Emma. (2020) is a Major Work, Goddamnit

When Boomer reviewed Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, he approached it from a state of deep genre fatigue. He wrote, “Its biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be.” This is certainly a valid POV in approaching the film. At least, it’s one I’ve seen validated by many other critics’ & audiences’ response to the movie – citing it as one of this season’s lesser specimens of its “genre” or, worse, an admirably solid adaptation of a book & character most people don’t seem to like to begin with. No matter how many times I see this sentiment repeated, though, it’s one I cannot match in my own, much more enthusiastic appreciation of Emma. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I found a stronger personal connection to Emma. than I did with any one of the more Prestigious films of recent years on a similar wavelength: The Favourite, Little Women, Love & Friendship, etc. I liked all those movies a great deal and understand that any one of them would be a more respectably Intellectual choice as a personal favorite, but I really can’t help it. In my eyes, Emma. is a great work of that same caliber, if not higher.

Even from Emma.’s (admittedly mild) detractors who might dismiss it as a decent 3-star frivolity, you’ll hear concessions that it looks great. Its confectionery production design and deviously playful costuming are too intoxicating to ignore, even if you find the comedy of manners they service to be a bore. That visual achievement is no small, ancillary concern in my estimation. Its confectionery aesthetic is a significant aspect of its substance as a work of art, not least of all because cinema is an inherently visual medium. Director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a portrait photographer – making a name for herself shooting musicians’ album covers before transitioning into filmmaking through the music video. A strong, precisely defined visual style is essential for an artist of that background (consider the stylistic hyperbole of Hype Williams’s Belly) and it’s a genuine thrill to see that crisp, modern formalism applied to a period piece (consider Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), given how stuffy & buttoned up the costume drama can feel at its laziest. There’s a tendency to devalue the visual artistry of fashion design & carefully curated color palettes as secondary concerns in cinema, as if they only exist to serve more Important criteria like performance & plot. Personally, I often find them far more exciting than those more frequently discussed concerns – especially in the “costume drama,” where costuming is emphasized right there in the name. When, for instance, Emma wears a free-floating lace collar as if it were an S&M-inspired choker or wears an overly frilly perfumed ornament that dangles from her hair like a mace, it’s more thrilling to me than any action sequence in Fast & Furious or Mad Max: Fury Road could ever be.

Of course, Autumn de Wilde’s precise eye for visual composition extends from what her characters are wearing to how they are positioned in the frame. Emma. is largely a story about the politics of social hierarchy among wealthy 19th Century fops (dressed up as a tittering rom-com about a misguided matchmaker), so much of its minute-to-minute conflicts are hinged on microscopic social cues in both spoken dialogue & performed body language. The film dutifully allows Austen’s dialogue to speak for itself on this highly stylized stage, but it does add its own spin to the source material by paying careful attention to blocking. Characters are constantly maneuvering their bodies in private parlors & public spaces to communicate unspoken dominance & conflict with their social adversaries. Emma Woodhouse herself has more perceived adversaries than most, as someone who constantly plays with social configurations as an idle pastime, so she’s the most obvious example of this purposeful body language display. When she spies through a store window that a new person is entering the room, she prepares by positioning her body in the most advantageous position she can manage, like a war general seeking higher ground. When she greets a potential beau who she finds romantically intriguing in her private greenhouse, she shifts her position to where the glass pane with the best lighting hits her just right with an artificially warm glow. Seemingly simple conversations in the film visually play out like complicated dances as characters mechanically shift around each other in closed-off rooms, an attention to blocking that’s emphasized by an elaborate ballroom scene where those body language politics become unavoidably explicit. It’s framed as being deliberate choices made by the characters themselves, but I think it also reflects the film being the vision of a director with an eye for how figures are arranged in photographic compositions.

As sharp as de Wilde’s visual compositions are in this debut feature, I can see how detractors could believe the movie falls short as an adaptation in its unwillingness to tinker with the source material. Emma. will not win over any naysayers who were already displeased with Austen’s novel or Emma Woodhouse as a character. This is a faithful translation from page-to-screen in terms of narrative content, only asserting its own voice on the material through visual style & comedic performance. It works for me, but I was already a fan of the novel before I arrived. Emma Woodhouse is a deeply flawed brat whose lifelong idleness in comfort & wealth has trained her to treat people’s private lives like playthings. Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect casting for the role in that she’s already been walking a tightrope between quietly sinister & adorably sweet since her breakout performance in The Witch. Her dips into thoughtless cruelty at the expense of her social inferiors hit just as hard as the physical comedy of the goofier subordinates she’s adopted as pets (the MVPs in those roles being Mia Goth as her absurdly naive protégée & Bill Nighy as her hypochondriac father). Both Emma’s icy manipulations of her social circle’s hierarchy (disguised as playful “matchmaking”) and her closest family & friends’ pronounced goofiness are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting, where the smallest gesture or insult can mean The World. The laughs are big; so are the gasps when Emma fucks up by allowing her games to hurt “real” people’s very real feelings. When Clueless modernized the character for the 1990s, it softened the blow of these thoughtless miscalculations by making Emma something of an oblivious Valley Girl ditz. De Wilde’s film makes no such accommodations, sketching her out as a very smart, sharply witted person who should know better (and ultimately learns from her mistakes). Continuing to like her in that context is a bigger leap than some audiences are apparently willing to make.

