Mary Queen of Scots: too much for the big screen

The film covers the five-year period from 1561 when Mary returned from France to 1568, when she fled to England. She had been crowned Queen of Scotland at the age of one and shipped off to France where she was later married to the Dauphin who became King Francis II and she Queen of France. When Francis died, she returned to Scotland and claimed his throne. This is the point at which the film begins.

Mary Queen of Scots
reigned 1542 -1567

The politics of this period are exceptionally complex so the film does an excellent job of keeping them simple. Mary has a legitimate claim to the English throne.She was the great-niece of King Henry VIII of England and should Elizabeth I die childless, she would have a legitimate claim to the throne.

The film revolves around her efforts to have Elizabeth name her as heir to the English throne while she fights the naturally vicious politics of a catholic Queen in an increasingly rabidly Protestant country.

She marries Lord Darnley, an English noble, only to discover him in bed with her friend David Rizzio the following morning.

Generally speaking, Darnley isn’t up to much and he keeps demanding that Mary make him King. Something that she steadfastly and wisely refuses to do.

Eventually, he is done away with in pretty suspicious circumstances and Mary is forced into marriage with a Scottish nobleman. But this marriage is less successful than one with Darnley. For the most part she is more than a match for the local Scottish lords and the firebrand Protestant preacher John Knox. But she has to live by her wits and the weight of numbers is against her.

She has none of the advantages of Elizabeth, who was a Protestant Queen in a Protestant country surrounded by a loyal Protestant court intent on maintaining her in power. The chief player in this is Lord Cecil (played by Guy Pearce) and may has no one of his calibre advising her..

We see nothing of  Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was primarily responsible for Mary’s entrapment and execution. Probably a necessary economy.

The long period of Mary’s imprisonment in England is not covered in the film even though the film begins and ends with her execution. What we do know is that Elizabeth signed the death warrant.The film does not make it clear why Elizabeth did this. We see nothing of the power plays between Mary and the Spanish. There is no room in a film of this length. The film rightly focuses on the difficulties of females monarchs in a male dominated world.

Moviegoers who come to the film with little knowledge of the period will leave the film none the wiser. Those with knowledge of the period, will wonder “What was the point of all this?”

This probably highlights the problems in dealing with such a complex historical figure as Mary Queen of Scots. The film does not touch upon her upbringing in the Catholic French court. And we have no insight into what drives her as the Queen of Scotland nor in her desire to be the Queen of England. All this probably says Mary Queen of Scots is not a good subject for a film.

Probably a longer TV mini-series is what is needed.

The Favourite: Poor old Queen Anne, not much fun being Queen

Queen for 12 years, bullied by the Duchess of Marlborough for most of it, 17 failed pregnancies, house full of rabbits, bullied by the Duchess of Marlborough, dead at 49. Not too bright.

Portrait by Michael Dahl, 1705

The Favourite is a film of part of that life. It isn’t really a laugh a minute. Nonetheless, it is an excellent film. There are stellar performances from the three main actors.

Olivia Colman as Anne, Queen of Great Britain 

Emma Stone as Abigail Masham,

 Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

Sarah Churchill is her husband’s ears and eyes while he is in France fighting the wars of the Spanish succession. He is one of England’s most brilliant soldiers and his wife is a brilliant political in-fighter. She is also the Queen’s confidante and manipulates her mercilessly. The film makes it clear that the relationship is a lesbian one, although history is less clear on this

She is able to do this with ease until the arrival of Abigail, a distant relative, who inveigled her way into the court circles and before Sarah is able to realise it begins to supplant her as the Queen’s favourite. The Queen in ill-health and easily manipulated. Abigail has no hesitation in entering into a lesbian relationship with the Queen and has soon supplanted Sarah.

The shifting bedroom politics are a microcosm of the larger politics surrounding the war in France which must be financed by a land tax. The Whigs, supported by Sarah Churchill, are in favour of doubling land tax. This is opposed by the Tories, who are predominantly landowners and are led by  Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer played by by Nicholas Hoult who bullies Abigail into betraying Sarah’s trust.

It’s a dog eat dog world. And the only decent character in this film is a duck.

