Film review of The Favourite

January 10, 2019

This film review of “The Favourite” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 January 2019 in a slightly shorter form.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn

*****

“The Favourite” is a bawdy comedy-drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Lanthimos specialises in off-kilter worlds; here he has created a world of insider court intrigue, deceit, manipulation and sex, especially lesbian sex.

Queen Anne ruled during a time of political turmoil and change, with bitter rivalries between Whigs and Tories, and ongoing military actions against both France and Spain. The film is set not long after the death of Anne’s husband the Prince of Denmark (1708), and Anne is perpetually in a foul mood, exacerbated by increasing poor health: she suffered from severe gout and a number of other medical problems, could hardly walk and is usually pushed around in a wheelchair.

The film extrapolates, with significant poetic liberties, from the acknowledged intimate relationship that Anne (played by an almost unrecognisable Olivia Colman) had with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Jewish actress Rachel Weisz), who becomes the Queen’s closest advisor. The two call each other by pet names – Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman – apparently as a means of establishing a level of equality between them. A competitor arrives in the person of Sarah’s first cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Although down on her luck and fortune – Abigail is literally thrown into the mud from a carriage outside the palace in an opening scene – through careful scheming and attentiveness to Queen Anne’s infirmities, Abigail becomes a power player in the court.

Without its trio of acclaimed female performances – Colman, Weisz and Stone – this film could have become a mash-up of seedy British monarchy stories. The performances are astonishing, lively, energetic, funny, lusty, erotic and frequently nasty. All three have been nominated for Golden Globes, a feat likely to be repeated at the Oscars, with the film and director also in competition for major awards.

Satiric spoofs on the foibles of the British political and social upper classes have rarely been as cutting as this. Palace residents and courtiers are breathtakingly out of touch with what’s happening in the world, preferring to race ducks, shoot pheasants and bombard each other naked with fruit.

“The Favourite” also operates as a form of revisionist history: these three women appear to be the most powerful people in Britain, with many men clamouring – often fruitlessly – for the attention of their monarch. The men are dressed absurdly, with long wigs and bizarre make-up. England is at war – a fact that Queen Anne occasionally forgets – and senior members of the Parliament and the army seek her approval on war strategy and financing the war effort; in both areas, Anne is way out of her depth.

“The Favourite” includes delightful lines, such as when Abigail greets a nobleman who has come to her room unannounced: “Have you come to rape me or seduce me?” “Madam, I am a gentleman,” he responds. “Rape me then,” she replies.

The film also presents as tragicomedy: Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits in her chambers, each of them affectionately named, representing her 17 lost children, most of them by miscarriage. In poor health and growing obese, Anne eats whatever and whenever she pleases, simply vomiting into a pitcher when she is full. Prospective viewers are forewarned: under its comedy, “The Favourite” has a hard and cynical edge; these players are angling for power and the stakes are high.

 


Film review of Irrational Man

August 21, 2015

(This film review of “Irrational Man” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 August 2015.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey

Even on a bad day, a Woody Allen movie is worth watching. While his latest film, “Irrational Man”, is a distinctly minor addition to his impressive oeuvre, it contains at least two performances of extraordinary quality and attempts to deal with philosophical questions that most directors avoid.

Allen’s film career as a writer, director and actor now spans more than 50 years. “Irrational Man” returns to one of Allen’s favoured themes, of evil deeds going unpunished. He explored this in great length in the comedy-drama, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, which was set partly against the background of his character’s obsession with the Holocaust.

“Irrational Man” instead takes an academic approach through its main character Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix, who arrives at a small New England college suffering from writer’s block and general ennui. Unable to progress his book on Heidegger and fascism, he commences a desultory affair with a depressed married colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). And against his better judgment, he is drawn into second affair with one of his brightest undergraduate students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), the daughter of two local professors – both of them obviously Jewish. Both women want to be rescued by Lucas, who in turn is seeking some escape from his lonely and alcohol-fuelled musings (“just what the world needs, another book on Heidegger and fascism”).

I have never been a fan of screen alcoholics, as perpetual drunks are rarely fun to watch, and following their journeys is rarely interesting. Abe’s situation creates a structural problem for the plot of “Irrational Man”, so Abe’s tortured character decides to do something drastic to rouse himself (no plot spoilers here). As Abe, a mis-cast Phoenix falls into his classic speech-slurring mumble, spouting philosophical truisms (“anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”), but without the conviction that other actors have been able to give to Allen’s intellectual lines.

By contrast, Parker Posey and Emma Stone both shine in their roles, creating two believable and totally watchable characters. If this film were stronger, I would tip both for possible Academy Award nominations. But the weak and underwritten plot with a too-easy ending and Phoenix’s loose performance all weigh it down. Despite the scenic Rhode Island setting and a few cute pop culture references (“I am at a ‘Zabriskie Point’ moment”), “Irrational Man” leaves little emotional resonance.