I really like Emma., both the movie and the character. Autumn de Wilde seemingly likes her as well, even if she can’t resist ribbing her for not being half as smart or talented as she believes herself to be (most hilariously represented in her limitations as a painter & musician). I wish I could fully hinge my appreciation for this movie on its exquisite visual artistry or its shrewdness as a page-to-screen adaptation, but the ultimate truth is that it’s a comedy that I happened to find very, very funny from start to end. Whether that’s because the physical humor hit me just right in its stuffy setting or because I just happen to generally get a kick out of Women Behaving Badly is anyone’s guess. Similarly, I wonder if critics who were underwhelmed by the film in comparison with fellow costume dramas of its artistic caliber just simply didn’t find it humorous, as there’s no rationale that can intellectually save a comedy you simply don’t find funny. No one seems willing to argue that Emma. isn’t accomplished as a visual feat, so I suspect it’s the specificity of the humor or the thorniness of Emma Woodhouse as a character that’s weighing down its initial reputation. Personally, both the quirky character humor and the thoughtless dips into ice-cold cruelty worked for me, and I consider Emma. to be a major work. I doubt I’m the only one.

-Brandon Ledet

Emma. (2020)

I really think that I would have liked Emma. a lot more if it hadn’t come right on the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m reaching a saturation point on period pieces, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the title character is one of the least likable of all of Jane Austen’s protagonists. While waiting outside the bathroom for the two friends with whom I went to see the movie, I overheard a family of four—mother, father, middle school daughter, 13/14ish son—discussing the movie. The boy said he thought it was “boring” and there were “only like two funny parts.” And honestly? I didn’t agree, but I don’t begrudge him this feeling. If I were a teenage boy, I probably wouldn’t have seen much of myself in the film either. My companions emerged shortly after, laughing; inside, one had asked the other (a huge Austen fan) whether the film had encouraged him to like Emma more as a character, and the answer was “No.”

It’s not a completely unique opinion. According to A Memoir of Jane Austen, the author herself wrote that, in creating Emma, she would craft “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” To that end, the opening lines of the novel (and the film) are thus: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition [had] lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In the sense and intent of the era, this meant that Emma was unusual: handsome (stately and elegant, but not “cute” in a traditional sense), clever (to quote this review of the book, “not ‘accomplished’ or ‘intelligent'”), and rich (as opposed to less judgmental synonyms like “affluent”). Emma is, as a character, spoiled sweet, and is possibly the first example of the archetype, which makes it possible to read her as less kindly as other examples.

In the new film directed by Autumn de Wilde and stylized as Emma., period and all, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is found in the film’s opening moments creating a bouquet of flowers for the wedding of her dear friend and governess, Anne (Gemma Whelan), who is preparing to marry Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She doesn’t clip the flowers herself, of course, but selects them. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), complains that the house shall be empty soon, given that Emma’s older sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) has married, and that it will only be a matter of time before Emma follows her example. Emma repeatedly declares that she has no interest in marrying, but considers that she finds matchmaking a pleasant enough enterprise, as she aided in the courtship of Anne and Mr. Weston. When she learns that a new young woman—of indeterminate breeding and ancestry, which is important because this is the Georgian regency—named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) has arrived at the local school, Emma decides that she is best matched not with Robert Martin, a local farmer who reciprocates Harriet’s interest, but with vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Emma’s meddling invites rebuke from George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s brother in law (his brother married Isabella), who lives at the nearby Donwell Abbey and oversees its farms, one of which belongs to the Martin family. He is proven correct when Elton reveals that he has no interest in marrying someone as “low” as Harriet and instead seeks to climb the ranks of society by courting Emma, who rejects him outright. Emma herself is enamored of the unknown but oft-referenced Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), son of Mr. Weston who was adopted and raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle while Mr. Weston was serving in the militia. He finally appears in the town of Highbury not long after the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Miss Bates, the widow of Highbury’s last vicar, was born into relative wealth and now lives in genteel poverty, dependent upon the largesse of her more affluent neighbors. The orphaned Jane has long been suggested as a proper friend for Emma, but Emma rejects this, although if it is because Jane is of a lower social station (which is true) or because she is more talented than Emma herself in the areas on which Emma prides herself, like music (also true) is unclear. Miss Bates herself is considered a nuisance by Emma, who finds her to be a prattling bore, but her politeness (almost) never falters.