The acting in this film is brilliant and it’s worth seeing for that alone. But you won’t come away feeling any better about the English ruling classes than you would have if you had attended one of Theresa May’s cabinet meetings.

Vice, the Dick Cheney biopic, exposes, once again, the fragility of the US democratic system.

There is a wonderful scene where presidential hopeful George W Bush, portrayed as an an easily manipulated and amiable buffoon, is endeavouring to convince Cheney to run as his Vice President. Cheney provides the voiceover. He ponders the question, “What does he want?” as discussion goes on. Cheney delays Bush, suggesting that he should conduct a search looking for a more suitable candidate. Bush is disappointed, not understanding Chaney’s delaying tactic. Then the voiceover says somewhat incredulously, “He just wants to impress his dad.” And Cheney then tells the soon-to-be President that he (Bush) is really a “big picture person” and that that as Vice President, Cheney would expect to look after such mundane issues as foreign-policy, defence and energy.

Throughout the discussion, the visuals show Cheney, a keen fly fisherman, casting for a trout, when Bush agrees to Cheney’s terms, the line tightens, the fish has taken the lure. Cheney goes on to become the most powerful VP in American history. It’s a wonderful analogy.

The film is helped by was most wonderful make up. The resemblances between the actors and the real-life people is uncanny.

Amy Adams is Lynne Cheney, the powerful woman behind the man
Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney

Tyler Perry as Colin Powell

This film has divided American audiences. Left-wing critics love it because they see it as a wonderful insight into the machinations of unprincipled, power hungry, right wing politicians. Right-leaning critics dislike it because they see it as a badly made film. Both of these are pretty much par for the course. 

What we do get in this film is an insight into how a brilliantly talented Machiavellian politician is able to manipulate the political system, particularly when there was no one with the talent to counter him. What we do not get to understand is what motivated Dick Cheney. He turned down an opportunity to run for President because he didn’t want his daughter, who was gay, to become an electoral issue. Later, he gave up that particular moral position for a much smaller prize when his other daughter was running for state election.

At the end of the film, we are shown the terrible price of the war in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of people died. Cheney gives a television interview and turns to address the camera directly. He insists that he regrets nothing that he has done to keep America safe but most tellingly he says “You chose me” as a justification.

It is a chilling conclusion to the film. The war cost the lives of thousands of US troops and the 600,000 Iraqis who died as well as the ongoing war in Syria. And it left Cheney as possibly the most destructive US VP ever.

The film ends with a panel discussion that degenerates into a fight over the nature of the film. It’s probably symbolic of the kind of response that the film is receiving in America. Nonetheless it’s a brilliantly made film and will be a contender at the Oscars.

And while it deals with events that anyone who has an interest in world and American history will be familiar with, it provides an interesting insight into the fragility of the American political processes and how easily it can be manipulated.

American Animals: A fascinating mix of real life and fantasy

British filmmaker Bart Layton has made a fascinating film in American Animals.


The film was based on a book by Chris Evans, one of four young men who tried to steal a precious book from their University library.

untitled 2.jpeg

The book was John James Audubon’s Birds of America which was on display in the library at the University of Transylvania.


Evans wrote the book while serving a seven year jail sentence for his part in the botched robbery.

American Animals is a fascinating mixture of film and documentary. As the film traces the planning and execution of the robbery, it is intercut by interviews with the four young men who actually took part in the robbery so from the beginning we know that all is not going to turn out well.

The use of the real live characters is a fascinating device, in that real-life characters never engage the sympathy of the audience. As they tell the stories, you begin to realise that these are young men who are not very bright and not very interesting.


The cast (original characters in bold)

Blake Jenner and Chas Allen, Jared Abrahamson and Erik Borsuk, Spencer Reinhard and Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters and Warren Lipka,  

 At the core of the film is the puzzle of the motivation of the original characters. In the film, they want to do something exciting in their lives, something different. But this is hardly satisfying as an understanding of what motivated these young men to set out on  such an obviously doomed project.

The film cleverly traces the extent to which the characters become increasingly enmeshed in the plan, unable to escape often because of the pressure brought to bear by the charismatic Chas Allen.

