The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society


Wheels keep on turning.

(2018) Drama (NetflixLily James, Michael Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtnay, Katherine Parkinson, Clive Merrison, Bernice Stegers, Penelope Wilton, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Florence Keen, Andy Gathergood, Nicolo Pasetti, Marek Oravec, Jack Morris, Stephanie Schonfeld, Pippa Rathbone, Rachel Olivant, Emily Patrick. Directed by Mike Newell

 

In 1946, England was still picking itself up and dusting itself off after the war. In London, the ruin of the Blitz was still very much in evidence and while there was an attitude of starting fresh, the pain and horror of the war wasn’t far from the surface.

Author Juliet Ashton (James) is making a tidy amount off of plucky war-set stories that are popular but bring her no intellectual satisfaction. A fan letter from a book club in picturesque Guernsey, a Channel Island that had been occupied by the Nazis during the war (a fact that this ignorant American wasn’t aware of) leads her to visit the club to perform a reading. She is captivated by the beauty of the island but even more so by the people, particularly those in the club. Although she is engaged to a flashy American diplomat (Powell), she finds herself drawn to farmer Dawsey Adams (Huisman). She is also drawn to the mystery of Elizabeth McKenna (Findlay), once the heart and soul of the club but whose absence nobody seems to want to talk about.

Mike Newell is one of the UK’s most capable directors with movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better installments in the franchise, to his credit. He does a marvelous job of evoking the post-war Era and gathering together an even more marvelous cast. James is never more attractive than she is here, and nearly all of the ensemble cast has some wonderful moments, particularly veterans Courtnay and Wilton, particularly Wilton who is much undervalued as an actress. There are sequences here where the raw emotions brought on by survivor’s guilt are communicated without theatrical hysterics. It’s a nuanced and brilliant performance that very nearly steals the show.

The romantic elements of the movie are a bit too sweet, leaving one with an unpleasant taste in the mouth – I truly wish that the plot had revolved more on the tale of Elizabeth McKenna than on the romance between Dawsey Adams and Juliet Ashton which came off like a British period soap opera only less interesting. I can’t not recommend a Mike Newell film however and the strong performances in this one make it a perfect candidate to Netflix and Chill.

REASONS TO SEE: The era is recreated beautifully.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contains more than a little bit of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are somewhat adult; there are also some sexual references and occasional mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James, Findlay, Good and Wilton also have appeared in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey; one of the filming locations for the show also doubled as exteriors for Guernsey (the Charterhouse in cases anyone is keeping score).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Went Up a Hill & Came Down a Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Jim Allison: Breakthrough

The Exception


Christopher Plummer is resplendent as Kaiser Wilhelm II

(2016) Historical Drama (A24) Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Aubeline Barbieux, Lois van Wijk, Stephanie Auberghen, Martin Swabey, Lucas Tavernier, Kurt Standaert, Martin Savage, Karen Leclercq, Frederik Lebeer, Stephanie Van Vyve, Daisy Bouliton, Verona Verbakel. Directed by David Leveaux

As the First World War drew to a close, it became painfully obvious to the German people and to those in power that their Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed them as a wartime ruler and he was quietly forced to abdicate and fled the country for a life in rural Holland in a place called Huize Doorn. There he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, surrounded by a few loyal former military men, Dutch servants and his devoted second wife Hermine.

It is 1940 and the Second World War is in full swing. Germany is ruled now by the Nazi party and their military victories have been startling in their speed and ferocity. The former Kaiser (Plummer) keeps abreast of these with keen interest, expressing admiration for Hitler although not for the party. The Nazis get wind that there is a British spy operating in the area so they dispatch Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to take command of the Kaiser’s personal guard.

He is assisted by Dietrich (Dexter), an SS officer who informs Brandt that transmissions had been intercepted by the SS and that all they needed to pin down the location of the transmissions was a truck able to triangulate the signal and pin down its location. He assures Brandt that one is on the way.

