Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The film just received a slew of Golden Globe nominations, which is always both a compliment and something producing a mild guffaw to those familiar with the Globes’ history. But in this case, it seems the nominations are mostly deserved.

The film is rough—in topic, attitude (at times) and language. It concerns an angry and unforgiving mother (Frances McDormand, Oscar-winner for Fargo back in 1997) whose daughter’s rape-and-murder case is unsolved. To move things along, she rents out three billboards calling attention to the local police force’s apparent lack of success or interest. She names the chief of police by name, causing rifts and anger in the townspeople, who understand her deep sadness but aren’t tracking with her methods.

There are a lot of ways to look at Three Billboards. It’s perhaps the year’s best acting showcase; it’s a study in rage, unforgiveness and hate; and it’s a look into life in the kind of rural setting that mainstream films don’t usually explore.

First, the acting. McDormand may well win her second Oscar for this role. She’s unapologetically ugly and relentless in character (and scruffy in appearance, to say the least), with an occasional display of humor (usually very dark humor). Her fierce rage coats her sense of sadness and loss, making her consistently hard to relate to, even as we sympathize with her plight. McDormand is an American treasure, and this unusual lead role gives her the opportunity to show us how gifted she really is. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Sam Rockwell is another reason. He finally gets the role that shows what he can do. It’s a difficult one, and one that isn’t always believable in its various turns. But it’s rich and complex, and Rockwell may pick up his own Oscar for it (he’ll certainly be nominated). In many ways, his character is the most intriguing in the film, even moreso than McDormand’s. And his performance moves from the supporting category to the male lead over time, which takes the film in different and more interesting directions, and which is catnip for folks voting for supporting performances.

Just as good is Woody Harrelson, who would be nominated for his role (IMHO) if Rockwell weren’t garnering all the attention. His role as the police chief named on the billboard is a fine character study of a man of surprising depth and sensitivity. Harrelson’s background in comedy comes in handy here, as it helps express the softer and even lighter side of a man who cares deeply about things, is kinder than you expect, and is smarter than first appearances might suggest. It’s a role of unexpected impact, and (spoiler alert) when his character is gone, his presence isn’t.

Even the more minor roles are strong. Lucas Hedges (Oscar nominated for last year’s Manchester by the Sea) is solid as McDormand’s character’s son. Relative newcomer Caleb Landry Jones creates a complex but utterly believable character as the one renting the billboards. John Hawkes as the ex-husband is as good as he always is, though his new romantic relationship doesn’t always ring with truth. Peter Dinklage has a rather thankless role, and does his best with it, though the role borders on the unbelievable as well. And the criminally underutilized Zeljko Ivanek is strong as a sargeant, but is … underutilized.

The film is written and co-directed by Britain’s Martin McDonagh, probably best known for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The screenplay is strong in conception, and often prefers (wisely and effectively) to leave out the visualization of some actions in favor of showing the responses. It’s a bit too strong on coincidence (or at least apparent coincidence), and the narrative turns it takes are not always completely believable. Perhaps the greatest challenge to most viewers will be the story directions taken by the film after such a strong narrative set-up. The subplots may be one or two too many, and the (spoiler alert again) lack of resolution of one thread and the decision to have the two leads head off in a different direction challenges credibility. The intense lock-down of the actors on their characters, however, goes a long way in smoothing over some of the bumpier story elements.

The film’s themes, which often are so deeply buried in other films, suggest that they are to be more readily viewed here. The big question is what McDonagh is trying to say. The phrase “hate begets hate” is actually spoken (rather than inferred), and more than once, and in such a way as to comically neutralize it as a genuine theme. Is he afraid of pulling the idea up to the surface, feeling it necessary to compromise the reading with humor?

The role of parenting in creating broken, hateful people is uncomfortably and shockingly portrayed, and not only in the most obvious character. Regret, too, is demonstrated, subtly and indirectly and therefore more powerfully. The film almost falls apart with the introduction of a deus ex machina person and situation that is initially satisfying, if only shallowly, and then frays into insignificance.

