There is no shortage of films that depict the injustice of social inequality but originality is scarce. With a large proportion of its population below the poverty line, it is noteworthy that a filmmaker from South Korea has produced a work that has attracted almost universal acclaim. Parasite (2019)generates a great deal of conversation but be warned: it is not a film for everyone, especially those averse to gory endings.
If you step back from the story's twists and turns, the narrative premise is simple. A family of petty crooks living in abject poverty get lucky as, one by one, each tricks their way into being employed by the same heartlessly wealthy family in roles like tutor, driver, and housekeeper. The gullible family is easy to deceive, while the crooks manufacture various scenarios to their own advantage. The occupation of the luxurious home by the crooks adds a new meaning to the concept of home invasion. However, the plan comes un-stuck when they find a secret dungeon that leads to horrific consequences.
The film takes too much time in developing the central premise and various sub-plots, and more descriptive prose could be offered here about what actually happens. But that is not the point of the film. Director Joon-ho Bong paints an intricate portrait of the normalisation of poverty and class privilege, with both sets of family never questioning their place in South Korea's social order. This acceptance and its destructiveness of the human spirit makes change impossible and condemns Korean society to moral bankruptcy.
There is more to this film than political discourse. As a black comedy, it is sprinkled with funny although improbable moments and the filming style expresses the polemic in obvious ways. Juxtaposing the world occupied by a smelly cramped underclass with the opulent world of the rich is low-hanging fruit. One can also find elements of magical fantasy, as it requires an unequivocal suspension of disbelief to accept that a family of losers can so easily dupe a family of high achievers. The acting tends towards wooden, and it is difficult to warm to any particular character. The film's climax offers little other than an ambivalent balance between hope and nihilism, leaving viewers to decide which family are the parasites.
For many, the critical pendulum swings towards the 'masterpiece' label. But it is perhaps closer to reality to describe this as an original, engaging, and disturbing tale of endemic class tension, oppression, and helplessness. Although tenuous, the message has universal relevance.
Some space movies fill you with awe at the vastness of their domain, while others feel claustrophobic. How you react to Ad Astra (2019) will depend on whether you go along with it's inter-galactic pursuit of a menace to earth's survival or you become immersed in the film's psychological drama. These twin-storylines do not always sit well together.
The plotline is simple: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an elite astronaut who has spent his career in the shadow of his famous space pioneering father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Three decades ago, Cliff led a mission to find life in distant galaxies and has not been heard of since. Space Command have intelligence that he is still alive and poses an existential threat to mankind. Roy has been secretly recruited to hunt his father down and eliminate the threat.
Viewers get two very different movies for the same ticket: a sci-fi chase with enough digital effects to please the most demanding techno-obsessive, and a space-opera framed around the Freudian theme of father-son love (or its absence). Neither movie fills its potential, and each is a distraction for the other. Roy dominates screen time as both protagonist and narrator. This might have worked except that the elite astronaut's pulse rate flatlines below 80 bpm, which is mirrored in the film's tension curve (except for a five-second shot of a tear rolling down his face when his father tells his that he never cared about him).
Hoping to load intensity into the Freudian theme, the cameras spend far too much time gazing into Roy's vacant face as he grapples with the moral dilemmas that Space Command has thrust upon him (including patricide). This filming style becomes tiresome when it is applied to most of the cast, except for the feral space-lab monkeys whose fate will alienate animal rights supporters. If the photography was half as exciting as some other recent extra-terrestrial films, the depiction of Ad Astra'sinterior emotional space might have provided a poignant contrast. Instead, it imparts a claustrophobic feel to both of the film's twin storylines. Brad Pitt fans will disagree, but it's hard to imagine a more wooden hero.
There are several scenes of infinity that we come to expect from space movies and lots of shiny steel with buttons and switches and flashing lights to remind us that space exploration is at the front edge of technological innovation. But that's about all this moderately entertaining film achieves, despite being hailed as the space epic of the year.
It is no coincidence that the German-UK bio-pic The Keeper (2018) has been released into a context of Brexit turbulence. While it is a story about a hero of 'the beautiful game', it is also about tolerance and forgiveness that is so absent in today's politics.
Only avid soccer history fans would know the name Bert Trautmann but this film will revive his fame. He was the goalie (played by David Kross) credited with Manchester's triumph at the 1956 FA Cup Final, keeping Birmingham at bay after literally breaking his neck with 17 minutes left of play.
The film begins with Trautmann as a young Nazi paratrooper, a celebrated soldier who won an Iron Cross for bravery. When the Allied Forces crushed the German war machine, Trautmann was interred in a British prisoner camp and passed the time by playing soccer. His talents were noticed by a local amateur club who needed a goalie; Trautmann was soon drawing big crowds and raising the club's profile. But he also re-ignited war hatreds, and many were furious that a former Nazi was allowed to play for a British team.
An inevitable romance broadens the narrative beyond sport. The local club manager's daughter, Margaret (Freya Mavor), takes an immediate shine to the handsome German, overcoming her initial contempt for his Nazi past. As the relationship develops, so too does Trautmann's fame as a goalie and he soon joins the top-league Manchester club. Incited by the press and local Jewish population, mass protests were held, but it was a Rabbi whose published letter pleaded for the goalie not to be judged for the sins of his homeland.
As a piece of soccer history, the story is told well, aided by excellent acting and cinematography. The sets, costume and mood of the times are artfully constructed, although the pace and the weaving of sub-plotlines into the main frame loses balance at times. If the storytelling can be faulted at all it is the tendency to gloss over dark corners and shine fairy lights onto the heart-warming side of the tale.
In 'true British spirit', soccer fans came to love Trautmann for his athletic achievements despite being a former Nazi, and he won several honours, including the prestigious British Player of the Year in 1964. Some viewers will see it as ironic that current Brexit politics is in part motivated to keep foreigners off British soil.
Highly polarised reactions to a movie often points to some kind of demographic partition that accentuates difference of opinion. In the case of Late Night (2019) the challenge is to work out if the partition is on gender, race, age, or political correctness lines. Or is it a burger with the lot?
The central plotline is simple but laced with subtleties. Fifty-six-year-old Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has been a celebrated talk show host for decades, but in recent years her trademark sharp-tonged wit has lost its edge and ratings are plummeting. Desperate for new ideas, she turns on her team of all-male writers whom she has never met and orders a "diversity hire" as if ordering pizza. At the same time, inexperienced Indian-American Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is looking for a career in comedy writing. She is hired immediately, and the presence of the coloured young woman changes production dynamics and improves the show. It also leads to various predictable sub-plots that increase the film's narrative density but add little else.
