go.

★★★

Vice

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons

Director: Adam McKay

Writer: Adam McKay


Whatever one might think about his politics or the quality of his work, Adam McKay is undoubtedly one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. After having built a career out of making cleverly, creatively dumb comedy films with Will Ferrell, his forte has transitioned over to what’s called the essay film. Following in the tradition of such documentaries as F for FakeThe Gleaners & I and pretty much every Michael Moore film, McKay’s latest filmography is one that blurs the line between fact and fiction, expresses abstract ideas in concrete, tangible terms and engages with the viewer in an open, self-reflexive dialogue. He employed this format to startling effect in The Big Short where he deconstructed the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 in a way that was both entertaining and educational. McKay has a genius for explaining complex themes and concepts in simple ways that viewers can easily understand and there is no other filmmaker working today who is pushing the possibilities of the essay film further than he is. With his latest film McKay once again draws from the well of modern history to recount the story of one of the most notorious and reviled figures in American politics (which is seriously saying something!), former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Vice follows Dick Cheney through his political career, starting with his days as a White House intern during the Nixon administration and ending with his turn as Vice President under George W. Bush (a delightfully cartoonish Sam Rockwell). While maintaining a personal life with his wife and two daughters, Cheney learns the ins and outs of White House politics and takes each lesson to heart as he sees presidents rise and fall and discovers the truth about the true power that runs the country. Finding great success under the Ford and Reagan administrations, Cheney’s time truly comes when the buffoonish Dubya invites him over to his Texas ranch and invites him to be his second-in-command. Realising that he can transcend what has traditionally been more or less a ceremonial role in the US government, Cheney accepts and offers to oversee the more “mundane” parts of governance such as bureaucracy, military, energy and, uh… foreign policy. With all the influence he needs and nobody watching, Cheney ascends to become the country’s de facto ruler. Working from the shadows, he imposes his will upon the United States with an iron fist and, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sets the nation on a path that will lead them into a catastrophic war.

Looking the spitting image of the man thanks to the work of the make-up team and sporting a soft yet menacing growl throughout, Christian Bale (who never met a character he wouldn’t completely transform his body to play) portrays Cheney in this portrait of an infamous public figure about whom surprisingly little is actually known. The film records how he started off as a blue-collar drunk barely scraping by and rose little by little to become the puppetmaster of the Bush administration, the man who was really in charge while Dubya played the fool and distracted everyone from what was really going on. Between those two points is an endless gulf of ambiguities and unknowns which McKay fills in with commentary, abridgements and digression, all of which serve to help us get to the heart of who Cheney really was and what he wanted. The problem is that by the time I got to the end, I still wasn’t sure who exactly the film thought Cheney was. The Vice-President was a very bad man who did some very bad things, that much the movie is clear on, yet it never manages to tap into what exactly they think Cheney’s ideology is or if he even has one. We gets hints and implications such as how Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton, an energy company that just so happened to do well when the USA invaded Iraq, but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient in light of how the film depicts him.

The way the film tells it, there were two figures in his life who had the most profound effect on Cheney. The first was his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth figure if ever there was one (there’s even a scene in which Dick and Lynne engage in a Shakespearian exchange). She is shown to be the woman behind the man, the one who berates him into making something of himself and who reminds him at every turn not to forget what it is they’ve both been working for (whatever that is). The other is Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) the slimy Republican who taught Cheney everything he knew about being ruthless, sneaky and totally amoral in modern politics. “What do we believe in?” Cheney asks him upon becoming a card-carrying member of the Republican Party and Rumsfeld laughs uproariously in his face. Between these two forces moulding him into the villainous political mastermind he would become, we get a sense of Cheney as a man of great, pitiless ambition who will pull every dirty trick in the book and sell out on every fibre of his moral being in order to get what he wants. But what does he want? Well, when the film allows Cheney himself a chance to explain, it appears that everything he did was about protecting his country and its people. “I will not apologise”, he says hardheartedly and with contempt “for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night”. But that’s not the truth of it and, the harder the film tries to get under the skin of this inscrutable man, the more confused everything gets.