Lastly, the film is an outsider’s look at rural America. There are moments of grace and respect, and moments of borderline condescension. But this is primarily a character study of many a character, a study that rises above its setting and even its narrative threads. It’s not an easy view (and the f-bombs are voluminous and perhaps just a bit overused), but it’s a unique journey into a place, a series of related events, and the ins and outs of the human heart.

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Quick Hits: Blade Runner 2049 and Thor: Ragnarok

Blade Runner 2049

Both these films—but especially Blade Runner 2049—deserve much more analysis than I provide here. But the first has been written about endlessly, and contains enough filmic (and literary) references to support a doctoral thesis. Like its predecessor, it’s a “not what we hoped for” semi-success that will eventually become a cult classic.

It’s a gorgeous film, and will the Academy please give cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit, No Country for Old Men plus 10 more nominations) his long overdue win? The production design is mesmerizing, which is the film’s strength and weakness. It’s a beautiful work of art, but except for rabid fans of the original and the idea, it’s not engaging.

It’s a good story, which I generally don’t bother with in these analyses. It pays tribute to the original (which is neither good nor bad), and is fresh and original in its own way, with discoveries and twists and turns that keep the story moving. Except that it moves s-o s-l-o-w-l-y. S-o v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) certainly knows how to tell a slow story (Arrival), but the narrative almost gets lost in the pacing and the stunning beauty of its images, which unlike the original vary greatly from sequence to sequence. Some will appreciate the stately flow of the film, punctuated by occasional violence. But at this point in the film’s run, I offer it as an explanation of its only moderate success, this especially after a nearly unprecedented marketing buildup. The story, as good as it is, isn’t allowed to come to the front of the line and grab the viewer.

The casting is near perfect, simply because Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Gosling is of course a very good actor. Yet here, his casual way of being just a few degrees outside of whatever is going on around him fits him here perhaps better than in any other role. In fact, that slight distance from his surroundings adds to the slight detachment the film’s look demands of the viewers, pulling them away from the storyline. Harrison Ford is a must for the film, but the film uses him well, and beyond just iconography. Some may quibble over how the film uses him in the story, but he gives his all with a freshness and energy we haven’t seen in a while.

Story isn’t everything, and I get that the film may be the most visually stunning in many a year. But when the visuals take precedence over the story—even a good one—the film risks alienating a good portion of its potential audience. Regular readers might be asking why I am not sticking to analyzing its artistry instead of evaluating its financial success. It’s because in this case, the visual artistry drowns out the narrative artistry.

Thor: Ragnarok

This one is simple. The movie is dumb fun. It’s wildly uneven, in keeping with trying to balance comic and superhero action tones. But it’s an inside-out version of the earlier Thor films, bringing the humor to the fore and nearly always keeping it there. Chris Hemsworth has always had that comic persona under the muscles, and it’s a joy to see him give priority to goofy humor. He’s an underutilized comedian.

In terms of the other two main characters, there’s a plus and a minus. There’s a lot of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which is always a good idea. The plot devices used to get him onscreen are not always the most believable, but does it really matter in a Marvel Comics film majoring in silly humor?

The downside is the performance of one of our most talented actresses, Cate Blanchett, and it’s probably not her fault. This double Oscar winner plays Thor’s and Loki’s long-lost older sister, and she plays it broadly. It needs a combination of intelligence, dry humor, and malevolence, which she provides in spades. But the performance is supposed to be the evil balancing act to the goodness and silliness of Thor, and it doesn’t quite fit. Likely this is due to the challenge of creating a world where Thor gets funny, Loki runs hot and cold, the requisite grand final battle plays itself out, and we are asked to believe in all that Asgard baloney. The elements don’t always mix (see the first Avengers film for a study in how to do that well), and it is only due to the consistency of Blanchett’s performance that her character fits at all into the scheme of things.

