Tag Archives: historical

TIFF18: Peterloo

2018 doesn’t need this movie. Arguably, the whole world at large doesn’t need another movie about angry white men emancipating themselves from tyranny while – without a trace of irony – refusing to bring anyone else along with them.

Director Mike Leigh, himself an old white man, clearly believes every florid word uttered by his forefathers is precious. Why else allow for so many agonizing extended speeches, spit-shoutingly reproduced at full length? Peterloo feels less like a movie and more like a scrap book that speechifying white men made as an ode to themselves. Not that there aren’t any women at all – someone needs to pour the water when all that edifying leaves the men cotton-mouthed.peterloo_0HERO

Peterloo is about that time in England’s history, after Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, when nothing seems to have improved for its people. In fact, the poor are getting poorer, thanks to bread taxes, crop shortages, and insufficient wages. And not content to merely get richer, the rich oppress their countrymen, sentencing an old woman to whipping for being “loose and idle”, a man exiled to Australia for being too good at gambling, and another to the gallows for stealing a coat when he had none.

Though the people are starving and can hardly stand upright after a day’s back-breaking labour, the Reformers organize their best orators to rally the people toward rights and representation. Parliament is not only afraid to lose even an iota of power, they’re downright enraged that anyone should feel so entitled. So they make lengthy, impassioned speeches too. Mike Leigh throws in a scene of the women getting in on the action too, clearly meant to reassure us that the egregious sexism isn’t nearly so bad as we’re thinking, but in fact accomplishes just the opposite. The women’s meeting is full of illiterates and in-fighting. That can’t have been an exclusively female problem but that’s the way Mike remembers it.

I suppose Peterloo is technically well-made (though the opening Waterloo battle scene looks especially unconvincing – old wagon wheels and bugles just weren’t meant to be captured in such crisp detail). I have to believe this is why TIFF has invited so many more female and minority critics this year: so we can call crap when we see it. Of course, I’m going to keep it classy, unlike a male critic in Venice this year who called the festival’s only female director a whore when he didn’t like her movie.

Standing in line to pick up my press credentials, the guy in front of me told the guy behind me (both were bearded middle-aged white men, it probably goes without saying) that last year’s must-see film for him was the Louis C.K. one, with no embarrassment or chagrin. This is why diversity in criticism is important. While plenty of white male critics also manage to be human beings, many do not. And the obsolescent opinions are always the loudest, as this movie admirably (and unintentionally) proves. Loud and wrong, on the shitty side of history.

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Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour should maybe be called Darkest Month. In 1940, Winston Churchill was asked by the King to take over as Prime Minister. It was a shitty time to get the job: Hitler was marching his Nazi army across Europe, and the threat of invasion was uncomfortably close. During this particular month, Churchill’s first on the job, he’s got an impossible task. He must decide whether to negotiate a treaty with Hitler, or whether to stand firm against the Nazis but in so doing risk his country. And he had to do this without his party’s support or the public’s understanding or any help from the King.

Winston Churchill is an iconic and influential figure in British history and he’s been portrayed with varying success by some truly venerable actors: ¬†Albert Finney, lead_960Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, and most recently by John Lithgow in The Crown. He is not a saintly figure. He was a great orator but had some problematic positions that hindsight can’t afford to be kind about. Portrayals of him often emphasize his omnipresent cigar, and his particular style of speech (his custom dentures helped cover up a lisp). Gary Oldman is the gentleman tasked with bring old Winnie to life in Darkest Hour, and though he’s seen chomping on the necessary cigars, he turns the performance into something truly remarkable.

Oldman is transformed by makeup and prosthetics; his jowls are considerable. His tics and posture help render him unrecognizable. He dissolves into character. As Churchill he delivers some of history’s most famous and familiar speeches and he is electrifying. Kristin Scott Thomas as his tell-it-like-it-is wife, Lily James as his newbie secretary, and Ben Mendelsohn as the King help round out the cast but Darkest Hour feels like a one man show and Oldman is equal to the cast. Truthfully I don’t know many others who could carry 125 minutes of infamy, but Gary Oldman deserves his frontman status in all the Oscar pools. His portrayal is vigorous and complex and maybe even a little bit compassionate.

