Fighting with My Family

Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Writer: Stephen Merchant


Cinema has seen some truly spectacular boxing movies over the years (Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, the list goes on), but not so much with pro wrestling (the only notable example that comes to mind for me is Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). I think this is reflective of a certain perception (some might call it snobbery) that views boxing as a more valid and prestigious sport whereas wrestling is dismissed as inauthentic and silly. While the latter certainly has its very passionate fanbase, I do think a lot of people look down on wrestling for what they see as fakery even though, as stressed in this new film, there is a marked difference between a sport being fixed and fake. Fighting with My Family follows GLOW, a criminally underrated Netflix show about female pro wrestling, in the recent tradition of media that have found more to the sport than what people typically dismiss. It tells the story of a young woman whose dream is to become a WWE champion and of the blood, toil, tears and sweat that got her there. It’s a comedy film and it’s really more about family than it is wrestling, but what stood out the most for me was the film’s utterly sincere and wholehearted regard for pro wrestling both in its demanding athleticism and its unabashed theatricality.

Based on a true story that became the basis of a similarly titled documentary in 2012, Fighting with My Family tells the story of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), a young girl from a wrestling family in Norwich who would go on to become Paige, a world-famous WWE champion. All her life, having been raised by her wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) and been taught to fight since as soon as she could walk, she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have only ever had one dream, to make it in the big leagues in the USA. Together as a family they run a local wrestling ring where they put on fights and train the local youth (including a blind boy) in the sport they all love so dearly. When the siblings are invited to London to audition for the WWE, it looks like the stars are aligning and the chance has come for them to realise their dreams together. Only that’s not quite how it works out. Hutch (Vince Vaughn), the talent scout and trainer they must impress, picks Paige (the stage name Saraya has picked after her favourite character on Charmed) to advance to the next stage, a wrestling boot camp in Florida, while her brother is sent home. All on her own in a foreign country, her quest for wrestling stardom pushes Paige to the very brink of her physical and emotional limits.

As far as Paige’s story goes, Fighting with My Family is a fairly typical sports film. From day one of her training she is presented to us as an outcast amongst her American peers. As well as being a working-class Brit, Paige favours a Gothic appearance complete with dyed black hair and facial piercings which clashes with the blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders she gets paired with and her anxieties lead her to lash out against them. Not only is she inconsolably lonely, she is also burdened by the guilt she feels for having been chosen for this once in a lifetime opportunity over the brother whom she felt deserved it more as well as a pathological fear of blowing her shot and letting her loved ones down. The pressure she feels couldn’t be more unbearable, except she also has a harsh and unsympathetic trainer pushing her all the harder because he apparently sees something in her that she is unable to see in herself. The film walks a fine line between having Paige as enough of an underdog that we naturally root for her to succeed and having her be flawed enough that she needs to grow up before she can win her climatic triumph. Part of what makes her an outcast, for example, is her derision for her fellow trainees whom she doesn’t see as real wrestlers, a bias that she overcomes by the end of the film when she eventually befriends the women and realises that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her.

The movie isn’t just about Paige overcoming the obstacles and winning, it’s also about her search for identity, which is the part of the story that I found to be the most lacking in development and substance. This is connected to the aspect of wrestling that many often find to be off-putting, the soap-opera-like performance of it all. The idea, as this film puts it, is to create a character with something personal and unique to say and to use the ring as a platform to tell their stories. Paige, for whom wrestling has always been a family affair, has to decide once and for all who she really is beyond that context and what it is she wants to say for herself. Pugh is certainly to be commended for the grit, humour and determinism she brings to the role, but for a film that places so much weight on the need for Paige to build a persona that is hers and hers alone, that aspect of her journey doesn’t get the focus it demands, leading to a payoff that feels more clichéd than earned. It’s my understanding that the real-life Paige was a truly groundbreaking figure in pro wrestling, a woman who lived and breathed wrestling in a world where female competitors seldom came from a wrestling background. I hoped the film would depict a more personality-driven story that delved more into how Saraya actually became Paige, but the films instead leans more on the physical challenge she faces, just like the countless sports movies that came before.

Still, as I said before, this isn’t really a movie about wrestling, it’s actually about family. The moments when Paige is with her parents and brother are when the film is at its most enjoyable and touching. The film dedicates a surprising amount of time and nuance towards the parallel struggle of Zak, who is made to reckon with the cruel revelation that he is simply not good enough to make his greatest dream a reality. Sports films are often so ready to celebrate the hero’s victories that many of them tend not to dwell too much on their failures and what it really means when you’re not a main character destined for glory. Zak is so crushed by the harshness of his rejection, the loss of his drive and ambition and the sense of unfairness clouding it all that he finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into a dark pit of resentment and thwarted dreams that threatens to consume him. Offering a lighter touch are Frost and Headey playing as the parents, essentially a pair of overgrown children who love what they do, are always up for a laugh, but who are ready to offer a helping hand and words of profane wisdom when it’s needed. The film also features an extended cameo by Dwayne Johnson, who is always a delight even when his appearance feels inescapably gimmicky. Like its main character, Fighting with My Family is flawed and a little rough around the edges, but it’s also funny, charming, and a pretty good time when all is said and done.

★★★★

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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.

★★★★

Dunkirk

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan


There are some movies that demand to be watched and some that demand to be experienced. Gravity is a good example. I saw Gravity in 3D at the cinema when it first came out in 2013 and I was blown away. The scale, the scope, the sensation, Gravity was a movie that transported me and once it was over I almost felt like I had spent the last couple of hours in space and had just returned. That was four years ago and I haven’t seen the movie since. Unless it’s being screened in a cinema in 3D, there’s just no point. I’ve never even considered going out to buy a DVD because I know that watching it on TV or on my laptop would not do the movie justice. It’s too big, too dynamic, too spectacular. There are some movies that simply must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Dunkirk is one of those movies.

Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940 evacuation of over 300,000 British soldiers following their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in their invasion and conquest of France. The story is told through three different timelines, all focusing on three different sets of characters with three different goals. The first timeline takes place on land and its events transpire over the course of week. It follows a young private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately trying to escape from the beach by any and all means with the help of fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) while Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to orchestrate the whole evacuation from the Mole (the pier where the soldiers set up their base as they wait for the ships). The second takes place on the sea over the course of a day. It follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner who sets sail on his boat with his son and his friend to help with the evacuations. On the way they rescue the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a shipwreck. The third timeline takes place in the air over the course of an hour and it follows Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they take down as many German fighters as they can for as long as the little fuel they have lasts.

I saw this movie in IMAX and the effect is astonishing. There are two things Nolan can do as a director at which he is almost peerless: scale and tension. He excels at depicting large, complex narratives with huge ideas driving them and he can draw his audience to the very edge of their seats and hold them there for what feels like an eternity. Dunkirk allows him to showcase these talents like never before and as I sat there watching it on a screen that was larger than life with sound that engulfed me from every direction, I honestly felt like I was there. From the very first frame we are dropped right into the action as Tommy flees a troop of enemy soldiers and stumbles onto the beach and, in every single moment that follows, the tension never falters for a second. Dunkirk does not feel so much like a war film as it does like a disaster film. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that commands each scene as each character restlessly await the arrival of a rescue party, without any knowledge of when it will arrive or if it will be enough, while dreading the impending arrival of an enemy whose movements are similarly indefinite. This is a race against time for the British army and Nolan does a fantastic job of stressing that motif, not just with his time-jumping structure but also with Hans Zimmer’s score which evokes a ticking clock.

Although the time-jumping structure does work incredibly well for the film, I do wish I’d known about it going in or that the movie had made it clearer that that was the approach they were going for. The only hand-holding the movie gives here is a trio of brief captions naming only the place and the timespan. That by itself would be sufficient if you already knew what they meant, but I hadn’t a clue and was quite disorientated for the 15-20 minutes it took me to work out what was happening. Once I’d figured it out though, I was absolutely mesmerised by the intricacies of how these three stories affected and interacted with each other. There’s one scene where one of the pilots must make an emergency landing in the sea and lets out a wave to his commander, one that he takes to mean all is well. It isn’t until we see that same landing from the perspective of those in the boat that we understand the wave was something else entirely. The structure can also be used for poetic effect, such as in a sequence near the end where the landing of a plane is shown to take as long as the boarding and launching of a naval fleet.

I’ve always liked Nolan more as a director than as a writer because I’ve found that his dialogue is often too contrived and expository and his characters too flat and artificial. With Dunkirk though it would seem that Nolan has gone out of his way to avoid these pitfalls and it works out wonderfully. The movie’s use of dialogue is so minimal that it could have almost been a silent movie (if not for the deafening sounds of planes, gunfire and explosions). The bond between Tommy and Gibson is one that goes almost entirely unspoken; theirs is a comradeship built on a recognition that they are stuck in the same hell and need to help each other and it is expressed through actions and gestures. The movie follows the example set by Malick’s The Thin Red Line by treating its characters more as units of a whole rather than as individuals. They’re all struggling together and the film is only interested in their personalities and individual plights insofar as they relate to the larger crisis. It is therefore a testament to the fine acting at work and the carefully chosen lines of dialogue they are given that we are able to feel so strongly for these characters and fear for their survival.

As opposed to most 20th century conflicts, the Second World War is one that the Brits and Americans often look back on with a selective, venerated memory. Dunkirk in particular proved to be an event of symbolic significance to Britain as it appealed to their perception of themselves as the steadfast underdog fighting against evil and adversity. Nolan has sought to depict a demythologised version of Dunkirk. He does not do this however by showing the graphic brutalities of war with blood and guts flying all over the place the way they were in Hacksaw Ridge. He chooses instead to portray the emotional turmoil of all those involved in the evacuations; the despair of the soldiers stranded in a foreboding warzone, the anxiety of not knowing whether or when rescue or ruin would come, the cold and utter shame of their defeat. It is also significant that, while the threat of the German army is ever present, we seldom see the German soldiers and, even then, only at a distance. The film isn’t interested in portraying them as villains because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about these soldiers and the arduous trial they all suffered and endured together. In the end when the movies allows for some sentimentality, it is completely earned.

Dunkirk is a cinematic triumph, one that somehow feels both epically huge and intimately small. The scale of the action taking place is immense and executed to technical perfection. The opening sequence where Tommy darts around alley corners and over garden fences as the enemy pursues him, the panic and chaos that ensues when dozens of men frantically try to escape from a sinking ship, the hectic dogfights between the Spitfire planes and the German aircrafts, these are all intense moments that grip the viewer and transport them right into the film. And yet the human element is never lost. Whether it’s the fear of a young man of being forsaken, the torment of a traumatised soldier, or the pressure felt by a pilot flying solo and on reserve fuel, Dunkirk allows us to fully understand and appreciate the trials and tribulations of those who were caught in the middle of this tight spot. Dunkirk is not a great watch, it is a great experience and (I really cannot stress this enough) it is one that must be seen in the cinema.

★★★★★