Brandt – who was wounded in the invasion of Poland – is something of a ladies’ man and his eye falls on the comely made Mieke (James). The two begin a torrid affair which is forbidden; discovery could get Lily fired and Brandt sent back to combat duty. Both of them are what you’d call damaged goods with horrors in their past; not exactly an easy place to build a relationship from.

When the announcement that Nazi bigwig Heinrich Himmler (Marsan) will be visiting, the entire household is in a tizzy. Hermine is certain that this means her husband will be summoned back to Berlin to take his rightful place in a restored monarchy (delusion can be beautiful in its own way). The Kaiser believes it too – but Himmler has other plans.

As the search for the spy begins to close the noose, Brandt begins to suspect that Mieke might be involved. He will have to choose between his love for her and his duty to his country. Given what his country has become that might not be a very hard choice at all.

This is a fictionalized account of the Kaiser in his final year of life and pretty much the history that it gets right is that there was a man named Wilhelm who was once Kaiser of Germany. Most of the rest is fiction so if you’re going to this movie thinking you’re going to get a history lesson, think again. The saving grace here is that Plummer inhabits the role so well, capturing Wilhelm’s ego and Prussian love for pomp but also the decent fellow that lay just beneath although most accounts of the Kaiser don’t reveal a whole lot of regard for anyone other than himself. Plummer however is just so magnetic that you can’t help but enjoy the performance even knowing it’s a bit of a sham.

Courtney has much of the burden for the film as he’s really the centerpiece (the title refers to him rather than the Kaiser) and that’s maybe not such a good thing. There are some things that Courtney does really well – he was one of the bright spots of Suicide Squad I thought – but this really isn’t the type of role that’s in his comfort zone and you can tell because his performance is far from assured. Part of the issue is that Courtney doesn’t really excel at expressing emotion non-verbally and we don’t get a sense of the struggle going on within the character; we just see him get into a situation where he’s having sex with a beautiful woman and we just assume it blossoms into love but the process is never apparent so when it comes time for him to choose between love and country we never get a sense that it is a struggle for him.

It also must be said that Courtney is far too buff for his role. We see him naked quite a bit and unfortunately Courtney had just finished filming Suicide Squad when he started up with this and he still had an action hero’s body which really doesn’t jive with a German officer’s body during World War II. There wasn’t a lot of pumping iron going on at that time.

There are some other things as well. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and even some of these seasoned performers deliver it like “this isn’t how people talk; how the hell am I supposed to say this?” is bouncing around their brain pan. The movie looks a bit stage-y in places which isn’t surprising since Leveaux has a Broadway background. Be assured though that the pluses outnumber the minuses by a comfortable margin. Plummer alone should be reason enough to make a point of seeing this. And quite frankly, the ending has a kind of grace to it that is all too rare in motion pictures. I won’t give you much detail on that score other than to say the ending does elevate the film.

 

So this is a strong recommend. It’s still playing in a few cities here and there (Orlando is one of them as of this writing) but if it isn’t anywhere near you or it’s been and gone, do check it out on VOD (Amazon Prime subscribers can see it for free). This isn’t going to be one of the best movies of the year but it’s better than the majority have been and will be – even if it is as fake as a three-dollar bill.

REASONS TO GO: Christopher Plummer is on a hot streak. The final scene is a nice touch.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some nudity and plenty of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming took place at the Kaiser’s actual home at Huize Doorn.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anthropoid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Commune

The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

(2016) Historical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield. Directed by Nate Parker

 

It has been more than 150 years since slavery ended in this country and still it is necessary for the descendents of those in bondage have to remind us that Black Lives Matter. It is sadly evident from the shenanigans of the followers of Donald Trump, from the evidence that the KKK is still alive and well and for the institutionalized racism that allows people to think that flying a Confederate flag isn’t offensive to a sizable percentage of the population that we still have a long way to go.