As for the movie itself, it’s not quite as formidable. The events are told simply, without a lot of cinematic flair, and it sometimes feels sluggish. There’s not a lot of imagination on display, and perhaps that’s an unfair criticism with the burden of historical accuracy weighing heavily, but director Joe Wright is more precise than entertaining. It’s Oldman who kept me in my seat, and I’m sure it’ll be Oldman bounding out of his on Oscar night to collect his well-deserved award.

Victoria & Abdul

31victoriaandabdulIs there anything more awkward than finding out the guy you recruited as a token Hindu is actually Muslim? There is, actually – it’s far more awkward when the guy you literally shipped from India as a parlour trick starts getting special attention from the Queen, more attention than you and all your fellow white sycophants combined. The worst part? He doesn’t even seem to be trying to play your game, yet he’s still beating all of you at it.

Victoria & Abdul tells the (mostly) true tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, the former being the head of the Empire that oppressed India for nearly 100 years, and the latter being the guy who was sent on a two month boat ride to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen.

Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall do their best to find humour both in Victoria’s self-involvement and in the shockingly blatant racism that Abdul is subjected to at every turn. That approach works very well, mainly because of the strong performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the titular roles. Dench’s Victoria is smart and self-aware even in her self-indulgence and stubbornness, and Fazal’s Abdul is such a capable, charismatic individual that at every turn he exposes the ridiculousness of the hate directed toward him. Perhaps in another hundred years our great-grandchildren will find today’s racial turmoil similarly humourous, ideally without seeing similarities to their time’s headlines. One can only hope.

One shortcoming, though, is that we are left to guess at Abdul’s motivations. Presumably, he would rather put up with cold, prejudiced England than live in impoverished, subjugated India, but we don’t ever see his home life so never really know why he puts up with being treated like dirt by every white character other than the Queen. Even so, Abdul is still a character I invested in despite knowing so little about him.

Beyond the stellar core performances, Victoria & Abdul is fairly by-the-numbers, playing out exactly as it must. There are no narrative surprises here but despite its predictability, this film kept me invested from start to finish, and that’s not an easy task for a 9 a.m. screening five days into a film festival!

Victoria & Abdul likely won’t end up in my top tier of films from Venice but I’m glad I saw it, especially for Oscar pool purposes – Dench should be a strong contender for Best Actress. And while the rest of the film doesn’t match the high standard that Dench sets, it’s an entertaining film that you won’t regret watching.

Silence

Martin Scorsese and I had very different reactions whilst reading Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel, Silence. He thought: this will make a great movie, even if it takes me 28 years to bring it to theatres (and it did). I, however, got through the book like one gets through a prison sentence: head down, one day at a time, putting in my time, hoping it rs-silence-8ec449bd-cf0f-4008-942e-3d25d5a334f7doesn’t kill me. Having read the book, I knew exactly what we were in for with the movie, and I warned anyone who would listen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it. It’s Scorsese. I mean, that alone is enough. But I also know that Martin Scorsese has something to say about spirituality, and if he’s gotten away from it with his last few movies, this one is a major reinvigoration of his theme.

Little Marty was friends with a loving and influential priest growing up, and this encouraged him to join a seminary to become a priest himself. Lacking a true calling to the vocation, Scorsese flunked out, but he never stopped asking himself how a priest got past his own ego, his own pride, to put the needs of his parishioners first.

In many ways, that’s exactly what the film Silence asks of its main protagonist Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Christian missionary sent to Japan in the 1600s, when Christianity was outlawed, and his presence forbidden. He and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), in search of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), make the voyage to a land unknown. They haven’t heard from him directly in years, but there are rumours that he has renounced his faith. Certain that this cannot be true, the two young missionaries vow to find and rescue him, while restoring the faith of their underground followers.

Praise be to Scorsese’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, who helps create this world with so many natural touches: fog allowed to hide and obscure, fire reminding us of the hell silence-01083r.jpgthat Rodrigues faces, or the hell that he’s in now. Even though the movie is relentlessly brutal, you’ll still be wowed by the images, the beauty lurking within the swamp.