Austen adaptations are a tough business, and I’m not sure that the world needed another adaptation of Emma, given that Clueless did all of the work 25 years ago, but as adaptations go, this is a decent one. It’s extremely faithful to the source material, down to phrasing and monologues—Knightley’s dressing down of Emma after she unthinkingly insults Miss Bates is a particular highlight—but there’s just something … off. Taylor-Joy seems to be incapable of providing anything less than a perfect performance, and although there are moments where Emma’s blindness to her own privilege is actually more frustrating and enraging than in the text (such as when she defines the Martins as being too high on the social ladder for her to think about them as charity cases, but too far below her station to be considered as peers), Taylor-Joy imbues those scenes with such innocence that you can see that she truly is a good person possessed of horrible (and period accurate) ideas about social class.

Emma.‘s biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be. The film is also held back by the aforementioned fact that Emma the novel is sparsely read and even more rarely enjoyed. The trailer set a high bar for the film’s energy and pacing, and I was cautiously optimistic about whether that kind of energy could be sustained over the length of a feature, especially given that it is de Wilde’s first film after a career largely consisting of helming music videos (although we’re talking about “Big God” and “Rise Up With Fists” here, so nothing to scoff at). The film itself is less chaotic than the trailer would have you believe, which is not to its detriment; the pacing is instead pitch perfect. Ironically given de Wilde’s past, my major complaint about the film as a film (as opposed to a transposed complaint about the source material) it would be the score. It’s not bad per se, but the hymns which accompany Emma. pale in comparison to Portrait‘s silence, periodically punctuated with musical moments as well as Alexandre Desplat’s lively piano compositions for Little Women. The music is unmemorable, which is unfortunate when adapting something as slavishly as this film adapts the novel; it’s one of the few areas in which there is room to embellish or create, and that possibility is squandered here.

Emma. is not a bad film. It’s not a great film, either. There’s a lot of conversation about class but very little commentary on class, which is something that a modern Austen adaptation really ought to address. Compare this, for instance, to the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, which took great pains to show servants hustling and bustling about in the background of virtually every scene; here, we see virtually no servants at all save for a few faceless coachmen and Mr. Woodhouse’s two footmen, who are only “dissatisfied” with their lot in life so far as it extends to catering to Woodhouse’s hypochondria and not, say, their frustration with having to perform useless and silly manual labor in a society where birth determines everything about one’s station in life. Instead, everyone is happy and content in servitude or gentility, which makes the film feel more dated than Persuasion, which, lest we forget, came out 25 years ago. I foresee Emma. becoming one of those pieces of media that, like the 1978 Peter Hammond version of Wuthering Heights or Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is used as the most triumphantly faithful adaptation for students to watch before test time if they procrastinated. That’s not high praise, I know, but it does put Emma. in good company, and it’s a fun little movie to have with tea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

One of the most surprisingly rewarding experiences I had at the cinema all last year was watching Bette Davis devour the scenery opposite Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex. Davis is absolutely feral in that picture despite her regal drag, spending the entire runtime gobbling snacks & hurling vicious insults in intricately designed costumes. It’s fabulous. Returning months later to The Prytania Theatre to see Margot Robbie inhabit the same role in Mary Queen of Scots could only be a letdown, then, as she isn’t given free rein to behave monstrously the way Davis was. Robbie is fully capable of going big & going over-the-top; she also has no hesitancy to de-beautify herself in a role that’s basically Baby Jane Hudson clowning in a royal setting. As the title suggests, however, Mary Queen of Scots has a much smaller appetite for Queen Elizabeth vamping & camp than I, mostly sidelining Robbie’s raving monarch to focus on Saoirse Ronan’s fiery challenger to the throne instead. Elizabeth’s mental & emotional anguish are a background hum in the film rather than a ferocious roar, when her rivalry with Mary should have been evenly weighted on a titular level to save the film from costume drama tedium. Mary Queen of Scots had the potential to function like a one-on-one rivalry on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, but instead quietly passes the time like an especially subdued BBC miniseries. My desire for the former is certainly more a result of boisterous portrayals of Elizabeth from actors like Bette Davis, Quentin Crisp, and Judi Dench than anything to do with historical accuracy, but dutiful scholarship isn’t really this movie’s main concern anyway.

