THE FAVOURITE***** A Definite Favourite

Finally. What a year this has been for women in the cinema, in movies bad and good, we’ve engaged with Women as women, not appendages. They were strong. In charge. Un-beholden to the men, wherever they were (lost somewhere flexing faux superhero muscles). Powerful. Clever. Sexy. The list goes on. They weren’t the supporting cast, the doting eye candy. These were movies, often written by women, and directed by them, about fundamental issues of power, identity, Independence etc with women at the centre.

And they made money.

Here’s a list of movie feminism circa 2018: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside…), Saoirse Ronan (as Ladybird and Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya and Mary, Queen of Scots), Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annihilation), Gabrielle Union (Breaking In), Sandra Bullock (Oceans Eight, Bird Box), Julia Roberts (Homecoming), Sacha Parkinson (Apostasy), Emma Thompson (The Children Act), Glenn Close (The Wife), Viola Davis (Widows), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience), Rachel Weisz, again, with Emma Stone and Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), Keira Knightly (Collette), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Yalitza Aparazio (Roma). Even Captain Marvel’s gender has be reassigned.

But I digress.

The Favourite is a delicious, wildly entertaining, hugely satisfying Court romp about power, politics and (devious) ways of persuasion. The story centres on the toxic ménage a trois of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled Britain between 1702 – 1714, her confidant, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) – yes, that Churchill- wife of Lord Marlborough, the Queen’s Captain-General and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a disgraced ingenue from the country, with an eye for advancement.

It’s a tale of sex, seduction, cross-dressing, deceit and intrigue.

And it all begins when Abigail is unceremoniously dumped in the mud outside the Queen’s palace. She has come in the hope that cousin Sarah can find her a place in the palace. This cousin Sarah reluctantly does. She’s given the post of scullery maid, beholden to an abusive kitchen hand, one notch above her in the pecking order. Abigail becomes, albeit briefly, the defenceless victim to the exercise of -abusive- power at its most basic.

She’s an attractive young thing, and pretty soon catches the eye of one of the lords of the court. When he barges into her chamber one night, she questions whether he’s there to seduce her or rape her. He answers that he’s a gentleman. So, it’s rape then, she replies.

Thus does director lay out the idea that drives his story: the symbiotic knit of sex and power…the power of position and status to demand sex and the power of sex to achieve position and -favoured- status. At one point in the story, we find ourselves in a bordello. It’s a brilliant, if not too subtle expression of the transactional nature of sex. Open your legs and here’s your reward : a job, an army, a sinecure, a better room, a palace, a position of authority forever.

In other words, the present British aristocracy

At the head of the pecking order is of course the Queen, who, when we meet her, is a depressed, infantilised, petulant woman whose seventeen pregnancies have all failed to bear fruit. She keeps rabbits, one for each departed child. And she is entirely dependent for any emotional succour on Sarah, her counsel, puppet master and lover. Sarah is the cunning conduit between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

England is in a state of war; life and death decisions of the most far-reaching consequence are made through the whispers in dark corridors and silk bed sheets.

Abigail’s arrival quickly upsets this status quo. Her farmer’s know-how about herbs and natural poultices soon endears her to the gout ridden queen (Oh England, thou art sick). And having conveniently fallen asleep on the Royal bed, her lithe naked body quickly endears her to the Queen even more. And thus begins the duel for power between the dark, older Sarah and the fair, younger Abigail. Each is aligned with opposing political power bases: Tory v Whig; hawk v dove. One moment you’re in favour; the next you’re not.

Whisper, whisper.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ directing, along with his wonderful production and Costume designers, Fiona Crombie and Sandie Powell, present us with an absurdist, vulgar, grotesque world. It is as grotesque as the idea of divine, God given, Royal power. It is a world of effete men in their effeminate wigs and powdered, pomaded faces and crack shot women dressed like buccaneers.

The actions unfold on two stages: an indoor stage of dark tapestries and hidden corridors that barely obscure the serial seductions and stealth within; and an outdoors world of violence…birds are slaughtered, a woman is thrown from her horse and pulled for miles, another is chased like prey by her hunter lover.

Indoors or out, you’re either the hunter with power of the hunted without. In this world, there are only winners and losers.

The three principals in this fine romp are outstanding. Olivia Coleman probably had the hardest job: her richly complex character – self indulgent, self pitying, clueless, abusive – still manages to win the audience’s favouritism when we finally realise what she must clearly have know all along, and which we see in her eyes in the closing shot: that she’s being played. Rachel Weisz’ Lady Sarah is steely and cunning, but with an honesty and genuine love for her Queen that is at times almost touching. Not so Emma Stone’s Abigail. We feel for her as she’s knocked about by men and punished by Lady Sarah. We’re seduced by her fearlessness and spunk (and impeccable English accent). And in the end we’re disgusted by her heartlessness. Stone’s brilliance is that she always allows us behind the mask to the nastiness within.

