#MeToo

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

25/03/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The current global pandemic has had devastating consequences for so many people that it seems somehow petty to complain that, as ardent movie fans, we’re trying to deal with the much less disastrous irritation of having no new movies to review. But nevertheless, the problem exists.

Of course, films are readily available on streaming services such as Netflix , but there’s not much there that we haven’t already viewed elsewhere – so, when we hear about Curzon Home Cinema, where there’s no monthly contract and where recently released films can by rented for a set fee, we are naturally keen to try it out. Prices range from £4.99 to £9.99 and there are discounts for those who choose to become members. Portrait of a Lady On Fire is our first foray into the service.

This handsome French production has all the familiar tropes of a classic Gothic horror: an empty house in a remote location; dark candlelit corners; there’s even what appears to be a ‘ghostly’ presence haunting its corridors. But writer/director Céline Sçiamma clearly has other intentions and what gradually emerges here is a tragic love story enacted in a period when such love was strictly forbidden.

Portrait painter Marian (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an unnamed island. She’s been commissioned by Lan Contesse (Valerio Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel), who – after the death of her older sister – is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met. But Hélöise – understandably – really isn’t in the mood to have her portrait painted, so Marian is going to have to spend as much time as she can with her and produce the portrait in secret. Locked up together in the house, with just young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) for company, Marian and Hélöise grow closer by the day…

This is a gorgeous film, featuring beautifully nuanced performances from the two leads and gifted with some sumptuous cinematography. It’s a strikingly feminist story, clearly demonstrating the unfairness of womanhood in the 18th century. But it’s strongest suit is in the depiction of an artist at work, as Marian gradually builds her images from rough lines in charcoal to the finished product. There’s also a stunning set piece where we fully understand the full meaning of that unwieldy title and also a bitter-sweet coda that drives the film’s powerful message straight to the heart.

Curzon Home Cinema is surely the place to procure your cinematic fix.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Misbehaviour

15/03/20

Misbehaviour chronicles the true-life weirdness of the 1970 Miss World pageant, notable both for being disrupted by the Women’s Liberation Front and for celebrating its first ever black winner. This tension between different types of progressiveness keeps the film interesting as it explores the nuances inherent in trying to effect change.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada,’ who made history by placing first in the contest. For her, Miss World is all about representation and opportunity: there are little black girls, she tells white activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who will see her on TV and know that they can be successful too. And she’s hoping that the exposure will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming a broadcaster. She’s composed and dignified, utilising the competition for her own ends. It’s difficult to argue with her point of view.

But that’s where this film succeeds: it doesn’t try to argue with her. It allows for the fact that competing narratives can be simultaneously true. Because Alexander and the rest of the Women’s Libbers aren’t wrong either: it is appalling to see women weighed, measured, paraded and graded. It is appalling that this is what women have to do in order to succeed.

But even within the activists, there is space for difference. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley)’s direct action mantra is a world away from Alexander’s ‘get a seat at the table and fight from within’ approach. As writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe make clear, there is no one path to righteousness. But one thing is certain, the Miss World pageant is an outmoded model, and casually misogynistic men like organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, on fine form) are going to have to face the fact that their time is up.

Misbehaviour is a gentle film, despite its themes of outrage and activism. There’s no post #MeToo hint of inappropriate sexual attentions being foisted on the contestants; instead, director Philippa Lowthorpe concentrates on the insidiously benign sexism that pervaded the era, and on the bravery of the women who called it out, on whose shoulders today’s young feminists stand.

Thank you.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Bombshell

07/01/20

It was perhaps inevitable that #MeToo would eventually inspire a movie and it’s rather ironic that the first one out of the gate has been written and directed by men – moreover, the director is Hal Roach, previously best known for the Austin Powers films, a franchise that never troubled itself overmuch with the subject of women’s rights. Nonetheless, Bombshell is a powerful and prescient story that takes a close look at the Fox News scandal and the people who lived through it.

Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, Fox’s most influential news anchor, who, at the film’s opening, is exchanging excoriating words with one Donald Trump, an event that will put her on the Republican party’s shit list for an entire year. Kelly has long ago learned to co-exist with Fox News’s all-powerful boss, Roger Aisles (the usually avuncular John Lithgow, cast against type here as a loathsome philanderer). Aisles constantly keeps an eye peeled for new opportunities and soon finds it with the arrival of ambitious young TV producer, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Kayla has a yen to step in front of the cameras herself. The question is, how much will Aisles demand to help her achieve that ambition?

