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
NEXT:
Skyscraper

Official Secrets


The reflection in liberty is sometimes the courage of a single person.

(2019) Biographical Drama (IFC) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Grieg, John Heffernan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Conleth Hill, Hattie Morahan, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin, Peter Guinness, Jeremy Northam, Hanako Footman Directed by Gavin Hood

 

There is a fundamental question when you hold a position within a government and that is this: do you work for the government, or for the people it represents? Not all of those who toil in government positions understand the distinction.

Katherine Gun (Knightley) works as a Mandarin translator for GCHQ – essentially the British version of the NSA – interpreting diplomatic and military communiques and writing reports. It’s a low-level job requiring high security clearance. At night, she goes home and watches the telly with her Turkish immigrant husband Yasar (Bakri) and shouting at the television as she watches American officials making speeches justifying their intent to go to war with Iraq and knowing that nothing that they’re saying is supported by fact.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is an NSA memo that is distributed to the GCHQ requesting information on six UN delegates on the UN Security Council who are standing in the way of that body approving the American invasion of Iraq. This is patently illegal by British law, but because this is a classified document, it is protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1989, a Thatcher-era British law that broadens what can and can’t be leaked to the press.

Understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing, Gun gives a copy of the memo to an anti-war activist who in turn forwards it to the offices of the Observer, an English newspaper. The Observer, like much of the conservative British press, had officially supported war (despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of the UK was against it). While gung-ho activist reporter Ed Vullamy (Ifans),  a seething mass of liberal anger wants to rush this bombshell to press, calmer heads like foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont (Goode) want to first verify that the document  and make sure it’s authentic – you know, do the job the press is actually supposed to do.

That job falls to reporter Martin Bright (Smith) who diligently looks into the authorship of the memo. Eventually, the story goes to press but despite the outrage, the United States invades without a U.N. resolution and nearly 20 years later we’re still there.

Of course, all hell breaks loose at the GCHQ and the various people who work there who had access to the memo are interrogated. Not wanting to see her colleagues subjected to a witch hunt, Gun confesses. She is eventually arrested and after a year, charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. On the advice of Bright (relayed through their mutual friend), Gun retains Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), founder of the activist legal group Liberty that defends British civil rights (think of a smaller scale ACLU). The government, seeking to make an example of Gun, undertake to harass and in general make her life miserable even before the charges can be filed. In the meantime, she is terrified that her husband will be deported.

This is a story on the level of that of Valerie Plame and Edward Snowden, of those who chose conscience over safety. Gun is most certainly a liberal hero and is treated as such by the film and South African director Gavin Hood, who has made two other films (Redacted and Eye in the Sky) about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The film has a crackerjack cast led by Knightley, who has in recent years done a lot of period work. I suppose this is also a bit of a period piece but at least this one is set after the Regency Era. She plays Gun as an impulsive and passionate woman who hadn’t looked to become a spy but became one anyway. When faced with a moral dilemma, she responded with the kind of courage that is rare. Understanding that a prison sentence is inevitable as would be massive personal consequences, would any of us have stood for what we felt was right? As much as I would like to think I would, I suspect that I – like most people – would opt for what is convenient. Knightley gives Gun a kind of vulnerability that makes her relatable as she second-guesses her decision as it becomes terrifyingly clear the ramifications of what she has done to her marriage and standing. Gun is not always heroic here and that makes the movie stronger.

Smith and Ifans, as reporters of opposing demeanors, both do impressive work which again, considering how strong this cast is, can be no easy feat. Hood, who co-wrote the film, tends to get bogged down in legal details during the third act and the nearly two hour movie begins to drag at that point. It is a bit exhausting by that point. Still, in an era where governments seem to be marching ever alarmingly to the right, it behooves us to remember how important it is for people of conscience to stand up and say “this is wrong,” even if it doesn’t make a difference immediately. In the long run, it makes every difference.

REASONS TO SEE: A really top-notch cast with particularly impressive performances by Knightley, Ifans and Smith.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little bit too long and gets bogged down in legal details.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In real life, Gun’s husband was deported to Turkey where he now lives along with Gun and their young daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liam Gallagher: As It Was

The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

All is True


Will Shakespeare and his wife Anne share a tender moment.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Eleanor de Rohan, Gerard Horan, Lydia Wilson, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Rouse, Harry Lister Smith, Hadley Fraser, Sam Ellis, Kate Tydman, Phil Dunster, Doug Colling, Freya Durkan, Flora Easton, Matt Jessup, Sabi Perez, Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer who ever lived but even given that remarkably little is known about his personal life. What is known for sure is that in 1613, following a performance of Henry VIII in which a prop cannon misfired, setting fire to the Globe Theater and burning it to the ground, William Shakespeare left London for good and returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon, never to write again. It is also known this was 17 years after his only son Hamnet (Ellis) died tragically at the age of eleven.

