Category: maev does film crit



I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. But I loved this film so there will be much gushing.

Steve McQueen is easily the filmmaker I find must interesting artistically working today. Which isn’t to say I have always enjoyed his films – I used to describe as making wonderful films that I never wanted to watch again.

He is incredibly interested in the line between beauty and ugliness, and how often one can actually be the other, just looked at from a different angle. Which is why I found Shame the hardest of his films to watch – Hunger and 12 Years a Slave both show greater intensity of human suffering, and their protagonists go through the most gruelling experiences (mentally and physically) one can imagine. But slavery IS ugly – a human being purposefully starving himself to death IS ugly – sex shouldn’t be.

Shame took a human experience that should be joyful and pleasurable and a reminder of all the best parts of being alive in a physical body…and showed how it can be turned into nothing less than torture.

In any case, Widows isn’t anywhere as near as brutal a watch, but that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that is a less impressive achievement. And his fascination with that line has not gone away – it shows in how he frames his images, how he constructs his scenes, how the characters interact.

It is that rare thing – a heist movie where, despite being well-executed, clever and twisty, the heist is honestly the least interesting thing in the film.

Widows does something that not many films I can think of have been able to do – in fact I thought about the Wire a number of times while watching it – which is that it made Chicago feel like a real, lived-in place, full of jagged, ugly political compromises. The possible construction of a subway line is a crucial plot point, and one of the things McQueen does (that so many filmmakers never do) is focus on how people GET to places – there are constant scenes of conversations in cars or on subways, characters running for the bus or considering getting a cab.

McQueen has also become a great actors director. From what I have heard Fassbender and Cunningham to an extent directed themselves in Hunger, but there are some great performances in this film. Daniel Kaluuya is terrifying, no other word for it, and I have never seen Colin Farrell perform so well while having to do an accent. He is unnerving good at ‘playing’ a politician – all politicians have to be two-faced to at least some extent, but the worrying aspect of Farrell’s performance is that he doesn’t SEEM to be giving one. There are no give-always of insincerity, even when we KNOW he is being completely insincere.

Viola Davis is so good she doesn’t need praise, but her fellow widows also get chances to shine. Elizabeth Debicki has a moving transition from a victim to her own woman (and whoever suggested her as a possible casting for Diana in the Criwn was on the money) and I feel like this is the first time in years Michelle Rodriguez has been given the opportunity to do some proper acting. Cynthia Erivo is brand new (to me) but she more than holds her own. (I will say, this is an improbably beautiful group of women, but whatever).

The story is based on a 1980s Lynda la Plante BBC television series, but has been transplanted to an American setting, but in a way that genuinely works (unlike House of Cards). McQueen uses the new location and all its associated racial and historical baggage to just…break your heart at the emotional climax.



I went to this film in an attempt to stave off jet-lag (another two hours before I can sleep), and because I thought it would have lots of pretty shots of San Francisco. Vague thoughts below.

1. Riz Ahmed is the best thing in the film by some distance – he managed to make his paper-thin mad environmentalist/social Darwinist caricature into something that almost felt like a character (but only almost) (with writing this thin there really is only so much even the most talented actor can do).

2. Michelle Williams’ wig makes me tired. Michelle Williams is easily the second best part of the film, but her wig is incredibly distracting and obviously ‘wiggy’ all the way through. And the only reason to force her to wear it is a depressing assumption that she will not be ‘hot’ enough for the presumed male audience with her normal short hair. (If I remember her comments in interviews correctly, Heath Ledger should disagree). I wish more film-makers could get this into their heads – if your hero is a thoughtful, intelligent, decent man, he is not going to be attracted to his love interest primarily based on her looks. That doesn’t mean she can’t be beautiful, but that force of personality counts for an awful lot (see Peggy Carter or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, or, going further back, Marion Rawenwood). If the love interest is vapid or primarily decorative, it winds up undermining the hero as a character quite severely.

3. I’m not sure Venom is the potential franchise the producers clearly think he is. The special effects are really pretty damn gross, and the script never actually manages to dig into the aspects that could make the character compelling – Venom as a power fantasy for a supposedly disenfranchised media personality whose woman done left him could be quite a cutting concept in the right hands, but I don’t think they do anything interesting with it.

