Saoirse Ronan

Mary Queen of Scots

18/01/19

The Tudors are common parlance Chez B&B these days; since downloading the Six The Musical soundtrack, we’ve barely listened to anything else. Of course, this new film is a very different beast, but it does share a few key players, and our recently-discovered interest in the period makes us extra keen to see what’s on offer here.

What Mary Queen Of Scots has in common with Six is its telling of ‘herstory,’ with female experiences placed firmly and unapologetically in the spotlight. The perspectives belong to the women. Not just because they’re the main characters, but because the directors (Josie Rourke and Lucy Moss respectively) are women too, and so everything is reflected through this – sadly still unusual – prism.

Saoirse Ronan is Mary, and she’s every bit as impressive as you’d expect this extraordinary young actor to be. She’s strong and commanding, warm and vulnerable: the heart and heroine of this tale. Margot Robbie, as Mary’s English cousin and counterpart, has arguably the harder role: Elizabeth is less likeable, and burdened with the fact that (spoiler alert!) she has Mary imprisoned and then killed. But Robbie is more than equal to the task, imbuing the English queen with both formidable resolve and an unexpected frailty. The parallels between the two women – and the tragedy that they can not be allies – are central to the film.

The brutality of the era is clearly evoked, with bloody murders a-plenty. Thankfully, there are no extended battle sequences here (I’m a little weary of them); instead, the skirmishes are short and definitive, the armies as small as I suppose they really must have been, the power-grabs and politicking as baffling and depressing as they remain to this day.

The men might be peripheral, but they’re played with panache by such stalwarts as David Tennant (virtually unidentifable as John Knox, with his strange hat and straggly beard), Jack Lowden (as the loathsome, weak-willed Henry Darley) and Guy Pearce (playing William Cecil, chief advisor to his Neighbours stablemate, Robbie). The structural power bias is evident in the way these men succeed in out-manouevring even the redoubtable Mary, and in Elizabeth’s cannier recognition that the only way she can retain her position is by disavowing her gender, and surrendering her happiness.

A fascinating film, and – if the sold-out screening we’re at is anything to go by – one that is likely to do well. Mind you, we are in Edinburgh. And Mary is the Queen of Scots.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

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Film Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.

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Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.

Coco

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A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird

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This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya

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Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place

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This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner

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Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals

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Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Wildlife

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Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’

Roma

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Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

The Seagull

09/09/18

The name Anton Chekov inevitably brings with it an expectation of lashings of doom and gloom. How many visits to the theatre have yielded hours of miserable people staring bleakly out at fields of wheat and talking about suicide? So it’s heartening to note that this version of The Seagull, directed by Michael Mayer and adapted by Steve Karam, has a lightness of touch about it that makes it feel downright sprightly – not a word you’d usually associate with the Russian playwright.

The action takes place on the country estate of Pjotr (Brian Dennehey), the ailing older brother of successful actress Irina (Annette Bening). Here, upstate New York stands in for the Russian countryside, but manages to look convincing enough, at least to my untrained eye. Irina’s son, budding playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle), also lives on the estate, and is currently involved in a romance with local girl, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who is his muse and the main actress in his fledgling symbolist play, which they are planning to perform for their summer visitors. Irina arrives from Moscow with her latest conquest in tow. He is the incredibly successful writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) and, therefore, a bit of a trophy for Irina to show off. Konstantin is already intensely jealous of the man’s success and that’s before Nina starts flirting outrageously with him.

Meanwhile, Konstantin is completely oblivious to the fact that the estate steward’s daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss), is completely besotted with him; she, in turn, is devoutly loved by impoverished local schoolmaster, Mikhail (Michael Zegen), of whom he has a very low opinion. It’s clearly going to end badly and, this being Chekov, of course, there is some tragedy waiting in the wings, but the journey towards it passes so pleasurably, it’s never feels like an imposition.

Bening’s performance as the incredibly vain and manipulative Irena, is an absolute joy, while Moss (top-billed here, no doubt because of the success of The Handmaid’s Tale) manages to make Masha’s drink-fuelled gloom at her own failings quite hilarious. Ronan is every bit as good as she always is and I particularly enjoy John Tenney’s portrayal of the pragmatic Doctor Dorn, a man who spends all of his time pouring oil onto troubled waters, consoling the lovelorn and tending the wounded.

Chekov can be a bit like medicine. You know it’s good for you and you know you really ought to have it, but he can sometimes leave a bad taste. Not here though. I can’t remember when I last enjoyed the playwright’s work as much as this.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

On Chesil Beach

 

27/05/18

I’m surprised to realise I haven’t read On Chesil Beach. I’ve read most of Ian McEwan’s ouvre, but not this slim novella. Maybe I’ve just balked at paying a standard paperback price for so few pages. Whatever. When friends suggest we meet up and make a day of it – a film in the afternoon; a meal in the evening – I’m more than happy to give this one a go.

