Leading ladies rule the silver screen

by Leonard G. Heldreth

The films this month deal with a range of problems faced by women, whether in the United States today or during the recent past, or in the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The Room

Based on a novel by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue, who drew her inspiration from several actual events, The Room is a film that is part thriller and part sociological study. The film breaks neatly into two pieces to accommodate its two themes.

The first part explores the world of the “Room” inhabited by “Mom” (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). It’s a sealed, soundproofed shed, 11 feet on each side, with a steel door and only a skylight to reveal when it’s day or night.

Mom, whose actual name is Joy Newsome, has been in this confinement for seven years, and Jack, who was born here, is approaching his fifth birthday. Joy was kid- napped when she was a teenager by a man identified in the film only as “Old Nick,” and he locked her in the room, where she was repeatedly raped. Jack is the result of these events, although Old Nick tries to ignore him. For Joy, her son is the most positive thing in her limited existence. She has attempted unsuccessfully to escape in the past and now focuses on trying to take care of her son and herself. While her captor has provided her with food and heat during her imprisonment, he announces one day that he has lost his job, and she fears that if he has to leave, he will kill them.

She tries to explain to her son what is happening, but she had previously shielded him from the reality of their situation, and now he finds it hard to accept that she has been misleading him–that there is a world outside the room and that they must escape to it. How she manages the escape is the most tense scene in the film, but with Jack’s help, they do get away.

The second part of the film follows Jack and his mother as they re-establish relations with Joy’s parents and Jack tries to deal with the overwhelming world that he suddenly finds himself thrust into. Given the time to think about her ordeal, Joy goes into depres- sion while Jack slowly adjusts, having expe- rienced less trauma than his mother. The rest of the film follows how they deal with new problems.

The strongest part of the film is the rela-

tionship between Jack and Mom, and the two actors bring it very much alive. Jacob Tremblay—who was 9 during filming, not the 5 of his character—is convincing as Jack, both in the way he deals with the “Room” and the way he explores the world with amazement in the latter part of the film.

Brie Larson is simply excellent, justifiably winning 2016’s Academy Award for Best Actress. Joan Allen is fine as Joy’s mother, William H. Macy is virtually wasted in the small part of Joy’s father (the couple divorced after the kidnapping), and Tom McCamus is convincing as Leo, Joy’s moth- er’s new boyfriend, who has more patience than Joy’s real father. The setting of the con- finement cube itself is impressive, as is the photography done in that small space.

While there is obviously a downbeat side to The Room, it is overcome by the tangible bond of affection between Jack and Joy, and by the way they cope with the demands of the world, including the news media, after they escape. (The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Brie Larson won for Best Actress.)

Films about immigrants coming to the United Sates and failing or succeeding have virtually formed a genre by themselves
selves, partly because as a nation of immi- grants, most of our ancestors lived a similar story. The thought of another film about a person fleeing poverty or persecution or even family ties is almost guaranteed to pro- duce a yawn. Fortunately, Brooklyn manages to avoid the predictable emotional turns, most of the traditional characters and the nostalgia that clutters so many films about coming to America. It succeeds by being filled with good dialogue, offering a plot and characters that generally avoid stereotypes, and placing the film in lovely settings that contrast 1950s Brooklyn with pastoral scenes of Ireland. Most of all, it offers three outstanding performances by the lead actors without turning them into saints or sinners.

The film opens in 1952 in the Irish town of Enniscorthy as Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is preparing to go to America. A local priest has arranged with a priest in

Brooklyn to find Eilis a job and a place to stay, and she leaves her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and her mother, Mary (Jane Brennan), for the new country because she knows there is no employment for her and not much future in Ireland. She fights seasickness and endures hostile cabinmates to eventually reach her goal: a boarding house run by the landlady, Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), who provides some comic relief to the film. She meets Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who has secured her the job and housing and, perhaps as important, counsels her on the inevitable homesickness and how to endure it. The homesickness diminishes when, at a dance, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian man almost too good to be true, and the couple gradually falls in love.

In the second part of the film, Eilis must return to Ireland, and the major dramatic question of the film becomes whether she will return to America. The handsome, wealthy Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who had ignored her in the past, becomes an alternative to Tony, and her certificate in bookkeeping (acquired at night school in America) enables her to find work. The events leading to her decision, and what home and man she chooses, close the film.

The acting is first rate, although Tony’s family is a little too close to Italian stereo- types, and his younger brother is more annoying than humorous. Saoirse Ronan was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, and Domhnall Gleeson plays a much warmer character than he did in Ex Machina. The real discovery though is Emory Cohen, who makes the awkward but good-hearted Tony not only believable but charming enough to attract Eilis.

Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s 2009 best-selling novel and adapted by Nick Hornby (himself a novelist), is an old fash- ioned film that focuses on ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems who are try- ing to make lives for themselves. It’s a refreshing change from the slam-bang films that tend to clutter the multiplex screens today. Brooklyn received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Ronan) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Carol

Patricia Highsmith is noted for her thriller novels, several of which have

been made into successful motion pictures, e.g., Strangers on a Train, Purple Noon, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Two Faces of January. In 1949, while waiting to hear from a publisher about the manuscript of Strangers On a Train, Highsmith wrote a novel about the lesbian relationship between a shy shopgirl and a much older housewife. The Price of Salt was eventually published in 1952, at her publisher’s advice, under the name Claire Morgan, because it apparently contained some autobiographi- cal elements and because the publisher did- n’t want her fans buying what they expect- ed to be a thriller and finding a same-sex love story, especially in the ’50s. As time went by, under its original or alternate title, Carol, the novel became a staple in college LGBT studies courses. Highsmith’s close friend, Phyllis Nagy, developed a screenplay from the novel over a 15-year period.