The most poignant sub-plot concerns Katherine's relationship with her Parkinson's-affected husband Walter (John Lithgow). He is a grounding reality and the only relationship that really matters in her life. When a brief affair with a staffer becomes public and she is about to be fired, Katherine's world is set to collapse. It is Molly who shows Katherine how to fight back in a misogynist and populist industry.
A stellar ensemble cast supports Emma Thompson in one of her most powerful character portraits in years; and she has many to her credit. Few actresses can keep an audience close while being disagreeable and unlikeable in almost every scene. The humour is wry rather than comic, and the often-cliched script will not earn any awards.. But the story itself will resonate amongst viewers sympathetic to the film's too obvious #me-too ingredients of gender, race, age, and political correctness. This is why reactions to this clever and engaging film are so polarised.
A lot of movie opinion is captive to the textual elements of plot, character, casting and genre. But a film's current external context can offer broader meaning. In a Trumpian world, truth and integrity are dwarfed by political expediency while mass media has lost the moral compass it took centuries to earn. When Late Night celebrates Katherine's survival, it is a Faustian pact with the trashy end of TV news and a metaphor for moral despair. This film is right on message.
Calling the film Judy (2019) a bio-pic implies that the totality of Judy Garland's life can be defined by her sad final six months. Viewers hoping to see the bigger picture about this mid-twentieth century entertainment icon might feel cheated, but all will be rewarded with a dramatic tour-de-force portrait of a fallen star.
We meet the young Judy (Darci Shaw) in a flashback to Wizard of Oz and the tyranny of working under the Hollywood studio system. Told by MGM executives that she was ugly and overweight triggered a life-long dependency on drugs and alcohol. We then meet the adult Judy (Renee Zellweger) at the nadir of her career, long after decades of success. By her late 40's, American audiences had tossed her aside like a soggy rag doll but the British were still dazzled by her Hollywood star power.
A serial divorcee with two young children to feed, broke and a chronic substance abuser, she left for London hoping to revive her former fame and fortune. Instead, her performances became guessing games to see if she would make it onto stage. Eventually she imploded dramatically under the spotlight, crushed by demons beyond her control.
In its two-hours, the only highs in this film are when Zellweger channels Garland through song. The rest is an over-wrought portrait of unrelenting despair. To compress past into present the film relies on multiple flashbacks, making the editing feel fractured and discontinuous (perhaps intended to reflect Garland's life). Despite Zellweger's stellar performance, there is little to like about Judy. Some viewers may be distracted by the visual difference between Garland and Zellweger and the exaggerated facial tics that the latter performs excessively. Yet the film's centre of gravity is always Zellweger, whose body language on stage is as dramatically sculptural as was Garland's.
It's tempting to speculate why this film is made now. Garland's story has been told many times, and those who do not know about it generally don't care. In times of turbulence, this film is hardly a celebration of enduring American values. Knowing the 'true story' behind the Garland legend shatters illusions and empowers new generations to be wary of the Hollywood dream factory.
If you have been avoiding the movie Joker (2019) because you think it belongs to the superhero genre and the violent world of masked crusaders then you are making a mistake. Just like I did. Set aside preconceptions and see what is one of the most powerfully introspective portraits of mental illness you will ever find on film - and Batman is nowhere to be seen.
Set in Gotham City in the recent pre-digital age, the story opens with Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to live a normal life, hold a job, and care for his ageing mother. Abused as a child, he relies on medication for his cocktail of mental disorders, the most prominent of which is a condition where anxiety can trigger bursts of hysterical laughter (Pseudobulbar Affect). City Hall cuts back on support services and Arthur's untreated conditions escalate as he becomes more vulnerable to abuse, loses his job, and his dream of becoming a stand-up comic is cruelly exploited. With nothing to gain or lose, all that is left is vengeance.
This plotline is merely a narrative framework for what is a phenomenal performance by Phoenix. His chiselled features, balletic body language, and elastic facial contortions have extraordinary power to express disconnectedness from the material world. As he endures the torments of an uncaring society, we become immersed in his value system where violence makes perfect sense.
The film was always going to generate controversy for its depiction of violence. However, it remains on the 'art' side of gratuitous and is more restrained than so many other violent but non-controversial films. The soundtrack and cinematography are edgy, and the camerawork is often so close to Arthur you can see the pores of his skin sweating fury at those around him. The film is visually engrossing: the sets ooze gothic decay, dystopian chaos, and streets full of vagrants and the dispossessed. The film's two-hour running time feels like one.
Phoenix single-handedly drives this film and he deserves critical acclaim. It was risky to bypass the usual magical fantasy of super-heroes and super-villians and take a serious look at a serious issue. Entertainment can be a powerful platform for education. While the script retains the tropes of Marvel Comics, it shows insight into mental illness with lines like "What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? What you deserve".
In a year of generally mediocre films it is not difficult to stand out, especially if your name is Quentin Tarantino. Whether the critical acclaim heaped on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is warranted or not depends on your taste for films without a narrative core that ooze melodramatic nostalgia and blur the transient realities of watching movies about making movies.
The plotline unfolds in slow motion and when it finally does, it is largely inconsequential. The story is based around the declining career of a 1950s B-grade Western actor called Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose last chance is to capitalise on the popularity of 'spaghetti westerns'. His alter ego and long-time double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is the real thing: a war veteran and martial arts expert whose role in life is to make Rick believe in himself, despite the truth. Within this loose cinematic frame, the film meanders from skit to skit without the connective tissue that makes for purposeful or coherent storytelling. It builds a two and a half hour filmic scaffold that culminates in ten gruesome minutes loosely based on the Charles Manson-inspired murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
The only lingering after-effect of seeing this film is to question why it was made at all. Neither of the buddy stars are likeable people: Rick is self-serving, weak and shallow, and Cliff doubles up on these qualities and adds a taste for violence. Their acting is understandably old-school and contrived. Sharon is paraded as the film's visual centrepiece, a role she fills remarkably well despite being given a script that renders her practically dumb. The relationship between the buddies, the Manson cult, and the murders is non-existent other than to imply that nothing needs to make sense if it is linked to Hollywood.