Probably the greatest success of the film is in its conception rather than its execution. It’s a great idea to pull away from the darkness (see all the DC Comics films) and head shamelessly into fun. It’s hoped that this might offer up some new avenues to explore in future superhero films other than action and a furrowed brow. In the meantime, this film is an uneven, sometimes incomprehensible mash-up of action and humor that if you let it, brings two hours of mindless enjoyment

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When Knighthood was in Flower, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and The Crowd

My voyages back into the cinema of yesterday have brought me to a few fascinating places lately. In chronological order of their initial release, I saw: When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and The Crowd (1928). For those that think that all black-and-white silent films are the same, trying seeing these three in a row. They couldn’t be more different from one another.

Aside from being the biggest hit of 1922 (a strange thing to type), Knighthood starred the legendary Marion Davies in the lead. This is the same Marion Davies that was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, was a physical comedienne who did excellent comic work when allowed to, and who was ignominiously misrepresented in the character of Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane.

The story is a surprisingly accurate telling of Henry VIII’s sister and her love life. Of course, liberties are taken right and left, but overall, the story of Mary Tudor is based on real events, and there are few major deviations. Davies is fine, and this film was her first hit. For modern viewers, perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the presence of a young, skinny William Powell, 12 years before The Thin Man. He plays a stereotypical part, and plays it stereotypically. But there he is, making his way up the Hollywood ladder.

Ben-Hur was a revelation in its restored glory. Yes, it’s old, but it’s more exciting and has a more dazzling chariot race sequence than the rather bloated 1959 version. The sea battle in the former film beats anything in the latter, and more of the religious elements are included (if rather non-specifically and even dated for then). Ramon Navarro as the title character carries the film as least as well as Charlton Heston did years later, even if Heston was five inches taller and more physically imposing.

The film is more episodic than the later version, and more oriented toward the occasional tableau. But that doesn’t affect the enjoyment of viewing it, and the beautiful tinting job done for the DVD is lovely and reminds us of how artists approached color in the pre-three-strip Technicolor era. This is the best-looking two-strip Technicolor work this author has ever seen.

The film hews close to the melodramatic style common to early sound films. But the overall effect is that this film is more moving than the 1959 version. Some of the quiet scenes are hushed and gently touching in a way the later wide-screen epic couldn’t approach. The back-story to the film tells the story, for those familiar with it, of a complete mess and a great deal of wasted money. It’s something of a miracle that it was completed at all. The fact that it is a cinematic triumph comes close to the impossible. For anyone wanting to see one old-fashioned epic, this might be the most enjoyable and best choice.

The Crowd, on the other hand, is something completely different. Coming at the tail end of the silent era (The Jazz Singer had come out the year before), the film functions as a gritty and realistic (if not downright depressing) tale of the common man, and is a virtual panoply of dazzling camerawork—one of the last such demonstrations before sound came in and locked down the camera. Apparently when French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard was asked why more films weren’t made with “ordinary people,” he is reputed to have said, “The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it?”

Director King Vidor was able to make this stark, big-budget art film because of his success with The Big Parade (https://film-prof.com/2017/07/16/the-big-parade-1925/). It addresses hopes and dreams, men and women, failures, the so-called American Dream, bad luck, and getting lost in “the crowd.” Turn-of-the–century New York City is a major character in the film, easily as much as the two leads. One lead was Vidor’s second wife, Eleanor Boardman, who is a little too Mae Marsh in Intolerance in the early part of the film (too many fingertips to the lips), but who develops her character beautifully and believably as the film goes on. It’s quit a mature performance. Vidor wanted an unknown for his male lead, and found one in James Murray, who became a star overnight with his performance here and seemed headed for a long and successful career. Unhappily, his alcoholism, apparently an issue while this film was made, became the monster that took him less than a decade later, after small and even uncredited parts in a variety of lesser films. Seeing his talent, energy and youth on display adds an extra frisson to a film that is already something of an emotional challenge to watch.

My journey through the silent continues. I’m back at 1920 at the moment. For anyone hesitant to go back there, remember that acquired tastes are often the tastiest.