It’s a decent movie, adapted by the author. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give excellent central performances as Florence and Edward, the clever young couple whose love for one another is evident, but who cannot negotiate the weight of expectation on their wedding night. They are wounded and humiliated by their failure to consummate their marriage; their naivety and innocence is heartbreaking to see. Too angry, too proud, too fragile, they don’t give themselves a chance, and their relationship is over before it’s even really begun. Their excruciating attempts to initiate sex are depicted here in agonising detail, their awkwardness and vulnerability cleverly conveyed.

We learn their history through flashbacks, which is quite effective in slowing down the pace and emphasising the couple’s interminable embarrassment. They meet when Edward blunders into an Oxford student CND meeting, bursting with the news that he’s gained a first in his degree. With no one to tell, he turns to a stranger – and Florence, who has just graduated with the same grade, is happy to help him celebrate. They come from very different backgrounds: she from the status-obsessed upper middle-classes, with an academic mother (Emily Watson) and an angrily competitive father (Samuel West); he from a more bohemian country life – his mild-mannered father (Adrian Scarborough) is head teacher of the village school; his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is an artist, ‘brain-damaged’ after an accident. No matter; Florence and Edward fall in love. And, after their disastrous wedding night, they fall apart.

Much has been made of McEwan’s ingenuity in condensing the rest of the couple’s lives to a kind of footnote, thus highlighting the significance of their failure on that fateful day. But –  for me at least – this is the film’s failing. It feels like a careful set-up followed by a sketchy summary, and I am disappointed by the broad strokes of the final third.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It’s a sad tale of an experience that is hopefully far less commonplace, now that the silly notion of ‘saving oneself’ for a wedding night is a thing of the distant past.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Lady Bird

16/02/18

Greta Gerwig is a fascinating woman. After seemingly stumbling into the film business via a series of zero budget, mumblecore efforts, she has quickly demonstrated that she is a force to be reckoned with. The semi-autobiographical Frances Ha, written by Gerwig and directed by Noah Baumbach, plays like early Woody Allen and Lady Bird feels very much like a prequel to that film, with Saoirse Ronan stepping up to the plate to play a teenage version of Gerwig. From the opening sequence where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson argues with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in a moving car – and then throws herself out of it rather than continue the conversation – we are left in no doubt that this is the story of a troublesome teen, who is likely to get her own way in the end.

Christine lives in Sacramento but longs to go to college in New York, where she believes ‘culture lives’. But it isn’t as easy as that. Her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), recently lost his job, her adopted step brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), seems in no hurry to get one ,and its pretty much left to Marion, a psychiatric nurse, to bring home the bacon. Little wonder the thought of paying for a place at an Ivy League University doesn’t figure highly on her agenda. She and Christine have a troubled relationship and it’s this, more than anything else, that lies at the heart of this powerful and beguiling film, which Gerwig has chosen to direct herself. Typically, she handles it with great aplomb, somehow managing to make the running time fly past and coaxing wonderful performances from everyone involved, especially from Ronan and Metcalf, who make a winning combination.

The story is often very funny (a scene where the a drama group is run by a physical exercise coach is a particular stand out), but it’s powerful enough to occasionally tug at the heartstrings too. I particularly like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s best friend, Julie, and there’s also a nice cameo from Timothee Chalomet as one of Christine’s patently unsuitable boyfriends. Oscar nominations have been announced and, who knows, in the present climate, the establishment might finally be ready to reward another female director, and Lady Bird could well be a surprise winner.

Whatever the outcome, this is a sublime piece of film-making that never puts a foot wrong and demonstrates only too clearly that Greta Gerwig is a talent to be reckoned with.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Brooklyn

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17/02/15

‘Missed this film at the multiplex but caught it at an Indie.’ This is something I seem to be saying with increasing regularity, these days. Take Brooklyn, for instance, critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, yet it just about managed to scrape a week at Cineworld, to be replaced no doubt, by Dirty Grandpa or something equally vacuous. We caught it at the Heaton Moor Savoy – and while I’m on the subject, how gratifying it was to see this recently refurbished cinema completely sold out at 3.30 pm on a wet Wednesday afternoon, proving that there certainly is a big audience for this film, provided it’s advertised correctly.

Brooklyn is an unashamedly old-fashioned movie, based on the book by Colm Toibin and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby. In 1950s Wexford, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is failing to flourish. She has no job and (even more shameful in that era) no prospect of marriage, so when New York-based Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) arranges for her to emigrate to New York, she jumps at the chance, leaving her older sister, Rose to look after their widowed mother. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis finds a job in a swish department store and a home in a boarding house on Clinton Street run by Mrs Keogh (a delightful cameo by Julie Walters). But it isn’t long before romance arrives in the shape of Italian-American, Tony (Emory Cohen). As is usual in such stories, the path of true love seldom runs smooth and when Rose dies suddenly, Eilis has to head home for the funeral – and once back in her mother’s vicelike grip, life becomes increasingly complicated…

This is a pleasurable, warm bath of a film – there are no great surprises here, but the 50s setting is beautifully evoked, the performances are uniformly good (particularly from Ronan, who fully deserves her Oscar nod) and the story is strong enough to hook you to the end. There’s enough resonance in what happens here to strike chords with most older viewers and in the end, this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength – an everyday tale of an everyday Irish girl cast adrift in an unfamiliar location.

Charming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney