Archive for September, 2017

Victoria & Abdul

Posted: September 22, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard.

Victoria and Abdul

The James Bond reboot took a lot of people by surprise.

The year is 1887, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, and as part of the celebrations two Indian servants, Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) and chosen to travel to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial gold coin. It’s only supposed to be a brief trip, but after Abdul catches the eye of Victoria (Dench) he and Mohammed find themselves drawn into the royal household.

As time passes the Queen becomes more and more enamoured of Abdul, and as his star rises, so too does the ire of the members of the Royal household, and especially of Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Izzard) and plans are drawn up to turn the Queen against Abdul and send the upstart Indian back home.

 

Victoria and Abdul has come in for some stick, and whilst I can see where much of it is coming from, I think some of it is unfair. The film isn’t perfect, but it isn’t quite as lightweight as some critics have suggested.

For a long time the presence of Abdul Karim, a Muslim at the side of Queen Victoria, was a story that few people knew about, so vehemently had his presence been excised from history, and part of the film’s problem is that the story almost seems to fantastical to be true, which is a shame given much of what we see here is presented quite accurately. The producers don’t help matters by claiming it’s ‘mostly’ inspired by true events.

There’s a nice symmetry to Dench playing Victoria once more opposite a man who provided companionship to Victoria after the loss of Albert. In 1997 this was in Mrs Brown opposite Billy Connolly as John Brown but now the object of her affection is amiable Bollywood star Fazal.

The cast are uniformly good, but really it’s Dench’s film, as she plays a woman who is incredibly powerful, yet seems a prisoner of that power, an old woman who knows she is nearing the end of her life, and for whom every day is a mundane struggle, until she spots the handsome young Indian and a spark of life is reignited within her. It’s a great performance by a great actress.

As Abdul, Fazal is given less to work with beyond wide-eyed devotion, and whilst his naiveite is engaging to start with it grates after a while as he never quite seems to wise up to how he’s being perceived by those around him.

Still it’s to both his and Dench’s credit that they form such a convincing relationship, and whilst it might be a very platonic love story, the film very clearly plays like a romance.

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Eddie considered that he was going to have to run a few marathons when the shoot was over!

As the Prince of Wales (Dirty Bertie) Izzard is unrecognisable, having put on the pounds and gained a beard, and he’s very good as the irascible next in line to the throne, balancing comic buffoonery with genuine menace. Bertie isn’t portrayed as a nice man, but it’s to his credit that Izzard wrings every drop of humanity out of him that he can.

As Abdul’s long-suffering friend Mohammed, Akhtar swings between humour and pathos. For long stretches of the film he’s the comic relief, yet eventually he has one of the stand out moments in the film and he plays it perfectly.

In his last screen role Tim Pigott-Smith does a sterling job as the Queen’s put upon Private Secretary, and there’s good work from Michael Gambon as Disraeli, and Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar as ladies in waiting. A cameo by Simon Callow as Puccini does seem a step too far however.

Some have seen the film as showing a saccharine version of British Imperialism, but given that practically every white British character other than Victoria is shown to be a snobbish racialist at one point or another this seems unfair. It’s worth noting as well that because the film spends very little time in India we don’t get to see very much of what the Raj was like which is a shame. Still Abdul telling Victoria the history of his country, and by the by mentioning the priceless artefacts that the British Empire stole/smashed in the process, is incredibly poignant.

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Abdul had a sneaking suspicion that Victoria may have lied about her age on her Tinder profile…

Yes, Victoria is portrayed as the only progressive in the British Empire, and yes for all that Abdul is naïve so is she with regard to just what crimes her subjects are perpetrating in her name, but at no point does it seem that all is rosy for the colonial subjects of the Empire.

But whilst it doesn’t completely take a rose-tinted view of Victoria, Abdul and the Empire, one can’t help feeling that the film plays it safe too often, and this applies to both sides of the divide. It would have been nice to hear more about what life was like in a subjugated India, but by the same token there’s potential for an interesting discussion around Muslim attitudes to women that’s never taken. How does Abdul reconcile his love for subservient, burka wearing wife with his affection for the most powerful woman in the world?

Still, the story of a friendship between an old woman and a young man is a breath of fresh air, even before you factor in the fact that one is a Muslim and the other a monarch.

Frears’ direction is assured and the film is sumptuous to look at. It may be light and whimsical at times, and maybe it doesn’t spend quite enough time delving into the darkened corners of the story (was Victoria really that progressive? Was Abdul really that naïve?) but that doesn’t mean it lacks heft when it needs it.

Amusing, well-acted, touching and well-staged this was a far better film than I expected it to be. I don’t expect I’ll rush to watch it again in a hurry, but I still enjoyed it more than many films I’ve seen this year.

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Unlike Vicky here this film didn’t remotely send me to sleep!