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Two from 1945: The Body Snatcher and The Picture of Dorian Gray

In my never-ending effort to fill in the gaps of my film-viewing experience, I have been sloshing around in the silent era (another analysis on its way), but happened to have available to me two quite different offerings from 1945. Most film folks immediately think of The Lost Weekend, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound, and Anchors Aweigh when that year is mentioned. Few think of these other offerings, and there are good and bad reasons for that.

The Body Snatcher is the better film. It’s a Val Lewton film (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), but with higher production values and an award-worthy central performance. It’s based not on a script calling on Lewton’s Russian folklore memories, but on an 1884 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. To be brief and spoiler-less, it concerns a doctor needing corpses to help him teach future doctors about anatomy and surgery.

The doctor, played by Henry Daniell—who had some success in films and later in television—is solid enough, if not particularly exciting, and is almost imprecise at times in his characterization. His young student is played by Russell Wade, who is that generic nice-looking romantic male lead who has a pleasant screen presence and generic acting skills.

By far the best part of the film is the performance of Boris Karloff, who erases our memory of his playing Frankenstein’s monster with his work here. This is the kind of performance often described as “delicious,” as he is figuratively smacking his lips with enjoyment at sinking his teeth into such a juicy part. He blows everyone else out of the frame, and is intelligent, funny, and dangerous all at once. He’s a distinct pleasure to watch.

This is the last of several films that Karloff made “pairing” him with Dracula’s Bela Lugosi. This is hardly an actual pairing, though, as Karloff owns the film, and Lugosi plays a relatively unimportant and small role that could have been played by any actor his age. (The film even goes out of its way to provide some kind of lame excuse for the actor’s Hungarian accent, further dismissing the character.)

The film is directed by Robert Wise, now better known as the Oscar-winning director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Then he was the man who edited Citizen Kane, and had directed Curse of the Cat People for Lewton. The film lacks the unseen horror brought by director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca that so distinguished Cat People, but has its own sense of foreboding. For those interested in Lewton’s work, or Wise’s, the film is a must. For everyone else, there is the sheer joy of watching Karloff in perhaps his best role.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is too fast, too slow, too focused, too unfocused, and all over the place in the quality of its performances. It tells the Oscar Wilde tale [spoiler alert] of a young and very handsome dissolute man who doesn’t age and a painting of him that does. Wilde’s cynical view of life is represented, fittingly, by George Sanders, who speaks so quickly that I was wondering if his pace was an attempt to confuse the censors by blowing right past them in his haste to get Wilde’s decadent worldview out. The title role is the weakest link—Hurd Hatfield—who is something of a soft pretty boy, and nothing like a real actor. (It’s been pointed out that the relatively small part played by Peter Lawford suggested how well he might have done in the part instead of Hatfield. He certainly was more conventionally handsome.)

Gray’s escapades could only be hinted at or softened greatly for a studio film of the mid-century, so his wild and decadent life is generally alluded to, a deadly aspect for a film that already was leaning far too much on the spoken word. We get the idea that he is hell-bent on pleasure, but we really aren’t allowed to find that out for ourselves as much as it is explained and explained and explained. Gray is supposed to remain the same on the outside while growing more depraved on the inside, but Hatfield can’t manage that, so he remains something of a blank throughout.

There are two reasons to see the film beyond its status as some kind of classic, or at least a film version of a classic novel. One is the cinematography, which features rich, deep-focus photography that won an Oscar and should be held up as a model of what deep-focus could do. It’s a different look for an MGM film of the time, and fits in nicely among its film betters such as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, and The Best Years of Our Lives. Believe it or not, there are spoilers connected with the cinematography, so you have to see it for yourself to discover them.