This is of course an “historical drama”. But as if to ensure that viewers don’t relegate it to ‘an event that took place in the past’, the semiotics of the film – the racy dialogue, the (break) dancing, the exaggerated foppiness of the clothes, and even the focus of the story (where the men are largely bystanders) – demand that we view the morale of this tale through the lens of our present winter of discontent.

It’s almost as though Yorgos Lanthimos is suggesting that three hundred years after her death, the nobility who rule are vainglorious fops, and the policies of their government are still shaped by favouritism, cunning whispers, and self seeking power brokers.



THE FAVOURITE. Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. With: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone. Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult. Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake). Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (Macbeth). Costume Designer: Sandy Powell (Cindarella)




DISOBEDIENCE**** The Price for freedom

DISOBEDIENCE IS SET in the small orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London (wonderfully realized by director/script-writer Sebastián Lelio who also directed A Fantastic Woman and production designer, Sarah Finlay). It is a tight-knit community, bound together by strict laws and protocols (sex is for Fridays). Ritual is all. The bewigged women all look pretty much the same, as do the black-hatted, bearded men. They look alike; they think alike. It is the only sanctioned way of life.

It is suffocating.

And yet, at the very beginning of the story, we meet the frail rabbinical elder, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), who preaches a sermon that seems almost radical. “Man,” he says, “hang(s) suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts…a being with free will…with the power to disobey”.

And then he dies. Struck down?

As the story unfolds, the theme of freedom (and the free will to disobey) is played out with all the nuances of its implications. Free will, the power to choose to obey or not, the story suggests, is a fundamental part of who we are. But freedom does not equate with happiness. To seek it requires daring and courage. Freedom is a burden. It is easier simply give in to the communal will, to be one of the angels or one of the beasts.

It is this death, the rabbi’s “departure”, that is the catalyst for the visit of his estranged, rebel daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a chain smoking photographer living in a Manhattan (another kind of “departure”), given, it seems, to occasional sex with anonymous persons. And not even on a Friday.

Her return is cause for some consternation in this strict, judgmental community. It is also cause for some excitement for recently married Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman who is not free to love her, but whose love for her cannot be contained. This Sapphic passion is an unorthodox love in an orthodox world. Indeed, perhaps all love contains its own unorthodoxy.

The story follows the events leading up to the funeral, as the rekindled passions shape the destinies of the three protagonists, Esti, her enamorrata, Ronit and Esti’s despairing, angry, empathetic husband, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) the heir apparent to the temple’s leadership. For all three, the choice is the same: accept the cosy comfort zone of community obeisance (The role of the woman as helpmeet and bearer of children is mapped out clearly) or take the leap into the uncertain future of individual choice.

All three actors are outstanding in this very literary, wordy, beautifully written script (adapted from the book by Naomi Alderman). The relationship between Ronit and Esti – their love and longing and lust – feels palpably real (though it beats me why directors and actors could work so hard to deliver believable worlds, only to crack the honed surface of verisimilitude with the coy artifice of people making love with all their clothes on). Rachel Weisz in particular shines as the wronged woman punished by the community; the image of the glamorous Bohemian living in exotic New York is really a lost soul, stoically living in exile.

It’s one thing for Bob Marley to urge us to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. But the reality is that the price you have to pay – of loneliness, ostracism, exile, perhaps death – comes very dear indeed.


DISOBEDIENCE. Dir: Sebastián Leilo. Writers: Sebastián Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida). With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Alessandro Nivola (Selma, You Were Never Really Here). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (Florence Foster Jenkins). Production Designer: Sarah Finlay (Juliet, Naked)


MY COUSIN RACHEL****Did She or Didn’t She?

“My Cousin Rachel” is Roger Mitchell’s uneven adaptation (veering between sluggish cautious restraint and gripping story telling) of the book by Daphne du Maurier. At its heart, this is a story about cultural blindness…about our inability to see beyond the locked box of our inherited values. Set in mid nineteenth century England, the drama is centered around the arrival of the eponymous cousin Rachel – an exotic, beautiful and mysterious Anglo-Italian widow – into a small, very traditional farming community.

Just who is this Rachel? Grieving widow -as she appears to be – or calculating, possibly murderous, fortune seeker – as she is made out to be? We meet her via the letters of a wealthy English landowner and die-hard bachelor, Ambrose Ashley (Sam Calflin of “The Hunger Games”). He has fled the cold (read: inhibited) country for the sultrier, healthier clime of Italy. His letters describe the arc of his relationship with this mystery woman: first as charming friend, then beloved wife, then suspicious partner who may be poisoning him. Which is she? Could she really be poisoning him or is this merely the expression of a deranged mind, warped by the tumour that kills him?