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Wind River

Posted: September 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

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Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye go undercover!

Whilst out hunting wild animals on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming, tracker Cory Lambert (Renner) discovers the body of an 18 year old Native American girl named Natalie Hanson in the middle of nowhere. She has no shoes and isn’t dressed for winter.

It looks like murder, but because the federal government has jurisdiction over capital crimes committed on reservations, the FBI must send an agent in to confirm this. Rookie agent Jane Banner (Olsen) arrives and, together with Cory and Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), she investigates Natalie’s death.

But in the depths of winter, with a powerful storm on the way, the trio soon discover that blizzards and wildcats are not the only dangers that await them on tribal land.

 

In just a few short years former actor Sheridan has emerged as a powerful screenwriting presence. His first script was Sicario, and he followed it up with last year’s underrated Hell or High Water. Now he adds a directorial string to his bow by serving as both writer and director on Wind River.

Though ostensibly thrillers, all three of Sheridan’s scripts could also be rightly described as modern westerns, and all seem to involve a frontier of some kind, and all three harbour a deeper metaphor. In Sicario it was about the war on drugs, in Hell or High Water it was about farmers losing their livelihoods as the banks foreclosed, and now in Wind river it’s tangentially about the treatment of Native Americans, left to wither away on their reservations. It’s a message pushed home with a statement at the end pointing out that Native American women are the only demographic where no statistics are collected regarding disappearances.

It’s sad then that for a film about the marginalisation of Native Americans, the film itself marginalises them, and for the most part they are portrayed as victims. Sure, Cory has a Native American ex-wife and Native American kids, but he isn’t Native American, and neither is Elizabeth Olsen, and however good the film is—and in places it’s very good, in others not so much but more on that in a minute—this fact is pretty inescapable.

Wind River

“Seriously, Elizabeth, can’t you put in a good word for me with Disney? Marvel must have some Native American superheroes, right?”

This isn’t to say Native American actors don’t get prominent roles, as the tribal police chief Graham Greene is wonderfully sardonic (but then he’s always great in anything he does) and plays the kind of character you’d happily watch a tv show about, and whilst he isn’t in it much, Gil Birmingham impresses as Natalie’s father Martin, adding depth to what could have been a stock stoic warrior.

If I had one problem with Sicario it’s that the film side-lines it’s female lead in the denouncement so a man can go off and exact vengeance, and Wind River follows a similar pattern. In some ways it’s easier to accept in Wind River because clearly Renner is our point of view character, but it still feels a trifle unfair on Olsen who’s very good, managing to tread a fine line between making her FBI agent competent, whilst highlighting her inexperience. She might not always do the right thing, but she’s not incompetent. Sadly whereas Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario felt well rounded, Olsen never quite escapes primarily being a plot device to allow people to explain how things work in the wilderness/Reservation to. She is a strong character, it’s just a shame she wasn’t given more backstory.

Renner is a better actor than people give him credit for, but at time’s he’s hampered a little by a script that primarily wants him to a stoic frontiersman; a loner prone to staring off wistfully into the wilderness. At times Renner plays this very well, but at others it makes the film drag.

This is a slow burn of a film, and it would be incorrect to think of it as a serpentine mystery. What Sheridan is very good at is taking fairly simple plotlines, but making them more than the sum of their parts. I feel like I need to see it again because the first half is quite slow (but then it took a second viewing of Hell or High Water to truly appreciate that film as well). Sheridan is a decent enough director, and whilst the film drags a little in places, we eventually find ourselves with some great scenes later on. There’s a palpable tension at one point which reminded me of Tarantino at his best, and a fantastic gun battle that might well be one of the more realistic gunfights you’ll see in a movie, and it reminded me of how the Gunfight at the OK Corral is supposed to have gone down.

Sheridan and his cinematographer make full use of the snow-covered mountains and thick forests, emphasising the isolation of such an environment and further playing into the notion of the lone gunman bringing order to the wilderness.

There’s some wonderful dialogue and good performances, and the film has some interesting things to say about masculinity and the emasculation of Native Americans, but it’s slow pace and reliance on a white male hero in a film supposedly about Native Americans and women (plus, it’s fair to warn you, the presence of a graphic rape scene) mean that whilst I liked this, I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

And I can’t shake the feeling that it would have been more interesting if Cory had been played by Gil Birmingham and/or if Jane had been the one to exact finale vengeance, but Sheridan is to be commended for telling simple stories well, and for his 21st Century approach to masculinity, and I remain a big fan of his work.

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“All I’m saying is, maybe you’re a little too obsessed with Braveheart.”

 

Creation Myth

Posted: September 8, 2017 in Free fiction, Published fiction
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Just a very quick post to point out that I’ve had a story published on the Daily Science Fiction website. It’s free to read and very short so why not take a look!  http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/robots-and-computers/paul-starkey/creation-myth_SF