That wouldn’t necessarily be so bad since few things in life are ever that simple and one can never truly know the true depths of another person’s soul (or lack thereof) in its infinite entirety. Vice however doesn’t know that it’s confused. It charges along with all the confidence of a white, rich, C-student man running for the presidency through the main events of Cheney’s life, jumping back and forth in time for no apparent narrative reason, and in the end it never manages to land on a satisfying note. There are several gimmicky moments that are great fun by themselves, Bale delivers a marvellously sinister performance and the creative licence McKay takes to tell this messy story in an engaging and entertaining way does impress. There are fourth wall breaks, a syncopated editing style that keeps the viewer on their toes, an unconventional framing device with a twist ending, a false end credits sequence and dozens of little touches here and there that allow McKay’s cheeky sense of humour to remain prominent through it all. It doesn’t amount to much though because the elaborate, convoluted essay that McKay has constructed doesn’t end up revealing any kind of meaningful insight on its own subject. Unless you are below a certain age or don’t live in the United States (both of which, I’ll admit, are true about myself), Vice has little of worth to offer on the question of who Dick Cheney is beyond, as Bale himself suggested in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Satan incarnate.

★★★

Stan & Ollie

Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones

Director: Jon S. Baird

Writer: Jeff Pope


‘Iconic’ is a word that gets overused these days but I think it really does apply when talking about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They were a vaudeville double act that peaked in the 1920s and 30s and it’s fair to say that most people my age have probably never seen their slapstick classics Sons of the Desert and Way Out West, never mind know the history of their lives and partnership (I know that I didn’t). And yet everybody knows who they are the same way they know who Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein are. That’s how famous they are and how strongly their legacy endures. The image of the hulking, overweight Hardy and the short, lean Laurel standing side-by-side donning their bowler hats while one leans over to the other to lament “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” is as iconic as that of Charles Foster Kane uttering his dying word or Don Lockwood singing in the rain. If you’ve watched The Simpsons, Monty Python or literally any comedy double act ever, then you’ve seen their legacy. Stan & Ollie is a love letter that pays tribute to the duo with both humour and affection.

When we first meet Laurel and Hardy (played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly respectively, both of them perfect), it’s at the prime of their lives in 1937 when they were the two biggest names in comedy. They are comfortably at the top of their game and are filming what is sure to be another hit movie for them, but Laurel isn’t satisfied with the lack of creative freedom or the pay. He meets with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), the man responsible for bringing the two comedians together, and threatens to walk out unless changes are made to the contracts. Hal refuses and Stan leaves for Fox, certain that his partner will join him in solidarity. “You can’t have Hardy without Laurel”, he states defiantly. Cut to sixteen years later and we see that things didn’t work out quite how Stan planned. Ollie stayed with Hal Roach productions, made a movie without Laurel, and the rift that emerged in their partnership has never quite gone away even as they’ve continued to perform together in the years since. Now, as they embark on a UK tour performing their old act in half-empty music halls, they’re both in the autumn years of their lives and it’s becoming ever clearer that they’re not the Hollywood titans they used to be. “I thought you’d retired”, says one clerk at the low-rent inn they’re lodged in and so, it seems, did everyone else.

The tour is modestly successful and the pair appear to be getting on famously, performing bits and trading jabs anywhere and anytime they can and sharing ideas for a new screenplay Laurel is working on. There is however an definite tension between the two old hats that both are determined to leave unspoken. And that’s how it goes until until their wives, Ida Lauren (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), fly out to show their support. The interplay between the four is where the drama really comes out as they talk about old times (Ida is always quick to remind everyone that she was once an actor who worked with Preston Sturges) and allude to the elephants in the rooms that still inspire feelings of hurt, resentment and betrayal after all these years. There’s never a sense that this is conflict for the sake of conflict nor do the wives exist as plot devices to stir the pot. Far from it, Ida and Shirley both prove themselves wholeheartedly devoted to their spouses and, while that does lead to treat each other rather spikily where their husbands are concerned, it turns that they both somewhat sympathise with one another as they both experience and endure the toll that show business takes on marriages. There’s a wonderful irony to the way that the film opens with Stan and Ollie coolly recounting their previous divorces and yet ends up with them in a place where both have faithful, dedicated wives and it’s their own relationship that’s subject to doubt.

It wouldn’t be a Laurel and Hardy picture if it wasn’t funny though and the film delivers on that front as well. Not only is the likeness there, thanks in no small part to the work done by the prosthetics and make up teams, but the timing and body language is there as well. Hardy, who looked like a big, lumbering figure, performed his comedy with the surprising poise and delicacy of a ballet dancer and Reilly gets it exactly right while Coogan brings that same silent comedy star expressiveness that Laurel had right down to the eyebrows. The routines they perform together are not only able to score laughs by being well-acted routines in and off themselves, but also because they are done with the kind of familiarity that comes with two partners who know each others lines and steps inside and out. Greater emotional weight is placed on these routines by the constant way the film blurs the line between Stan and Ollie’s real and comedic personas. As two showbiz legends, the two doubtless feel like there’s an expectation for them to always be ‘on’, which is why they’re always ready to perform skits anytime there’s cameras or a crowd to perform for. Even when they’re alone together, slapstick just inevitably seems to happen as when Stan trips over his suitcase while checking into the hotel or when they accidentally drop a trunk down a flight of stairs at the train station.