=Kenneth Branagh is widely known to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, having brought the Bard to the screen in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Hamlet. For someone who so clearly loves the work of Shakespeare, it musts be tantalizing to say the least to speculate about his life. Why did he stop writing in 1613? What was his life like in Stratford after his retirement?

Branagh plays the Bard which must have been both daunting and deliciously illicit (sort of like doing an impression of a favorite teacher) pottering about the garden of his Stratford home where he means to create a memorial garden for his son. The return home has brought him no peace; he continues to mourn for a son he never really knew (Shakespeare spent most of his time in London and rarely visited home) 17 years after the fact. His sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dench), many years his senior (actually merely eight years in reality) has relegated him to the second-best bed in the house, refusing to sleep with a husband who is more a stranger than a spouse. His older daughter Susannah (Wilson) is married to a rigid Puritan physician (Fraser).

His younger daughter Judith (Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, shows nothing but contempt for her father and wishes fervently he had stayed in London. Raised by her mother, she seems as strong-willed and as iron-tongued as Anne. Shakespeare is haunted by the ghost of Hamnet and by his own failings as a father and a husband while coping with the fame that refuses to leave him alone.

The story is largely fiction although the salient facts are there; Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613, the death of his son, the loss of the Globe Theater in a catastrophic fire. The rest is invention by Branagh and writer Ben Elton. Serious Shakespearean scholars will probably raise an eyebrow or two at the creative licenses taken here but for most of us, it’s all good.

In many ways Branagh was born to play Shakespeare and he captures the wit and humanity that the writer displayed in his work. Surely this is the Shakespeare we all imagined he’d be: distracted, unable to cope with the tragedies in his life, largely lost without the outlet of writing. Branagh also makes his Will Shakespeare a product of his times; a bit misogynistic – unable to grasp the concept that the true inheritor of his talents might have been Judith, the distaff twin of Hamnet upon whom he place all his hopes of having a successor – and prone to being a bit self-absorbed. Branagh humanizes the Bard and makes him relatable.

Dench, as always, rises to the occasion, making Anne Hathaway Shakespeare a reflection of herself and the kind of wife you’d figure Shakespeare would have. She holds her own with Branagh – or rather, he with her – and the two are electric whenever appearing as a couple onscreen. Some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie are the two sparring with one another.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes this a very pretty film to watch, from the recreations of Elizabethan England to the lovely bucolic English countryside which continues today to be a charming film locale. Nicholson relies on backlighting to create spectacular images of Shakespeare in Country. It’s a beautiful looking film which is never a bad thing.

There is a melancholic atmosphere here which is at times laid on a bit too thickly; Shakespeare is certainly in mourning for his son but for also the Globe and in many ways, for himself. The humor isn’t especially over-the-top and has a gentle touch (for the most part) although at times the acid tongue of Anne Hathaway gibes rise to some really potent zingers. While the dialogue can get a bit overindulgent at times (and there are an awful lot of Shakespearean references that are going to go over the average audience member’s head) there is nonetheless a charm here that made this one of my favorite films at the recent Florida Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at it’s upcoming Enzian run.

REASONS TO SEE: Branagh and Dench deliver wonderful performances. The cinematography is stunning. The humor is nice and gentle. The story is oddly affecting.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is a bit dense in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are adult, some sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Ben Elton was also one of the main writers on the Blackadder series, which frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shakespeare in Love
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Ode to Joy

Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

The Mercy


There is no loneliness greater than being alone at sea.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Screen Media) Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Adrian Schiller, Andrew Buchan, Jonathan Bailey, Anna Madeley, Ken Stott, Tim Downie, Genevieve Gaunt, Sebastian Armesto, Martin Marquez, Finn Elliot, Kerry Godliman, Kit Connor, Eleanor Stagg, Simon Chandler, Greg Hicks, Zara Prassiinot. Directed by James Marsh

 

The sea is an unforgiving mistress. She tolerates no mistakes, no miscalculations, no regret. When you are alone at sea, there is no one more alone in the world, to paraphrase Sir Francis Chichester, the first man to circumnavigate the globe by himself with only one stop (in Australia).