 

The other reason to see this (and you’d be forgiven for turning off the film after her character leaves the film) is a young Angela Lansbury. She’d won a Best Supporting Actress nomination (deservedly) the year earlier for her first film, Gaslight. This was her second, and it also—deservedly—earned her another nomination. It’s a different character from her role in Gaslight, much sweeter and more vulnerable. It’s also a far cry from either her frightening work in the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate or her more well known work as Jessica Fletcher in television’s Murder, She Wrote. She’s lovely and touching, and she owns every scene she’s in. She not only blows away everyone else she shares the screen with, but also makes Donna Reed, who plays the next “girl,” look pale and uninteresting by comparison. If someone only knows Lansbury from the stage or her later film and television work, it’s a delight to see her work in these first two films; it will be a delightful rediscovery of one of the greats.

 

These two films from 1945 are in most ways quite different from one another. One was quite costly, and the other was created on a shoestring. Yet they have in common an intriguing story, intriguing cinematography, and a performance well worth enjoying.

 

 

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Concussion

Concussion is a two-year-old film“based on” the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh pathologist who investigates the brain damage in former professional football players, and that is its main strength. His findings challenge the NFL to its core, and that is the central conflict of the film. Co-written and directed by Peter Landesman (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) this is possibly the best and only film addressing this topic at the moment, and hence is valuable primarily as a vehicle for a story that is fascinating and gripping, even if it isn’t always well served by this film version.

As in most films of this ilk, there is exaggeration for the sake of conflict. [Spoiler alert]. Government goons didn’t come after Omalu’s boss after the publication of his first significant article on brain damage in players, and Omalu wasn’t quite as supportive of his boss as the film would lead us to believe. I’m also not sure what to make of the set-up and development of his relationship with this wife, which comes off as staid Hollywood fairy tale rather than anything breathing of life.

Will Smith as the lead is the likely reason the film got made, and he holds it together. It’s a heartfelt performance, even if he doesn’t always lock down on the accent (Omalu is Nigerian). But Smith certainly looks different and carries himself differently here than in his other films, a triumph of a kind. There was the usual hubbub about his not getting an Oscar nomination, as if the only real reason was racism—hogwash. It was a good performance in a rather flawed film, and while it was steady, it certainly didn’t offer Smith much in the way of showing his acting chops beyond an almost-nailed accent and staying relatively consistent in playing a character quite different than himself. One who could have received an Oscar nomination in a supporting role is Albert Brooks, a criminally under-appreciated dramatic actor who should have won his own Oscar for Drive, where he wasn’t even nominated.

The film is all over the place, and essentially falls apart in the second half. To maintain tension and ramp up conflict, we have to make the NFL the villain, but without vilifying the game of football, which is referred to as “beautiful” at least one too many times; hedging every related bet seems to be the modus operandi of the film. Certainly the NFL, which in the best line of the film is described as “own[ing} a day of the week,” put up a great deal of resistance to Omalu’s initial findings, and like all large corporations, dragged its feet in finally acknowledging his findings and making some changes. But research into the longevity of professional football players and their likelihood of suicide actually indicates the opposite of what the film suggests. There are bones thrown to the issues of nativism, racism, mindless sports fans, and possible government-business conspiracies, but there is no consistent perspective or context for them; they are tossed in as one makes a soup out of what one discovers in the fridge, no matter what the original recipe might have called for.

Concussion is a good “starter” film on the issue of “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE, and is somewhat entertaining as long as it sticks closely to the medical findings and how some football players were affected. The romance is so cliché that one wonders if the whole thing was made up to add some interest to a possibly boring medical drama (it wasn’t). Smith is fine, and the structure of the film, while something of a unraveling mess at times, contains the gist of a story that is worthy of respect and interest. As with too many other films with great stories to tell, this flawed film is the best we have for the foreseeable future that tells this particular story. For those interested in the story, Concussion is a solid primer.

 

 

 

 

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Fences

Sometimes life, responsibilities, and priorities conspire to prevent me from seeing a film I “should” see in the theater. Such was the case with Fences, which was often my number two choice to see, and never managed to make it to number one. While I felt disadvantaged in terms of dialogue with others, especially during awards season, there is often a benefit to seeing something outside of the context of hype, others’ opinions, and awards.