However when Nat Turner (Parker) was alive slavery was in full force and there was no end in sight. He lived in Southampton County, Virginia and as a boy (Espinosa) played with the scion of the plantation owner. The owner’s wife (Miller) saw something in the young boy and sought out to teach him how to read – although only the Holy Bible, because she felt that would be the only book useful to him. After the plantation owner passed away his son Samuel Turner (Hammer), now grown, orders Nat back to picking cotton much to his mother’s disappointment.

However, it turns out that Nat has a talent for preaching the gospel and it seems to calm down the slaves – it might not hurt that Samuel was, as owners go, fairly reasonable and less cruel. The local parson (Boone) witnesses Nat’s testimonial and suggests to Samuel that he send out his slave to surrounding plantations to placate the workers by preaching to them the Gospel. As this would put direly needed coin in Samuel’s pocket, he agrees and Nat begins to see first-hand what the conditions on other plantations are like.

He also meets Cherry (King), a comely house slave that he urges Samuel to buy. Eventually he lets her know that he’s smitten by her and she eventually relents to his charms. The two are married Gullah-style but as Cherry is now working on a neighboring plantation, they see each other rarely.

But tensions between slaves and whites are growing exponentially and after Cherry is brutally raped by white slave catchers led by the despicable Raymond Cobb (Haley) and soon thereafter his friend Hark’s (Domingo) wife Esther (Union) is raped by a lusty slave owner from a neighboring plantation. Nat begins to realize that the entire institution of slavery is unjust and that it is his duty to help the Lord strike it down. In August of 1831, he and a group of his fellow slaves, pushed beyond their limits, go on a spree, attacking plantations and killing the owners and their families. The first blows of a civil war have just been struck, although none will know it at the time.

Some (including myself) will compare this to 12 Years a Slave and there are some things that do make the comparison palatable. Both films show the brutality of slavery and both films show how unjust it was. However while 12 Years was a lot more intellectual an endeavor, this is from the gut. It captures the rage of angry black men who certainly have a great deal to be angry about.

This is clearly a passion project for Parker who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in and likely sold tickets in the box office for. Passion projects can be double edged swords when it comes to doing biographies. There can be a tendency to mythologize the subject and I think Parker indulged in that a little bit here. The Nat Turner that is depicted here is almost saintly until the sexual assaults drive him to lead a bloody uprising in which women, children and even infants are murdered. One has to deal with some of the gruesome deeds that occurred at the hands of Turner and his followers, however justified they may have been. I don’t believe I’m being racist when I say that Turner, about whom little is really known from a historical perspective, was likely not that nice; what we do know about him suggests that he had hallucinations – or visions if you like – of angels and divine beings (which to be fair are depicted in the film) and that he himself felt that he was being called by God to dispense justice to the slave owners and lead his people out of bondage as a modern day Moses.

Parker is at a bit of a disadvantage, truth be told; Turner was a rarity among slaves in that he could read but most of what we know about him comes from Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia written by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray and supposedly based on his actual confession, although many historians question its validity. Parker had to fill in a lot of blanks and does the best he can. Even William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, had to essentially invent Parker as a fictional character, which brought a lot of outrage from African-American intellectuals and civil rights leaders at the time.

The depictions of the horrible things suffered by slaves at the time may be among the most graphic ever put to film and may be too much for sensitive viewers. For my own part, I’m glad that Parker chose to go this route; too often Hollywood has portrayed slaves as sad people in chains singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and wondering when oh when Lord will we be free. The reality of their existence was brutal and inhuman and while there were slave owners who were compassionate, there were many who were not.

Parker gives a searing performance as Turner and he shows a ton of screen presence here. He is supported by Hammer, whose character is a borderline alcoholic and certainly not always a kind and gentle man towards his slaves. Domingo is a tower of strength in his role as Hark, one of Turner’s confidantes and closest friends.

I do think that Parker would have benefitted with a little more objectivity in the script; it feels like the storytelling here is a bit rote and a bit too linear. That’s more or less just quibbling over grammar in a sense, and shouldn’t deter that many from going to see this.

