Posts Tagged historic films
Year of release: 2018 Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, and James Smith.
The first time I watched The Favourite, around thirty minutes into it, I gasped and turned to the friends I was watching it with, unable to believe what I was hearing and seeing. The compiled score had begun employing an organ piece, one that I knew and loved: “Jesus Accepts His Suffering” from La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen.
At this point in the plot, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) had decided to attempt suicide, because her sufferings were beyond endurance since her favourite lady in waiting, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), had left her alone for too long to run the state.
I cannot think of a more perfect musical commentary on the vanity, shallowness, and manipulative character of the Queen as portrayed here. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to love this film.
Given my past experiences with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, my love for The Favourite is surprising. Dogtooth remains one of the five worst films I’ve ever seen; I hated it so much I resolved to skip The Lobster until two friends said it was their favorite film of 2015. After hating that, I was going to skip The Killing of a Sacred Deer until I acquired a screener by chance, so I watched it, and while it was the first time that I thought Lanthimos allowed his absurdism to be a little bit playful, I still found the overarching misanthropy tiring.
However, The Favourite is different. For one thing the outside influences of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara mitigates Lanthimos’ tendency to bludgeon his morbid jokes to a point well beyond death. The historical setting also makes this much easier to swallow as a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity and envy as depicted through the corruption of the early eighteenth-century British court.
The vanity of Queen Anne makes her a Lear-like figure, wanting to be loved but mistaking flattery for love. Her tragic arc mirrors his in a totally expected way. I even described this to a friend as King Lear retold as a dark comedy from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan. Here, those two characters are Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone).
The defining characteristic of envy, as distinct from jealousy, is the inability to be happy for another’s good fortune. As the two ladies in waiting vie for the favouritism of the Queen, they become obsessed with their own success to the point that the other becomes a threat who must be eliminated. It’s a backstabbing story that Rachel Weisz has fittingly compared to All About Eve.
Instead of being set in a dog-eat-dog world of show business, The Favourite ruthlessly critiques the political world of Queen Anne’s court for being the same. The historical basis for the film is the transfer of power in Parliament from the Whigs to the Tories toward the end of her reign. England’s two-party system emerged during Queen Anne’s reign, and the inevitable reality of a two-party political system is that one side’s success means the other’s misfortune. The envy between the two women plays out on a less personal and more political level between the leader of the Whigs, Lord Godolphin (James Smith), and the leader of the Tories, Mister Harley (Nicholas Hoult), as both Sarah and Abigail form alliances to their advantages.
The reality of two women manipulating a power system designed by and for men is that they must work behind the scenes while letting the men think themselves still in charge. It takes a toll on the female characters, which can be seen by the absence of any Cordelia-like character in this twist on King Lear, since this sort of world has no place for such kindness, as Sarah warns Abigail in an early scene. The cost of navigating such a world comes to a climax when the results of Abigail’s nastiest act are crosscut with a debauched party among the foppish men of the court.
Naturally, sexuality features prominently into the attempts to control and use other people. In a world where the wisest choice is first and foremost staying on your own side, using people as sexual objects to get ahead makes perfect sense. Both Abigail and Sarah exploit the loneliness of Queen Anne through intimacy, compounding their envy. Abigail’s desperate state began because she was sold into an abusive marriage by her drunken father, and she reverses that fate through a second marriage which culminates in an hilariously loveless wedding night.
However, as caustic as the humor is throughout the film, there is real sympathy for all three women and their misfortunes. Queen Anne lost seventeen children, and Olivia Colman achieves incredible pathos in her portrayal of the monarch in the midst of the absurdity of the court. When Sarah is forced to reckon with the consequences of her envy, Rachel Weisz brilliantly depicts an unrepentant woman who has lost the only life she has known. As Emma Stone’s Abigail absorbs the manipulative mentality of the court, she transitions from wishing to better herself to harming others in a way that evokes pity for the other two women who grew up in such an environment.
If anyone is unfamiliar with the British history that forms the basic plot points of the story, the fantastic compiled score hints at the eventual outcome. Didascalies, a minimalist work by Luc Ferrari consisting of only two pitches occurs at two crucial moments, linking the characters who most deserve one another. Messiaen’s La Nativité features prominently whenever Queen Anne makes a decision that changes her relationship with her two ladies in waiting, usually because she believes she is the center of the universe. As a means of suggesting the one character who is gradually falling out of favour, three increasingly ominous organ pieces by J. S. Bach, who is notably different from the other composers, serve as underscoring for significant events affecting her.
There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and The Favourite walks both sides of it, acknowledging the absurdism of the decadent British court and its cruelty while not shying away from the destruction wrought by both.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content advisory: Several sex scenes (mostly out of frame), nudity, harsh obscenities, gruesome aftermath of an injury, animal cruelty, and abusive behavior throughout. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Year of release: 2018 Directed by Josie Rourke. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, and David Tennant.