Meanwhile, another veteran presenter, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), finds her power at the network fading. She’s already been shunted to a less prestigious afternoon slot because of her refusal to kowtow to Mr Aisles’ increasingly sexist demands – and, when she is summarily sacked for no good reason other than she is getting older, she decides to sue Aisles for wrongful dismissal. She hopes that other women who have suffered at his hands will join her cause but, as she soon discovers, many employees at Fox (including Kelly) have too much to lose to risk incurring the wrath of the network…

Charles Randolph’s screenplay does a pretty thorough job of depicting the toxic atmosphere at Fox News during this period. Both Theron and Kidman, sporting convincing prosthetics to make them look more like the genuine players, offer their customary assured performances, but are perhaps hampered by the fact that, when playing real life personalities, finding their inner life can be problematic. It’s therefore Robbie who is the real revelation here. Since her character is a fiction, an amalgam of Aisles’ many victims over the years, she has more freedom to explore the role – and runs with it. The scene where Aisles compels her to ‘give him a twirl’ is an object lesson in understatement, the character’s hidden turmoil brilliantly expressed in every movement and gesture – while later on her tearful phone conversation with a female friend is emotive stuff. Lithgow too is excellent, horribly convincing as the oleaginous Aisles, a man who can make the very act of breathing look unpleasant.

I like the unflinching realism here. There’s no female bonding on display, no sense of the women working together for a common purpose – indeed, the major protagonists of this story barely exchange half a dozen words with each other. It’s a sobering demonstration of how personal ambitions can get in the way of a greater good. But that makes it all the more believable, more like something that could actually happen in such a cutthroat, competitive world.

Watch out for a cameo from Malcolm McDowell as a (pretty convincing) Rupert Murdoch and don’t miss the closing captions, which point out how the guilty parties in this debacle came away with (surprise, surprise) a lot more money than its supposed victors.

Bombshell may be the first film to properly explore the subject of  #MeToo, but I’m quite sure it won’t be the last. And, for a opening salvo, this hits most of its targets.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Velvet

10/08/18

Pleasance Courtyard (That), Edinburgh

Tom Ratcliffe’s Velvet is a fascinating piece,  an I-can’t-bear-it-but-I-can’t-look-away depiction of a young actor’s downfall, as unscrupulous industry moguls prey on his vulnerability.

He plays Tom (the name is a nod to the fact that the play, which he has written, while not autobiographical, draws on his own experiences), a recent drama school graduate, ambitious and hopeful, determined to realise his dream. He is working, just not as much as he wants, and – like most actors – he has to take on temping jobs so that he can pay his bills. His banker boyfriend, Matthew, doesn’t really understand; he thinks Tom should pursue other career options, find something more stable, but Tom has a vocation and he needs to follow his star. His mum isn’t much better; she’s over-critical and unsupportive. Tom has no one to turn to when things start to unravel.

And unravel they do, pretty much from the start, when a casting director makes a pass and Tom refuses. It’s all terribly polite, but the ramifications are life-changing. The calls dry up. He’s desperate. And, of course, there are always vultures out there, ready to take advantage of despair.

This is a bravura performance, captivating and engrossing; I’m utterly beguiled. There is a disarming authenticity to the piece, which draws us deep into Tom’s world. It’s a clear example, too, of why the #MeToo movement matters: there are people with too much power, abusing their positions to control the powerless. Of course Tom makes foolish decisions; he doesn’t know what else to do. The establishment have closed ranks, barred him; he hasn’t danced to their tune and now he must be punished.

It’s painful to watch, and all too convincing. Ratcliffe performs with real openness, so that Tom’s humiliation makes us hurt with him, and I find myself blinking away tears. The play’s structure is interesting, a non-linear depiction of events, with simple light and sound effects jolting us in and out of key moments. I like the image of the casting couch too, the velvet chaise longue that remains onstage throughout, a permanent reminder of what this is about.

This is a triumph, actually – and deserves a bigger audience than the one we were part of today.

5 stars

Susan Singfield