When Stan declares that you can’t have Hardy without Laurel, it’s shown to be an ironic statement that ends up spelling their doom. It is also however a statement that this film believes unreservedly. Stan & Ollie is a celebration of two iconic comedians and the immortal comedy they made together. While bittersweet, it is ultimately a feel-good movie which is why it stops short of following through on some of its darker moments, makes light of some of the less flattering aspects of their lives such as Stan’s alcoholism and doesn’t hit on some of the harsher truths that get shared and revealed quite as hard as they could have. Laurel and Hardy themselves were specialists at delivering light-hearted comedy and so perhaps it’s fitting that the film should follow suit, but it also feels a little sterile as a result. It is doubtless a delight to watch and it does all the same succeed in showcasing what exactly made Laurel and Hardy such a great team and the bond that they shared. There were feelings of bitterness and resentment between the pair and working together wasn’t always easy but, when it cam down to it, they respected each other, they loved each other and, above all, they needed each other. There’s a post-script at the end which drives the film’s bittersweet tone home; a revelation about the last few years of Laurel’s life that is both beautiful and tragic. This is a film made with true affection and reverence for the two men that inspired it.

★★★★

Colette

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart

Director: Wash Westmoreland

Writers: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland


One of the great pleasures of going to see a new film is when you go in expecting it to be a retread of tropes and stories that you’ve seen before and it turns out to be something quite new. In the case of Colette, I was more or less expecting a 19th century remake of Big Eyes; the story of a woman with an extraordinary talent whose husband takes credit for her work while keeping her confined and silent. While that is pretty much the overall plot of Colette, the film has larger ideas on its mind and a more engaging way of going about them. Almost as soon as the film has established its master-slave dynamic between the main couple, the story promptly moves on from there to the part of the story it’s really interested in: the leading lady’s liberation. In a much broader sense, this is a film about challenging traditional gender roles and breaking free from the patriarchal constraints designed to ensure that women conform to the roles imposed upon them. The film is unapologetically feminist and relishes in telling its story through an unmistakably modern lens. It is a story of transformation and empowerment told with wit, ornate detail and terrific performances.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland and based on a script he wrote with Richard Glatzer, Westmoreland’s late husband and writing partner for such films as Still Alice, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Colette tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), one of the most popular French writers of her day. As the film begins in 1892, we are at first led to believe that the teenaged Colette is little more than a simple, virginal country girl living a tranquil life with her parents (Robert Pugh and Fiona Shaw) in their picturesque, rural cottage in Burgundy. When famed Parisian writer Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), also known by his pen name Willy, vaults in with his wealth, charm and a respectably cordial proposal of marriage, the parents are readily impressed and eagerly approve of the union, completely unaware their daughter and her fiancé have been holding secret meetings in the barn for quite a while. They rendezvous later that day for another one of their trysts and we see that Colette is a little more worldly and independent than either we or her parents had taken her to be. She and her beau are soon married and off they go to Paris to enjoy a life of debonair fashion, fine art and saucy parties amongst the clique of French high society.

I suppose there are some who will feel that Willy should have been depicted in a more villainous light. It doesn’t take Colette long to learn that he is a plagiarist whose bibliography is actually the work of a team of writers on his payroll, he is a serial adulterer, a reckless spendthrift, a spotlight hog and he eventually proves himself to be an emotionally abusive husband. It would have been all too easy to portray him as an irredeemable monster and, at his core, maybe that is what he is but to frame him in that simplistic way undercuts the complicated relationship he shares with Colette and the role he played in creating the radical phenomenon that she would become. The film allows West to play Willy with all the wit and magnetism of a fashionable socialite whose every deed, utterance and gesture is a performance unto itself of a character, or a ‘brand’, that the man has created. For all of his many vices, it is Willy first sees something special in his wife and provides her with both a means of expression and a source of stimulation. That said, it is certainly more out of convenience for him than it is belief in her that he turns to Colette at all and it is very much his intention to remain in control of the whole enterprise, taking the credit for Colette’s work and forcing her (even going so far as to lock her in a room at one point) to continue writing after her work becomes a sensation.

