Home Cinema – July 2007

Hats off to the ladies

The films this month include those with Oscar-nominated roles for women as well as other virtues.

The Queen
Director Stephen Frears has a long track record of successful films—some edgy, like My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things; some mainstream entertainment like Mrs. Henderson Presents; and some a combination of the two, like The Queen. Scripted by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Last King of Scotland, this film essentially covers the week between the death of Princess Diana and her funeral; it blends documented facts with fictional recreations of what went on among members of the royal family and the new Labour administration of Tony Blair.
Since everyone knows the external events and what the queen will ultimately do, the focus is upon how Elizabeth II personally came to realize Diana had to be given a state funeral to satisfy the English public or the monarchy would be damaged severely. It also examines how the canny new Prime Minister managed to do what needed to be done and made himself look good in the process.
The film begins with Tony Blair coming to Buckingham Palace for the ritual of being asked by the queen to form a government, a required ceremony even though he has been elected in a landslide. The contrast between the formal Elizabeth, whose reign began when Churchill was prime minister, and the informal, “Call-me-Tony” Blair produces some awkwardness, especially since Blair’s wife makes no attempt to hide her disdain for the monarchy. A few weeks later, Elizabeth and the royal family are at Balmoral Castle in Scotland when Diana dies, and the Queen sees no reason to return to London: since Diana is no longer a member of the royal family, the funeral should be a private matter presided over by the Spencer family.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth has underestimated the outpouring of sentiment from the public completely and the expectation of her participation in Diana’s funeral. The rest of the film traces how, with Blair’s nudging, Elizabeth brings herself to participate publicly (whatever her personal feelings may have been) in mourning for Diana and thus placate those infatuated with the deceased “people’s princess.”
Helen Mirren is superb as Elizabeth II, clearly deserving her Oscar. Over the years Elizabeth has developed virtually complete emotional control, and Mirren manages to convey that steely resolve while giving subtle hints of what is happening inside. Her Elizabeth can be charming and has great resilience, but, totally locked into tradition, she is out of touch with her country, and her family provides little help.
James Cromwell as Prince Philip is not the brightest berry on the bush and feels that his grandsons should go hunting to take their minds off the loss of their mother. Alex Jennings as Prince Charles is caught between his family’s disdain for Diana, his own fears of being shot and his knowledge that something public must be done because Diana was the mother of the future king of England.
Sylvia Sims plays the Queen Mother as a person who has completed her life already and is simply waiting for her funeral, which has been planned carefully; she advises Elizabeth (badly), sips her martini and watches with a bemused expression. Michael Sheen is excellent as Tony Blair (the second time he has played the prime minister).
The various settings add greatly to the atmosphere of the film. Balmoral’s beautiful highlands and its castle without central heating partly reflect the contradictions of the queen. Meanwhile, Blair at 10 Downing Street usually is rushing about, dealing with aides and trying to get his fledgling government started. Balmoral’s staid tradition, ritual and servants contrast with Blair’s personal home in his district, full of kids and a critical wife.
Some of the scenes work less effectively than others. In a scene in the Highlands, Elizabeth breaks the axle on her Landrover and is stranded until help can arrive; as she waits, she sees a huge stag, a survivor of many hunts, and urges him to run before people arrive and attack him. The scene obviously is meant to work symbolically and perhaps put a little more depth into the plot, but it is so obvious that it jars the otherwise realistic narrative.
In another scene near the end, as Elizabeth and Philip examine the floral tributes for Diana heaped in front of the castle, a little girl hands Elizabeth flowers, and while the gesture is quite touching, it feels a bit contrived. Perhaps most annoying, in view of Blair’s now impending departure as prime minister, is Elizabeth’s advice to him at the end that “they will turn on you also.” The messages of these scenes detract somewhat from an otherwise extraordinary film full of solid performances, gorgeous photography and some very interesting social issues.
One of the surprising aspects of the film is that it achieves a balanced view of the monarchy. A person opposed to the royal family and one in favor of them could both come out of this film and feel their views had been supported. For a film dealing with real people and following the narrative of real events, that’s no small accomplishment.Top