The sole redeeming feature of this film is its forensic attention to reproducing the sets, fashion, styles, and social mores of the 1960s. The archival television and movie footage recreate the ambience and ambivalence of the cultural upheaval that we now refer to as the 'golden era' or 'heyday' of film and television. While this will appeal to many, others will be distracted by the film's fractured storyline and its contrived vignettes of the past.
Blending history, fantasy, and entertainment is Tarantino's ultimate purpose. His message is simple: the fairy tale of Hollywood is and has always been a chimera.
It is hard to watch a film like The Report (2019) and not feel the heavy weight of its bigger picture. After all, the depicted events are recent enough to affect current attitudes to USA government, especially under a presidency that regularly subverts the separation of powers.
Based on extensive factual evidence, 'the report' in the film's title was originally known as The CIA Torture Report. It was compiled over five years by investigative staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) who worked for Californian Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). Its purpose was to examine the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in using 'enhanced interrogation techniques' for extracting intelligence from terrorists captured after the 9/11 attack. Euphemisms aside, the report was about the CIA's use of brutal and inhumane torture, illegal under American and international treaty since 1984.
There are two extraordinary revelations in the film. The first is that two mediocre psychologists, with no practical interrogation experience, convinced a gullible CIA that their techniques would open treasure troves of terrorist information. They had no research to back their claims and were little more than snake-oil merchants preying on the infinite budgets that were pumped into post 9/11 hysteria. After years of interrogations in notorious Guantanamo Bay, the report revealed that no useful information was extracted, several prisoners died in the process, and about a quarter of the 'terrorists' were subsequently found to be innocent.
The second revelation is the scale of institutional corruption emanating from the highest level of the CIA as it thwarted the Senate Committee charged with its oversight. The hacking into Senate Committee files, the subsequent cover-up, and the refusal to admit to crimes and atrocities were swept under the carpet. So morally complacent had the White House become, even President Obama refused to condemn what the CIA was doing.
Despite the desk-bound inaction and dialogue-heavy script, this is a riveting and important film. Its tension curve is driven by the enormity of CIA criminality and Adam Driver's ability to portray a humble David who took on an arrogant Goliath; Daniel Jones' bravery and commitment to truth was remarkable. Annette Bening is adequate as Senator Feinstein, although constrained by the realpolitik of her role. With President Trump on record saying he has no objection to torture, this film sounds a loud warning. Lest we forget that official barbarism infects an entire country.
A well-acted, multi-layered, but implausible thriller
To talk of giving the plot away for The Good Liar (2019) implies it has a unitary narrative that can be easily divulged. The film's trailer leads the deception that 'the good liar' is an old-school scoundrel trying to swindle a wealthy female victim, albeit with a touch of romance. However, from its opening minutes, everyone we meet and everything we see is not what we are led to believe.
The starting point is simple enough and rather quaint given the seniority and standing of its principal actors. A couple on the high side of seventy meet for the first time after online introductions through a dating site. Setting the tone for later developments, names become temporary facades as both the man (Ian McKellen) and the woman (Helen Mirren) soon confess to each other that they used fake names online and their 'real' names are Roy and Betty. After some charming banter, Roy feigns injury and Betty invites him to stay at her flat.
A romance of sorts develops while Betty's suspicious and protective grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) plays the foil to Roy's deceptions. Multiple narrative layers open up: Roy and Betty open a joint bank account to combine their wealth; Betty reveals health issues; Roy juggles multiple scams with other victims; and the academic historian Steven sets a trap for Roy that reveals yet further twists, turns, and darker storylines. While the swindle unfolds in unexpected directions, it turns out that Roy and Betty have connected backgrounds. Film narratives do not get much more complicated and convoluted than this.
Fine acting by McKellen and Mirren keeps this film interesting, although some viewers may feel they are performing amalgams of their previous roles and drawing on their fame as icons of British theatre. The ancient art where venerable performers can express thoughts and feeling simply by rearranging a few deep facial wrinkles, raising an eyelid or a furrowed brow, is becoming rare. At times the directing struggles to hold every piece of the jigsaw puzzle in place, and multiple flashbacks and story side tracks strain to keep the viewer informed. At the end of it all, however, the grand reveal seems contrived and implausible.
Those looking for higher narrative purpose may find it in the tension between vengeance and justice, or the struggle of good over evil, or the assertion of feminist agency. On the other hand, fans of the thriller genre simply looking for unpredictability will find that The Good Liar offers much to keep them guessing.
It is refreshing to see a film that can both warmly respect and ruthlessly dissect the institution of marriage. While every marriage is unique, there are universal scenarios that can signal their demise. Two of these are central to Marriage Story (2019): the film forensically examines what happens when one partner's ego swallows another, then shows the destructive force that is unleashed when lawyers come between otherwise still-caring partners.
The storyline is simple, linear, and dialogue-heavy. In the opening minutes we see respected theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his increasingly successful actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in the middle of a marital mediation session. He is opening a new play on Broadway while she will be taking their young son to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot. The session stalls despite their obvious regard for each other and their commitment to avoid lawyers in a marriage split.
Classic marital tension lines become palpably clear. Charlie and Nicole met when he was a high-profile director and she a theatre novice, and this imbalance of egos remain embedded in all aspects of their relationship. Although a loving father, the self-absorbed Charlie had an affair which is now being weaponised as she asserts her identity and needs. She decides to engage a lawyer forcing him to follow suit or lose custody of their young son; the communication drawbridge is pulled up as the lawyers amplify every marital issue into a war cry on an ever more blood-splattered battlefield.
Nothing new here, you might say, except for two bright lights in a dark place: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. He is perfect in playing the broad faced deer-in-the-spotlight hapless male, confused over his marital and parental mess-ups...but he sings a beautiful song. She is brilliant in playing a wife no longer willing to be invisible despite still loving the man she married. An ensemble of lawyers include a benignly caring advisor (Alan Alda) and ruthless warriors who take no prisoners (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta).
You don't need to be a divorce voyeur to find this well-trodden story highly absorbing, mostly because the two stars make it hard to take sides. Charlie's weaknesses are not unforgiveable and his love for his son and wife continue. Nicole has a right to her own independent future but still feels strongly about him. If lawyers were not involved, things could be very different. Marriage Story is an insightful, witty, and sad portrait of how easily a marital fairytale can turn to a nightmare.