Some right wing sites have drawn parallels between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps that was intentional, but to be honest I don’t think Parker is advocating that black men rise up and start slaughtering white people indiscriminately; after all, that approach didn’t end very well for Turner or the others that rose up with him.

The film has generated some controversy based on Parker’s past legal issues. You can read about them elsewhere. I find it a shame that they have likely had an effect on the attendance for a very good movie about a very worthy subject. That’s not to vindicate Parker or what he allegedly did, albeit he was acquitted of all charges against him. I’m not a big believer in punishing someone for something they’ve already been acquitted of not doing. While the guilty sometimes get wrongly proclaimed innocent, more often people are acquitted because they are innocent.

This is an intense cinematic experience that is sadly mostly out of theaters. It should soon make its way to home video and who knows; if it gets any Oscar attention it might well get a theatrical re-release. Either way this is a movie worthy of your attention for both historical and cinematic reasons alike. It’s most definitely an angry young black man film, but it behooves all of us to listen to what angry young black men have to say.

REASONS TO GO: The Nat Turner story deserves to be told. The depiction of slavery is as brutal as any film has ever shown it to be – which is a good thing. Strong performances by Parker, Hammer and Domingo elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those with right-leaning tendencies may find the film to be polarizing. Muddies up history a little bit and makes safe storytelling choices.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is brief nudity and some fairly disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film depicts the turning point in Turner’s decision to revolt as a brutal assault on his wife, in reality his writings don’t acknowledge that he was married, although there is evidence that there was a marriage. Contemporary accounts do mention that he trusted her with his plans for the uprising but whether or not they were actually husband and wife still remains a mystery. Most historians regard the reason for his rebelliousness as spiritual visions and consider it unlikely that he felt his marriage, if it did indeed exist, was a valid one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Years a Slave
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Girl on the Train

Anthropoid


Nobody likes a bomb.

Nobody likes a bomb.

(2016) Historical Drama (Bleecker Street) Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Sean Mahon, Bill Milner, Jan Hájek, Pavel Reznicek, Alena Mihulová, Harry Lloyd, Detlef Bothe, Roman Zach, Mish Boyko, Sam Keeley, Ondrej Maly, Marcin Corocinski, Karel Hermánek Jr., Václav Neuzil, Jiri Simek, Andrej Polak, Anna Gerislová. Directed by Sean Ellis

 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are some true stories that are not strange at all, but point out the best that humanity can be – and the worst. Not all of those sorts of stories stay with us for long and indeed this one remains only relatively well-known in Eastern Europe, but it is a story worth the telling.

After the Berlin Accords gave what was then known as Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to be used as fuel for the war machine to come, Prague became an occupied city and the entire region was ruled with an iron fist. Holding that fist was Reinhard Heydrich (Bothe), one of the authors of Hitler’s Final Solution and who would become known as The Butcher of Prague.

The Czech government in exile decided to make a statement and sent a team of paratroopers into the countryside outside Prague who had the mission of assassinating Heydrich. Leading the team was Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), two Czech soldiers. Things went bad from the beginning; Kubis injured his foot while landing and the two resistance fighters who were sent to meet them turned out to be Nazi collaborators. The two soldiers barely escaped with their lives.

They finally found legitimate resistance members in Prague, but the situation there was very chaotic. There was little or no information to be hand; the city was under severe restrictions and people were being rounded up and imprisoned with impunity. There were infiltrators everywhere and knowing whom to trust was no easy task. “Uncle” Hajsky (Jones) was trying to make some sort of organization through all this but most of his men had been arrested. He put up the two paratroopers in the Moravec home whose mother (Mihulová) was a resistance member and their son Ata (Milner) loyal to the cause.

To keep suspicions from being aroused over the new arrivals, girlfriends were supplied; Marie (Le Bon) for Josef and Lenka (Gerislová) for Jan. The deception turned out to be a lot more accurate as the two couples began to actually fall for each other. Wartime can be a great accelerator of romance.