4. The central love triangle is dumb, Dumb, DUMB. Who does Michelle Williams choose? The questionably-stable ex who indulges in cannibalism, lives in a mancave, ruined her career, and dresses like a teenage boy with a limited understanding of personal hygiene – or the talk, dark and handsome doctor who is so faultlessly selfless he would never even dream of questioning whether she has feelings for the ex she just spent six hours chasing around town. (That said, I don’t think Michelle Williams had much in the way of chemistry with either Tom Hardy or Reid Scott, which doesn’t help).

5. Nitpicks: if Reid Scott’s character is a surgeon, why does he spend all his time in the MRI room / doing pastoral care? Why does he share Eddie’s private medical information with his ex-girlfriend (ETHICS)? If carrying the symbiote had such terrible effects on the carriers, why didn’t Michelle Williams or Riz Ahmed’s characters show any symptoms of illness whatsoever? Why are we supposed to think Tom Hardy is a great journalist when he barely seems to understand how sources work or the concept of deep background? Also, Riz Ahmed’s character started off as a cancer researcher and then got to work on space exploration? Scientists don’t change fields like that, no matter how brilliant they are.

6. I feel like somewhere there is a dark, smoke-filled bar where scientists go to weep and drown their sorrows over the repeated abuses of evolution as a concept in popular fiction. This film repeats a popular garbling – that a well-educated scientist would imagine it humanly possible for one individual to redirect the course of human evolution (it isn’t).

7. In some ways I think Tom Hardy was the perfect choice for the part – he’s always been a very physical actor, and there’s a looseness to his performance as Eddie in the action scenes that works really well. But good lord his American accent is TERRIBLE.

8. The whole thing is weirdly emotionally…flat. Part of that is the love triangle that isn’t really (which, again, if Williams and Hardy had blazing chemistry wouldn’t be such a problem), and part of it is…we get no explanation for why Venom decides to save the Earth after all. He just…does. There’s vague threads indicating some fondness for Eddie – and more suggesting that Venom too is in love with the Michelle Williams character – but they don’t go anywhere dramatically. As a result the finale is at best inert.

9. It’s worth mentioning, the three characters we’re meant to on some level like (Hardy, Williams, and Reid Scott) are a journalist, a lawyer and a doctor respectively. Those are elite professions, requiring many, many years of expensive education and/or access to the right contacts to build a career (the attempt to imply Tom Hardy’s Eddie is blue-collar doesn’t really work). Class analysis is something that fandom is not, as a whole, terribly good at, and in American context class and race are often treated as though they are synonymous, which can have a distorting affect. Which is why I point this out – white characters are vastly overrepresented in popular culture, that’s obvious. But so many of them are placed in these kind of backgrounds, with huge cultural and economic capital, that they may well feel completely alien to someone who’s working three jobs just to cover rent and health care.

On the most basic level, Tom Hardy’s character is unemployed for sixth months, in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities on earth, and can still afford his own apartment (albeit a pretty crappy one). When vast proportions of the population lack anything in the way of savings, his lifestyle represents a kind of privilege that is completely unattainable for most people.

10. It was just plain weird watching Reid Scott playing a character named ‘Dan’ who was genuinely and consistently kind! In some ways he provided more emotional comfort to our hero than his supposed love interest. (I feel like the writers must have had the first Ant-Man film in mind when they wrote the character). (Also the shot where Tom Hardy – who is very handsome, but not especially tall – lifts Scott up by his neck must have involved some interesting camera trickery to make work).


Ocean’s 8 and Jurassic World

Spoilers, obviously.

I had not set the bar high, but Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was astonishingly DUMB (even the name is stupid).

1) The Rafe Spall character was such an obvious expy of the Carter Burke character in Aliens, only played with less skill (Rafe Spall always seems to want the audience to like him, which hurts the story here) and with a less credible motivation.

2) I don’t understand how – more than twenty years later – the dinosaurs still don’t look any better than they did in the original film. They still don’t seem to be able to make the really big ones – the brachiosaurus – look like solid physical objects, and even with the smaller ones, like Blue, there’s a lack of…texture that’s quite distracting.

3) The only aspect of the story that could (could) have been interesting was to do with cloning, but they don’t do anything with it.