There is love and genuine affection in their relationship, but there’s also jealousy, betrayal and conflict and all of it serves as fuel for the development of Colette’s literary voice. What started as an inequitable arrangement designed to keep her in captivity and subservient to her husband instead becomes the first step in Colette’s journey towards emancipation. When she becomes frustrated with her husband’s stifling dominance and constant paranoia that his far more talented wife is set on undermining him, Colette finds satisfaction elsewhere. Following her hypocritical husband’s cues, Colette begins sleeping with other woman, first the Louisiana belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and later the nonconformist cross-dressing noblewoman Missy (Denise Gough). Even today in this modern ‘liberated Hollywood’ climate, it is astonishing how frankly and casually the film deals with its heroine’s blossoming queerness. While other films are tiresomely repressive or chaste in their depictions of LGBT romance and sex, Colette revels in the openness and looseness of the titular character’s sexual exploration. There isn’t even really a coming out moment for her; Colette’s proclivity for women is simply an extension of her character, a broadening of the enlightened, liberated manner that allowed her to become such a great writer.

Carrying it all the way through is Knightley in a career-best performance as a remarkable, revolutionary woman defiantly making her mark and asserting her identity and autonomy. It is in the film’s second half where she truly shines as Colette moves on from her life with Willy and carves out a passage for herself in whatever daring and provocative way she pleases. Knightley is both gritty and glamorous in the role; the film neither idealises nor fetishizes her nor does she ever come across as a passive force in her own story. The film can sometimes be a little too modern in its sensibilities which has the effect of simplifying some of the barriers that Colette had to overcome and smoothing the journey she had to make. There are enough bumps in the road to keep things interesting and it also helps that the film boasts some beautifully sumptuous sets and costumes and an evocative score accompanying it all. Westmoreland succeeds at telling the story he wans to tell, that of a woman who found her freedom and lived a fulfilling life on her own terms as much as any woman could possibly have done in 19th century France, and he does so very well. However it seems to me like there was a richer and more complex story to be told about a real-life figure who had much more to say.

★★★★

The Favourite

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara


Here in the UK, we love costume dramas. From the sweeping romance of Pride and Prejudice to the majestic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia to the picturesque elegance of A Room with a View to the refined theatricality of Olivier’s Henry V, historical period dramas have long been a staple of British cinema and television. They remain as popular as ever with such recent hits as Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Poldark finding tremendous success on the small screen. Audiences continue to be drawn in by these films and programmes for the resplendent sets and lavish costumes, the melodramatic stories and illustrious characters, and also for their nostalgic idealisation of the past. I bring this up because Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite breaks just about every convention a costume drama is supposed to follow. The film doesn’t look beautiful or vibrant; it looks murky and ugly. The characters aren’t noble and graceful; they’re nasty and unseemly. And the story definitely isn’t romantic or nostalgic; it’s surreal, tragic and completely contemporary. The Favourite is everything that a costume drama isn’t supposed to be and it is one of the best films of 2018.

The film is set in 18th century England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuarts and one of Britain’s lesser-known monarchs. The country is at war with France but the ruler leading them isn’t the exemplar of strength and wisdom that a queen is supposed to be, she is an overgrown child plagued by gout and depression. As her courtiers exasperatingly compete for her attention, it becomes clear that the only person who has the queen’s ear is her favourite Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is cunning, ruthless and steadfastly loyal and dedicated to her queen (and lover) to the point that she refuses to indulge her with flattery or delusion. Anne appears in one scene having made herself up for an important meeting and Lady Sarah tells her bluntly and tactlessly that the make up makes her look like a badger. For the most part Queen Anne has no contact with the outside world which means that her decisions, and in turn the fate of the thousands of people under her domain, are determined by whims which depend largely on whoever is allowed to speak to her and who she happens to feel partial towards. As the arbiter of who is and isn’t allowed to speak to the Queen, Lady Sarah is basically the country’s de facto ruler and she uses her influence to ensure that the war against France as led by her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) is allowed to continue.

Following the example set by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (who in real life wouldn’t rule for another half century), Colman deliver a tour-de-force performance as an outrageously erratic ruler, playing her as both a subject of hilarious ridicule and heartbreaking pathos. We get the sense that Anne doesn’t have any real understanding of the affairs of the state and tends to be rather petulant when called upon to actually fulfil her duties to the crown: “It’s my state” she declares when Lady Sarah’s attentions are drawn to matters of national concern, “I am the business of state!” She is both the most and the least essential person in her own government; she is completely irrelevant when it comes to understanding and resolving the country’s many problems yet the fates of every man, woman and child who will be affected by these policies are entirely in her hands. It is when she is at her most insecure that she feels compelled to assert her status and this can happen at the most random times, such as in her response to Lady Sarah’s dismissal of her badger-like make up where she orders a passing page to look at her only to hysterically rebuke him for doing so. Yet, for all her power and malice, Anne is ultimately a wretched, pitiable figure; one who is trapped in a role she never chose and is grieving the loss of 17 children.