Ambrose’s young, gormless nephew, Philip (also played by Sam Calflin) who will inherit his properties when he turns twenty five, is convinced that his uncle has been murdered by her. His guardian, Nick (Iain Glenn, who you’ll know as Jorah Mormon from “The Game of Thrones”) has also heard things: her profligacy, her sexual appetites. When she turns up at the ancestral estate (she claims it is to experience the presence of her deceased husband), her veiled countenance and enigmatic smile offer nothing to her suspicious hosts. Young Philip is determined to lift what is clearly the veil of her guilt.

In a world where the women are either dowdy or delicately virginal and certainly entirely submissive, can you really trust someone as darkly beautiful, experienced and self-possessed as Rachel? And a foreigner to boot! She must be harbouring secrets. Just who is the Italian gentleman that visits her? A lover? To whom is she sending such large sums of money, well exceeding the modest income she is given?

Bit by bit he is bitten by her bewitching charm. She is the unexpected antidote to his buttoned up word. She is the dark to his light, the experience to his innocence, the possibility of passion to his sense of restraint, the smell of sex to the stuffiness of his virginity, the maturity to his naïveté. Surely she cannot be the witch some (no longer him) make her out to be. Not surprisingly, he loses his heart to her; and in a spasm of infantile infatuation, he wills her his wealth… in exchange for her hand. She offers him instead her body. It is a signal he misreads. What for her is a repayment for generosity, he mistakes for love.

She, of course, is no naïf. He may have misread her intent. But that could not have been a surprise to her. For what’s a woman without fortune to do in a society stacked against such a creature? She can teach or become a governess or, again, seek to marry well.

In the end, her attractiveness to Philip lies as much in her – to him incomprehensible- “otherness” as in her brooding sensuality. He is after all, no more than a horny boy.

At a deeper level, the story wonders what it takes for one cultural frame of reference (the English farming community) to fully appreciate and align with another’s (that of the sophisticated Italian). For on the flip side of exotic attraction lies a world of misunderstanding (and suspicion). And by the time his own veil of ignorance has been lifted and he comes to his senses, Philip has put in play a sequence of events that will eventually prove fatal.

That beautiful English countryside, like its inhabitants, becomes a place of hidden malevolence that must protect itself against the antibodies that would do it harm.

This is Rachel Weisz’ movie. She is its magnetic presence: quiet, understated, ultimately mysterious. We are as seduced by her even as we remain in doubt as to her real intentions. She personifies ambiguity. This is certainly proving to be Ms Weisz’ time: coming so soon after the magnificent “Denial” and “The Light Between Oceans”. Perhaps, just perhaps, Hollywood is becoming French in its appreciation of women of a certain age (After all, Ms Weisz, Nicole Kidman, Isabel Huppert, Laura Dern, Halle Berry, Meryl Streep, Diane Lane, Robin Wright etc have all turned 50; and they’re all getting great roles…well overshadowing the superhero-chained pufferies of Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence etc)

Roger Mitchell (“Notting Hill”) both adapted and directed the movie…which could have been outstanding; but he seems so cautious of excess that there is often a slow stateliness to the directing where you wish there were more raw energy.

No matter. Rachel more than compensates for his stately restraint.


MY COUSIN RACHEL. Dir: Ropger Mitchell. With: Rachel Weisz, Sam Calflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger. Cinematographer: Mike Eley ( (“Marley”). Production Designer: Alice Normington (“Suffragette”)



DENIAL*** Grippingly Relevant


THIS IS AN absorbing, highly relevant, brilliantly well-acted movie about Holocaust denial. The story (from her book, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”) pits the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz affecting a very credible Jewish American – Queens – accent) against Holocaust denier and bogus academic, David Irving. (Timothy Spall; as usual, outstanding… as a showy, media savvy, cunningly intelligent populist). It’s the battle between fact and the denial of fact (or, in Trump-speak, “alternative fact”).

Not too long ago (about fifteen years or so), Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books. His suit claimed that Lipstadt’s book, “Denying the Holocaust” (in which she called out Irving’s pro-Hitler, Holocaust denials as bogus academia, distorted history and anti Semitic lies) defamed his integrity and maliciously caused his loss of reputation. The suit was lodged in the U.K. courts, which unlike the USA courts, demand that the defendant (there not “innocent until proven guilty”) prove the plaintiff wrong. In other words, Lipstadt, who until then had refused to debate the actuality of the Holocaust with its deniers (As she notes in one of her lectures, “I also won’t debate that Elvis still lives”), was forced to prove Irving wrong…forced to prove that the Holocaust did actually exist.