4) The Claire-Owen relationship was never that interesting, but it is definitely less so in this film. Pratt and Dallas-Howard have much less chemistry this time round, which doesn’t help.

5) The way these films equate intelligence with extreme violence bothers me – at least in the first one they showed the raptors solving problems (when they opened the doors!). The beastie in this is one is little more than a rabid dog – which is tragic and awful, but not actually frightening. There’s no moment where you realise “It can think!”

6) the idea of environmentalists getting up in arms to save the dinosaurs is dumb, Dumb, DUMB. They’re an invasive species on an island habitat, that have no doubt ALREADY wiped out unique creatures – and, as the last film pointed out, they’re not even REAL dinosaurs, so their scientific usefulness is pretty damn limited.

Ocean’s 8

1) So, Lou and Debbie are in love, right? That was the least subtextual subtext I have ever seen – when Debbie said “Lou and I were going through a rough patch” I immediately decided they had a romantic backstory, and nothing will change my mind.

2) I am at most a 1.5 on the Kinsey Scale, but Cate Blanchett’s Mick Jagger/Debbie Harry/David Bowie thing was really working for me.

3) The CLOTHES. I still covet the green leather jacket from the poster, and Debbie’s dress from the Gala, and Daphne’s pink off the shoulder number and on and on and on.

4) That said, this film suffers from a distinct…lack of cool, compared to the first one. I think it’s firstly a direction problem – the way it’s shot lacks Soderberg’s visual flare (Ocean’s 11 is beautifully lit, among other things) and the music is bland at best. And, while I like her for many reasons, you don’t cast Sandra Bullock for effortless cool (though having Rihanna in the cast helps with this).

5) There’s also a scripting problem, I think. In Ocean’s 11, you know there’s a double-cross coming, and the film lets you think that you, as an audience member, has solved it, before pulling the rug out from under you. Whereas in Ocean’s 8…I don’t know what it is, but I think maybe the double-cross isn’t telegraphed enough? Or, to put it another way, Ocean’s 11 cons you, because you see EVERYTHING that happens, you just don’t realise what you’re seeing – the flashback when the twist is revealed are all too things we’ve already seen, just with additional context. Whereas Ocean’s 8 pulls out a flashback to something you never saw, and which was barely hinted at.

6) Anne Hathaway almost steals the film out from under everyone else – which I saw a lot of surprised commentary on from critics. Their surprise kind of surprised me, because I thought she was a fantastic Catwoman, and she had real chemistry with Christian Bale (which… a lot of actresses don’t for some reason – even Amy Adams didn’t really spark with him in American Hustle). I also found Sarah Paulson quite delightful.

7) We spend FAR too long with James Corden.

In summation, I would definitely go see another hustle with these women – the actresses have a lot of fun chemistry with each other (I don’t know who Awkwafina is, but she more than held her own) – but they deserve better support behind the scenes



“You stay alive…You’re strong. You survive. You stay alive no matter what occurs. I will find you…no matter how long it takes, no matter how far. I will find you.”

— Last of the Mohicans (via gipsyeleven)

Have I ever mentioned that I love this film? Partly because of the care and attention it gives to the Native Americans and their various points of view (I can’t think, off hand, of another film that allows Native characters to HAVE differing viewpoints). The film absolutely accepts that for many, many peoples the establishment of America was a tragedy and slow motion genocide, without beating the audience over the head with that fact – the scene with the tribal elder (I think he’s Huron?) says all that needs to be said on that point.

But also, I must admit, I love that the film is totally unafraid to wear its heart prominently on its sleeve – the scene where Hawkeye bellows his declaration of love over the sound of a tumbling waterfall SHOULD be utterly ludicrous, and yet somehow it isn’t. The film is capital R Romantic – it never feels the need to mock its own emotionality or create an ironic distance – it has big, operatic feelings, and yet the visuals are so strong and the music so beautiful that I think it works. (The battle scenes are showing their age a bit, I think, but otherwise).


Black Panther


When I went to see The Force Awakens and Rey started tossing a lightsaber round…it was like a need I didn’t know I had, a need I’d been carrying around for years, had finally been filled. I think it’s safe to assume Black Panther will be the same for a lot of people. Still, I have some…not criticisms exactly, but observations.