Last year, the New York Post posed the question, “Does Woody Allen write good roles for women, or is he a great director of women?” Seven performances in Woody Allen films have won Academy Awards, six of them for women, an almost unparalleled achievement. “Irrational Man” contains two more good female roles, unfortunately lost in a flawed film.

(Photo below: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in “Irrational Man”)

Irrational Man


Magic in the Moonlight film review

August 27, 2014

(This film review of “Magic in the Moonlight” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 August 2014.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Simon McBurney

It is a testament to Woody Allen’s enduring influence as a Jewish film-maker that we Jews closely follow each of his releases, even when there are no Jewish concepts, themes or characters. There have been flashier and more popular Jewish film-makers (Steven Spielberg, also known for his Jewish philanthropy), grittier (Sidney Lumet), possibly funnier (Mel Brooks), possibly more accomplished (Billy Wilder), definitely stranger (Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick), “cooler” (Joel Coen), more political (Milos Forman, Otto Preminger) and “artier” (Darren Aronofsky).

And yet, Woody Allen stands at the top of almost everyone’s list of the great Jewish film directors of all time. This is partly due to his three roles – he writes, directs and acts – so that we have a strong image of Woody Allen the screen character. He undoubtedly is also one of the best screenwriters ever, with 73 screen writing credits, 16 Oscar nominations and 3 Oscar wins. It’s also due to hard work and living a long and productive life: at an age when most men are long retired or dead – he will be 79 in December – he continues to produce a film each year.

Broadly, Woody Allen’s films fall into five broad categories, with numerous overlaps and side themes: early slapstick (“Sleepers”), romantic nostalgia (“Annie Hall”), drama (“Blue Jasmine”, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”), light mystery (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”) and – most recently – European adventures (“Midnight in Paris”, “Vicki Christina Barcelona”).

Opening this week, “Magic in the Moonlight” is Allen’s latest, falling into the latter category of a light, romantic European adventure, including magic themes (long an Allen favourite). This is “middling” Woody Allen: his fans will insist on seeing it, and many will be swept up by the characters, British-style drawing room comedy (George Bernard Shaw, where are you?), great production design and sumptuous European settings. Others may be frustrated by the film’s unwillingness to present enough substance for us to really care what happens and why.

“Magic in the Moonlight” opens in “Berlin 1928”, at a theatrical magic show run by Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who uses an on-stage Chinese persona (“Wei Ling Soo”). He makes elephants disappear and transports himself across the stage from locked boxes to chairs. Although the action quickly shifts elsewhere, here Allen is hinting at tragedies to come, in the style of the film “Cabaret”. But Allen has other things on his mind: Stanley is enlisted by an old school friend, Howard Burkan (delightful British actor Simon McBurney, most recognised for his role in “Friends with Money”), to help de-bunk the “spiritualist” claims by a young American woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). As a purveyor of magic himself, Stanley is a dour rationalist who specialises in un-masking fake “mediums”, although secretly – we discover – he desires to find hidden and unexplained meanings.

They travel to the Côte d’Azur, where a variety of characters have collected: Stanley’s ageing aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and the Catledges, a rich American family which has become enamoured of Sophie. There’s mother Grace (Jacki Weaver, again sporting a flawless American accent), daughter Olivia and her husband, and son Brice (Hamish Linklater) who has been smitten with Sophie, and insists on playing a ukulele as a means of wooing her. They wear tennis whites, go out on yachts and generally live a life of naive and semi-cultured ease.

The core of “Magic in the Moonlight”, however, is the growing relationship between Sophie and Stanley, and the results are mixed. While Stanley is moderately successful, sophisticated and experienced, he has little emotional intelligence and is a self-confessed misanthrope. By contrast, the younger Sophie is practical and exudes a natural charm, “opening up” the buttoned down Stanley in ways that shock and surprise him. Not surprisingly, they fall in love, in fits and starts. Colin Firth is one of the great British actors of our time, but at age 53, he is twice Emma Stone’s age. Thus the film also reflects a favourite but less-than-savoury Woody Allen scenario: the younger woman with the older man.

Allen fills the film with sharp one-liners and quotes from Nietschke about the nature of man, which often appear to be stage-like (did people really speak that way?), and he knows how never to over-extend a scene. There are two major plot point surprises, although for me one of them fell flat. Allen’s films rarely are the cause of “life or death” concerns – even the popular “Midnight in Paris” had very little emotional “weight”. “Magic in the Moonlight” fits into the fairy floss category: sweet and nice to look at, but little to remember once it is gone.

Magic in the Moonlight poster