View Post

Mary Shelley

Featured, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Daughter to a renowned feminist icon, lover to at least one legendary poet and companion to more, world traveler, mother of modern science fiction and horror, and sometimes tragic heroine of her own epic life – there’s a lot to be said about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the new movie which bears her name tries to say it all. Unfortunately, not to much effect.

Directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour from a script by Australian writer Emma Jensen, Mary Shelley traces the writer’s life from young adulthood when the then Mary Godwin left her father, William Godwin’s (Stephen Dillane) home, to her first meeting with her paramour, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a self styled “radical poet” who here entertains notions of class equality while racking up massive debts supporting an extravagant lifestyle.

Decamping for Europe just ahead of his creditors, Percy, Mary and her sister, Claire Claremont (an underused Bel Powley) fetch up at the Geneva manse of Lord Byron (a playful Tom Sturridge, who looks like he should be playing bass for Kirin J. Callinan) where, one rainy day, a ghost story contest is proposed… and we all know what happens then (or you should. Read a bloody book).

The back half of the film deals with Mary’s struggles to get the book published under her own name, which holds some interest – the entrenched misogyny of the time meant that the first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously with a foreword by Percy, with many believing him the actual author. But even so, the hurdles Mary faces here all seem relatively minor (even the death of her infant child, and it’s kind of amazing that such an event can feel so undramatic).

The whole thing feels rather bloodless, which is some kind of achievement in a film filled with ostensibly lusty Romantics and dealing with the creation of one of the greatest horror novels of all time. The more complex, prickly and potentially problematic aspects of the Shelleys and their contemporaries are largely sanded smooth. Byron still comes across as a douche, but the film can’t even really bring itself to blame Percy for his abandoned first wife’s suicide, really just clearing her out of the way to forward his fated romance with Mary.

The whole thing  feels like a missed opportunity. It’s a remarkably sexless film, which is incredible given that Mary (to be fair, apocryphally) shagged Percy on her mother’s headstone. Any suggestions of homosexuality are faint enough to be nigh-invisible – we just get Percy and Byron retiring to the drawing room, nudge nudge wink wink, from time to time. At least loony old Ken Russell’s Gothic fucks.

For all that, even a by the numbers biopic would not be without its charms, but al-Mansour makes some bafflingly bad staging choices that drastically undercut several key moments. The most unforgivable is a climactic intimate, passionate, private conversation between the Shelleys that is rendered quite absurd when you realise that just out of frame are a dozen or so stuffy, middle-aged literature fans waiting to discuss Frankenstein who are probably getting quite embarrassed by the couple’s overheated tête-à-tête.

Mary Shelley isn’t a disaster, but it is a disappointment. There’s a good movie to be made about the life of the literary giant, but we haven’t seen it yet.

 
View Post

20th Century Women

Home, News, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In an ode to his own mother, who passed away in 1999, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) continues to make personal cinema that is both stylistic and engaging, aided by an a-list cast at the top of their game.

For reasons unknown, Annette Bening missed out on an Oscar nomination for her beautifully truthful, nuanced performance as Dorothea, an incredibly open-hearted but equally flawed human being who has a knack for picking up stray men and women who end up openly loitering in her grand but modest house. These include Elle Fanning’s Julie, the daughter of a single-parent therapist; Greta Gerwig’s Abbie , who has survived cervical cancer; and Billy Crudup’s William, who lives by the New Age life philosophy of 1979 Southern California where most of the story takes place.

Circling the orbit of these characters is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea’s teenage son who juggles the urges of his loins with the sensitivity he has inherited from his mum.

Each character gets their own chapter, flashing back to key moments in their lives. But it’s not your ordinary flashback, these are flourishes that we’ve come to expect from Mike Mills. If you had to compare Mills’ approach to cinema, it’d be his contemporary Spike Jonze – flashy modern stylistic choices but never at the disservice of character.

A performance piece, if there’s a flaw it’s that the film feels flat at times, and struggles to shift gears during its first two acts. But if you stick with it, there’s plenty of reward in this highly personal film for Mike Mills. And as per the title, it’s ultimately a rumination and an affirmation on the female lifeforce, and its evolution throughout the 20th century, something that is incredibly important to acknowledge now more than ever.

 
View Post

The Beguiled

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Sofia Coppola’s career may have all been leading up to this. Her propensity to bring life to period settings in Marie Antoinette, her equally laconic and dreamlike approach to violence in The Virgin Suicides, and her feminist roots that have been fostered in each and every one of her films is all played pitch-perfectly in her new film, The Beguiled. The film is set in a girls’ school in the South during the American Civil War where seven women live alone. One day, one of the students comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee and the enemy, who they take in and care for. But the longer he stays, the higher tensions rise as the women’s competing desires begin to boil to the surface.

It is no wonder that Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival where The Beguiled was in competition for the prestigious Palm d’Or. There is a magnetism to this film that lures you in, scene after scene, deeper into its narrative. Part of this hypnotic quality comes from the cinematography of Philippe le Sourd (The Grandmaster). This is one of the most beautiful films out this year. The girls’ school, a huge estate trapped in the middle of a forest and the Civil War, is shut off from the world. Light attempts to pierce through the trees to no avail. A mystical fog constantly lingers. There is a sense of powerlessness to these women as they watch the distant smoke of battle slowly creeping in around them.

When they come across McBurney, the wounded soldier, they decide to take him in because of their Christian values, but also, though they never say it, because he is so handsome. It’s easy to imagine a different scenario where this film’s story would never have taken place, had the injured soldier been less appealing. But quickly, the girls realise that he is also a charmer and we, the audience, learn he is a liar. Within days he is spinning vastly different narratives to bring himself closer with each girl and woman. The main objects of his desire are the headstrong headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), her naïve assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the eldest and most troublesome of the students, Alicia (Ella Fanning).

Each actor and actress is perfect in their respective roles, particularly Colin Farrell who hasn’t been this good since his wonderful and yet starkly different role in In Bruges.

This film, like its protagonist, engages in a grand seduction. As the film moves along Coppola coils in, as, little by little, the girls’ original fears of the soldier are traded for lust and with each passing day, they are all falling under his spell. The quips they exchange with McBurney become more flirtatious and hide a deeper subtext, a deeper desire. In terms of pacing, thrillers do not get much better than this. The film is restrained and explosive at exactly the right moments.

But what the film is really about is female power. In a world where they would otherwise be powerless due to societal expectations and due to the expectations they impose upon themselves, these women rise up and face their fears head-on. In the last act of the film, they are truly something terrifying and inspiring to behold.

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director