But first – the good:

1. The Dora Milaaje were just…damn. Every time Okoye had a fight scene I was nearly overwhelmed by all the sheer FUCKING AWESOME going on. Seriously, I could watch them fight for HOURS.

2. It’s nice to have a vision of the future (I know technically Black Panther is set in the present day, but the technology is futuristic, so…) that doesn’t look like it was designed by apple, that is vibrant and (pun not intended) bursting with colour, rather than purely sterile and white.

3. I was amused to see the “Museum of Great Britain” which (I’m reasonably certain) does not exist. I presume the British Museum (where such artefacts would be displayed) wouldn’t allow filming there, due to the film so brutally pointing out that all the exhibits are the product of colonial looting. (I was also amused that for the first time the Houses of Parliament doesn’t appear in the establishing shot of London, presumably because it’s under so much scaffolding).

4. Lupita’s hair. Actually everyone’s hair. And costumes. And I guess just the entire production design – this is a VERY good looking film, noteworthy because Marvel films (with one or two honourable exceptions) have been pretty bland visually.

5. Shuri was just plain adorable.

6. T’challa’s final speech sounded almost like a direct quotation of Jo Cox. I have no idea if that was intentional or not, but it was weirdly moving to hear an affirmation of shared humanity. We ARE one great tribe, and the sooner we all realise that the better off everyone will be. (International politics has taken such a depressing turn in the last few years that I think his speech ended up more powerful than it otherwise would have been).

The…not bad, but interesting:

7. The politics of Wakanda are fascinating. In fact, I think the politics are far more interesting than any of the characters, which is a shame. For instance, the film doesn’t really dig into WHY Wakanda is so isolationist, and when it began, which would be genuinely interesting to dig into. Going by the map, Wakanda seems to be fairly close to Uganda and DRC, which begs all kinds of questions – how did they maintain their isolationism when Idi Amin was in power, or when the war in Rwanda broke out? How have they dealt with having the constant nightmare of the Congo right on their doorstep? The history of modern Africa demonstrates that kind of instability is not easily contained. One would imagine that there were a lot of…wakandese(?) who would agree with Nakia that more should be done to help their neighbours. (I am not at all sure the total isolation the film implies was maintained is actually credible, mind you, given the massive destruction visited on Africa between say 1850-1930, but to their credit, Wakanda – in a mountain range somewhere in the Congo jungle – is in the right place for it to be plausible). (Note, I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to see a realistic film about the Belgian occupation of the Congo, as I like to sleep at night).

8. Following on from that point…it seems to me that Black Panther is really more a film about America, than it is about anything to do with Africa (which shouldn’t be a surprise – the clue is in the name). The whole question of how a superpower can responsibly operate, whether they should intervene on behalf of “the wretched of the earth” or look after their own people (and whether those things are actually mutually exclusive) is one of far more relevance to the US than anything at play in Africa politics. (African nations have intervened in each other’s politics when they’ve felt it necessary after all). The film also plays with ideas of pan-Africanism which feel far more relevant to the power of those ideas in America than in any modern African-state. I’m not saying that this is a BAD thing, by the way, just that it leapt out at me as I watched the film. Kilmonger’s entire motivation depends on the idea that black men are treated horribly in America – he is in many ways the most interesting character in the film – but I don’t know that the slave trade has the same totemic, original sin significance in Africa that it does in the US (because so many other awful things have happened in Africa since then). The film doesn’t really engage with the struggles of post-colonial states in any real way; it would be interesting to know how the idea of colonialism affects Wakanda’s isolationism, for instance – is the reason they don’t assert themselves more because they have seen the untrammelled damage technologically advanced nations can inflict when they want to? There’s an argument that it takes a country at least three generations to really recover from the legacy of colonialism, and at lot of African nations aren’t there yet.

The Bad

9. That is not an adequate use of Forrest Whittaker.

10. That is not an adequate use of Angela Bassett.

11. In general, the character-writing feels quite thin – the politics are more interesting than any of the actual characters involved (as you can tell, because I droned on about them for hours). Killmonger is far and a way the most interesting character in the film, but I felt the actors did a lot to make T’Challa and Okoye (in particular) deeper and more interesting characters than they were on the page. Chadwick Boseman has the charisma to pull it off, but it would have been nice of the writers to give him some more notes to play.