The pace of the film changes with the first aborted attempt at the robbery where the would-be robbers turn up disguised as old men.


At the second attempt, almost everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Events proves that watching reruns of Heist movies is not a good preparation for amateur robbers.

The four young men do not have the temperament nor the experience to conduct a robbery of this kind. And when things go wrong, they begin to disintegrate as individuals.

This disintegration is brought about by a number of significant flaws in the plan.

The books prove too big to carry, the lift they were to use for the escape does not go into the basement and finally when they endeavour to authenticate the two smaller books they have managed to steal at a leading auction house, Spencer Reinhard leaves his personal mobile phone number with the auctioneer’s assistant.

The film is interesting in that it is very difficult to have any sympathy with any of the leading characters. It is also interesting that Bart Layton managers to build the tension towards the end of the film even knowing what the ending will be.

But in the end, we do not understand the motivation of these four young men. And for my case, I really didn’t care very much either.


The Book Club – don’t bother

The film stars Diane Keaton as Diane, Jane Fonda as Vivian, Candice Bergen as Sharon, Mary Steenburgen as Carol.

That’s about it really. They’re old friends – rich, white and reading 50 shades of Grey. as part of the book reading  There are some men in the film,  but they even less interesting than the female characters.



Summer of 1993 is a film worth watching carefully

This is the story of a young girl, Frida played by Laia Artigas, whose mother has died of AIDS-related pneumonia who goes to live in the countryside with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí).

Esteve and Frida

That’s about it as far as the plot is concerned.  The film is a series of vignettes about the way a loving couple adopts their seven year old niece. They’re not perfect but they are very good people and they make mistakes, human mistakes and the end of the film is a deeply moving tribute to their humanity.

Director and writer Carla Simón gets remarkable performances from his two young stars in the way they react to each other.


As well as the way the children interact with the adults.


Every scene is wonderfully crafted.

There is one in particular one were Marga is covering Frida’s schoolbooks and Frida is asking her about her previous mother. She wants to know how she had died and why she was not there.

Marga says that she was with her grandparents, but that she (Marga) was there. Frida asks Marga if she is going to die like her mum. Marga replies that she has no intention of dying. (Frida’s mother had died of AIDS-related pneumonia). Frida asks whether her mum had asked after her. Marga says she had. The audience can tell she’s lying.  It’s difficult to know whether Frida can. It’s a wonderful exchange of half-truths, reassurances, love, protection and a little girl growing up.

There is also a series of linked scenes about Frida and her mother’s illness, her visits to the doctor, a playground accident and the family cat but you have to watch carefully.


How do you make “The Death of Stalin” funny?

To begin with  you have a cast made up of funny men.

Michael Palin is always going to do something funny given the opportunity.

And it doesn’t take much to push the bizarre situation of Stalin’s death to the point of black comedy which is what director Armando Iannucci constantly does.

With Stalin lying apparently dead on the floor, the all-powerful Central Committee is paralysed by fear.

“He does look unwell.” says KGB Chief Beria.

Not wishing to appear disloyal by declaring him dead but fervently wishing that he is, they decide to call a doctor, only to find that they have banished all the competent doctors to Siberia.

The solution to the problem is a remarkable piece of black comedy and typical of the way that the film works. It stretches each situation to its logical conclusion to great comedic effect.

Once Stalin has been declared dead and the terminally incompetent Georgy Malenkov played by Jeffrey Tambor is appointed in his place, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi)

is put in charge of the funeral arrangements. He is twice a politician of anybody else on the Central Committee.


With the aid of General Zuhov (played with ferocious energy by Jason Isaacs)  uses the funeral to out manoeuvre Georgia Beria  the head of the KGB and position himself to take over as General Secretary.

The comedy in this film arises from the deadly intent behind the simplest situations.

A heated exchange between members of the Central Committee about whom Beria may have been referring to when he rushes out of the room clutching an arm full of  files shouting and no one in particular,  “I have information on all of you.” suddenly assumes deadly seriousness in the minds of the members depending on where they may have been standing.  They begin rushing around the room indicating that Beria was not referring to them but to other members of the committee. It is the essence of black comedy.