Notes on a Scandal
Richard Eyre, director of Notes on a Scandal, was in charge of the National Theater in London and also directed Judi Dench in Iris. Screenwriter Patrick Marber’s earlier play, Closer, was filmed by Mike Nichols (see this column, Nov., 2005), and like that play, Notes on a Scandal is about destructive relationships.
The screenplay is based on What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by British author Zoe Heller, and it apparently follows the novel, with which I’m not familiar, except in one or two critical places.
The story basically is a melodrama about two women in a relationship that turns destructive. Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is nearing retirement in her teaching career in a middle school, an activity she sees essentially as crowd control. Having no sentimental or idealistic beliefs about her job, she knows she is merely training future plumbers and electricians, and she prides herself on her invulnerable position as the school battle axe.
Into the school comes a new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a beautiful woman who’s not very clever, and while Barbara has no illusions about teaching, she almost immediately begins building some romantic illusions about Sheba, even though the new teacher has a husband and two children. Barbara ingratiates herself into Sheba’s family, although she privately detests Sheba’s husband, Richard (Bill Nighy) and refers to Ben, Sheba’s son with Downs Syndrome, as the court jester.
Barbara hopes to separate Sheba from her family, and she finds the wedge to do so when she sees Sheba having sexual relations with one of her fifteen-year-old students, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). The rest of the film traces how Barbara tries to intimidate Sheba and how the latter resists the older woman’s advances until the downward spiraling events lead to public shouting matches and embarrassment for both of them.
Dench was nominated for an Academy Award for her role, and clearly she deserved it. Abandoning the historical roles with which she has recently been associated, she lets her hair go bad, her face go wrinkly and her personality go malignant. She plays the unglamorous villain so well that the viewer cannot help but sympathize with her lonely situation. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose voice-over cynicisms she imitates in the first part of the film, her malice against those about her and her witty put-downs initially draw us to her side. Only near the end do we see how her loneliness has warped her perceptions.
Blanchett also was nominated for an Oscar, and her role may be more demanding than Dench’s, for she is playing a younger character with a husband and family who also feels lonely and stifled. Sheba’s mother says she is fortunate to be beautiful because there isn’t much substance there, and Blanchett succeeds in making us believe Sheba would make the mistakes that she does and not see through Barbara’s scheming.
Nighy is fine as Richard Hart, and Simpson, freckled and cute, makes believable both his advances toward Sheba and her responses; she doesn’t see through him any more than she does through Barbara. Philip Glass provides his usual creditable soundtrack, although at times it’s so loud it drowns out the dialogue or voice-over narration.
The film’s major weakness is a plot device that apparently wasn’t in the novel, an incriminating piece of paper found in a wastebasket where someone as meticulous as Barbara would be unlikely to leave it. Nor does it make much sense that Sheba would become so angry that she would run screaming outside to where the tabloid press waits for just such an opportunity. But accepting such contrivances is a small price to pay for such an acting feast.
The film, as melodramatic as it sometimes becomes, makes a number of serious points. One, which Richard makes, is that if the sexes of the teacher and student were reversed, society would be much less upset about it, because sexual relations between older men and underage women, for some inexplicable reason, always have been more acceptable than those between older women and underage men.
Another serious point is showing how loneliness, even in the midst of a family situation, can lead people to do dangerous and stupid things. Perhaps most terrifying is the loneliness faced by Barbara, living her life in the closet as she looks toward an end without lover, family or friends. No wonder she does desperate things.
Notes on a Scandal is good entertainment, even if it’s a little trashy at times, and there are few movies that contain such great performances. Top

Volver
Pedro Almodovar, once the bad boy of Spanish filmmaking, has become such an internationally recognized director that he no longer needs to use his first name to be identified.
With such recent hits as Bad Education (2004), Talk to Her (2002) and All About My Mother (1999), as well as international successes stretching back to his first major box office success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), he has created a body of work that, by any standard, puts him in the front ranks of contemporary filmmakers. Eight of his films are being re-released in cleaned-up editions and are available for the United States market in a boxed set of DVDs.
Almodovar said that Bad Education drew from his experiences as a boy, and Volver, a companion piece, revisits that same time and place, Spain’s La Mancha, to narrate what he sees as a “brighter” story, although it includes murders, the appearance of a ghost, child-molesting and other traumatic events. Yet the women in this film deal with all of these events and triumph over them (men are virtually absent in this film, appearing as only minor characters).
“Volver” is said to mean “to return” or “to reappear,” and the title applies to several elements in the film—Abuela Irene appears years after her death, crimes that occur in one generation are repeated in the next and many shots of rotating windmills emphasize the revolving nature of human experience.
Almodovar traditionally writes multi-layered plots, and Volver is no exception. There are two major plots, several subplots and lots of secrets that are revealed as the stories develop. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) lives with her husband and teenaged daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) next to a restaurant and works as a waitress.
The restaurant is put up for sale, and Raimunda agrees to show the property to buyers since she is next door. But a film crew shows up and asks her to reopen the restaurant and feed them for the period of time they are shooting in the area; needing the money, she agrees.
As she cooks for the crew, she has to hide a dead body that inconveniently turns up in her kitchen and figure out how to dispose of it permanently.
In the meantime (as they say), Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave from several earlier Almodovar films including Dark Habits) dies, and everyone but Raimunda goes to the funeral. Sole (Lola Dueñas), Raimunda’s sister, enters Aunt Paula’s house and sees the ghost of her own mother, Abuela Irene (Carmen Maura from Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown).
Sole takes the ghost of her mother home with her, and eventually others find out about her. The two major plots gradually come together, and many of the motivations are explained as Abuela Irene explains what happened more than twenty years ago.
The plot’s emphasis changes as the audience finds out more, and Almodovar acknowledges his debt to Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas. He also indicates how he sees his heroines as strong women with a quick shot of Anna Magnani in Visconti’s 1951 film Bellissima.
Despite the complexity of the plot, Volver is a character-driven film, and only by supporting each other do the various women deal with the plot complications. Cruz is excellent as Raimunda, demonstrating that her lack of success in recent American films has not been the fault of the actress but of the parts she was given.
Voluptuous and earthy as well as beautiful (with a little extra padding in the behind), she deals with life as it comes at her and finds joy in her mother and daughter and her friends.
The other female parts are played to such perfection that the Cannes film festival, in a break with tradition, gave the best actress award to the women in the film as an entity.
The sets in an Almodovar film are always brightly colored and distinctive, and these are no exception. The opening sequence shows the women of La Mancha cleaning the family graves in a sunny cemetery where the constant wind requires almost daily cleaning. This shot emphasizes the family relationships, the community of the women and the presence of the past as well as of the wind, which supposedly contributes to the high rate of insanity and suicide in the region.
In a later urban night shot, Raimunda and her mother sit on a park bench, embracing, and the wall a few feet behind them forms a long horizontal backdrop of painted figures that emphasizes their coming together.
In almost every scene, the colors and composition would dominate the film if the acting were not so strong. Solid music accompanies most of the scenes, and the only weak scene was the one where Cruz lip-syncs the title song.
Overall, Volver is typical of Almodovar’s films—original, impressive and professional on all accounts—and is one of the best of the year. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles.
—Leonard G. Heldreth

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available on DVD or VHS from local stores.

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