Part of the challenge in depicting the rivalry between Mary (Queen of Scotland) & Elizabeth (Queen of England) is that the two monarchs never met in person, exchanging most of their strategic blows through couriers & letters. The way this movie gets around that challenge is by just making shit up. In an outlandish climactic showdown, both queens meet privately in a rural laundry house to butt heads one final time – in a scene that’s one dove short of being a full-blown John Woo homage. They excuse this anachronism by saying “No one must ever know of this,” swearing themselves to secrecy. It’s a breach in historical accuracy that raises questions of why the film didn’t take even more liberties. Mary Queen of Scots wishes to modernize its tale of two quietly warring queendoms, but is also self-defeating in its timid anachronisms. It’s refreshingly inclusive in its onscreen representation politics, but it also relegates PoC characters to minor servile roles & treats queer sexuality as a death sentence. It openly depicts female sexual desire & cunnilingus in a way most buttoned-up costume dramas would normally shy away from, but the men who oblige those impulses are consistently such dastardly brutes that the entire affair is de-eroticized (and often outright sexually traumatic). Elizabeth is allowed to voice some Girl Power messaging in her choice to live a childless life “as a man” to maintain her throne, but is often depicted mourning her fading chances at motherhood as if it were the only role that could truly fulfill her. Mary Queen of Scots is stuck between period drama tradition & more flippantly modern, history-ignoring impulses; it likely would have been a better film had it pushed itself in either direction instead of hovering in tonal Limbo.

Mary Queen of Scots is a little too silly & preposterous to fully take seriously and yet not silly enough to excel as full-blown camp—a self-conflicted stasis that holds it back as a modern entertainment. Considered in isolation, Ronan’s narrative as the young, titular queen is a perfectly pleasing rise-to-power story of minor eroticism & political intrigue. It’s the exact kind of historical drama that feels custom-built to scoop up Best Costume Design Oscars (if you can see their gorgeous details through the overwhelming Prestige Picture artifice of the dialogue & score). The only problem is that it’s a narrative track that holds a much more interesting movie hostage. Every minute spent alone with Mary is a distraction from Elizabeth’s spectacular unraveling. Stray glimpses of Margot Robbie feverishly crafting in anger, swelling up with small pox, and dunking on the boneheaded men of her court are all welcome, microscopic tastes of the much more fun, rewarding movie that could have been if she were fully set loose. When Mary Queen of Scots allows its two queens to butt heads in a climactic John Woo showdown, it’s not failing its duties to historical accuracy; it’s finally openly being a fully realized version of itself, far too late in the runtime to make much difference. As is, this is a perfectly fine, pleasant-looking addition to the perfectly fine, visually pleasant costume drama tradition. It’s just difficult to not compare it to the over-the-top camp of The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex or the gleefully anachronistic, viscous rivalry of The Favourite and not leave the film wanting more. Margot Robbie was all dressed up for a no-holds-barred Baby Jane brawl, but was unfortunately chained to something much safer instead.

-Brandon Ledet

The Favourite (2018)

When exiting our screening of The Favourite, we watched a confused man point to a theater lobby standee advertising the upcoming historical biopic Mary, Queen of Scots. “That’s the movie I thought I was seeing!” he complained to an impatient usher and amused passersby. “When does that come out?” I explained that he was only a week early and asked what he thought of The Favourite, having not been prepared for it. He chuckled and responded, “It was . . . different,” which is exactly the thing moms say when they want to be nice about hating something they know you loved. To be fair, The Favourite is “different” if you consider it a part of the same genre as Mary, Queen of Scots: Oscar Season costume dramas with famous actors playing dress-up & chewing historically accurate scenery in governmental battles of manners. Featuring Olivia Colman, Rachel Wiesz, and Emma Stone (and sometimes Nicholas Hoult) entangled in a barbed, sadistic 18th Century power struggle, the movie could easily be confused with something tamer & more buttoned up if you just quickly glanced at a TV spot or a poster. The Favourite is something much less palatable for wide-audiences, though, something deliberately off-putting in its self-amused cruelty: it’s the new Yorgos Lanthimos joint.