The irony of the situation is that all of them are involved in a well-organised and well advanced and ultimately successful plot to remove Beria.

Suspicion of  abounds. No one trusts anyone.


It’s The Three Stooges meets The Sopranos.



Lady Bird: One big cliche, well-acted, well-written but still just a cliche

We all judge films from some perspective based on our own experience. Recently, I reviewed Post and Darkest Hour both which deal with subject matter I am familiar with. I also think they are both excellent films.

So I should start my review of Lady Bird with the disclaimer. It’s a film about a teenage girl growing up, it focuses on her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother and her relationship with her friends. I have no experience of bringing up teenage girls so I am unable to comment from an informed basis as I was with Post and Darkest Hour.

There are critics who think that Lady Bird will be the best film of 2018.  I am not one of them. But then I did not have a teenage daughter.

I found the film extremely boring because it’s full of clichés. The main character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan, is a nightmare child, with almost no redeeming features.


That’s probably a bit unfair she is a very good friend to Julianne “Julie” Steffans played by Beanie Feldstein.


But for the most part, she is  a fairly unsympathetic character. She lies about where she lives to impress the prettiest girl in class, she lies about her maths grades after she has stolen the maths teacher’s gradebook.

Much of her life seems to be stereotyped and clichéd and if you create a character  Made up of enough clichés, many teenage girls are likely to identify with her,  similarly her  relationship with her mother seems to be a cliché as well.

And then there are the nuns, wise, humane, forgiving, understanding of the wayward young teenager.

Lois Smith appears as Sister Mary Joan .jpg

And then there’s the ending. The wayward teenager realises the errors of the ways, goes to church, realises her parents were right all along. Hallelujah.

Darkest Hour: Treading the fine line between myth and reality

Making a film about Winston Churchill is always going to involve treading a very fine line.

And best, Winston Churchill remains a controversial figure. I was discussing the film Darkest Hour with some Greek, film buff, friends and they have views on Churchill that are not flattering.  I was surprised at their vehemence.

For many, he is the great war leader whose speeches inspired a nation to stand against the threat of Nazi invasion in 1940.  It was Churchill who was responsible for victory in the Battle of Britain and possibly the defeat of Germany.

There is another group who remembers the disaster of Gallipoli in World War I and Churchill’s stubborn determination to prove he was right by repeating the disaster in World War II.  This group known as the Americans and the Russians defeated Germany in the Second World War.

Director Joe Wright does an excellent job with an outstanding cast and portrayal of Churchill is certainly not designed to be one of myth-making. In fact, the film makes it quite clear that Churchill’s hold on power in the Parliament was extremely tenuous.  The film also skips over Churchill’s opportunistic shifting political allegiances which many of his colleagues thought made him untrustworthy.

It also makes it clear that he probably had days when he was more or less intoxicated from most of the afternoon onwards.

He was also an elitist who was completely out of touch with the common people. The scene in the film where he travelled on the underground and canvassed the opinions of the common people about surrendering to the Nazis is a complete fiction.


However, the history apart, this is a very fine film style.

Gary Oldman gives an outstanding performance as Churchill.

It is the kind of role that actors like Oldman and Richard Burton (who also played Churchill) would relish. Churchill is a man driven by self belief. A descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, perhaps Britain’s greatest military hero, Churchill wishes to put his stamp on history. He missed his opportunity at Gallipoli in the First World War, badly.

Now, destiny beckons again. The British army is trapped Dunkirk. In the film, Churchill   gives orders for an armada of small vessels to evacuate 300,000 British and French soldiers from the beach.  It turns out to be a military miracle.

There are two women in Churchill’s life. His wife Clementine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas

and his secretary, Elizabeth Layton played by Lily James, who must surely be in line for a Best Supporting Actor award.

There is a moving scene in the film were Churchill realises that Elizabeth has a brother who has died in the retreat to Dunkirk (also a fiction). She hasn’t mentioned it to him and it is really the first time that he becomes aware that some of the people who work for him have family members who have died as a result of the plans that he is making. Nonetheless, he continues completely unconcerned about sacrificing the lives of 4000 soldiers trapped in Calais.  They are a necessary cost of his greater plan for rescuing the troops at Dunkirk.