Todd Haynes is the director of Carol, and of films such as Safe; I’m Not There, the film about Bob Dylan in which other peo- ple, including Kate Blanchett, play Dylan; Far from Heaven, a love story that crosses color lines; and Mildred Pierce. His films deal with sexual repression, “forbidden” love, and questions of identity. Like Highsmith’s novels, most of his films deal with duality (or, in the case of I’m Not There, multiplicity–who is this guy named Dylan?) and how people cope with the restrictions that society places upon them.

Carol opens in late 1952 and ends early in 1953. The first shot is of a decorative Manhattan storm drain, and the camera pans up and in through a window where two women are having tea. A young man, Richard (Jake Lacy), comes up to the younger of the women and suggests she accompany him to a party that night. She declines, but it is obvious that the two women were having a serious discussion which he has interrupted. The end of the film comes back to this scene except, in the return, the audience now knows what the women were discussing. The film then flashes back to how the two women first meet.

Carol Aird (Kate Blanchett), the older, well-to-do woman, is married to Harge (Kyle Chandler), from whom she is in the process of separating. She has a daughter, Rindy, and she and Harge are fighting over custody of the child. The younger woman is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a theatrical set designer in New York. She and Carol meet in a department store where Carol is pick- ing out a Christmas gift for her daughter. They are instantly attracted to each other. The rest of the film traces their growing relationship and how Harge tries to use it to get control of Rindy.

While the plot is interesting and holds the viewer’s attention, the real attraction of the film is in the visuals. Kate Blanchett has all the glamour and beauty of the old Hollywood movie stars. She’s gorgeous to watch as she gestures with her cigarette holder, turns the steering wheel of her expensive car, or tosses her mink coat onto a chair.

The naive Therese is simply over- whelmed by such elegance. In the same way, the sets are just right, whether a swank apartment or a seedy motel. Director Haynes, renowned for his meticulous atten- tion to detail, often frames Blanchett and Mara in partially opened doors or windows or though rain-splashed glass, indicating their psychological separation from the other actors. Carol is one of those films that you want to watch again just to savor the visuals.

The film is not a “message” film, unlike many gay or lesbian films that end in tragedy or despair, but rather an explo- ration of how gay or lesbian people used the shadows and codes of the ’50s to conceal their “forbidden” desires. As controversy swirls around issues of gay marriage today, Carol gives the viewer some perspective on what the situation was like 60 years ago and how it was treated in a popular novel. It’s not a lesbian love story; it’s just a love story. (Carol received Academy Award nomina- tions for Best Actress (Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Mara), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.)

Coming Home

Director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li worked together on a number of great films that virtually redefined Chinese filmmaking in the ’80s and ’90s—Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad and To Live. Now, after a hiatus of 20 years, they have collabo- rated on a new film: Coming Home.

The film opens in 1976 during Mao’s notorious “Cultural Revolution,” and Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a university pro- fessor, has spent the last 10 years in a con- finement camp for “re-education.” His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), are alerted by the police that Lu has recently escaped and may try to contact them. They, of course, are expected to turn him in.

Instead, Feng gathers food and supplies that Lu will need and plans to meet him at the train station. The teenaged daughter, who hopes to dance the lead role in The Red Brigade of Women, curries favor with the bureaucrats by turning her father in. She doesn’t have much feeling for him since he

left when she was a toddler. In the struggle at the train station, Lu is recaptured and Feng receives a head injury. Despite her attempts to curry favor with the party, the daughter doesn’t get the ballet role she wanted.

A few years later the Cultural Revolution comes to an end; Lu is freed and given a certificate stating that he has been rehabili- tated. When he returns to his wife and daughter, he is horrified to realize that his wife no longer recognizes him and has banned the daughter from her apartment. Dandan has stopped dancing and works in a textile factory where she has a dormitory room. The rest of the film follows Lu’s efforts to reach his wife and reconcile with his daughter.

Gong Li, aged with make-up, is superb as Feng. Some reviewers felt she under- played or overplayed the part, but as some- one who has watched a relative slowly lose her memory and identity, I felt Gong Li was excellent. It’s a quiet portrayal but enor- mously moving.

Chen Daoming is equally good as Lu, the husband; as he realizes his wife sees him as a stranger or, even worse, a molester, tears streak his face as he tries to hide his emotions.

Zhang Huiwen plays the daughter, Dandan, first as an impulsive, unthinking teen who has been spoiled (the one-child rule in China may have contributed to her selfishness). Then, as Dandan slowly real- izes how her actions have torn the family apart, she portrays the young woman as guilt-stricken and willing to do anything to help her father, whom she has betrayed, bring the family back together.

Director Zhang Yimou shows his mas- tery of the cinema from the beginning of the film, where Lu’s capture at the train sta- tion is choreographed from three different points of view, to the end, where the last shot epitomizes the characters as the rail- road gates swing shut before them. The photography, sets, costumes and even the props are all excellent, from a cart pulled through the snow by Lu to Feng’s copying a rain-streaked sign because she is not sure she will remember what she wrote.

Only the music at times seems a little thin. This is an emotional movie but not one given to excess. As one reviewer right- ly asserted, it may move you to tears but it won’t push you there.

The movie may have larger political themes and may be arguing that for the characters and for China after Mao’s depar- ture, the only solution is to forgive the mis- takes of the past, forget what can’t be forgiv- en, and move on, but it also asserts that there is a price to be paid for such amnesia.

Coming Home is an excellent film. Don’t miss it (in Mandarin with English subtitles).

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.

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