As disoriented & befuddled as my new theater lobby friend already was by The Favourite, it’s difficult to imagine how much more shaken he would have felt exiting a previous Lanthimos film like The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Would he have even made it to the end credits? No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Lanthimos on his best behavior. Many of his usual auteurist themes about the absurdity of “civil” behavior and the stripping of emotional artifice carry over into this work, but the dialogue is not as deliberately stilted and the violence not nearly as jarring. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced behavior, whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. It also helps that this is the first film Lanthimos directed but did not write (the screenplay was penned by Tony McNamara & Deborah Davis), so that his most upsetting impulses are somewhat dulled. The jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

To further complicate the question of whether The Favourite is a well-behaved historical costume drama or a provocatively cruel art film, it’s loosely based on a real-life conflict in the 18th Century court of Queen Anne (Colman). The Queen’s closest confidantes (Weisz as a childhood friend & Stone as a power-starved upstart) compete for her affection to siphon off a small fraction of the privilege & political weight bestowed by the Crown. How they compete is where the film deviates from what you’ll find in similarly staged costume dramas about power grabs between members of the court: gay sex, bitchy retorts, Paris is Burning style voguing – behavior more befitting a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race than anything you’re likely to find in Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s not that Lanthimos isn’t interested in the real-life historical dynamic he’s depicting or that he only uses the setting as set dressing. It’s more that he doesn’t let detailed historical accuracy get in the way of big-picture truths. The queer sexuality, useless fop men, “civil” power struggles, and absurdist displays of decadence (best represented in the court’s hoarding of pet bunnies & gambling on duck races) depicted in the film are exaggerated & modernized for comic effect, but they do often get to deeper truths about the era the movie might not have had the time or energy to mine if it were more factually behaved.

There are two hurdles to clear in appreciating The Favourite. The first is in accepting modern sensibilities’ intrusion on a historical setting. My confused theater lobby friend compared that temporal breach to A Knight’s Tale. I’d more likely use Barry Lyndon, Marie Antoinette, or Phantom Thread as reference points. That’s the easier hurdle to conquer either way. What’s more difficult to manage is Yorgos Lanthimos’s auteurist schtick. This is the closest I’ve come to fully falling in love with a Lanthimos pic, but I still felt my appreciation slipping the further he strayed from compromise in the film’s second half. The first hour or so of The Favourite is exquisite, outrageous comedy I love to pieces. Some extremely Lanthimosy choices in the more dramatic second hour gradually cool it off from there and I kind of wish the whole thing were pure sadistic fun because I am a frivolous fop at heart. Still, I left the theater immensely pleased in a way no previous Lanthimos feature, no matter how “different,” had affected me. I very much sympathized with the poor befuddled chap who left just ahead of me, though, as he feebly pointed to the standee advertising a much more accessible picture. A Knight’s Tale is not at all a decent enough primer for your first bout in the ring with this humorously cruel provocateur, no matter how well he’s behaving.

-Brandon Ledet

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)

I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.

Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.

There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

I feel like what I’m looking for in any Bette Davis movie is for the actor to let loose & open fire on her costars. I’m not sure if this is retroactively a result of her late career comeback in the famously combative (onscreen & off) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or if it’s just a natural extension of a deliberately non-demure persona she carried throughout her career. I didn’t think to expect that loose cannon antagonism in the 1939 Technicolor costume drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but Davis’s lead performance as Queen Elizabeth I delivered it by the truckload. Although it has the pedigree of an expensive Major Studio period piece, the film is essentially just Bette Davis wearing beautiful costumes, gobbling snacks, and hurling vicious insults for two solid hours. In other words, it’s fabulous.

Many actors have interpreted Elizabeth I onscreen over the decades, ranging as wide as Cate Blanchett & Quentin Crisp, but Bette Davis’s depiction feels entirely singular in its vicious, feral energy. Like with many pictures over her career, it’s rumored that she was not at all happy with her coworkers or the demands of the production. She was especially miffed that Elizabeth’s remarkably high hairline required her to shave her head, which put her in a persistently ornery mood. This made the film a chore to shoot, especially since Davis would act out in juvenile ways like slapping the piss out of her romantic co-lead, Errol Flynn, with all of her might instead of just making sure the scripted hit looked good for the camera. That anger translated well to the role, though, making Davis’s Elizabeth come across as a kind of furious demon in beautiful costumes. She’s visibly uncomfortable, constantly reaching for grapes or wine or invisible stress balls to calm her nerves as she inhales between each insult. The effect on the film is glorious, though, transporting Davis’s slack, unceremonious, Baby Jane Hudson-mode energy into a stuffy Studio Era drama where it doesn’t belong.