Every now and then a film comes along without a big story to tell but an extraordinarily beautiful way of telling it. Last year's Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name (2017) is one example, and now the French period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is another. Both give weight to the stylisation of social context rather than narrative, inviting the viewer to slow right down and feel the moment.
The plotline is simple and its action-curve almost glacial. We meet a young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching art to a class of female students. She is the epitome of an 18thCentury feminine portrait, passive and elegantly composed. A student asks her about a painting standing at the back of the room. In her wistful response, the film flashbacks long ago to her arrival on a lonely island in Brittany where she was commissioned to secretly paint a pre-wedding portrait.
Her subject is Héloíse (Adéle Haenel), a young woman who refuses to pose for a traditional portrait in the hope she can delay an already arranged marriage. Marianne is hired as a walking companion to surreptitiously observe Héloíse, then paint her from memory. An imperfect portrait is produced, and Marianne confesses her duplicity. A second portrait is painted, this time with cooperation. The relationship intensifies and they become lovers. With the work complete, the forced marriage becomes possible.
Capturing the slow-burn of forbidden lesbian love on film is no longer transgressive or novel, nor are we shown new insight into the social entrapment of forced wedlock. But there are so many layers of exquisite beauty and pathos found in this film. For a start, the two principals are mesmerising in their roles, each with an expressive and penetrating gaze that speaks volumes without words. The score is loudly absent for almost the entire film, leaving empty space for sounds like a paintbrush caressing canvas, crunching footprints on sand, heavy fabrics rustling, and wave crashes to echo a spectrum of emotion. It takes fine artistry to convey sensuality and sexuality through a sigh, a glance, a light touch, without resorting to gratuitous nudity or intrusive camerawork.
The portrait theme is reflected throughout in lustrous and visceral cinematography. Many individual shots are a masterclass in filmic composition, often using shallow depth of field to isolate, alienate, or sublimate subject and place. True to the history of women in society, the film is without false hope or a fairy tale ending. In its honesty, intimacy, and artistic expression, this film is the nearest thing to cinematic art in years.
Original in conception but a misfire in execution.
Given the polarisation of opinion about Jojo Rabbit (2019), it would be so much easier not to write this review at all. However, it is incumbent on me to explain why this movie is one of the worst I have seen in years.
The trailer captures the narrative essence of this war comedy drama. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year old German boy who aspires to be a Nazi killing-machine but his Hitler Youth camp squad nickname him Rabbit because he runs away when ordered to kill one. When he finds Jewish teenager Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) sheltered in the attic he has the chance to betray her in service of the Fuhrer, but his conscience comes into play.
This narrative arc is grounded in a predictable coming of age tale. A magical fantasy device frames the story wherein Jojo has an imaginary friend that only he can see, a campy goofball version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) who urges him to betray Elsa. With the Allied armies closing in, the German war effort enters its dying days and Jojo must confront Nazi lies.
Whether one thinks this film is a comedy or travesty is entirely subjective. Many will laugh at a puerile script delivered in gratingly mangled German accents with incongruous contemporary phrasing. Others may enjoy non-stop dead-pan exchanges, such as Elsa asking "what am I?", with Jojo answering "a Jew", to which Elsa replies "Gesundheit". Or when a female commandant (Rebel Wilson) tells Nazi girls it's a privilege to serve German soldiers: she has borne eighteen children already so "it's a great time to be a girl". Some will even think Jojo's cartoonish Hitler is a credibly funny representation of evil, perhaps unaware of the all-time satirical classic: the goose-stepping John Cleese and his "don't mention the war" skit. Where Cleese had surgical control of his mockery, Jojo's Hitler sprays cheap one-liners that are cringingly unfunny.
It is argued that half of today's generation know very little about Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust, so films like this potentially alert us to the dangers of extreme politics. Jojo Rabbit may have worked had it opted for clarity or gravity of purpose; its stellar cast make little difference. It is a mashup of so many genres that any meaningful message is lost, and all is sacrificed to low brow gags. Even the film's most serious moments struggle for respect under the shadow of slapstick, kitsch, and the vain attempt to use stand-up comedy to portray humanity's darkest time. With a climax that mocked my staying power, this film is, at best, original in conception but a misfire in execution.
A 'white crow' in the Russian idiom is someone who stands out from others because of their appearance or behaviour. Rudolph Nureyev was, and for many still is, the white crow in the world of male ballet dancers. With extraordinary athleticism and sharply chiselled features, he defied gravity and glamorised male dancing. He also managed to make the KGB look flatfooted when he famously defected to the West.
We first see the young Rudolph as a six-year old child prodigy plucked from a poor background. The film flashes-back to these early scenes several times to remind viewers that despite his majestic aura on stage, he came from humble origins. The adult Rudolph (Oleg Ivenko) was a volatile personality both on and off stage. KGB spies watched elite dancers closely because ballet was a major cultural propaganda tool at the height of the Cold War. Rudolph was known to praise creative freedoms in the West and his secret sexuality was seen as a potential source of political embarrassment.
Most of the film builds the context in which Rudolph would commit what Russians believed was the ultimate act of treason. Barely enough camera time is devoted to his ballet lessons and performances, but what is shown will please devotees of the artform. A major sub-narrative is the live-in mentoring by his teacher Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) and his relationships with Pushkin's wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) and socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos). Rather than meaningful affairs, these relationships show Rudolph's willingness to exploit anyone who could advance his dancing career.
The film's modest tension curve spikes a few times during Rudolph's fiery temper tantrums, but it jumps steeply during the climactic defection scenes. The camera almost neurotically switches from close-ups on the faces of Russian spies, American observers, Rudolph and Clara, all while in the transit area of a French airport. When Rudolph is stopped from boarding a flight to his next performance, the KGB falsely tell him he has been summoned to a gala performance for the Kremlin. He is thrust into a vortex of disbelief, terror, and the realisation that if he seeks political asylum he will never set foot again in his homeland nor see his family.
Despite its uneven pace and meandering narrative arc, this powerful non-fiction storytelling is backed up with excellent acting performances and cinematography. The Cold War tensions are palpable and the political battle lines drawn clearly. You do not need to be a ballet fan to appreciate this film.
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Stars: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Adele Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova
a slow-moving predictable portrayal of middle-class privilege
Nobody expects originality in the 'old buddy life-audit' genre. Ask any baby-boomer to name their favourite and it is likely that The Big Chill (1983) will pop up as the benchmark film. The structure is always the same: long-time friends reconnect around a milestone event which slowly descends into sub-plots of secrets and discontent, flavoured by a soundtrack evocative of youth and unfulfilled promise. Palm Beach (2019) follows this format exactly. However, instead of reflecting on the youthful idealism of the 1960s, it is set in a modern context of insatiable white middle-class privilege for an ageing group of malcontents, especially of the male variety.