Now, at a large boating show in England, Chichester (McBurney) is on hand to announce a competition sponsored by the Sunday Times; a race around the world by boat with no stops. In 1968, it was a grueling, nearly impossible feat. There was no resupplying your ship – you had to make due with what you brought with you. There was no stopping to make repairs; if anything broke down, it was up to you to fix it. There was no support system other than the voices you heard on the radio. You were well and truly alone.

To nautical inventor and weekend sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) this sounded like just the challenge he needed. The creator of a pre-GPS electronic locator device known as the Navicat, he is at the boat show where Chichester makes his announcement and the adventure takes hold of his imagination. While among friends, he blithely announces that he has registered for the race which is news to his wife Clare (Weisz). She’s more than a little surprised; the family has a comfortable middle class existence in the coastal town of Teignmouth. They have three children who absolutely worship Daddy. Why on earth would he want to risk his life to be away from his loving family for months?

But Donald is determined to see this through. He is designing a trimaran, a catamaran with an extra float to give it more buoyancy and speed. Donald is certain with the safety devices of his own invention that he can win the race. However, delays in building the boat (many of them due to adding the new technology) create frustration for Crowhurst and his main investor, Stanley Best (Stott), an RV salesman (called caravans in England) and Crowhurst’s publicist Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis).

Hallworth has been busy creating an image of Crowhurst as a plucky English hero, a weekend sailor braving the dangerous waters of the Southern Oceans which frightened even Chichester. He has become a media darling but the deadline for setting sail is fast approaching and despite Crowhurst’s notoriety and plethora of sponsorships, he can’t speed up the process of building the boat.

So he launches on the very last day possible and it becomes very clear that the boat, named the Teignmouth Electron after his marine electronics business, is not nearly ready – it’s barely even seaworthy – and his gumption to make repairs at sea prove to be woefully optimistic. As he approaches the tip of South America where Cape Horn awaits to deliver him into the South Pacific, he realizes that he’ll never survive the journey. If he returns however he will forfeit his business, his home and nearly everything he has, plunging his family into destitution. He is left with an impossible choice…until he comes up with a creative solution.

This is based on a true story, one which is fairly well-known in sailing circles as well as in Great Britain where Crowhurst remains fairly well-known. To most Americans however, the details of the story will be unfamiliar so there is a good deal I’m leaving out. What I don’t have to avoid talking about is the performances of three of the best actors of their generation in England. Firth and Weisz, both Oscar winners, and Thewlis who has been nominated for a Golden Globe, all deliver outstanding performances. Thewlis, as the brash ex-crime reporter who is bound and determined to make Crowhurst a household name (and succeeds all too well) is perhaps the most noticeable of the three.

Both Weisz and Firth understate their performances quite a bit, especially Weisz who is mainly forced to keep a stiff upper lip in public but privately is terrified that she’ll never see her husband alive again. She shows some backbone, addressing the media horde camped at her front door near the end of the film and it’s an incandescent scene and shows just how powerful an actress Weisz truly is.

But for me, the star is Firth. He plays a good man, a fine husband and devoted father who talks himself into a situation that leaves him clearly over his head. We watch as he makes decisions that seem logical at the time but that lead him deeper down a path of no return, then watch as alone at sea those decisions not only come back to haunt him but prey upon his mind like voracious tigers. It’s a chilling performance, one of Firth’s best which is saying something.

Another thing; the sound effects are absolutely amazing, from the creaking of the boat, the groaning of the metal, the waves smashing into the hull…all amplified and all making the experience so much more realistic. You get a sense of why Crowhurst’s ordeal having to listen to that non-stop for months. That alone makes this worth seeing in a theater, if it plays anywhere near you.

Marsh stumbles a little when it comes to building the dramatic tension. Although you get a sense of the wheels turning and forcing Crowhurst down a path that will lead him to face impossible choices, when it finally comes to the denouement it almost feels anti-climactic.

This is a movie that if it had been picked up by a major we would be hearing about for the performances of the three leads, possibly with Oscar ramifications. Even though it is unlikely to get distribution in most places, this is a truly fine film that deserves to be seen. Keep an eye out for it at your local art house or on your favorite streaming service. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: The sound effects really enhance the story nicely. It’s a compelling story, compellingly acted by a terrific cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic tension isn’t as great as it could have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some mature themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The man playing the mayor of Teignmouth is the son of the man who was actually mayor at the time of Crowhurst’s voyage; the son has himself been elected mayor of Teignmouth twice.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All is Lost
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Luciferina

Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2