13. Trying to figure out where this fits in the Marvel timeline relative to Civil War makes my head hurt.

14. I have this complaint about the Thor films too – why does no one ever point out that these supposedly advanced societies haven’t managed to produce a DEMOCRACY? Does Marvel really want to imply that absolute monarchy is the best political system? Because I have problems with that, no matter who the king is.

15. I thought the UN had its big meetings in New York?

16. It seems odd to me that the film never mentions Ethiopia – the one African state that genuinely wasn’t colonised.


The Post

I could be wrong, but I have the feeling that The Post is going to get an absolute…shellacking from critics, and I think I know why.

Because ultimately, ultimately this is that rarely glimpsed thing, a film that really wants to be a play.

Although they are each dramatic forms, there are fundamental differences between film, television and theatre. Television is driven by narrative – film is driven by image – and theatre is driven by IDEAS.

Which I mention because, on the most basic level, the ideas in The Post are a hell of a lot more interesting than the actual story. Part of it is that the film is bifurcated – half of it wants to be an All the President’s Men style journalism fic, and half of it wants to be a biopic of Katherine Graham (understandably, because she is a genuinely fascinating person). But the problem is, because the film splits its focus in this manner, it doesn’t really do either half justice.

And fundamentally, as much fun as it is to watch Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks square off against each other (and they have genuinely lovely chemistry), the narrative beats of both the investigation and of Graham’s ultimate triumph are…really quite pedestrian. And watching, you feel like you already know how the story MUST end, which…sucks all of the tension out of the story.

I genuinely think that The Post would have been far more interesting to watch if it had skipped the story almost entirely and just focused on the night Graham decided to go ahead and publish the Pentagon Papers. Really dig into all the factors that made it a difficult decision, let the actors have conversations that actually explore the complexities at stake – the kind of discussion that is usually filmic death, but forms the life-blood of great theatre. (Note, if the Post had found a filmic way to convey ANY of its backstory, I wouldn’t be so emphatic about this – but it didn’t).

As is, the way the film strains to tie itself into All the President’s Men as it winds up just feels like it’s taunting you by bringing to mind a much, much better film.

(On a side note – poor Bradley Whitford. When and why did he start getting typecast as the personification of patriarchal dickery? And seeing the actor who played Ed in Veep show up as a lawyer REALLY pulled me out of the film – he’s just so…modern looking. Not to mention that, with his height, he made every location he showed up in look like a set).

(I will say, that all the year’s good films always come out in January and February does lift that miserable part of the year. I’ve lived in Northern Europe my whole life, and the long winters do not get any easier. Not that it’s cold, but…I’m already sick of it being so damn DARK all the time, and there’s another two months to go).

So other than not wanting to compare Kylo Reb …

So other than not wanting to compare Kylo Reb to Mr Darcy, what did you the of The Last Jedi?

Well, overall I liked it.

I’m the right age of course – I grew up watching Star Wars on my parents’ black and white TV, so I’m always going to have an…emotional reaction every time I get to hear the overture in a cinema.

Watching the Last Jedi kind of broke my heart a bit though, because it was so clear how they were setting up for Leia to be the focus of the final film, and now we know that can’t happen.

It felt like there was a certain…lack of focus in the narrative, which didn’t help matters. I thought Rose was adorable, but for its overall importance in the story, I felt her and Finn’s jaunt to the casino planet could have been cut somewhat. And why bring Lupita Nyongo back for only one scene?

I find Kylo Ren’s construction as a villain kind of fascinating – he’s sort of the opposite of Darth Vader, in that the audience is presumed to have a measure of sympathy for him, which the narrative flips on its head. It doesn’t MATTER if you find him sympathetic or not – past a certain point (and I’d argue wiping out even ONE planet is that point), meaningful forgiveness isn’t really possible. Or, put it another way, it doesn’t change anything.

I liked the way they played with Snow White imagery with Rey, and I also liked that they used the Skelligs so much – given their location and climate, only a tiny, tiny number of people will ever be able to see them, and it’s good that Star Wars opened them out to a larger audience.

The new Star Wars seem to have grasped the fundamentally slapdash approach to the material that made the originals so appealing, which is a good thing. The prequels were painfully self-serious, which didn’t do the actors any favours. Getting actors with some skill at comedy (Boyega and Isaac especially) really helps with that – I don’t know that Natalie Portman has ever made anyone laugh.