The single impressive feature of the film is the spectacular panoramic Palm Beach setting on Sydney's Northern Beaches, filmed beautifully with lingering shots of every lovely lighting angle the wealthy can afford. The views are complemented by a stellar local ensemble that includes Bryan Brown, Richard E. Grant, Sam Neill and Greta Scacchi, all of whom play such evenly predictable parts that there may be arguments over whether anybody actually stars in this production. The sourness of this ageing cohort (nobody is seen happy) is given light relief with a few young offspring and a couple of sight gags.
The film's entertainment value rests on comic tropes, blended into a potpourri of indignities familiar to the seniors' demographic. These include nostalgia over failed careers and unresolved affairs, depression, drug abuse, sexual impotence, disappearing libido, disputed parentage, wealth envy, sagging bottoms, and even a breast prosthetic thrown to the floor with a rubbery flump. The flat tension curve is given an upward blip with a psychotic episode where the host becomes so incensed that his panoramic views are blighted by a neighbour's chimney that he attacks it with a sledgehammer. The only other moment where viewers' pulse rate might rise is a boating accident that rudely interrupts the enjoyment of views and fine wine. Given the spoilt misery amongst the group, it is laughable when one of the wives suddenly tries to leave her hapless husband but relents feebly with "just promise me that the next ten years will be the best time of our lives".
Palm Beach is pretty to look at, light-hearted and mildly entertaining. It is also slow moving, over-acted, and lightweight. It will probably have a short shelf life and struggle to find audiences beyond the well-off suburbs around Sydney. It could have been so much better.
Director: Rachel Ward
Stars: Bryan Brown, Richard E. Grant, Sam Neill, Greta Scacchi
Bio-pics presume a subject worthy of a story, but what if the storytelling depicts an unlikeable character whose achievements were only ever guided by self-interest: has the film been worthwhile? Sonja: The White Swan (2018) raises this question.
Born to wealthy parents in Norway in 1912, Sonja Henie (Ine Marie Wilmann) was a child prodigy on ice. After the best trainers in the world polished her figure skating skills, she won her first world title at 10 years of age and, the following year, was the youngest person ever to compete at the Olympic Games. As she grew, her unique gift would be combining balletic choreography, white boots, short skirt and dramatic music in ways that transformed the sport into the spectacular event it is today.
The lure of commercial ice shows led Sonja to leave the sport and eventually become another piece of hot property for Hollywood. Her early films were a huge success, making her one of America's most wealthy women during a seven-year movie career. The film shows how, along the way, she exploits and mistreats those closest to her: a sub-cast of family, personal assistant, and the Hollywood mogul, Daryl Zanuck. A classic 'fallen star', she becomes a victim of success, ego, and hedonism, as well as drug and alcohol-fuelled parties evocative of Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby (2013).
Viewers interested in the history of the sport may find the story interesting, but many will find it neither enjoyable nor worthwhile. There are simply no emotional anchors offered in the film, with Sonja devoid of any redeeming charms, leaving the rest of the ensemble difficult to care about. Most problematic is the direction. Sonja's story straddles sport and Hollywood, yet strangely the film glosses over the very material that entitles her to claim a place in history, preferring to dwell on the paths she took towards her own demise. Even her Nazi sympathies are merely a passing point of interest, despite the complexities they raised at the time.
Just being an historical figure is not sufficient for holding viewers' attention or creating emotional engagement. With many of the key filmic ingredients readily available, the story could have been told differently and been both enjoyable and worthwhile. Instead, it must settle for being a mediocre bio-pic of a once great skater who briefly became a movie star.
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Stars: Ine Marie Wilmann, Valene Kane, Eldar Skar
When a three-hour film feels like ninety minutes, that's engagement. In one epic tale, Never Look Away (2018) portrays the horrors of Nazi and Communist ideology juxtaposed against the innate humanity of art, all wrapped in a love story based on the life of acclaimed German painter Gerhard Richter.
The opening scene is a guided stroll through an exhibition of what is labelled "degenerate art": paintings and sculptures expressing humanist values as seen through the sterile twisted eyes of Nazi totalitarianism. It is the late 1930s and young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) is visiting the exhibit with his aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). We see his latent creativity being awakened despite Hitler's loathing of artistic expression.
The film's long running time allows it to take large leaps across a three-decade timeframe. The young Kurt becomes an adult (Tom Schilling) whose early painting skills are channelled into portraits of Aryan supremacy in the motherland. The Nazi regime tightens its grip on every facet of German life, resorting to forced sterilisations, mass extermination, and propaganda machines to brainwash the population. One form of brutality is replaced by another when the Russian Army marches into Germany. Kurt's romance with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) lightens the narrative, only to be darkened by her father Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a gynaecologist with a chilling interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath.
As Kurt's fame grows, he has new opportunities to paint, but only what his political masters want to be seen. The pivotal moment of the film is Kurt's awareness that he cannot create under a regime of repression. Regardless of party connections, talent, race or class, totalitarianism crushes everyone and it is the artist who must confront its moral madness.
Visually rich cinematography echoes the artistic themes running through the film's narrative layers. The pace of direction is remarkably tight given the film's running time, and the entire cast contribute equally to a sustained tense performance. This is not a war history, nor is it about art or an artist. It is about the role of art in showing the truth.
Like many epic period dramas, the film has a message for today. When our leaders take us to the brink of civility or moral decency, or when the world around us reveals its evil side, it is up to everyone, not just artists, to 'never look away'.
The release of Official Secrets (2019) coincides with the current US President telling the world he gladly accepts intelligence dirt on political opponents irrespective of source. With impeccable timing, the film shows how such dirt-gathering can potentially impact the course of history.
Based on real events, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightly) is a surveillance employee in Britain's Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). In early 2003, she sees an email from an American intelligence agency seeking British support to illegally pressure six UN Security Council swing-states for war with Iraq (falsely claiming it possessed weapons of mass destruction). Highly principled and anti-war, Katharine passes on the email to a friend with journalist connections and within weeks it is on the front pages. She confesses her crime, and for the next year, her life is hell as she awaits trial under the Official Secrets Act.