There are two other fine performances in the film, Ben Mendelsohn as George VI and Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain.

It’s a good film, if you liked Dunkirk you should certainly see it or if you remember the Battle of Britain, which starred Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Ralph Richardson, Kenneth More and Edward Fox.

Look  at that cast, you could fight World War II again,  God I’m getting old.


Film Review: “The Post” so many big issues, so little time

It’s always difficult to review film when you know the ending. It’s even more difficult when you know the whole story and all the background.

 The Post is the story of the confrontation between US government and two iconic US newspapers, the New York Times and The Washington Post.

The focus is on The Post because it made the running on the issue of the publication of secret government documents relating to the Vietnam war and the massive and systematic cover-up of the US failure in the war involving the Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Nixon administrations. It was collusion of staggering proportions.

It’s also particularly pertinent in Australia at this very moment with government getting its nickers in a twist about publication of top-secret government documents and some clumsy people selling filing cabinets full of top-secret documents and having them turn up in secondhand shops.

The film also demonstrates that an elected government denying the people knowledge of its functioning and operations is never justified in any circumstances.

Looking back nearly 50 years, with the wisdom of hindsight and knowledge of the huge travesty of the Vietnam war, it is amazing that these documents were not in the public domain right from the beginning.

The film is the story of The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and the editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

It examines their dilemmas as they struggle with the issues surrounding the IPO as The Post prepares to go from a privately owned company to a publicly owned company just as it also defies the Federal Government and President Nixon and publishes the classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers.

The Post needs the money from the public float to raise enough capital to survive. The big conservative investors such as insurance companies are unlikely to invest in a newspaper that is in a fight with the Federal Government.

The Post is forced to fight for the right to publish the papers in the Supreme Court. Failure to win the case would see both Graham and Bradley in jail and the IPO doomed to failure and The Post out of business. It’s still wonderful drama even if the outcome is known.

There is so much packed into this film, that for someone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, it seems to be skating over the top.

The film begins with Daniel Ellsberg, the heroic whistleblower once famously described as ‘the most dangerous man in America’.

 The real Daniel Ellsberg and Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg

 Whatever happened to him? There is a whole film in his life one of the great warriors for freedom of the 20th century.

And then it moves swiftly on to Robert McNamara

The real Robert McNamara and Actor Bruce Greenwood as McNamara

 You could do a whole film on McNamara. In fact they have. It is called The Fog of War.

McNamara was a personal friend of Katharine Graham and, in the film, she confronts him about the extent of the cover-up of the US failure in Vietnam. She also confronts Bradley about his friendship with the Kennedys and his failure to expose them. The personal relationships between the social elites, the press and the politicians is one of the issues that is touched on but not explored in the film.

Ultimately, it’s one of the elements that makes a film a less than satisfying experience for someone familiar with the background of the era.

But it is extremely difficult issue for the filmmaker.

The relationship between the press and the government is a complex one and difficult to deal with in a film of less than two hours and in fairness to this film, at least it acknowledges these complex issues.

Another issue that is skirted around is one of the arguments that were presented in the Supreme Court to defend the Washington Post against Government in the Federal Court. Perhaps it was just not good material for a film. It was certainly a dramatic high point in the film but it was limited to the 6-3 decision in favour of The Post without any information of why the decision went that way it did. Given that this was a pivotal point in the film, it was a strange decision.

But ultimately this is what the film is about.

What are the arguments that the government can mount to hide from the people that elected it the justification for sending their sons and daughters to war to kill the sons and daughters of the solutions of another country.

There are no reasons to mount for keeping that justifications secret.

Yet this is exactly what the US government did through four successive administrations.

And exercised the full force of the law against people who protested against this and demanded that the reasons for continuing to wage this war be made public.


On  a lesser note:

And we don’t find out what happened to the Washington Post? Was the IPO successful? Did publishing the Pentagon papers push the share price above $30? Was the decision to publish a commercially successful one?  Did Katharine Graham continue on as publisher  of The Post or return to life as a society hostess?

The film closes with a security guard  reporting a break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

You wonder how many of the modern audiences get that reference nowadays.


The Watergate