There’s a limit to how in-depth my reaction can get though – I’m fond of the films, but Star Wars has always been pretty shallow. Which isn’t a BAD thing, it just means I’m unlikely to overflow with thoughts about it.

Death of Stalin

*Spoilers*  (Though it feels stupid putting a spoiler warning on historical fact).

I loved this film.  Genuinely loved it.

But for all the Thick of It and Veep fans out there, it is… a much stronger dose of cynicism than you’re used to.  This film is not afraid to go for genuine darkness – the friend I went to see it with was sincerely distressed by how brutal the ending is, while knowing it was fully deserved.

I genuinely want to sit every “sick of choosing the lesser of two evils” gobshite down and make them watch this film.  Because I cannot think of a clearer illustration that you always, always choose the lesser of two evil when given the choice.  

The film makes this brutally clear.  Khruschev is not a good person, by anyone’s standards, but his Russia is unquestionably preferable to Stalin’s or Beria’s.  And Steve Buscemi is fabulous in the part, simply fabulous.  I know he won’t get nominated for an Oscar, because the Academy never gives comedic performances their due, but he absolutely should.  

Jason Isaacs is a standout.  Before the film was released I was mildly peeved at his casting – Zhukov was many things, but dashingly handsome wasn’t one of them – however, seeing his performance reconciled me completely.  His introductory shot may be one of my favourite in any film ever – it’s so gloriously, Capital M for Manly that it seems like a parody, yet it almost circles around to be sincere, because the film makes it very, very clear that, whatever else, Zhukov is a stone-cold badass.  

Rupert Friend is hilarious, and not afraid to go large, as Stalin’s alcoholic son… but it felt like the part of Svetlana was written for Anna Chlumsky, if only because of the way the camera continually focuses on her reactions to things.  (Andrea Riseborough is good, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not as expressive as Chlumsky, so the impact is lessened).

I was quite surprised to see that they actually filmed in Moscow – and I’d be very curious to know how much of it was filmed there, and if the local government knew what kind of film they were agreeing to.  My understanding has always been that Russians are more ambivalent about Stalin’s legacy than outright condemnatory… but I ain’t Russian, so what do I know.  (I mean, my opinion is…if ever someone deserved to die alone and in their own filth, Stalin deserved it, but I’m not sure that’s a widely shared opinion in Russia).

There’s a fascinating thing around sexual violence that the film does which… I’m not sure it ever fully resolves.  All of the male characters have coerced sex from someone – this is made very clear – and yet, in Beria’s final trial, the accusation that gets everyone really angry, is that he is a rapist and he preyed on children.  Are those feelings sincere?  It’s very hard to tell, and the film doesn’t make it clear – which I actually think is to its benefit.   Do they know they’re hypocrites – did they feel they had to comply with the sexual violence because of the environment Beria created – is assaulting adult women somehow better?  I’m not sure Iannucci knows – and the ambiguity of whether the outrage at sexual violence is genuine or not introduces an element of complexity in our reactions to the scene.

Beria is unequivocally a monster, and Khruschev is unquestionably better, and yet… was he only a monster on a grander scale?  And what does that say about us if a lesser monster is the best there is to offer.  Beria’s execution is purposefully not cathartic, I think, and the film takes a kind of…bracingly practical attitude to the new order.  It’s better because it has to be.

can you rec some rom coms and say why you like them?

Dear anon – thank you for asking me this.  I genuinely can’t think of a subject I would enjoy talking about more.

Bear in mind, not all of these will be films, but they’re all great.

First off, one has to mention the Mammy of them all, the romantic-comedy that to my mind best captures the appeal of the genre, which is Pride and Prejudice.  I’m not particularly fond of the Keira Knightley film (treating Austen like it’s Bronte does a terrible disservice to the material) though it nails Mr Collins’ proposal scene, which is a point in its favour.  The BBC miniseries is better, but it’s still no substitute for Austen’s prose.

