On Chesil Beach

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson
Directed by: Dominic Cooke (debut)
Written by: Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”)

A fledgling marriage comes to a major crossroad before it begins in “On Chesil Beach,” a period drama adapted by English author/screenwriter Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”) from his bestselling 2007 novel of the same name.

Set in 1962 England, “On Chesil Beach” introduces Florence (three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), newlyweds who decide to spend their wedding night in a hotel on the seashore. Florence and Edward come from different backgrounds and don’t share the same interests. Edward likes American rock ’n’ roll while Florence prefers classical music. He enjoys history and birdwatching while her only extracurricular activity is playing the violin in a string ensemble.

“I think you must be the squarest person in all of Western civilization,” Edward tells his wife after she describes Chuck Berry as “bouncy.” But her taste in music isn’t going to be their undoing. It’s impossible to talk about “On Chesil Beach” without revealing exactly why Florence and Edward are such a bad fit. So, we’ll just say it: Florence is revolted by sex and has no desire to ever consummate their marriage, a small detail Edward probably would’ve liked to have known before they tied the knot.

It becomes apparent in the first half of the film that McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel has translation issues on the silver screen. The most evident is the time spent on the awkward scenes inside the hotel room where Florence and Edward fumble with zippers and avoid intimacy by nervously bantering back and forth. It’s easy to see how these details could be read as emotionally tragic, but seeing it play out cinematically feels disconnected.

Also weak are the numerous flashbacks in the screenplay that McEwan and first-time director Dominic Cooke attempt to use to mold the two leads into realistic characters who would resonate with audiences. Besides an ambiguous scene where it’s hinted that Florence might have been sexually abused as a child, not much from these nonlinear sections of the film give any insight into who these individuals are. Even a secondary storyline about Edward’s mentally ill mother forces the narrative into melodramatic pitfalls.

Ronan’s and Howle’s onscreen chemistry, too, is nonexistent. Even when they’re not acting like the most pitiful virgins in movie history since Jason Biggs humped pastry in “American Pie,” the characters are stunted. Without the same authority that filmmaker Todd Haynes used to confront issues of sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s in his films “Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” Cooke’s “On Chesil Beach” is a missed opportunity to add to that conversation.

Belle

May 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
Directed by: Amma Asante (“A Way of Life”)
Written by: Misan Sagay (“The Secret Laughter of Women”)

In the last couple of years, films like “Lincoln” and “12 Years a Slave” have given some important historical context to the subject of slavery in the U.S. and the steps it took to eradicate and overcome it post-Civil War. That shameful part of history, however, was not exclusive to America as we see in “Belle,” a beautifully-shot true-life story set in England where one courageous woman attempts to understand where she fits in society since both her rank and ethnicity seem to contradict each other.

In “Belle,” actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as the title character, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral (Matthew Goode) who is called back out to sea and decides to leave his motherless young child in the hands of her wealthy great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson) despite their initial objection. As Belle grows up, she finds herself stuck in a sort of no man’s land of social status. While Belle’s lineage gives her privileges, she is not allowed, for example, to dine with the family when they have company or be matched with a suitor of equal rank because of the controversy it may stir up.

While much of “Belle” follows along the same path as most Jane Austen-inspired costume dramas, it’s not all that makes up this exquisite era piece. Sure, Belle is just as desperate to find a man as any of the Bennett sisters (although she hides it fairly well), but there’s more to this heroine than a fairy-tale ending. She knows there are more pressing issues in the world than finding the ideal husband. When she meets aspiring lawyer and abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid), she is introduced to a host of cases (in particular, one where a slave ship owner kills his slaves for the insurance money) that open her eyes even more to the injustices people like her mother faced their entire lives.

Anchored by a strong performance by Mbatha-Raw, “Belle” comes up short on an emotional level, which is surprising given the topics raised, but is fascinating enough to keep our attention on the more historically significant points rather than the conventional romance. There are still corsets, yes, but director Amma Asante’s (“A Way of Life”) ability to loosen them up a bit so our main character can fight the good fight is reason enough to stay invested in this little-known history lesson.