Yet the film isn’t just interested in exploring the warped emotional psyche of a queen who is apt to eat cake until she vomits, but also in the ways her subjects try to indulge, please and control their ruler. Winning the war against France depends on more than raising taxes, securing resources and planning strategies, it also depends on befriending the 17 rabbits that the Queen keeps as surrogates for her children. This is the political landscape that Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s distant cousin, enters as she stumbles off her carriage and falls face first into the mud. A scullery maid whose own father gambled her away, Abigail seeks out her cousin in search of employment and finds it in the palace kitchens, but what she really wants above all else is to escape her poverty and ascend to the status she has always desired. Thus she sets her sights on the Queen and worms her way into Anne’s confidence (and bed) by offering her comfort and honey where Lady Sarah would only offer harshness and bile. This isn’t to say that Abigail is kind and earnest where Lady Sarah is cruel and unfeeling though, far from it. Abigail soon proves that she has the same knack for deceit, guile and malice as her cousin, but that she can mask it all with the artifice of a pretty face and large, bright, blue eyes.

In a sense The Favourite is less about Queen Anne than it about the competition between Abigail and Lady Sarah to win her affection and their bitter rivalry is as deliciously vicious as anything in All About Eve or Dangerous Liaisons. Much of this is about power and there is a clear difference between what the two women vie for with their ambitions; Lady Sarah has a cause she is trying to serve (or claims to anyway) for the betterment of her Queen, country and people whereas Abigail is looking out only for herself and cares not who she has to destroy to secure her status. Love comes into it as well as one mistress loves her Queen in the way she wants to be loved whilst the other loves her in the way she feels she needs to be loved. In this triumvirate’s love triangle the film presents the Queen with a choice between the comfort and sweetness of flattery and compliance or the surety and authenticity of candour and tough love, neither of which will give her the unconditional, pure, childlike adoration that she has always craved. The film is brutal in its depiction of how lonely these characters all are in their own ways and allows us to appreciate that feeling all the more by filming the scenes through a fish-eye lens, which has the effect of enhancing the inhospitable voids that overwhelm the spaces that these small characters occupy.

The fish-eye lens also has the effect of wildly distorting the shape of the world in bizarre, dream-like ways which is quite fitting for a film as intense and surreal as this. Disproportionately wide views of the rooms and their warped corners don’t just emphasise the vast gulf of space that they contain, the walls look severe and imposing as if they’re confining these characters and threatening to close further and further in until you cannot breathe from the suffocation. The disconnection from the outside world feels all the more clear-cut and there is a definite sense that all of these characters are prisoners of their stations and circumstances and are living a never-ending claustrophobic nightmare. The film feels bizarre and unreal in the way that The Draughtsman’s Contract does and it feels cheekily modern in the way that Love & Friendship does. There is something wonderfully 21st century about the way that the three central women are all pared down, complex and sympathetic figures, even when they’re being funny, while the men who surround them are all flamboyantly decorated caricatures. The brilliance of The Favourite is that it employs its strange and anachronistic tone to better let us appreciate the abject, agonising humanity of its three fascinating and impeccably portrayed leading ladies.

★★★★★

Roma

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writer: Alfonso Cuarón


Roma has been described as the Oscar-winning Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film yet and it probably is. After having proved himself a world-class, visionary director with the high-concept fantasies and spectacles of The Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity, Cuarón has returned back to Earth to tell a story drawn from his own memories. Far from the otherworldly realms of magical sensation and sci-fi dystopia, this is the story of an ordinary woman and the life she lived in the Mexico of the director’s childhood. The picture Cuarón paints in a movie that he wrote, shot and edited himself, is of a life that some might regard as miniscule and minor were it not for the epic, panoramic canvas he uses in all of his work. While other directors use spectacle and phenomena to depict that which is innovative, extraordinary and larger than life, Cuarón brings scale and depth to that which is common, familiar and plain. Roma is a film that is both colossal and intimate at once; it is a captivating and profound drama told on the immense, revolutionary level of an historical epic with the affection, sensitivity and devoted attention to detail of a love letter.

