The Warrior Queen of Jhansi


Portrait of a warrior queen.

(2019) Biographical Drama (Roadside AttractionsDevika Bhise, Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi, Ben Lamb, Nathaniel Parker, Jodhi May, Milind Gunaji, Arif Zakaria, Siyaa Patil, Omar Malik, Ajinkya Deo, Yatin Karyekar, Nagesh Bhonsle, Arush Nand, Naina Sareen, Auroshika Dey, Glenn Marks, Spandan Chaturvedi, Deepal Doshi, Mihai Iliescu, Francisco Raymond, Sonia Albizuri. Directed by Swati Bhise

 

India is not known for being a bastion of feminism. That’s what makes the importance of Lakshmibai (D. Bhise), the former Rani (Queen) of Jhansi, so intriguing.

The young Queen of the strategic city of Jhansi was widowed, her much older husband (Gunaji) passing shortly after their own son had died as an infant and in order to maintain the succession, they had adopted their nephew Damodhar (Nand). This was in 1857, mind you, and the rapacious East India Trading Company was the de facto ruling body of India, so decreed by Queen Victoria (May) and supported by her Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston (Jacobi). However, the company has turned into something toxic due to their overwhelming greed and overt racism, as embodied by their representative Sir Robert Hamilton (Parker) who snarls about the Indian people and yearns to butcher as many of them as possible. He may be the most unbelievable villain based on a historic person in cinematic history.

Following the death of the king, the East India Company turns its greedy sights onto Jhansi, ruling that Damodhar was not the legitimate heir because he was adopted; therefore, Jhansi would become company property. Lakshmibai was loathe to see that happen and went on a letter writing campaign to plead for help, up to and including to Queen Victoria herself. The only sympathetic ear she received was from Major Ellis (Lamb) who carried a bit of a torch for the Rani.

Pushed into a corner and wanting to preserve her city, Lakshmibai stood up to the British and Jhansi was put under siege for her trouble. Sir Hugh Rose (Everett), whose politics were somewhat convoluted, served as something of a mediator between the villainous Hamilton and the ore moderate Ellis. It took longer than expected but the superior firepower of the British eventually led to the fall of Jhansi – although the Rani managed to escape with much of her army.

Even though Jhansi had fallen, the Rani became a symbol throughout India, and as the Great Mutiny spread, she was regarded as a hero. The East India Trading Company couldn’t afford to let her live and so they brought all their resources to bear in the hopes of capturing or killing her.

The movie is gorgeous to look at with the colonial-era costumes, the sumptuous sets and the large-scale battle sequences. This was the debut feature for Swati Bhise and her inexperience shows; some of those set pieces are shot in a rather static fashion and there is very little dynamic camera movement.

This was actually a Hollywood production, not a Bollywood one (two other films on the Mutiny have already been released this year including one focusing on the Rani herself, both made in India) and it has both the advantages and pitfalls of Hollywood productions. The advantages are in the production values I mentioned earlier; the pitfalls in the way the writers played fast and loose with history. The quasi-romance between the Rani and Major Ellis was without basis; also, Khan (Malik), the Indian adviser to Queen Victoria, wasn’t born until five years after Lakshmibai passed away and wasn’t her adviser until the end of the 19th century.

There are a lot of clichés here as well as some clunky dialogue; the ending, narrated by the younger Bhise, is a bit precious and doesn’t serve the film well at all. Like most Hollywood productions, this isn’t meant to be a history lesson, although it does get some of the salient facts right. It is entertaining enough to recommend with Devika Bhise’s performance as the Rani being to a large measure responsible for that. She has the screen presence to pull off a role that is so iconic to the Indian people. It’s a shame she didn’t write a film that is worthy of her performance.

REASONS TO SEE: The production values are gorgeous. Devika Bhise does a fine job at making the Rani larger than life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit rote in places with a twee ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, instances of institutional racism and references to rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swati and Devika Bhise, in addition to directing and starring in the film (respectively), also co-wrote the film – and yes, they are related; they are mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews: Metacritic: 25//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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Skyscraper

The Siege of Jadotville


Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

(2016) War Drama (Netflix) Jamie Dornan, Mark Strong, Jason O’Mara, Emmanuelle Seigner, Guillaume Canet, Mikael Persbrandt, Fiona Glascott, Sam Keeley, Michael McElhatton, Conor MacNeill, Roman Raftery, Danny Sapani, Melissa Haiden, Leon Clingman, Conor Quinlan, Mike Noble, Charlie Kelly, Alexander Tops, Fionn O’Shea, Danny Keogh. Directed by Richie Smyth

 

In 1961, shortly after being granted independence from Belgian rule, the Republic of the Congo (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) suffered internal strife and civil war. Violence broke out almost immediately after independence and Belgium sent in paratroopers to protect white citizens who were fleeing the country, particularly from the Katanga region.

The United Nations, under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjöld (Persbrandt), saw the alarming developments as both the Soviets and NATO began backing rival factions in the Congo. It was decided to deploy a peacekeeping force, the first that the UN had ever done. Composed primarily of Irish troops under the command of Pat Quinlan (Dornan), they reported to the UN Secretary General’s aide Conor Cruise O’Brien (Strong) and were sent to the tiny outpost of Jadotville.

There they found themselves surrounded by rebel forces loyal to Moise Tshombe (Sapani) and under the command of Rene Faulques (Canet), a Belgian mercenary. With no support and in an untenable position, they were ordered to hold Jadotville and for eight days, they did. It was a heroic defense, but it would later be swept under the rug even in Ireland, where the deeds of the soldiers weren’t recognized until 44 years after the events took place.

Dornan is best known for playing Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey but he does a pretty competent job of portraying the resolute but inexperienced Quinlan. The Irish troops refer to themselves as “war virgins” and so they are, most of them having seen no combat in their lives more violent than a Friday night at their local pub. Unlike Grey, Pat Quinlan is a loyal family man with a beautiful wife (Glascott) waiting for him at home and although he has caught the eye of local adviser Madame LaFontagne (Seigner) he remains faithful and if you’ve seen Emmanuelle Seigner before, you’ll understand how difficult a proposition that is.

There are plenty of white actors here that play out the events that were detailed in the book by Declan Power on the siege; however despite the fact that this movie is set in Africa there are virtually no Africans in the cast although Sapani as Tshombe does stand out. Apparently colonialist attitudes are still prevalent in the West.

It has to be said that one sees a war movie for the battle scenes and first-time feature director Smyth does a competent job staging them; there isn’t quite the you-are-there quality of Saving Private Ryan or the horror of Apocalypse Now but nonetheless the scenes are thrilling and suspenseful. Action fans will get their money’s worth.

Still, there is a good deal of chest-thumping and platitude shouting and those items turn this from what could have been an interesting study of an event that history had buried to a standard direct to home video disappointment. It’s not a snoozefest by any stretch of the imagination but I found the movie to be uninspiring and considering what the soldiers went to during the siege and even more to the point after it – events of which are glossed over in an almost criminal fashion. I would have liked to have seen a good movie about the siege and the Congo Crisis but this frankly wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Dornan does a solid job as the lead.
REASONS TO STAY: A slow moving story with too much chest-thumping turns this into movie-of-the-week territory. There are hardly any Africans here to tell this story of events in Africa.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of war violence and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Conor Quinlan, who plays PJ in the movie, is the grandson of the real Pat Quinlan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Beast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Accountant