While it’s unfair to say that the emperor has no clothes, it is fair to say that the royal robes found by others turn out to be more of a linen undergarment. Its themes are momentous, wide and often moving, but the film itself has significant problems. Some of those problems arise from its origin on the stage. This is based on August Wilson’s 1985 play of the same name, the sixth of the playwright’s 10-cycle “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play (as well as acting awards), this is a highly regarded and respected work, and therein lies some its challenges as it made its way to being filmed.

First though, its high point is another magnificent performance by Viola Davis. The film gives her every opportunity to display her talents, and she makes full use of them. As seen in some previous films (Doubt especially), no one ugly-cries like Davis. She’s not afraid to look bad, or off-kilter or complicated. To use an overworked word, it’s a stunning performance, and well deserving of all the awards she received.

Denzel Washington, star and director, fares less well. As a star, Washington is deeply loved by the viewing audience and the Hollywood community. He has star power and always grabs the screen. I believe he’s won certain awards because of who he is and not because of the performance. But he’s only a good actor, not a great one, and between the theatrical origins of his performance and a character that doesn’t quite fit the actor, what we see is the acting, not the character. He thunders, berates, and reminisces in fine fashion, but it’s the writing of his part that keeps things in bounds more than his locking down on his character. He’s at his best when he’s not declaiming and dressing down, but when he has a single line here and there that doesn’t carry the weight of the longer addresses.

The film may well go down as a film-school example of the difficulties in adapting a theatrical work for the screen. Fences reminded me of the problems with the cinematic versions of Phantom of the Opera, and to a lesser extent, Les Misérables. There was such misplaced fidelity to the original that the films (which I’m sure were creatively bound by contract to keep in almost every last note of music) ended up becoming music videos, or “filmizations” of the original stage work.

For Fences, there is a similar problem, but with words, words, words instead of notes. Yes, the words are glorious, but they were written for the stage, to be proclaimed in a live setting, with every theatrical convention in place around them. The words are all a part of the slight unreality that is the stage, and the obvious respect for them has hurt the film. There has been a good deal of criticism that this is a stagey film, and some have counted this as a blessing, as it preserves the essence of the original work. Yes, and so do those live video productions of operas and musicals.

Washington helped mount a highly touted Broadway production of the play in 2010, and he and Davis starred in it to great acclaim and Tony Awards. His support for the play, and then the film to follow, may well have been what opened the door for the film version to be made. Washington’s decision to direct may have opened the door to production, but also limited the final product.

But back to the screenplay. There were apparently small changes made from the play, but it was Wilson himself who wrote the screenplay before his early death in 2005. It didn’t veer far from the play, and it should have. Wilson was clearly not a filmmaker, and the occasional camera movement, montage sequence, or close-up can’t hide the fact that at this point, Washington is not much of one, either. His direction is serviceable at best, and what he’s serving are Wilson’s words and his and Davis’ performances. Again, that’s a great focus for the stage; for a film, not so much. The film opens, for example, with such a barrage of verbiage from Washington’s character that it overpowers the frame (and thus the viewer). That power likely rocked a theater audience. Here, it tends to either push away the viewers, or dull their senses, or both. Nearly every scene goes on too long, either a little or a lot. The story itself is buried under the words and the filmmakers’ dedication to them, and is never allowed to emerge cinematically in all its pain, power, and perspective—a tragic loss. It’s clear that the filmmakers revere the play, and that reverence handicapped the work as it made its way into a film.

In spite of the authority of its insight into the world of 1950’s black America, racism, marriage, fathers and sons, and many other worthy topics, this film is finally a vessel for some commanding words and one great and a few good performances. It’s also a classic example of what too much respect for the source material looks like.

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Victoria and Abdul

The greatest service this new trifle from director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) offers is to put forth a cinematic version of a hitherto unknown story of Queen Victoria’s friendly relationship with a much younger Indian man. The real story itself is rich with racial and caste prejudice; more politics than any one film could hold regarding Britain, India, and their connection; and possibilities of a unique exploration of age, friendship, and intrigue in the world of the royals.