The woman at the centre of it all is the household maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), based on a woman called Libo to whom the film is dedicated. She lives with and works for a wealthy family in their spacious, two-storey home in Roma (a neighbourhood in Mexico City) where it seems like nothing would ever get done without her help. Cleo is responsible for putting the four children (three boys and a girl) to bed at night and waking them up in the morning, serving their meals, washing their clothes and mopping the floors. She lives in the house along with her friend Adela (Nancy García), the household cook, with whom she shares a cramped upstairs room. Cleo and Adela are both from the same village and their conversations will often slip between Spanish and their native tongue of Mixtec as they gossip about their homes and shared acquaintances. As we become privy to Cleo’s daily routine in elongated, mostly static takes, one might notice that these shots are all deliberately situated within the parameters of the house, suggesting how seldom Cleo’s life extends beyond the walls. The very first shot, in fact, depicts an aeroplane flying overhead as seen in the murky reflection of a puddle that Cleo mops up, hinting at how the luxury and escape that such a plane might provide are infinitely far beyond her reach.

It’s a dull, monotonous existence, but it’s also a stable one. That is until a series of life-altering disasters occur that completely upend Cleo’s life and those of the family that she serves. The first of these is when the aloof family patriarch Doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who had heretofore been an almost completely absent presence in the house save a scene where he painstakingly struggles to drive his expensive Ford Galaxie onto the dog-shit-infested driveway that’s too narrow to fit it, abandons his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and their children to live with another woman. Subsequent catastrophes include an unexpected pregnancy, an earthquake, a forest fire and a mass student demonstration that erupts in violence (the film never outright states it but this is the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 that it recreates). These are all brought to breathtaking life in black and white digital photography as captured by Cuarón, whose images are truly astonishing in their clarity, composition and character. A trademark of Cuarón’s style is making extravagant use of camera movements, blocking and choreography so that the use of editing may be as minimal as possible, allowing the scenes to play out in real time and letting the viewer appreciate the spaces that each of the characters occupy. The same applies here as we follow Cleo’s movements throughout the film in such a way that by the time we reach the end, we feel like we’ve walked a thousand miles in her shoes.

Although much happens in the 135 minutes that make up the film’s runtime, Roma doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. There’s no journey to complete, no villain to defeat and no mystery to solve. The film is structured into scenes which each give us a greater, more comprehensive insight into who Cleo is and the kind of life that she lives. We learn that her upper-class employer Sofía considers her a friend (or at least likes to think that she does) and that there is a recognition of a parallel between them that almost makes them equals to one another in a very specific way, namely that both women have been cruelly betrayed and abandoned by men they mistakenly thought cared for them. However the way that Sofía will take her frustrations and despair out on Cleo in often harsh ways reminds us that there is a power dynamic and class discrepancy between them that will forever keep the pair apart. Cuarón is careful to avoid portraying Cleo’s role of servitude as being characterised by benevolence or complacency and he is sensitive to her socio-political position and anxieties, as evident in the way he consistently stages and frames the family scenes from her point of view. An example of this is when the image of the family gathered together on the sofa watching TV is juxtaposed with the image of Cleo sitting by the side on the floor with one of the children’s arms wrapped around her.

Of course the credit for the movie’s astounding portrait of Cleo doesn’t belong to Cuarón alone. It is Aparicio in her stunning debut who brings Cleo to life with a naturalistic performance worthy of a Roberto Rossellini film. That she isn’t some glamorous movie star playing an idealised version of this Mexican, working-class character is certainly significant in itself but what’s truly remarkable about her performance is the solemn weight and heavenly grace with which she handles the challenging material handed to her. Another actor might have tried for a more assertive, demonstrative performance in an attempt to really sell the anguish that Cleo suffers to the audience, but her pains and woes feel all the more powerful for how quietly tender Aparicio is in the role. The rest of the cast, few of whom were professional actors before Roma, follow Aparicio’s lead in delivering authentic, realistic performances. The family members in particular are able to create a rapport that feels so familiar and personal that it really does feel like they’ve all known each other their entire lives. The naturalism of the ensemble that the film has assembled is a crucial reason why the recreation of 1970’s Mexico City that they inhabit feels so believable and lived in. This is no small feat for a film that is trying to capture a strange, oxymoronic tone somewhere between kitchen-sink realism and Felliniesque surrealism.