In the repressive atmosphere of Prague, however, getting their mission completed would be no easy task and with little contact with their government and almost no intelligence to go on, the two men had their work cut out for them. What would happen would become one of the greatest instances of heroism to come out of the War and is a source of national pride to the Czechs even to this day.

It is not an easy thing to write a review or a movie that is about actual history; while one doesn’t want to supply spoilers for those who may not be aware of how the story unfolded, at the same time it is difficult to write about the film without giving at least some plot points away. Suffice to say that Ellis and company have given us a movie whose historical accuracy is better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen; that is a double-edged sword however.

The movie does drag in places, particularly in the first half. Once the assassination is attempted, the movie is turbo charged and Ellis delivers some really fine suspense sequences and one of the best shoot-outs since the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Murphy and Dornan are both fine actors and they’re given some exceptional material to work with. Both men are imperfect, neither are superheroes and both have the kinds of doubts and frailties that real heroes must overcome to do extraordinary things.

Those who are aware of the history behind the celluloid are going to view this a lot differently than those who are unfamiliar with the story; even the latter group however may find the sense of things spiraling towards a final conclusion somewhat overwhelming. We all know that the Titanic is going to sink even before we view the movie; how it gets there and who survives is what makes that movie a classic.

As a movie, Anthropoid makes an excellent history lesson. That doesn’t always translate to entertainment however, unless you are entertained by history and fortunately for me, I am. I found the film fascinating and I was moved enough to research the real Operation Anthropoid which is where I discovered that the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the incident quite closely which is something to be admired, although at times they seem to be willing to sacrifice entertainment for accuracy. I think that both could have coexisted better as the last half of the movie clearly shows; had the first half been able to capture the tension of the second this would have been a clear front runner to be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it is slow in getting underway so this will have to remain a solid, historically accurate war film that is flawed but nevertheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Historically accurate and full of gut-wrenching suspense. The performances are strong throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The sense of impending doom is oppressive at times. Slow-moving in the first half of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence here as well as some fairly disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Ata Moravec is tortured was filmed in the same place where it actually happened.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Operation: Daybreak
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Think Twice

Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

The Danish Girl


What makes a woman a woman?

What makes a woman a woman?

(2015) Historical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Pip Torrens, Adrian Schiller, Jake Graf, Nicholas Woodeson, Philip Arditti, Sebastian Koch, Miltos Yerolemou, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Pixie, Angela Curran, Richard Dixon, Henry Pettigrew, Emerald Fennell, Nancy Crane, Clare Fettarappa, Victoria Emslie. Directed by Tom Hooper

Although transgender surgeries have become somewhat more commonplace now than they were say 50 years ago, transgenders haven’t really been accepted by mainstream society until recently and then only begrudgingly. While the media and cinema have turned their focus on LGBT issues in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, there has been little attention paid to the “T” in LGBT until recently.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is well-respected in the Danish art world as a painter of landscapes; his wife Gerda (Vikander) is a portrait painter who has achieved less success. The two are madly in love with one another, and hang out at artistic events with their dancer friend Ulla (Heard). When Ulla is delayed from a portrait session due to a late rehearsal, an increasingly frustrated Gerda enlists her husband to put on Ulla’s stockings and shoes, and to hold her dress over his body so that she can continue painting.

The incident has a profound effect on Einar. He has always felt like there was something not quite right; his infertility, his somewhat effeminate manner, his desire for men (although his deepest love is reserved for Gerda). But there is someone inside him, someone that Ulla mischievously names Lily. As Ulla and Gerda persuade the somewhat introspective Einar to attend a party with them as Lily, he is at first thrilled at the scandalous air of it all, but soon he finds himself feeling more comfortable as a woman. As Einar begins to slowly be displaced by Lily, the relationship with Gerda is strained to the breaking point, but in the end she wants her husband to be happy. However, the only way for Lily to be fully free is to undertake a dangerous operation that has not been attempted before, or at least often.

