Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait

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

Gemma Bovery


A portrait of wistfulness.

A portrait of wistfulness.

(2014) Romance (Music Box) Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Kacey Mottet Klein, Edith Scob, Philippe Uchan, Pascale Arbillot, Marie-Benedicte Roy, Christian Sinniger, Pierre Alloggia, Patrice Le Mehaute, Gaspard Beuacarne, Marianne Viville, Jean-Yves Freyburger. Directed by Anne Fontaine

Florida Film Festival 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a masterwork of French literature, although not too many Americans have read it (then again, not too many Americans have read anything). The story concerns a doctor’s wife in a provincial French town who embarked on several adulterous affairs to relieve the boredom of life in the slow lane as well as an empty marriage. It was racy for its time and many of the themes of the book have echoed down through the ages, as has its realistic story telling style.

An English couple, Charlie (Flemyng) and Gemma (Arterton) Bovery have moved into a small French town where Flaubert wrote his masterpiece. Martin Joubert (Luchini), who runs a boulingerie with his acerbic, practical wife Valerie (Candelier), is taken by the couple’s similar name to the tragic heroine and with Gemma herself, a spirited and beautiful young woman. He is a big fan of classic literature and Madame Bovary is one of his favorites.

Gemma at first seems thrilled with all things French, taking deep, sensual breaths of the freshly baked bread, taking long walks through the countryside with her dog. Martin often walks with her, delighted by his new friend. However, he is prone to looking for similarities between Gemma and Emma (the given name of Flaubert’s heroine) and soon finds a big one when Gemma initiates a torrid affair with Hervé de Bressigny, the callow womanizing scion to a titled family that lives nearby who is home on a break from school. Certain that she is hurtling to a terrible end =takes steps to save Gemma from the same fate as Flaubert’s protagonist no matter what the cost.

Based on a French graphic novel which is in turn something of a satiric take on Flaubert’s novel, the movie moves at a pace that befits its setting in the lovely rural countryside of France although some American viewers, used to a more brisk rhythm to their film may become impatient. but American viewers willing to stick with the movie will be rewarded with one of the better endings to a movie as I’ve seen in recent years, although admittedly it takes a long time in getting there.

Luchini is one of France’s most dependable actors although he’s not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. He plays Martin as a man living a pretty ordinary life, with a teenage son (Klein) who’s a bit of an asshole, and a wife who is somewhat bemused by his penchant to see things through the lens of his beloved books. She supported him when he moved the family from Paris although she wasn’t particularly thrilled by the idea but has essentially accepted and even embraced their new life which they have been in for several years when the movie begins. Luchini tends to be subtle with his performance, never really allowing the character to sink into cartoonish excess (which would be easy to do) but still leaves that little twinkle of the eternal boy which his character truly is.

Arterton is one of those actresses who always delivers attention-grabbing performances but doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She really is one of the finest actresses out there right now and should be getting the kind of films that are being offered to Emma Watson, Keira Knightley and Felicity Jones but for some reason she’s still either by choice or circumstance laboring in smaller films on the fringes of big stardom. This is another terrific performance that leaves me scratching my head as to why this woman isn’t a big, big star.

Luchini is the mournful face of hopeless love here. The feeling of impending tragedy colors everything like dappled sunlight on a summer day that is offset by a chill wind. The village setting is charming but like the decaying cottages that Martin and Gemma live in, the charm is offset by the reality that it isn’t all wildflowers and croissants. The movie has a lot of comedic elements – are men of a certain age group who fall obsessively in love with a much younger woman really that pathetic? – although I suspect that the humor appeals to a more European sensibility than American, although some of the situations are more or less universal. Overall this is a marvelously French film that is at once sexy, wistful, tragic and ridiculous. I guess that our lives pretty much hit those same notes as well. Maybe not as sexy as French lives do though.

REASONS TO GO: Lovely rustic French setting. Great ending.
REASONS TO STAY: Sense of humor may be too European for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, some nudity and also a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontaine is best known as a director in the U.S. for Coco Before Chanel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Madame Bovary
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Welcome to Me