Instead, the film follows the pattern of Frears’ latest film before this, Florence Foster Jenkins, beginning as amusing farce (though might to feel guilty about whom and what we are laughing at, especially the two Muslim women that arrive in the second half—badly done) and moving into more serious fare in the second half. The film opens promisingly enough with light fun being poked at both the British at the end of the 19th century and the Indians. The Brits and Indians both have reason to look upon one another as barbarians, and the opening lines about the film being based on a true story—mostly—seems to promise something of a romp through what could be a deadly serious study of an aging, lonely queen and the complications of a Muslim (“I thought he was a Hindu”) lower-caste interloper who may or may not have been what he seemed, tossing a rigid and judgmental circle of sycophants into a tizzy.

The serious possibilities are indeed introduced, one by one, almost as tough medicine that should only be administered in spoonfuls. Then they are dropped nearly as quickly as they are introduced. (Spoiler alerts galore….) Yes, he’s Muslim, not Hindi, which mistake could have been a ripe field for exploration. Oh, yes, he’s married (now we hear this?) Yet bigger revelations await, and their lack of follow-up is the film’s biggest mistake. He has gonorrhea, which is announced with gusto, and is never explained nor dealt with past the shock. And perhaps most ridiculous of all, he turns out to lie about the role of the Muslims in India during a certain event that is fascinating from a personal and political point of view, but which is dropped like a hot potato, which perhaps current political correctness determined it was.

The acting veers from solid to overblown. If this was Dame Judi Dench’s first film appearance, she would be hailed all over the world and name-dropped into nearly every Oscar Best Actress discussion. But this is Dench, after all, who has already won an Oscar for playing a queen and who played Victoria not all that long ago. So it might be tempting for the viewer not to notice how precise she is, how skillfully she attacks every scene, lovingly developing her character from sleepily and uninvolved to awakening and engaged to feisty and fierce. It’s a (typically) masterful performance unmatched by those around her, and set in a film that doesn’t deserve it.

Ali Fazal plays Abdul Karim, the young Indian who makes his way into the Queen’s heart and, uncomfortably for everyone else, her inner circle. He is tall and handsome, which might have been all he had to offer. But while he can’t match Dench’s work, he brings an easy connection with her in their scenes together that presents the likely connection that the Queen so enjoyed. He treats her as an equal while still recognizing her position, and a few of their scenes together demonstrate what a breath of fresh air he must have been for a tired queen surrounded by people waiting for her to die (no comment on any current situation across the pond…).

Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard and the legendary Michael Gambon all tend to chew the scenery as they surround Dench, but it may well be the writing of their parts and the direction that is to blame. Perhaps their innate talent kept their parts from being even more overblown than they are.

The saving grace of the film is the newness and surprise of the story itself. For those like myself, learning a new (mostly true) tale is of historical interest, and anything Dench does is always enjoyable to watch. It’s what the film fails to investigate that harms it. It fails to follow up on things that it announces with a flourish, and the darker aspects of Karim’s personality—his self-advancement, lies, and manipulation—are disappointingly not explored. Probably the best lines in the film come from his friend and servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who begins as the silly-but-funny comic second lead, and then has a marvelous moment ripping the British Empire to verbal shreds as he admits to the Queen’s advisors that while Karim is indeed self-interested, he is no more so than they.

Frears began his career with hard-edged films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) about less than reputable people. His more recent work, including The Queen and Florence Foster Jenkins, but also Philomena and Mrs Henderson Presents, presents a softer and lighter touch with jokes in Part One and moving into somewhat darker territory in Part Two. Unfortunately, the “softer and lighter touch” translates a bit too often into superficiality and inconsistency of tone; it comes across as pandering. Dench is the main reason to see the film; for those for whom that is not enough, a Google search into the story will suffice.

 

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