If you have little interest in global politics or major world events, you may get lost in this dialogue-driven moral rights story. It is crafted into several narrative segments: Katharine's relationship to her Muslim immigrant husband; her relations with GCHQ colleagues; the role of The Observer newspaper; and legal arguments by defence and prosecution lawyers. Each is a separate and engaging story that culminates in a shock trial outcome in early 2004.
Official Secrets works at several levels, but it is Keira Knightly who keeps the film together. She exudes an effortless screen presence that holds audience attention despite an uncharacteristically understated performance. This ensures that attention is drawn away from herself to keep the spotlight on the morality of whistleblowing and the duplicity of US and British action in manipulating due process. Archival material on Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Saddam Hussein defines the story's time and place with authenticity. The script is dense with explanation and legal argument but, at the core, it is a story of one individual who believes an illegal war is about to be declared and cannot bear the moral responsibility of doing nothing.
Much of the action takes place in The Observer newsroom as reporters grapple with the enormity of the information leak, the legal consequences of going to press, and the implications of silence. The interplay of commercial, legal, and political imperatives is well drawn by an excellent supporting cast and a filming style evocative of the loneliness that comes from being one voice standing on principle.
There continues to be real-life morality dramas involving high-profile whistle-blowers around the world, and the public is divided on whether they are heroes or villains. This film may help you decide.
The traditional musical is the oldest film genre and it still relies on magical fantasy for suspending audience disbelief. This allows characters to spontaneously break into song or dance, unlike musical bio-pics such as Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) that realistically integrate the music into their narrative flow. The epic-scaled Rocketman (2019) is a nostalgic reversion to the traditional musical form; knowing this beforehand helps to make sense of what is a swirling kaleidoscope of emotion and music.
Where bio-pics tend to look at a life story, the musical Rocketman is a selective biography that traces a musical icon's ascent to the starry heavens during the 70s. The opening minutes are bold, brash, and fantastical: Elton John (Taron Egerton) is resplendent in high-arch feathered sequins, storming toward camera after bailing out of a packed concert hall. He walks across a city and straight into an alcoholic rehab group, plonks into a chair and, staring through trademark crazy glasses, proceeds to unravel his journey as a lonely youth prodigy who became a substance abusing mega-star.
What follows is a series of loosely connected vignettes that use musical lyrics as narrative entry-points to explain his complex vulnerabilities. The young Reginald Dwight was raised by emotionally abusive parents who were incapable of loving him, a burden that intensified his desire to be whatever it took to please others. Encouraged by his grandmother, his musical talent grew as a self-defensive response to what he experienced as an uncaring world. The mature Elton John progressed to singing odes of pain, awe, and confused sexual identity, mostly delivered with flamboyance and electric energy. Much of it comes from an unhappy place and this makes the film more revelationery than celebratory.
Taron Egerton channels the icon with mesmerising brilliance; it is a performance made more astonishing by singing with astonishing authenticity a dozen songs from Elton John's enormous repertoire. The cinematography is as exuberant as the performances; many scenes verge on musical artworks as the human dynamo appears disconnected from the earth's gravity. The sets and costumes are fabulous, and the pace of the story is captivating.
What you take away from Rocketman depends on what you bring in terms of fan status and personal interest. Some will see it as a story of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll; others a musical hero's journey to mega-celebrity. Others may reflect on why there are so many music-inspired films in current cinema. The rise of anti-progressive forces in today's frenetic and fractured world means new generations lack heroes; the revival of heroic musicians might go some way to filling this gap.
Fans of period drama will find much to enjoy in The Chaperone (2018). However, those who look for narrative coherence, nuanced characterisation, and casting authenticity, are likely to be disappointed by this film's unfulfilled potential.
Set in early 1920s America, the story is loosely framed around the life of dancer, movie star, and sex-symbol Louisa Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). We meet her as a precocious 15-year old after she learns that she has been accepted into the avanté garde Denishawn School of Dance in New York. At a soiree performance, her mother expresses concern about securing a chaperone to accompany Louisa to New York, and the socially proper Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) steps forward to offer herself. In a long-term marriage of convenience and with grown-up sons, she wants to use the trip to find her biological mother. Louisa proves to be a handful, and the storyline digresses into her dalliances. Meanwhile Norma enlists the help of orphanage worker Joseph (Géza Rohrig) to search for her mother, and along the way she finds romance as well.
'Loosely framed' is the operative term for describing this film. Although told through the eyes of Norma within a 20-year flashback, the role of chaperone drifts into, then out of, the central narrative arc. It more closely resembles a cultural mosaic of early American society, scooping into one pile every public issue that might have been relevant at the time. This includes female suppression and emancipation, the vestiges of slavery and rise of the Klu Klux Klan, virulent homophobia, and the new-wave of modernisation reflected in the sexuality of bob-haired flappers. One of the film's strengths is how these themes are visually represented on screen, but the shallowness of their treatment and their lack of narrative connection means that the film is nice to look at but goes nowhere in particular.
Weak casting and characterisation are two major distractions that make this film less than satisfying to the critical eye. The 24-year old Haley Lu Richardson has difficulty pulling off the illusion of being 15-year old Louisa; when we meet her again 20 years later, she is even less persuasive. When Norma finds her mother, the reunion is emotionally barren and their apparent age difference implausible. It is difficult to understand why Géza Rohrig is dressed and made up as if he walked straight off the set of the extraordinary Son of Saul (2015), and his voice dubbing is so out of sync he looks like he is mumbling. Fans of Elizabeth McGovern will not forgive this comment, but her limited and imperious expressive range may have worked on Downton Abbey but it struggles here.
Beautiful cinematography and period sets are the film's redeeming features. Moderately entertaining, if at times melodramatic, it has ample visual pleasures despite a finalé devoid of climactic satisfaction when this too long film simply comes to a halt.
a portrait of a family desperately unable to communicate
A single delicious narrative conceit drives the delightful Sometimes. Always. Never. (2018). It takes its own sweet time getting there, but when it does, it hits home: you can be an expert in words and their rules but be incapable of meaningful expression. Add a Scrabble obsession, mix it with deep grief and guilt, and you have a portrait of a family desperately unable to communicate with each other.
