The World to Come (2021)

It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes.  Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting.  Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”,  “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low.  Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge.  The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.

I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course.  It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight.  A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure.  Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive.  Still, its historical environment at least rings true.  It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America.  The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands.  It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”

Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm.  She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention.  While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts.  They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe.  She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it.  Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive.  Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame.  Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies.  She finds her perfect fit in Kirby.  It does not go well.

While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling.  Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz).  It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life.  There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum.  Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.”  Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair.  This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

The Tempest (1979)

Long before Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet attempted to modernize Shakespeare merely through hip choices in casting & costuming, Derek Jarman did much the same for The Tempest . . . with much uglier results. The arthouse British auteur interpreted the classic Shakespeare play as a series of gorgeous & grotesque tableaus set against a Gothic horror backdrop. The Tempest is a little drier & more text-faithful than I would have wanted from Jarman tackling such familiar, academic material, which might be the major way in which Luhrmann’s over-the-top Hollywood Spectacle excess has it bested. Still, the lurid imagery & spiritual decay that flows throughout all of Jarman’s films manages to make the Bard’s culturally over-saturated work his own distinct interpretation.

It would be beside the point to recap the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest here, at least not when a link to a Wikipedia article or CliffsNotes refresher would get the gist across just as well. This is less a re-interpretation of the text than it is a 70s-contemporary staging of its exact dialogue. Something I always appreciate about Jarman’s films (especially in my recent watches of The Garden & Jubilee) is how they feel like watching punks play dress-up: a muted, grotesque pleasure that The Tempest dwells on from start to end. I can’t say that any of the performer’s line readings reinvigorated Shakespeare’s words with any newfound fervor, but watching Jarman-regular Jack Birkett eat raw eggs & cackle at his own fart jokes as Caliban is the exact kind of Royal Theatre Geek Show you’d want out of this kind of material. It’s a very dry, calm, by-the-books production for the most part, which only makes its punk-scene casting & occasional absurdist outbursts more of a grotesque intrusion on the material by contrast.

I’ll be honest and admit that the well-behaved, academic approach to Shakespeare’s original text was somewhat of a letdown for me here, as I’m sure I would’ve fallen in love with the film if it were a little more blasphemous in the face of tradition. I’ll even admit that the shamelessly corny glam rock musical interpretation of The Tempest in Hunky Dory was a lot easier for me to latch onto as an audience; ditto Luhrmann’s empty-headed excess in Romeo+Juliet. If you have any affection for Jarman’s arthouse abstractions & debaucherous punk provocations, though, this is an interesting curio within that larger catalog. Just don’t bother with it if you haven’t already fallen in love with the much sharper, more wildly playful Jubilee.

-Brandon Ledet

Liberté (2020)

The premise for Albert Serra’s latest #slowcinema provocation was too alluring of a hook for me to pass up, even though my patience was stretched beyond its limits in his previous film. In The Death of Louis XIV, Serra captured the boredom of waiting for death, filming French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as the titular monarch in his dying days, practically passing away onscreen in real-time. In its follow-up, Liberté, Serra captures the boredom of an unenthused orgasm, framing sex as the same kind of tedious bodily function as he previously framed death. I naively assumed meaningless sex would be more interesting to watch than a meaningless death, but Serra manages to make them equally boring & spiritually empty. To be fair, both movies are about boredom; I just don’t find that an especially rich subject, turns out.

In this glacially paced period drama, a small group of pre-Revolution French Libertines in exile take political refuge in the woods, passing the time by diddling each other and members of a nearby convent. There are no character beats or plot points to speak of, just bored old men seeking debaucherous sexual thrills over an unfulfilling, never-ending night in a “cursed place in the woods.” Figures don’t arrive on the scene so much as they materialize like ghosts, haunted by their philosophical commitment to seeking orgasms as an act of political rebellion, even though the going-through-the-motions drudgery suggests their hearts aren’t really in it. Throughout, Serra contrasts the gorgeous & the grotesque, the obscene & the serene. Quiet shots of the eerie woods are scored only by crickets and the rustling of pantaloons. That nature footage alternates with depraved, often unsimulated sex acts like analingus & piss play, presented with the same lack of urgency. There’s no purpose or direction for this monotonous, half-hearted activity, and it only ends because the sun eventually, thankfully rises.

It’s difficult to know what to do with a movie that aims to shock and bore audiences in equal measure. Liberté dwells in an awkward, liminal space between amoral debauchery & art cinema refinement. It’s like watching Salò hold out its pinky out while taking dainty sips of tea, perverse both in its content and in its own self-conflicted nature. I’m not sure that it adds much to the themes & textures of explicit provocations about the self-destructive nature of meaningless sex, though, especially since that canon is populated by much more exciting, exquisite titles: Salò, We Are the Flesh, In the Realm of the Senses, Stranger by the Lake, etc. There’s a sense of humor to the exercise at least, detectable in the way the Libertines stumble between sexual partners like Romero zombies in a shopping mall, or in the way one participant declares “Open the gates to Hell!” before rimming a nun-in-training. However, I gather that most of Serra’s amusement is rooted in intentionally boring himself & his audience, which is not at all my speed. This is a provocation fit only for #slowcinema aesthetes; more hyperactive trash gobblers like myself need to seek our own perverse thrills elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Bright Young Things (2003)

It’s incredible that I didn’t catch Bright Young Things when it was still fresh in the mid-aughts. I was in college at the time, and hopelessly attracted to mid-tier indie films about queer libertines who made fabulously debaucherous lives out of indulging in drugs & gender-fuckery: Party Monster, Breakfast on Pluto, The Naked Civil Servant, etc. (as well as their better-funded equivalent in titles like Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig & The Angry Inch). A portrait of wealthy 1930s socialites enjoying the lull between wars with some lavish drag parties, booze, and cocaine, the semi-historical biopic Bright Young Things would have majorly appealed to me at the time. It’s basically a slightly classier, extremely British version of Party Monster — distinguished only by its staggering cast: James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Emily Mortimer, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, and one-time director Steven Fry. Even watching it for the first time now, I enjoyed the film far more than I should have. If I had seen it as an impressionable young lush in desperate need of fabulous, crossdressing wastoids to look up to, I almost certainly would have worn that cheap-o second-hand DVD to dust.