For all the film’s use of natural scenery, authentic acting, and the ever present sounds of life teeming all around including the bustling street activity, the distant drone of the aeroplanes and all the other ambient noise, there is still a sense of transcendent ethereality encompassing it all. While there is no shortage of set-pieces featuring events of earth-shattering proportions from the riot that Cleo and the family grandmother Teresa (Verónica García) find themselves caught in the middle of to the poignant Tuxpan beach scene where Cleo’s despair reaches its heartbreaking zenith, the camera remains impassive through them all. There is both a strange eeriness and graceful serenity to the way in which film drifts weightlessly within and between these turbulent episodes. Cuarón hints that there may well be something intangible at play with the inclusion of a child, possibly based on himself (the central family is clearly his but it’s less obvious the extent to which Cuarón himself is present in the story) who nonchalantly recalls his past lives, recounting in one instance how he was once a sailor who drowned in a storm. It’s exactly the kind of nonsense that an imaginative child might say that most grown ups would simply dismiss with a laugh as Cleo does. The image that the child evokes however seems curiously reflective of some of the events that occur, especially when you notice the recurrence of water as a motif, and so perhaps there is something behind the boy’s memory.

Or not. In the end Roma doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. It’s one of those films that seems to be about the whole world and everything in it and breaking it down into a single idea is likely to prove an exercise in futility. The idea I find myself returning to though is memory. After all, what drove Cuarón to make this film in the first place were his memories of a woman who meant a great deal to him as a young boy. Coupled with that though is this recognition that Libo was someone who lived a whole life and underwent experiences he could never hope to know and understand in their limitless entirety. This is in part because Cuarón grew up with certain privileges (of which he is aware) that will forever detach him from the world that his housemaid embodied and it is also partly because of the inherent limitations of a person’s memory. There is a definite specificity to many of the images that the film creates such as the family house, which was modelled after Cuarón’s childhood home and was designed with the kind of acquaintance and detail that only one who lived there could provide. Cuarón lets his imagination fill out the rest and the result is a fictional conception of a person’s past in a film that entreats us to consider the enormity of each individual’s life and the countless stories that each of them is living. Roma is about life; it’s about birth and death and everything that happens in between and what it captures so marvellously in all of its beauty and chaos is the eternal struggle of living.

★★★★★

Mary Poppins Returns

Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep

Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: David Magee


As far as childhood classics go, Mary Poppins isn’t one that I would rank amongst my most cherished. I certainly watched it enough times as a kid and I know it had some kind of lasting effect on me because, despite having never watched it as an adult, I can still picture it clearly in my mind and recall how most of the songs go. Maybe on some level I, like the Banks children, felt like I got what I needed from Poppins at the time when I needed it and that the next time I saw her wouldn’t be until I needed her again. Or maybe I just never got round to it because I was too busy rewatching Star Wars for the umpteenth time. In either case the long-awaited Mary Poppins sequel, which even over fifty years after the original film’s release was probably as inevitable as the Disney Company’s eventual conquest and dystopian, totalitarian dominance of all media and culture is in the near future, wasn’t something that I felt the world or I really needed. Still that’s never stopped Hollywood before so in swoops the magical nanny in the Banks family’s hour of need once again to offer her services as a caretaker, deliver some sage advice and sing a few catchy tunes.

Decades have gone by since her previous visit and Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are now adults living together in Interwar England with Michael’s three children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). The Banks family has fallen onto hard times since the death of Michael’s wife and the grieving residents of 17 Cherry Tree Lane are in danger of losing their home. Michael, unable to support his children as an artist, has had to take a job at the bank where his father worked but that alone won’t be enough unless he can find the certificate proving their ownership of the late Mr. Banks’ shares. Enter Mary Poppins (who, despite now looking like Emily Blunt, hasn’t aged a day) armed with her talking parrot umbrella and TARDIS handbag to offer her help in this desperate time. She gets to work immediately with the children and leads them on a whimsical, musical adventure as she imparts upon them such lessons as the necessity of doing their chores, the importance of good manners and, most importantly, how the death of their mother doesn’t mean that her memory and spirit are lost to them. Following them on this journey is local cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Assuming the role created by P.L. Travers and made iconic by Julie Andrews, the always delightful Blunt delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Poppins. Walking that very fine line between being playful but serious, fanciful but elegant, and tender but stern, she manages to evoke and capture the very essence of the maturely childish (or childishly mature) and enchanting nanny in the vein of Andrews without imitating her. She makes the character her own, bringing this knowing smile and sly wink which never betray a thing as she maintains her graceful, dignified composure throughout, remaining at all times as unknowable and imperceptible as Willy Wonka or Totoro. Her performance is an astonishing achievement considering that the film allows her far too few opportunities to actually distinguish herself from her 1964 counterpart and carve out her own path. Nearly every plot development and diversion that occurs is so blatantly a rehash of something that happened in the first film that this purported sequel might as well be a remake. Mary leads the kids into an animated realm where musical hijinks with cartoon animals take place, heads out to meet an eccentric relative for a gravity-defying kerfuffle, and then her working class industrial sidekick launches into a lively song-and-dance number about his profession. It’s only by virtue of Blunt’s uncanny ability to elevate whatever material is handed to her that this incarnation of Poppins feels at all distinct from the one we know.