A 16th Century tale of real life war & romance endowed with the same Major Studio bloat of the 1960s Camelot musical, there isn’t much to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in a formal sense. As Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Errol Flynn is propped up as a kind of love/hate romantic sparring partner meant to periodically threaten Davis’s power as the Queen of England. She steamrolls him with ease. Essex & Elizabeth both can’t get enough of each other in their lustful bouts of loneliness and can’t possibly share the same space & time, due to their individual thirsts for power & the throne. This sometimes leads to the Queen sending Essex off to war in the Irish Moors (which look an awful lot like a studio lot) without proper supplies to succeed, just to be temporarily rid of him. It also leads to literal, direct rebellion within the palace where the two square off head to head with their respective guards. Flynn’s Essex is never given a chance to really stand up to the Queen, however. Outside occasionally riding a horse, the athletic leading man isn’t even afforded a chance to do any of his signature swashbuckling. Elizabeth’s other foils, a dangerously horny Olivia de Havilland and a foppish knight played by a baby faced Vincent Price, don’t fare much better. As much as this film’s dialogue frets over Elizabeth’s duties as a Queen being hindered by her desires as a woman, there’s no question who’s in charge and who’s going to make it out on top. I’m not saying that because of the inevitability if its Wikipedia-verifiable history lesson, either. Davis’s fierceness demands her victory, with obligatory demise for each of her opponents, whether or not she wants to fuck them.

I’d be a liar if I said I cared at all about the plot of this film. Formally, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is remarkable less for its narrative than it is for its gorgeous production & costume design. One Orry-Kelly-designed dress in particular, with shimmering green mermaid scales, a pale pink Elizabethan collar (naturally), and a neon green feathered hand fan had me gasping for air. Those luxurious design flourishes only serve to contrast Elizabeth’s demonic furor, however, as she complains about her old age, smashes mirrors, claws at a pile of snacks, and fires off long strands of insults: “lying villain,” “wicked devil,” “slimy toad,” “stupid cattle,” “snakes & rats,” etc. If, like me, your favorite Bette Davis performances find the actor in vicious attack mode, the formal mediocrity of this Studio Era period piece won’t matter to you one bit. The film is downright delicious for Davis’s inhuman bursts of Technicolor furor, especially considering the restrained pomp & propriety of the setting that contrasts it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

Actor Jean-Pierre Léaud has worked with a long line of Important Auteurs in his near life-long career: Cocteau, Godard, Varda, Assayas. Only one has defined him as a cultural icon, though: François Truffaut. After casting the actor as the pint-sized star of his seminal work The 400 Blows, Truffaut fashioned Léaud as a human talisman of the French New Wave by continuing the story of his same character from that film, Antoine Doinel, in several other features. Cinephiles have watched Doinel, and by extension Leaud, grow up on celluloid, a journey that’s now been effectively completed in the recent period piece The Death of Louis XIV. Where as Léaud entered the scene a young, poor schoolboy in 400 Blows, he’s leaving it a dying, old king in The Death of Louis XIV. He explained in an interview, “The line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film. I am someone who is waiting for the meeting [with death].” The sadness of that statement and the cultural significance of Léaud’s effective departure from cinema are both undeniable. What is up for debate, however, is if the film itself is at all worthwhile when stripped of its context.

At the start of The Death of Louis XIV, Léaud’s historical monarch is already bedridden by an injury to his leg. He indulges in small joys like playing with his beautifully groomed hounds or putting on a show of tipping his hat to the women who visit his chamber, but mostly he is immobile and in pain. Doctors are confident they can treat the king without amputating his leg to stave off encroaching gangrene. Consultants as wide ranging as university professors and common snake oil salesmen are summoned to treat the king in a variety of highly questionable methods, all while his leg continually worsens, turns black, and, as both the title and Wikipedia promise, takes his life. There’s a (very) dry sense of humor in the way these royal doctors hold onto old world superstitions & remedies. They humorously excite with any sign that the king’s condition is improving, even openly applauding when he manages to swallow a single bite of food. Even the king’s eventual death doesn’t stop them from examining his condition with an unending dedication to optimism. In a concluding autopsy, they examine his exhumed organs for signs of inflammation and abnormality. That scene somehow sticks to the same exact tone that dominated the two hours that preceded it. Even in death, nothing changes.

If there’s some kind of metaphorical correlation between the ways the dying king & Léaud ‘s career were doted on, yet left to rot, I was either too dense to understand it or too bored to fully care. The Death of Louis XIV is above all else a highfalutin bore, recommendable only to the most dedicated of French New Wave academics who have a completionist’s compulsion to watch their once-youthful mascot die. The film perfectly captures the stillness & exhaustion of waiting for death and occasionally searches for the humor of clashing the indignity of that condition with an ineffective excess of wealth. There’s a perverse joke in seeing Léaud’s upsetting little egg-shaped body slowly fail & give up while dressed in expensive fabrics & oversized wigs. The film also has a visually striking dedication to natural lighting, affording it the painting-in-motion look of something like The Witch or The Libertine. That sense of visual craft and the quiet meta humor of Léaud bowing out in such a compromised sense if indignity vs. royal reverence could’ve been captured in a series of photographs or even a short film, however. The Death of Louis XIV does very little to justify its medium as a feature film outside some occasional humor in the dialogue of unqualified medical men who watch idly as their King dies in what feels like real time. Mostly, the audience watches along with them, listening to the sound of a ticking clock. As an academic exercise, that might have some significance in helping contextualize Léaud’s​ career as an artist. As a cinematic experience, however, it feels like waiting for death, which is not an activity I’d readily recommend.