The simplicity of the plotline stands in stark contrast to the complexity of its themes. Dapper rule-bound tailor Alan (Bill Nighy) is told that the body of his long-missing son Michael may have been found. He takes his younger estranged son Peter (Sam Riley) with him to identify the body, and at the morgue they meet other parents who are there for the same reason. It's a diversion that does little to advance the narrative, but it does provide comic respite from the pain of loss. Both relieved and disappointed with the outcome, Alan invites himself to stay with Peter and his family in the hope of reconciliation.
With a threadbare plot, the power of this film comes from its theatrical settings, intelligent banter, and Nighy's trademark whimsical mannerisms and stylised performance. The label 'fantasy drama' has been applied to this film but is mis-leading and manifestly inadequate. If there is an element of fantasy, it derives from the way many scenes are played out against backgrounds that are have a surreal, even an absurdist two-dimensional feel that resembles a theatre set. Like all absurdism, there is an artful space between the underlying emotional intensity and the futility of ever trying to understand it. The gravelly Nighy is a master of under-statement, with a unique talent for giving shallow dialogue depth and humour. It's all about contrasts: Alan's obsession with a missing son and neglect of the son he still has; his fastidious Dymo labelling of everything as a substitute for control in his world; and his ability to make light of the heaviest emotions.
If you are not a Nighy fan or prefer action-based stories, you may find little to appreciate in this film. In place of a forward-moving narrative it offers a portrait of a dysfunctional family torn apart over guilt and the inability to emotionally connect. The film's title is itself a parody of form over function, referring to the tailor's rule for how jacket buttons should be fastened: the top always, the middle sometimes, the bottom never. With no substantive relationship to the film's content, it's a rule as good as any on how to live one's life.
There are many reasons a beautifully made film like The Aftermath (2019) ends up critically panned. Some describe it as slow, melodramatic, and predictable, but such labels often reflect unfulfilled viewer expectations rather than an ill-conceived or poorly executed film.
Set in 1946, the plotline is straightforward with few surprises other than its final moments. It opens with British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Keira Knightley) arriving in the devasted city of Hamburg to restore law and order, as well as to root out remaining Nazi sympathisers. The thoroughly middle-class Morgans have requisitioned a stately mansion owned by architect Stephan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgárd) and his rebellious daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Lewis is a compassionate man who cannot bear to send the Luberts to a squalid refugee camp and invites them to stay in the attic, setting the tension lines that drive the film. When someone remarks that more bombs were dropped on Hamburg in one week than were dropped on London in one year, we enter an inverted moral paradigm where the line between victory and vanquished turns grey.
The slow start has a purpose. Few films respectfully explore the humiliation of defeat and many viewers would ask 'why should they'? The Aftermath dwells on prolonged moments where the victor strolls in and takes over the home of the vanquished; where a population is deliberately starved to keep them compliant; where a once-proud culture must confront its inner demons. Deep unresolvable grief permeates the city as well as the lives of the Morgans and the Luberts. Both lost loved ones and the times are not sympathetic to healing. In the middle of this swirling emotional vortex, a classic 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' sub-plot becomes the narrative device for rebuilding lives.
This film stands out in the war-drama genre because of its nuanced portrait of the immediate aftermath of the Allied occupation of Germany. It reeks of period authenticity in ways that only British films can do. The stunning cinematography captures the horror of the immediate post-war period without the usual reliance on the tropes of military casuality and destruction. Knightley and Clarke's performances are outstanding, while Skarsgárd adequately fills the role of a grieving, if over-confident, romantic antagonist. As happens so often, Knightley's commanding presence and extraordinary range of emotional versatility stamps her ownership all over the film.
If history is only written by winners it will always only be half-true. The Aftermath is an essay about the other half, blending sufficient historical insight into a romantic drama to hold our interest without emotional sledgehammers. There are minor lapses of pace, maybe a narrative digression or two that dilutes momentum; but overall, this is a satisfying film that takes an uncommon view on unexplored cinematic territory.
an intelligent heroine in an absurdist eco-thriller
Recent movie offerings are over-full of fantasy super-heroines with powers way beyond mortal men: over-hyped and over-sexualised inventions for new-age feminists and the male gaze. In this context of tired cliché's, it is refreshing to find an original approach to the empowerment of women. The Icelandic absurdist eco-thriller Woman at War(2018) is such a film.
The opening scene is a classic Robin Hood trope: framed in profile with arrow fully drawn on a rugged landscape, a female huntress is about to rob the rich and give to the poor. The arrow short-circuits power lines and shuts down a smelter. Popular village choir-leader Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is an unlikely eco-terrorist who sees local industry expansion as environmental vandalism. She systematically takes down more power lines until the government mounts a full-scale investigation into what it believes is industrial sabotage by overseas interests. Narrowly avoiding detection, Halla is suddenly informed that her years of waiting to adopt a child from war-torn Ukraine is successful.
This unusual but uncomplicated plotline is not what makes Woman at Warstand out from other tree-hugging environmental awareness films. Beautifully photographed against magnificent landscapes, the film cleverly breaks through the 'fourth wall' of cinema by having a three-piece band and a choral folk trio incongruously provide the film's diegetic soundtrack. The concept of 'fourth wall' refers to the imaginary bubble that traditionally separates actors and audience. In this case, the musicians are not playing for Hella, they are playing directly to us. We are as much the subject as what we are observing on screen, and it is 'we' who are invited to take a stand on the existential threats posed by human-caused environmental degradation. If an ordinary woman like Halla can rise to the challenge, so can we.
Another way this film stands out is how it balances and integrates several competing femininity stereotypes. Halla teaches singing for the joy of music and is a ruthless industrial saboteur. She is passionately committed to saving the environment but must stay clear of the law if she is to satisfy her deep yearning for motherhood. Strong, defiant, politically aware, she is soft, vulnerable and loving. When the noose tightens on her eco-terrorism, her hippy identical twin sister steps in for a plot twist that takes the story to its ironic finale: a biblical allusion to humanity's march towards the promised land.
Both absurdism and intelligent humour seeps into every part of this film and the ever-present band and singers are constant counterpoints to the stark reality and danger in what Halla is doing. She is an androgynous heroine, totally devoid of feminine conceits, single-minded, yet quintessentially a woman. Viewers will walk out of this with a variety of lingering thoughts; that is the mark of a good film.
One of the most cliché-filled movies of 2018 is also one of the most endearing. Loaded with road film tropes and framed as a 'journey of two unmatched souls', Green Book (2018)is a male-centric essay on 1960s American racism that resonates today.