“Better a live rat than a dead lion.” So says a character in one of the best plays and movies about the religious convictions and subsequent conflicts instigated by the English reformation. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lives by the conviction “better a dead lion than a live rat.” In 1561, with tensions between Catholics and Protestants still high in Europe, that is a dangerous principle to hold, and for anyone who knows their British history, it is one that cost Mary dearly.
The latest cinematic telling of that history assumes that knowledge, and it opens with brilliant crosscutting between Mary processing to her execution in 1587, Elizabeth I approaching her throne, and then back to Mary’s return to Scotland from France in 1561. The imagery draws a powerful parallel between the two queens, foreshadowing the ensuing conflict with a bookend that suggests their inevitable fates. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in the film such thought is given to the editing, and the rest of the film settles into a fairly rote history lesson, highlighting the main points in the power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.
That is not to say Mary Queen of Scots is a bad history lesson. With grandiose and austere production design, stylish costumes and makeup, a talented cast, and some beautiful cinematography of the Scottish countryside the whole film remains watchable. However, the script and pacing are too pedestrian for the film as a whole to rise to the level of its parts or themes.
This is a strongly feminist take on Mary Stuart and her desire to unify England and Scotland, which I believe is not unusual for films about her. What is unusual is something that I’ve only seen in one other film, The Girl King from 2015. Both these films about strong female monarchs who are Catholic or wish to become Catholic, which functions a rebellion against their patriarchal Protestant courts, not only link Catholicism with protagonists’ feminism but also with their liberalism and anachronistic pro-LGBTQ beliefs.
As bizarre as this may seem, especially in twenty-first century America, I think there are parallels in that comparison worth exploring. In England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catholics were a persecuted minority, much the same way LGBTQ people were for nearly all of the twentieth century. If a misogynistic patriarchy is the established norm throughout most of Western history, linking that to the dominant religion of a period film’s setting is not an illogical decision—after all, religion has often been abused to rationalize power struggles. Continuing this dramatic license, if a minority religion is then linked to the ways in which a female protagonist challenges said patriarchy, I think there is a dramaturgical basis for the comparisons made here.
However, I think the ideas themselves are more interesting than the film’s handling of them. That above paragraph is probably more thought than any of the filmmakers gave to those themes, as the driving force behind most dramatic choices seems to be: Mary is a progressive rebel.
The recurring motive throughout the movie is that Mary is too independent, and her taking agency of herself like a man threatens the toxic masculinity of the Scottish and English lords. As a contrast with Mary, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) defers to her council and allows herself to be parliament’s pawn. In one of the film’s better exchanges, she tells her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that the throne has made her more of a man than anyone else, but she has just embraced the desires of the power-hungry men surrounding her. The woman who acts as an equal with the men is Mary, and she is detested for it.
This power struggle mostly plays out through the determination of the Protestant nobles to prevent England from ever having another Catholic monarch. Overlaying the sixteenth century religious conflict with a contemporary feminist angle creates a parallel between the bigotries of five hundred years ago and those of today, as can be seen in David Tennant’s frothing at the mouth, right-wing fundamentalist portrayal of John Knox.
The one performer who really stands out is Margot Robbie. Her final two scenes walk a perfect balance between Elizabeth’s compassion for her cousin and the role she has embraced in serving her council. It’s probably the best example of the film’s themes of religion and gender roles in a society dominated by men.
I am a huge fan of Ronan, and I firmly believe that she was robbed in losing awards for both Brooklyn and Lady Bird. However, her performance here, while very good, lacks the empathy those other characters had, and as fitting as her austerity is for Mary, it pales next to the range of emotions Robbie achieves in her portrayal of Elizabeth.
As a story of two queens caught between men’s games of political intrigue, the film never quite achieves the urgency and tension it should. Nonetheless, telling this chapter of history solely from their perspectives makes for a thematically fascinating subversion. Since the winners get to write history, the losers of conflicts are often reviled, sometimes rightly and other times not. Mary Queen of Scots was viciously reviled by the English and her subjects during her lifetime while Elizabeth I was beloved. The film’s modern lens invites us to consider the reasons behind that, and it is an idea I appreciated even as I wish the film did more with it.
Personal Recommendation: B-
Content advisory: An off-screen rape, a bloody assassination, several consensual sex scenes—one rather violent, non-graphic wartime violence, and fleeting nudity. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults
Many thanks to Darryl Armstrong for inviting me to contribute to Rise Up Daily with a review of one of my favorite movies, which happens to be one of my favorite Christmas movies as well.
Year of Release: 2018 Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold, and Topher Grace.
About a week ago on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went off on an unhinged rant lamenting that the country [white America] once knew and loved is being changed for the worse by the non-white demographics who come here illegally and legally, not dissimilar from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard’s (Alec Baldwin) rant which opens this film. A year ago our president called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” while referring to peaceful black protestors as “sons of bitches.” Active members of the Nazi party are running for republican house seats in multiple states. Sadly, there are Americans who deny the obvious: racism is still a massive problem in America, and it has found a welcome home in the republican party which now controls our country.
Of course, this is not new. Perhaps the president spouting openly racist rhetoric with vigorous support from his base is, but Woodrow Wilson infamously hosted a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House, and reportedly called it “history written with lightning” when the film was directly responsible for the return of the KKK and the rise of lynchings and baseless arrests of black people. (To be fair to Wilson, those words may have been falsely attributed to him by the book’s author.)
It was civil rights leader James Baldwin who said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro a few years ago, I first became aware of a reality of white dominated entertainment for non-white youth. Baldwin discussed being a black child and watching TV shows or movies in which the white hero with whom the audience is expected to identify must kill the black (or Indian) villains. In watching such shows, Black and American Indian children are therefore expected to root for their own destruction.
Spike Lee knows all of this, and his newest film BlacKkKlansman does as well. The first scene that drills this home is when rookie police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black man on the Colorado Springs force, goes undercover to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to make sure there is no threat of blacks starting a race war against whites. As Ture delivers a passionate address to a floating sea of black faces, the truth of his call for black people to accept themselves as they are and not remake themselves to be like white people inspires not only the crowd of adoring college students but the undercover Stallworth as well.
At that rally Stallworth also meets a young black woman Patrice (Laura Harrier) who maintains the police (or pigs as she calls them) are part of an inherently racist, capitalist system designed to profit off the suppression of black people. As Stallworth and Patrice begin a relationship, Stallworth insists there are good cops who can work within the system to fix it. While the film respects the reasons behind her charges, it also clearly depicts all the good cops can do when they don’t abuse their power.
For his next undercover operation, Stallworth infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, meeting the local chapter leader by phone, and later grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) as well. When they meet face to face, his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron to infiltrate the KKK (or the organization as it members insist on calling it) and prevent attacks against black citizens, threats which are far more serious coming from the KKK than from a big talking member of the Black Panthers, especially when there are racist cops who will defend any white person and over a century of oppression against blacks.
If there’s any flaw in the film, as Alissa Wilkinson notes, it’s that it lets white viewers off too easily. While it is certainly true that any remotely progressive white viewers (read: those who oppose Trump) will not feel guilty even if they have unwittingly supported racism in the past, and the film certainly lacks the savage audience indictment of The Wolf of Wall Street, the hero of the film is Ron Stallworth, and not some fictitious white dude smashing down a “whites only” sign. To be sure, the other three members of Ron’s team are wonderful allies, but the film makes it clear how unfortunately rare such people are.
Last year’s Mudbound did not give white viewers an heroic character to identify with. The best white characters stood on the sidelines helplessly as the black characters suffered horrific injustices, the worst gleefully carried out those injustices, and the vast majority blindly perpetuated a system of abuse. That is probably a more realistic, if bleaker, portrayal of racism in America. Here, the majority of the white cops support Ron, but they also turn a knowing blind eye to the racist cop on the force, and the chief proudly states how he supports J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of black citizens. Still they mostly manage to come around by the film’s end. It might verge on wish fulfillment, but there are stories of it happening, and it fits naturally into the comic arc of the film.
Yes, I said comic. To quote St. Thomas More, “The devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked.” The film mocks the diabolical KKK ruthlessly, as illiterate morons who are baffled and terrified that their “superior genes” are being replaced by educated blacks and Jews. Watching Ron rant about his hatred for anyone who doesn’t have “pure white Aryan blood” in order to trap the local Klan leader is one of the best scenes of the year, as is Ron’s revelation of his real identity to David Duke. At the same time, the film never undermines the danger and threat of the KKK, heightening the tension and the laughs created by their idiocy.
Befitting a comedy, Spike Lee’s broad storytelling is about as far removed from subtle as humanly possible. If the scenes of the KKK chanting “America first!” or saying they want to make America great (read: white) again or a cop explaining to Ron that racists now cloak their racism in economics, immigration, and other policies so more Americans will go along with them, and one day David Duke will endorse his ideal candidate for president are not blatant enough, then the final scenes of footage from last year’s Charlottesville rally followed by the president’s damning “very fine people” remarks cement the parallels Lee wishes to draw between the KKK of the sixties and the current administration.
There’s an inherent power to images and stories. At the film’s climax Lee crosscuts between a Klan meeting and black student rally, contrasting the violent hatred of one with the peaceful nobility of the other. By opening with a clip from Gone with the Wind and later showing scenes from Birth of a Nation, Lee shows how the damning stereotypes from films shaped the way multiple generations thought about black people. He shows how those stereotypes have continued to today, but he also shows how progress has been made before, and since history repeats, how it can hopefully be made again.
Personal recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: Recurring racial epithets, depictions of racially inspired violence, disturbing descriptions of torture, occasional obscenities. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Michael Gracey. Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.
The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.
The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.
“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.
“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.
Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.
However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.
Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).
Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.
Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.
Personal Recommendation: B
Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up