-Brandon Ledet

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Love & Friendship (2016)

threehalfstar

2016 very well might be The Year of the Anachronistic Jane Austen Adaptation (if it’s not already being billed as The Year of the Confined Space Thriller or The Year That Superhero Spectacles Shat the Bed). Besides the Comedy Central reality show spoof Another Period, which recontextualizes Austen-era social machinations in a petty Keeping Up with the Kardashians mindframe, we’ve also been treated to the just-as-silly-as-its-title-suggests Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That latter, zombified Austen bastardization didn’t make much of a splash when it was released this last spring, but I got a kick out of the way the horror comedy accentuated the verbal sparring of its source material by making it literal sparring in some ludicrous knockout fights between high society women. The most recent entry in The Year of Austen Anachronisms is Wilt Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from the lessor known, minor Austen title Lady Susan. While the far less subtle Pride and Prejudice and Zombies felt the need to punch up Austen’s verbal aggressions by turning them into physical altercations, Love & Friendship recognizes just how biting & playfully transgressive they already are on the page. Stillman’s film finds its own anachronism by playing the material straight, but fitting it into the format of a modern, 90min comedy, with all of the playful energy that genre implies. In a way it’s similar to Sofia Coppola’s (criminally underrated) Marie Antoinette picture, just without the Converse sneakers & unavoidably depressive third act.

It’s probably best to consider Love & Friendship as a period comedy instead of a period drama if you want to quickly get on its very particular wavelength. The film’s rapidfire, breathy dialogue & playbill-style character introductions (accompanied by phrases like “a divinely attractive man” & “a bit of a rattle”) are a relentless assault throughout the film. As a subversion of its genre the film presents the same polite-on-the-surface setting & intricately beautiful costumes, but with a new, cheeky attitude. Speaking of the usual hallmarks of the costume drama, the familiar-to-the-genre Kate Beckinsale stars as the Lady Susan of the source materials’ namesake, a character at the edge of high society fringe who’s just as self-important as she is calculated & prepared to destroy. A recent “widow without fortune”, Lady Susan is a scenery-chewing Austen archetype who wields love & friendship as deadly weapons in her designs for wealth & discomfort. The movie’s tightly paced, pleasantly efficient plot mostly centers on her machinations to find well-off husbands for both herself and her young daughter. As their financial situation is direly dependent on the kindness of acquaintances at the beginning of the film, the stakes aren’t exactly low, but it’s not easy to sympathize with our “agreeable flirt” antihero as she tries to entrap a husband of the right social stature & age range (he can’t be “too old to be governable” or “two young to die”) & sleeps with other people’s husbands for fun in the meantime. Like all traditional comedies, Love & Friendship ends with everyone finding a suitable mate, but the fun in this film is in watching Beckinsale’s lead shrewdly manipulate each piece of the puzzle so that they fall into place without her barely lifting a finger. Most of the targets of her designs don’t even know they’re being played as pawns and even the ones who do, including her poor daughter, are helpless to do anything but watch her designs play out in stunned silence. They’re all ridiculously outmatched.

All of Lady Susan’s designs wouldn’t mean a thing without her supporting players, however. Chloë Sevigny (who after this & #horror is hopefully staging an indie scene comeback) stars as a friend & conspirator who’s mostly kept around so that Lady Susan has an audience to appreciate her manipulative brilliance. Then there’s the case of the wealthy, potential beaus for Lady Susan & her daughter. The younger, more desirable candidate is a handsome gent with whom she ignites “the most peculiar friendship” and whose family is scandalized that he would associate with a flirtatious widow prone to  such “sauciness & familiarity”. The movie’s real secret weapon, however, is the delightful Sir James. A “very silly” man with “a charm of a kind”, Sir James distinctly recalls the posi stupidity of characters like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. He calls peas “tiny green balls” & “novelty vegetables”, finds difficulty remembering how many Commandments there are in the Bible, and dances like a delighted fool. There are varying degrees to which Love & Friendship’s male characters don’t measure up while going toe to toe with Lady Susan, but no one is as delightfully or entertainingly incompetent as Sir James, who has a way of stealing scenes he’s not even in as characters discuss the various charms & annoyances of his spectacular idiocy.