Smartly, the film chooses an outsider who aspirationally looks up to the Bright Young Things as its audience-surrogate protagonist, matching the wide-eyed admiration of its target audience. It’s easy to piss away your youth and inherited wealth if you’re born into affluence. It’s a much more difficult trick to pull off for a starving artist who’s living a Bohemian lifestyle because of their class rather than their whims. The best our protagonist writer in search of a steady paycheck can hope for is to be taken in as an amusing pet by his fabulously wealthy friends (while scrounging up some chump change publicizing their decadence in the tabloids under the pseudonym Mr. Chatterbox). It’s a grift that can only last so long, which works out fine since the Bright Young Things themselves could only use London as their personal playground for as long as the world was willing to sit idle between wars. It’s a brilliant POV for the film to take, since the writer’s main motivation is to tag along as his crossdressing, gin-guzzling friends quip and party-hop from one novelty amusement to the next. His “journey” as their adopted working-class pet lands close enough to the ideal audience’s POV to highlight the film’s main attractions (boozy fancy dress parties where jaded artsy types complain “I’ve never been so bored in my entire life” despite the never-ending carnival enveloping them), while also bland enough to not get in their way.

There’s probably an excellent movie to be made about how privileged, unfulfilling, and spiritually toxic the real-life Bright Young Things’ debauchery truly was, but this isn’t it. It makes some last-minute gestures towards that kind of criticism as the party inevitably ends, but its heart really isn’t in it. The movie is much more vibrantly alive in its earliest stretches where everything is champagne, cocaine, drag, and roses, which makes it more of an aspirational wealth fantasy than anything genuinely critical or introspective. And that’s okay! The cast is brimming with delightful performers, all allowed by Fry’s hands-off direction to be as exuberantly charming as they please (with only Tennant being tasked to play a slimy turd so that there’s a vague shape of a villain to feign conflict). I might have been charmed to the point of obsession had I caught this aspirational lush fantasy as a teenager, but even now I was charmed to the point of enjoying the film far more than it likely deserves. Everyone loves a good party, and unfortunately it takes a certain amount of money & lack of self-awareness to throw one. As a frivolous adult who has worn a tuxedo & lipstick combo to a party this year (pre-COVID, mind you; I’m not a monster), I was helpless to enjoying the spectatorship of these staged parties in particular, despite my better judgement.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Gwen (2019)

Remember when wide audiences openly jeered The Witch for its supposed letdown of an ending that payed off the Satanic dread of its atmospheric tension with a moment of ethereal, haunting beauty? Remember when even that film’s defenders rejected the late-night-stress-dream horrors of It Comes at Night because there was no literal “It” to provide physical form to its themes of grief & hopelessness? I can’t imagine what either crowd would make of the spooky period drama Gwen, which boasts all the atmospheric dread & oil panting patina of an A24 horror film but refuses to deliver the genre goods it teases in any satisfying or recognizable way. If anything, when it’s time for the film to veer into a horror genre metaphor to amplify the themes & tensions of its premise, it instead pulls back to reveal that the real world is grim, joyless, and devoid of fantastic escape. It leaves you to stew in the misery of reality, despite being framed as a horror film (to the point of appearing on the docket of this year’s Overlook Film Festival) and it’s a tough, dry pill to swallow as a result.

A Welsh family struggles to maintain ownership of their farm during wartime at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The exact nature of the threat against them is clear. An aristocratic industrialist in a top hat wishes to seize their land to add to his factory & quarry space, but they won’t sell. As their house is cursed with animal deaths, parental seizures, and occultist symbols (all meant to be taken as direct threats), the film continually hints that a larger, supernatural force is creeping in from the edges of the frame, but it never actually arrives. It’s clear from the beginning that Capitalism in The Monster in this grim historical drama, but in a true horror film that threat would assume a physical form as well, terrorizing the family with tangible violence. Instead, we watch a mother & her two daughters cling to their dwindling few possessions & health as the evils of a modern economy bully them into submission (or death). It’s a miserable experience, even if purposefully so. It also never gets around to justifying its occasional dalliances in horror tones & tropes – whether by fully utilizing its spooky atmosphere or by releasing a physical demon to represent its economic one.

Gwen looks, sounds, and feels like Elevated Horror™. Its monochrome portrait of a family in crisis is illustrated mostly by the grey hues of soot & snow. There’s very little dialogue & no musical score to speak of, somewhat mistaking total quiet for atmospheric dread. Those drab, miserable textures lull the audience into a foggy calm, only to be shocked out of our seats by loud, violet stabs of lightning, medical fits, and nightmares of self-mutilation. This movie has genuine jump scares! But it’s not horror. Gwen takes the same cautious, teasing approach to genre as last year’s The Little Stranger, ultimately avoiding traditional payoffs entirely in favor of the real-world misery of economic exploitation. I don’t personally see the same dynamic at play in The Witch or It Comes at Night, but these muted British chillers at least give me a taste of how other people feel watching them. They’re handsomely crafted, well performed (especially The Bisexual’s Maxine Peake in the mother role in this case), and impressively disturbing in their own right. Yet, I can’t help but wish there was a supernatural monster onscreen to back up its disingenuous genre teasing.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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