Silence is uncomfortable – truly, truly uncomfortable. The tortures are otherworldly. What’s the takeaway from these 161 minutes of quiet pierced with merciless violence? Silence leaves you with more questions than answers, and how you feel about it will depend on how filled with god’s love your heart is going in. Yes it’s a meditation on religion and spirituality, but it isn’t afraid to point-blank ask us whether we’ve heard or felt god in the silence. Is he there, quietly observing his people be tortured and killed? Is he there, silently allowing persecution and murder? Does silence sow seeds of doubt?

For the most part, Scorsese seems to be fairly neutral in the plight of Christians vs. Japan. I definitely felt the strong whiff of colonization, the belief that the stories white people tell each other about their god and heaven are somehow more true than the stories the Japanese have been telling for centuries. Not just more true but The Truth. These might be 17th century problems, but they sound very familiar – almost like those same problems are here in the 21st century as well.

SILENCEThis Asshole Atheist really noticed the distinction between religion and faith – religion being something a government can choose to eradicate; faith, however, is much more difficult. Silence is really a question of belief, not just what you believe, but how strongly you believe it, how strongly you think others should believe it, how far you’re willing to go to impose those beliefs, how much pain you can endure before you abandon those beliefs. And if god himself can hide in silence, can belief dwell there also?

With Martin Scorsese at the helm, you already know this is a disciplined and wondrous exercise in film making, perhaps a masterpiece among masterpieces from this celebrated auteur. But Silence is best discussed by the feelings it evokes in the viewer. It’s meant to be thought-provoking. If god is love, is it better to love god even in the face of threat, or is it better to love our fellow man even when it means denying god? One gruesome scene marches into another, never quite glorifying the martyr, never quite condemning the oppressor. Maybe the point is that there is no point. Silence is a theological debate that grants permission to test the limits of faith, to ask the unanswerables. It is difficult to watch and difficult to process but I believe that Silence is meaningful even to the non-believer: it’s just that good a film.

Free State of Jones

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a poor man fighting a rich man’s war, and he knows it. The rich men have cleverly saved themselves from war by enacting the 20 Negro Law, which exempts any man who owns 20 slaves. Nice loophole. Knight is less than pleased. When a very young recruit is gunned down beside him, he straps the body to a horse and sets off to return the boy to his mother for burial. The only problem is, this act stinks of desertion to everyone that matters.

Not content with hiding out, Knight (a real historical figure)¬†instead founds free-state-of-jonesthe “free state of Jones”, made up of deserters, runaway slaves, and women, and they start their own mini rebellion against the corrupt Confederates in charge. The soldiers have been raiding local homes, taking their “10%” (more like 90), but leaving large plantations untouched. These people aren’t exactly hard to convince which side will benefit them most.

Free State of Jones is graphic from the get-go, but if you can survive the first two or three minutes, the worst of the gore is over. It helps to establish how bloody and senseless this war is (the civil war, if that’s not clear): no matter how perfectly rhythmic the marching, it doesn’t stop you from getting mowed down. Director Gary Ross also tries to give the film some context by intercutting the main story with courtroom snippets of a case against a man 1\8th negro, a coloured person in the eyes of the law, who thus is not allowed to be married to his white wife. I didn’t care for the splicing but came to appreciate it by the end.

This is absolutely a brilliant and worthy piece of history but it’s not quite done right by Free State of Jones. The movie’s well over 2 hours but feels as though FREE STATE OF JONESit lollygags from scene to scene, dwelling in weird places, then rushing through others. Perhaps Ross has simply bitten off more than he can chew, but you can see his good intentions shine through. What we need, though, is passion. It’s sadly lacking here. Even McConaughey’s strong performance is muddied by the white saviour characterization: Knight was a much more divisive figure.

I enjoyed this movie but was frustrated by its limitations. I would have liked to have seen more of Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I think is spectacular but criminally underused in this film. I wouldn’t stop anyone from watching Free State of Jones, but I am endeavouring to temper your expectations. The civil war has many stories to tell, but they aren’t just historical ones. There are a lot of modern consequences, enough to give you shivers.