As amusing as the supporting players can be, however, falling for Love & Friendship depends largely on finding amusement in the cold calculations of Lady Susan, a delicately aggressive performance Beckinsale nails with ease. Although she’s a cunning manipulator who believes that “facts are horrid things” & leaves a few opposing women weeping in her wake, Lady Susan is a formidable social warmonger, a great encapsulation of the social combativeness that distinguishes a lot of Austen’s quietly powerful characters. Love & Friendship may include a lovable dolt performance from a character that belongs in a modern mockumentary-style sitcom & other 90min comedy conventions like a continuous stream of alternate take jokes included with its end credits, but it intimately understand the appeal of Jane Austen’s powerful (& humorous) archetypes in a way that’s not always captured in the more self-serious adaptations of her work. Much like the character of one Sir James Martin, the film is an all-around delight that never outwears its initial charm.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 17: Lady Jane (1986)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Lady Jane (1986) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 137 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls interviewing Helena Bonham Carter when she was 19 & promoting the film. He also recounts drinking at a particular English pub for such a long period of time that he remembers both the day she moved into an apartment upstairs as well as the day she moved out.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his declaration that Helena Bonham Carter is the “Queen of the Period Picture”.

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Lady Jane is a mid-80s British costume drama featuring members of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a babyfaced Helena Bonham Carter. In that simple one line description I believe I’ve told you everything you need to know about its value as an evening’s entertainment & an an artistic endeavor. Lady Jane is near-indistinguishable from a lot of its costume drama genre peers, save for a few before-they-were-stars casting choices, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasant to look at. At 2.5 hours, its lack of stylistic or narrative ambition can wear your patience a little thin, but if you’re a fan of the familiar cinematic territory it inhabits there’s no shame in zoning out & enjoying the film for its beautiful costumes, historically inaccurate romance, horseback riding, and beheadings. Honestly, it’s perfect background filler for Sunday afternoon housecleaning, especially for fans of Helena Bonham Carter’s costume drama work who’d like to get a glimpse of her early stirrings.

Carter stars as Lady Jane Gray, known to history as “The Nine Days Queen” due to her very short reign as an English Monarch at the bequest of her dying boy-king cousin Edward VI. At the height of the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Great Britain, Lady Jane Grey was something of an instigator, pushing for Protestant values in order to “free the people from bigotry & superstition,” namely Catholicism. She was publicly executed for treason as a reward for her efforts, a shameful end as a political martyr for one of the most highly educated women of her time. Somewhere in that short time frame she was married off against her will to an English lord, a man she never loved & barely knew.

Lady Jane Grey’s story had been adapted for the silver screen twice before this Royal Shakespeare Company version, which might help explain how the details of that arranged marriage get a little fuzzy in this take. Carter’s Lady Jane is physically forced, whipped by her mother even, into marrying the rakish lord who offends her bookish sensibilities, but she does end up falling in love with him thanks to his good looks & dry wit of a young Carey Elwes (brought to the screen by a young Carey Elwes). I guess this doomed lovers element of the plot was meant as a sort of movie magic tactic that could up the emotional stakes of its narrative (which, again, ends in a public execution of a teenager), but it also plays as if The Royal Shakespeare Company spaced out & mixed in a little Romeo & Juliet with its historical narrative. I’m not complaining. Who doesn’t little teenage romance mixed in with their spiritually bleak, true life tragedy?

Ebert once called Helena Bonham Carter “The Queen of the Period Picture,” a career-long trend that’s continued all the way to projects as recent as 2013’s Great Expectations, Kenneth Braunaugh’s Cinderella, and last year’s Suffragette. Lady Jane was Carter’s very first top-billed role and she’s a literal baby in this film (a baby with amazing eyebrows), but she’s already a high-functioning actor here, holding her own among some of Britain’s finest stage actors of the time. She’s not the only interesting pre-fame performance either. A pre-Princess Bride Carey Elwes is perfectly charming as her non-historically accurate lover & a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart nearly steals the show as her boisterous, warmongering father, a character that feels as if he were lifted directly from an episode of Wishbone. I don’t think this film is especially memorable or worth seeking out unless one of those roles jumps out at you as something you’ve got to see before you die (are they’re a lot of diehard Helena Bonham Carter completists out there?), but like a lot of costume dramas it’s thoroughly pleasant & easy to consume. If it pops up on television I’d suggest you linger a while instead of immediately skipping over it. Otherwise it might not exactly be worth the effort of tracking it down.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Call Northside 777 (1948)

-Brandon Ledet