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.

★★★★

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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.

★★★