For a movie that so enthusiastically champions the wonders and possibilities of the imagination, the gratification of learning to see something from a different perspective and the delight and relief that can be found through escapism, Mary Poppins Returns is pretty unimaginative, formulaic and unadventurous. Despite all the time that’s gone by, this new movie feels like it’s trapped in the past and is desperately unable to move forward in any meaningful way, opting to instead retread familiar ground and revisit themes and ideas that the 1964 film already did an adequate job exploring. In the first film, the Banks family weren’t in any particularly sorry state but they all, the father especially, needed Mary Poppins in their lives so that they could be reminded of all the things that truly mattered. For a moment it seems like the second movie go a step further by showing how imagination and good-spiritedness can be used for more than fun and affection, they can be used as a source of comfort and healing in dark times and a means of understanding and solving our greatest worries. That would have been a great moral for the film to teach but it never follows through on that idea. Instead the movie’s lesson seems to be that if you worry less about your real world problems and seek amusement and distraction where you can, those problems will end up solving themselves.

This might not be a huge issue for me if the movie hadn’t done such a good job of establishing the woes of the Banks family and how badly they need a miracle like Mary Poppins to arrive on their doorstep. Usually when a children’s movie has an absent parental figure, it’s a cheap way of scoring some easy sympathy points while saving them the trouble of having to include an additional (usually female) character in their story. Here, the loss of the mother is a constant source of pain and despair for the family and the struggle to cope and move on together is one that the film is actually interested in exploring. There’s a very affective scene where Whishaw sits alone in the attic singing about his beloved where, even though I’m normally not a fan of non-singers being made to perform in musicals, his unpolished vulnerability is just right to get the tears flowing. With this and the additional trouble of the bank threatening to repossess their house, it seems to me that the last thing Michael and the kids need is to be distracted by cartoon musical extravaganzas and dancing lamplighters. They need solutions and fast. Having Poppins fly in to offer a few light-hearted diversions and then presenting the solution that the family needs in the form of a Deus-ex-Machina just doesn’t sit very well with me. It doesn’t feel whimsical, it just feels lazy.

Maybe this is the result of having a fantasy movie where the best scenes tend to take place in the real world. As with the original Mary Poppins this movie is jam-packed with musical sequences, yet few of the new songs that are featured are very memorable. It might not seem fair to say that when you consider that the songs from the first film such as ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ have had decades to cement their place in the public’s consciousness, but these are all songs that I remember quite well despite not having watched the film in years. In this case I can barely hum half the songs from the movie’s soundtrack. It’d be one thing for the songs to be unremarkable if their performances were at least fun to watch, but Marshall’s insistence on constantly cutting between wide shots, close ups and reaction shots without framing them in any imaginative way or letting them last long enough for the viewer to really appreciate the extravagance of the sets or the talent on display in the dance choreography puts a stop to any of that. The welcome exception is in the porcelain bowl escapade where Blunt, Miranda and their cartoon animal friends perform a vaudeville piece called ‘The Cover is Not the Book’, the catchy chorus of which does keep returning to my head. That whole sequence is a fun-filled romp where live-action and 2D animation compliment each other in all the right ways and that even manages to put Miranda’s rapping skills to the test as he goes on an elaborate tangent in his Dick Van Dyke cockney accent.

Overall, Mary Poppins Returns is little more than a mostly derivative, sometimes charming and occasionally fantastic distraction. Like half of Disney’s live-action output, it’s a movie that seeks to profit on the back of the nostalgia its title and premise inspire, but there’s a difference between reviving or reinventing a story and recycling it. There’s a way to revisit old stories and compliment, reflect and expand on them without going through the same motions all over again in such a way that it feels like nothing at all has changed and you needn’t have bothered. Disney did it before in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a sequel that followed the same basic story beats as A New Hope, but did so in order to establish a familiar continuity from which they could launch a new story with new characters and to demonstrate the way in which history repeats itself and stories and legends reverberate over time. Here it just feels like Marshall and screenwriter Magee followed the exact same story as before because they couldn’t come up with any better ideas. While it is able to recapture the wondrous past for a few fleeting moments, that it’s constantly looking backwards is the reason why it will never be a classic in its own right.

★★★