The movie makes clear that the price of her failure to do so would open the door to Nazi sympathizers and deniers everywhere. To those survivors still alive and their families, it would be a tragedy.

English playwright and “Denial’s” writer, David Hare, no doubt overly cautious of not simply penning a polemic, lays out the story in classic courtroom drama style. He charts the twists and turns of the court case…in particular, he emphasizes the strategy developed by Lipstadt and Penguin’s two ferociously intelligent, arrogant, no-nonsense lawyers: solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott…the devious civil servant and Bond’s nemesis in “Spectre”) and his barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom WIlkinson). The strategy they chose, was to deny Irving the grandstanding oxygen of the public gallery by hearing the case in front of a judge, not a jury. And their tactic was to focus not on the actuality or not of the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of Lipstadt) but on the deliberateness of the deception; that Irving willfully lied and willfully distorted the facts of history to suit his own racist agenda.

The focus was on the nature of and the intent behind the act of denial.

Director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) and writer Hare build the movie as meticulously as they would a case. They balance the private dramas of a testy Lipstadt (whose relationship with her legal team was often fraught, distrusting, and confrontational ) and the arcane intricacies of the law.

Weisz is outstanding. She’s a very subtle actor; and even though her character is quite the showman (as you’d expect of many a great presenter), it’s in her almost imperceptible facial twitches where she manages to communicate such an array of emotions. For she is the story: the heartfelt sense of loss and agony, the fierce determination to resist and win, the public persona of defiance, the private tremble of doubt and anxiety…they belong both to the person and to the history she represents.

But in the end, though thoroughly enjoyable, the movie feels constrained within an imagined Proscenium. It remains too faithful to its historical topic. It’s about Holocaust denial, not the (so achingly immediate) pathology of denial. The alt-right have successfully managed to conflate facts with opinions; so the denial of fact is presented simply as a difference of opinion. Indeed, if it’s one conversation this movie has stimulated (OK, it’s only a conversation with myself) it’s the link between the denial of the Holocaust (essentially rooted in anti Semitism and, as the movie suggests, its close family: racism and misogyny) and the denial of Climate change (rooted in the fake -Fox-news campaigns of the profit threatened oil industry).

Certainly the role of denial, once the harmless tactic of cheating spouses (and now that we have a denier in chief running the US) has gained a new, and much more sinister twist. No wonder Irving, whose career was ruined after he lost his case, is back in the limelight. We’re thirty-three years after 1984…and doublespeak, never quite gone from political discourse is baaaaack with a vengeance.

It will simply not be denied


DENIAL. With: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott. Dir: Mick Jackson. Writer: David Hare. Cinematorgrpher: Haris Zambarloukos (“Eye in the Sky”)


LOBSTER** Better as thermidore



Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos                                                                                                                                                                         With: Colin Farrel, John C Reilley, Lea Seydoux, Rachel Weisz, Ben Wishaw, Olivia Colman                               Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis

A STRANGE TIME loop seemed to have enveloped the cinema where I recently saw “Lobster”, the new (and celebrated) movie from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”). Though the movie is officially only just under two hours, I could swear it took just under two days to view. Maybe it was the slow robotic deliberateness of all the conversations; or maybe its deep thoughts were so ponderously heavy that they weighted down even time; or maybe the meandering pointlessness to it all cast a stilling spell of futility upon the passage of time itself…I will never know.

But buyer beware. If you go to see this movie on a Saturday, an entire weekend will have passed before you emerge, bleary eyed, confused and gasping for the resuscitation of banal conversations.

It’s set in some distant future or more likely, a parallel universe where the State has intruded even to the point of controlling and ordering the timing of romance. In this universe, the love-lorn must repair to a bleak lakeside hotel where they’re given forty-five days to find true love again; and if they fail, they’re turned into the animal of their choice. Our protagonist David (a fattened, moustachioed Colin Farrell) who hangs around with his brother, now a dog, chooses a lobster (They live long, forever retain their sex drive and have blue blood. Sort of the Henry VIII of animals). Over the hill, somewhere in the distance, live another group – their opposites – who are dedicated to abstinence. Their punishment for finding a mate is to have their lips sliced (a nasty idea which, mercifully, we were not shown).

Of course, mate-desperate Dave stumbles upon an unnamed inhabitant of the abstainers (Rachel Weisz) for what blossoms into illicit sex and love.


Love will out.

Or opposites attract. Or something equally profound.

It’s Romeo and Juliette without the Capulets and Montagues…

And without charm, wit, dramatic tension, engaging characters, good dialogue, sex appeal or any reference back to even flashes of life as we know it.

And this despite a tremendous cast, working very hard to emote on cue

But, this bizarre movie does have its unique ability to warp the space-time equilibrium. There’s something to be said for that I guess.