The Book Thief

November 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Directed by: Brian Percival (“A Boy Called Death”)
Written by: Michael Petroni (“The Rite”)

In an adaptation of the immensely popular novel “The Book Thief” tells the story of Liesel (Sophia Nelisse), a young girl living in Nazi Germany. When Liesel is separated from her birth mother, she moves in with her new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel is illiterate, and becomes fascinated with reading after finding a book in an unexpected place. As World War II breaks out, Hans and Rosa bring in Jewish family friend Max (Ben Schnetzer) to hide from German soldiers. Soon, Liesel begins to form a special bond with Max.

One of the strengths of “The Book Thief” is its performances. As a relative newcomer, Nelisse is strong and holds her own against more experienced actors. Best among the cast is Rush, who is a great presence as a father to Liesel and quite funny in the films lighter moments. As the counterpart of the laid back Rush, Watson’s uptight character plays nicely as the more complicated of the parents.

“The Book Thief” is somewhat delicate in its handling of the Holocaust. Rather than making the film about the Holocaust itself, it is merely a story that takes place within that context. Because of that construction, a lot of the impact of the atrocities is lost or absent altogether. We see Nazi flags, book burnings and the occasional rounding up of the Jewish people through a muted and pale color palate, but there is no sense of how truly terrible the conditions were. It makes sense given the target audience, yet interestingly enough, the film deals with some darker themes and plot points while at the same time feeling tame with its contextual elements. At the center of “The Book Thief” are relationships between its characters which vary in success. The relationship between Liesel and Max is supposed to be one of the more important ones in the film, but feels underdeveloped and a touch forced.

Perhaps most troubling about “The Book Thief” is that it is a movie that lacks a true climax. The film builds and then, without much warning, deflates in a series of false endings and jam-packed, overly-dramatic beats that have no room to breathe as the film stumbles to a finish. There is no grace to these moments, as director Brian Percival (“A Boy Called Death”) seems to just regurgitate an ending to get the film over as soon as possible. The decision leaves the whole thing feeling piecemeal and unsatisfying.

While there is strength in the acting, “The Book Thief”, unfortunately, fails to connect on many of its major themes, chiefly those of the importance of books to Liesel. That makes it difficult to connect to the film as an entire piece. Coupled with an ending that feels haphazardly pasted together, “The Book Thief” can’t help but feel incomplete.

War Horse

December 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”)
Written by:  Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”)

In my generation, childhood affection for horses was strictly a girl thing. No male I’ve ever known has squealed with delight at the mention of a pony. No guy I’ve ever met has ever doodled pictures in their notebook of the majestic steed they hoped to get for their birthday. That’s not sexist; it’s just a fact: horses were for girls. Maybe it has something to with the landmark boys’ toys of my youth being Transformers and G.I. Joe, while the girls my age had My Little Pony. Hasbro made the call. If my disinterest in horses is entirely market-driven, then it shouldn’t be surprising that the commercials for “War Horse” left me rolling my eyes. Why is this teenage boy whining so much about his horse?

Directed by Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), “War Horse” follows the adventures of Joey, a horse owned by teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). Purchased by Albert’s drunken father (Peter Mullan), Joey is saddled with the burden of saving the family farm. Trained by Albert to plow the field, Joey earns the admiration of the village. However when a flood wipes out the crops, money is needed to pay the rent. Joey is sold to the British army on the brink of World War I as Albert vows to reunite with him one day. As the war progresses, Joey’s journey takes him across Europe, and across enemy lines, from one owner to another.

As proven with “Saving Private Ryan,” no one directs early-20th century battle scenes like Spielberg.  From an early charge of the cavalry to a later battle in the trenches, the sequences here end up more family-friendly than the grisly, gory nightmares depicted in “Ryan” without losing the immediacy that made that film the standard-bearer. As the last conflict where man and beast worked together, World War I proves to be fertile ground for Spielberg, depicted here as a turning point in the history of war where mounted soldiers swung swords while being fired upon by machine guns. That’s the story you’ll wish was being told here. As it turns out, the film strays a little too far into schmaltzy territory when no weapons are being fired. As mentioned before, pre-Army Albert comes across whiny, and his passionate love for his horse falls on the wrong side of cheesy. One of Joey’s stops, with a sickly French girl and her doting grandfather, feels too cute by half and is mercifully ended by a battalion of German soldiers. And the less said about the sassy goose and Joey’s horse friend, the better.

It is a testament to the power of Spielberg, however, that the too-earnest parts can somehow stitch themselves together in a satisfying way, teaming up with the director’s masterful combat scenes to craft an uplifting conclusion that ends up bringing a tear to your eye.