The movie is based on a fictional account of the real Einar Wegener/Lily Elbe (she would take the name of the German river near the clinic where her sex change operations were performed). While Focus has been marketing this as a true story, the only things true about it are that there were once painters in Denmark named Einar Wegener and Gerda Wegener, they were once married to each other and Einar eventually changed into Lily Elbe.

So do take the “true story” thing with more than a grain of salt. If you are interested at all in the real story of Lily Elbe, I would suggest her autobiography Man Into Woman which is taken directly from her own journal entries and letters.

The movie is very much a love story, with Gerda at first hurt and dejected by her husband’s transformation, but eventually she accepts that Lily is literally not the man she married and becomes his staunchest ally, even when Lily is a bit of a jerk to her. Gerda proves to be the more interesting character in many ways; while the real Gerda was in all likelihood a lesbian who used her marriage to cover her sexual preferences and had a much more platonic relationship with Einar than was depicted here (their marriage was eventually annulled and by the time Einar began the first of his five operations, the two had separated permanently). Vikander has this year become an actress to watch based on the strength of a series of indelible performances and this one might be the best of the lot. She may not get an Oscar nom out of this but she will soon and many will follow, I’m sure, thereafter.

As good as Vikander is, Redmayne actually shows that his Oscar win last year for The Theory of Everything was hardly a fluke. Whereas that performance was more physically challenging, Redmayne shows himself to be a marvelous emotional actor, often capturing Lily’s inner dialogue in a single downward glance, a shy smile or a feminine gesture but mainly through his eyes, which are filled with torment but occasionally joy as Lily begins to discover who she truly is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got another Best Actor nomination for this role.

There is a strong supporting cast with Schoenaerts as a childhood friend of Einar’s who becomes enmeshed in the private hell that he and Gerda have entered, Whishaw as a homosexual who develops feelings for Einar/Lily, and Koch as the sympathetic surgeon who alone doesn’t think that Einar should be committed to an insane asylum.

The performances here are above reproach, but there is a curious atmosphere here. While Einar and Gerda and their friends were clearly Bohemian sorts, there is an odd mannered kind of style here which comes off as emotionally distant in places. The pacing is erratic and I don’t think that the writers and Hooper were entirely successful at getting to the turmoil within Gerda and Einar as Lily begins to take over their lives. We do see some conflict, but it’s more petulant than thoughtful.

Nonetheless, this is a good film although not in my opinion a great one and considering the acting proficiency going on here, it should have been. I wanted to like it more but I left the theater feeling curiously unmoved. There is a Hollywood gloss over this; I think the filmmakers would have been better served to tell the real stories of Lily and Gerda rather than this made up schmaltz fest that they decided to go with. In many ways, they do a disservice to the bravery of Lily Elbe and the first transgenders by turning her story into a kind of love story that her relationship with Gerda really didn’t support. Truth is often better than fiction and in this case I believe it would have been.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances by Redmayne and Vikander. A powerful love story.
REASONS TO STAY: So mannered that it seems to lack passion at times.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong sexuality and some graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally developed by Nicole Kidman who wanted to direct and star as Lily in the project but she was unable to get financing. When Hooper came aboard, he cast Redmayne in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Single Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sisters

A Dangerous Method


Viggo Mortensen is not amused at Michael Fassbender's knock-knock jokes.

Viggo Mortensen is not amused at Michael Fassbender’s knock-knock jokes.

(2011) Historical Drama (Sony Classics) Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon, Andre M. Hennicke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Mignon Reme, Mareike Carriere, Franziska Arndt, Wladimir Matuchin, Andre Dietz, Anna Thalbach, Sarah Marecek, Bjorn Geske, Markus Haase, Nina Azizi. Directed by David Cronenberg

 

These days, psychoanalysis is part of the landscape. A fairly high percentage of people have utilized the services of a mental health care professional, and many undergo regular treatment. We have come to accept that talking out our problems is far healthier than repressing them.