Rough-neck Italian bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is out of work at the same time that Black-American virtuoso pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) wants to hire a driver for a deep South tour. Tony's reputation precedes him, and Dr Shirley knows that the trip will encounter the sort of problems that a man like Tony can handle. Their first meeting is a parody of cultural difference: the haughty high-brow coloured man in a flowing African robe seated on a throne, meets an uncouth, uneducated, and racist Italian whose belligerence promises safety.
On-screen text provides city and state milestones for the trip, and the deeper south they drive, the more racial hostility they find. Along the way, Tony's lack of culture slowly responds to the sensitive aesthetic of the acclaimed pianist, while Dr Shirley's arrogance is softened by Tony's connection with what matters to ordinary people (like fried chicken and the music of Little Richard). The Green Book in the film's title actually existed and listed safe accommodation for Black American travellers. They are modest rooms compared with those the Carnegie Hall performer wants, but they are sanctuaries from racial vilification. At other times, the predictable scenarios of humiliation include being honoured for his playing while not being allowed to eat with white people or use their toilets.
The narrative arc is tied to the tour and remains low on dramatic tension or plot twists. This is not an action-rich film, rather it's a two-hander character study that unfolds incrementally through the insightful banter between polar opposite personalities. Tony's regular letters to his wife become a recurring motif of mutual support; they start out with monosyllabic banalities and progress into lyrical prose, coached by the literate musician. They begin to care for each other and, when the tour is over, both are unsurprisingly better people for the experience.
The entire weight of this film rests on an intelligently humorous script and sensitive delivery by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. With authenticity and emotional nuance, they have synergy that is rare between males from opposites worlds. The meta-message in Green Booklies in the sad necessity that films like this still need to be made to highlight America's tensions with coloured and culturally different people. The echoes are deafening, with films like BlacKkKlansman(2018)and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) joining the chorus. Green Booksays more about today than the era it depicts.
More about masculine emotional maturity than free solo climbing
A documentary about climbing solo up sheer vertical cliffs without safety ropes sounds too crazy-masculine to contain a gentle story of emotional awakening. While Free Solo (2018) celebrates athletic triumph it is also a thoughtful essay on mortality, fear, and self-identity, as it probes into the heart and mind of an elite athlete in an extreme sport.
By his mid-30s, Alex Honnold had achieved a world-class reputation for solo climbing, but despite his achievements, he was taunted by the unconquered El Capitan cliff face of Yosemite National Park. Together with an expert team of photographer climbers, he sets about the rigorous physical and mental preparation for the 3000 feet ascent. For most of the film, we watch him planning and repeatedly climbing El Capitan with safety gear, while documenting every single step and manoeuvre needed for what would be an historic free solo to the top.
While this simple, linear narrative is predictable from the outset, the photography and character study are sublime. Panoptic drones capture close-ups of Alex on vertical granite walls, showing breathtaking toeholds in tiny recesses that barely grip. During the arduous preparation, Alex has an MRI scan that reveals an inert amygdala...a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Coming from a broken home and obsessed in his pursuit of climbing perfection, Alex has no fear and is emotionally closed. The only fear shown in the film is felt by his crew who must mentally rehearse the possibility that they will witness a close friend's death. The hitherto accident-free athlete enters a relationship with the emotionally warm, wise, and beautiful Sanni McCandless, and for the first time he experiences fall injuries.
With an easy broad smile, wide eyes, and vulnerable humility, Alex is a very likeable young man. His blossoming relationship with Sanni unfolds with childlike simplicity and growing emotional responsibility, while they are both aware that free soloing El Capitan means Alex will always be one slip from certain death. This fly-on-the-wall documentary eavesdrops on a few private moments to reveal a dilemma: Alex's dormant emotional self is being stirred, but he must overcome it to face what is a super-human challenge.
Some viewers will notice the unbounded selfishness required to put others through the stress of Alex's personal pursuit while he is relatively free from the constraints of human emotion. Others will see Alex as a heroic protagonist in his own tortured life journey, or maybe wonder what bravery means if one feels no fear. No doubt there are other viewpoints and readings of this film. Regardless of what message you take, this is a riveting story, brilliantly filmed amongst some of the most stunning mountain scenery you will ever see.
History is what powerful white men have written over countless centuries. Contemporary cinema fills in the blanks, giving voice to the previously marginalised. This is the open space in which On the Basis of Sex (2018)has been made. The film, however, is also a reminder that an important film is not the same as a great one.
Any bio-pic about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) can only add to the history of feminism and jurisprudence. The story provides a broad-brush picture of her early personal life and focuses in particular on her first major courtroom victory. It opens with wide-eyed Ruth in her first year at Harvard Law School when her husband Martin (Arnie Hammer) learns he has cancer. Although she has an infant child and a sick husband to care for, Ruth covers his lectures as well as her own so both can progress in their degrees. A feisty feminist, she gains an early reputation for standing up to male authority.
The story flashes forward a few years to 1970: Martin is in remission and a successful lawyer, while Ruth is a Columbia Law School academic. She is a pioneer for teaching women in law and aspires to challenge the US Constitution's deeply entrenched discrimination on the basis of sex. She learns of an unusual case where the male appellant is the sole carer of his elderly mother. He has been denied a modest pension because the law presumes carers are female. Ruth rightly believes the case will become a landmark in anti-discrimination law reform.
As a biographic drama, most of the facts are drawn from history but the film itself struggles to tell the story with clarity and authenticity. Legally trained viewers may follow dense legal argument, but others might glaze over and rely on the usual narrative ploy that pitches a valiant female reformer against the dinosaur male establishment. The story glosses over some facts and overplays others. For example, Ruth was the first woman to achieve a full professorship in law and her role at Columbia influenced countless young women, yet when her academic role is mentioned it is as something of an aspirational let-down. The famous courtroom drama in which she co-presents alongside her charismatic husband depicts her in a prolonged stumbling of argument. Yet Justice Ginsberg insists to this day "I never stumbled": portraits of feminine weakness are never out of fashion.
A picky reviewer might wonder whether disjointed editing is meant to take the place of dramatic tension or ask if Ruth's #MeToo style assertiveness rings true for the '70s. Some may notice that her too worldly-wise daughter looks more like a sister, and others might ask where one can find such a saccharine sweet-smart husband who always says exactly what a poet-philosopher might imagine. Such trivial matters aside, this still isan important and worthwhile film, but maybe a good story that could have been told better.