In 1904, that wasn’t the case. A screaming, hysterical young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) is brought by carriage to the Burghölzli Hospital in Switzerland. She is seen to by Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender), a gentle, handsome doctor whose rich (and gorgeous) wife (Gadon) keeps him in a lifestyle to his liking while he explores a science in its infancy and one that, frankly, doesn’t pay well. He becomes intrigued by Sabina’s case and is eager to try out the new “talking therapy” being championed by Dr. Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) in Vienna.

The sessions seem to help and soon Jung, who had been corresponding with Freud about the case, becomes a believer in the Vienna intellectual’s work. That correspondence grows into mutual respect and eventually, a friendship. However, that friendship doesn’t endure. Jung has some misgivings about Freud’s reliance on the sexual for explanations of human behavior. When he sends Dr. Otto Gross (Cassel), a colleague, to Jung for psychoanalysis, the seeds of discord begin to be sown. Gross, a libertine of the highest order, becomes a confidant for Jung, who has begun to feel desire for Sabina, still his patient. Gross essentially gives Jung the go-ahead to initiate an affair with her.

Eventually, Jung’s intellect and compassion win out over his baser side and he breaks things off. Sabina goes to Vienna to study under Freud (and it seems, do a lot more under Freud) on the way to becoming one of the first women to practice psychoanalysis in the world.

Cronenberg has been fascinated with the terror of flesh in previous films; here he seeks to examine the terror of mind, disguising it as a Merchant-Ivory historical piece. Or perhaps, it’s the other way around. In any case, his fascination for the subject is clear.

The execution? Not so much. This is a dialogue-heavy movie – being based on a stage play, that’s unsurprising – and of course that it revolves largely around the birth of psychoanalysis also lends itself to a talky production. That doesn’t make it any less monotonous when the talking grows tedious. Now, I don’t have a problem with movies that are more conversational than action-oriented but the dialogue needs to at least be interesting. Often it comes off as intellectual posturing rather than delivering insight.

Fortunately, there are some pretty good performances. Mortensen, on his third collaboration with Cronenberg, gives Freud a bit of a less stodgy personality as he’s often assigned. Mortensen’s Freud is passionate, stubborn and maybe a little bit fixated on the sexual. Fassbender, in the midst of his breakout year, was brilliant as Jung; a bit timid and bookish but never reserved when it comes to his ideas. Cassel gets the memorable part of the libertine and runs with it, having a good time with a character who certainly thought he deserved it.

Much of the movie was filmed in the places where the events took place, lending an authenticity to the project. While the affair between Jung and Sabina is merely conjecture, most of the rest of the film is historically accurate with some of the dialogue coming directly from the letters and writings of the characters in the movie.

How you feel about the movie will largely depend on how you feel about psychoanalysis. There is some fascinating material here, particularly on how the workings of the science were arrived at and bitterly debated. That some of Jung’s ideas would later fuel the Nazi party (which is alluded to in a graphic and unforgettable sequence near the end of the film) is a tragedy that is laced with irony as many years after the events of the movie Sabina Spielrein would fall victim to the Nazis.

Perhaps if I saw this mid-afternoon when I was a little more alert I might have enjoyed this more, but it is a little dry. That doesn’t mean the ideas or discussions here aren’t worth listening to; there’s an intellectual stimulation here that’s rare in most movies and heaven knows I don’t want to discourage that. However, those who go to movies for big explosions, big breasts and big guns would be well-advised to steer clear of this one. Although what Freud would have made of those sorts of people would be amusing reading to say the least.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating material. Nice performances by Mortensen, Fassbender and Cassel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and monotonous in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexual content and a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cronenberg states on the director’s commentary that more CGI was used on this film than any other he has directed to this point.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A session with Cronenberg and an audience of American Film Institute students who’d just seen the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.5M on an $18.8M production budget; the movie didn’t quite recoup its production costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry & June

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Beware the Gonzo