No version of the story has quite captured what I consider the two essential truths of it.  Firstly, that it’s the story of the child of an abusive marriage – why does Elizabeth Bennet demand respect and genuine love from her husband?  Because she’s grown up watching her mother be continually abused and insulted by her father.  We’re meant to laugh at Mrs Bennet and Mr Bennet’s treatment of her, but one of the key revelations of the novel (though it comes late on) is that Elizabeth doesn’t find it funny.  She knows exactly how appalling it is, and desperately wants to avoid it for herself.

Secondly, one of the things Pride and Prejudice captures, better than any other rom-com I can think of, is the core fantasy that underpins the genre, which actually has nothing to do with wealth or beauty (though, conveniently, Darcy has both).  Which is the idea that two people can meet, fall in love, and become better human beings in the process.  Often – very often – love can be a profound disappointment, but Elizabeth and Darcy make each other kinder, wiser and more generous human beings.  

It’s an incredibly powerful fantasy precisely because it happens so rarely in real life.  

It’s worth noting that very few romantic comedies achieve that fantasy – so often films in the genre have one partner (usually the male) growing up and changing (in a moral sense) to match the other.  Sometimes writers half-ass it by having the female half of the equation ‘gain confidence,’ but I don’t consider that meaningful change.  That it’s such a hard trick to pull off convincingly should make people admire Austen’s work more, but it’s still often dismissed as a ‘mere’ rom-com.  (For the Veep fans among us, Dan and Amy fall into the half-ass category – Amy doesn’t have to change in any real sense to be with Dan, but Dan definitely has to change if he’s going to be with Amy).

Next I’d mention a couple of plays, which I’d highly recommend seeing if you ever get the chance.  There’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Beatrice and Benedick, who are probably the ultimate inspiration for every bickering couple that’s ever appeared on-screen.  (Benedick is also the only Shakespeare ‘hero’ who’s actually interesting in his own right – the play is in some ways the story of his moral development… he’s not worthy of Beatrice until he becomes a protector of wronged women, which is more of an arc than Orsino or Orlando or the doucehbag in The Merchant of Venice get).  Congreve’s The Way of the World is also a deeply sexy play – Mirabell and Millamant are as attracted to each other’s minds as their bodies, and half the reason things are so drawn out is that they enjoy the courtship dance so much.

There’s also Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer which has (inexplicably) never had a decent film version made of it, despite being almost tailor made for the screen.  This is one of the only plays that actually made me laugh out loud when I read it (the other is Accidental Death of an Anarchist… which is very funny, but in a very different way).  Kate Hardcastle is one of the all-time great roles for an actress – she’s clever, she’s funny, she’s sweet, she’s resourceful – and frankly, I’d rather see an ingenue take that part on than yet another “I was abused by men and lived to tell the tale.”  But great comic performances almost never get their due – you could be the most delightful Kate Hardcastle the world has ever seen, and still get bumped for Jennifer Lawrence playing a part ten years too old for her.

(The central comic conceit of She Stoops – a young man thinks he’s at an inn, when actually he’s in the home of an old family friend, whose daughter he’s supposed to marry – actually happened to Oliver Goldsmith, which I also find delicious – would that all of us could exorcise our social embarrassment to such brilliant effect).

As for film, we have to start with It Happened One NightYou know, I used to think I didn’t like Clark Gable…and then I realised who I really didn’t like was Rhett Butler, who bores me to tears (Gone With the Wind is an appalling, mawkish, sentimental novel that, perhaps unfortunately, will never be forgotten, because Scarlett O’Hara is such a unique heroine.  That such a psychologically interesting heroine appears in such a deeply morally compromised novel is infuriating).  But It Happened One Night is delightful – Gable and Colbert are fabulous on-screen together, and the scene of the two of them pretending to be a married couple is one of the great comedy set-pieces.  I never knew until I watched it that Clark Gable could be funny.  (Roman Holiday basically steals most of its plot from It Happened One Night, but I think with less success – neither Gregory Peck or Audrey Hepburn was ever much of a comedian… though they are very pretty together).

I’ve droned on about The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby before, so I’ll spare you (though I think Bringing Up Baby is only incidentally romantic – not that it matters, I will always love any film with Cary Grant in a silk dressing gown shouting “I just went gay all of a sudden!”).

Which brings me to my all-time, favourite film – The Apartment.  Word of warning, this film is dark.   It’s a love story where the central themes are depression, sexual exploitation of women in the working world, and moral cowardice, and it is also funny as hell.  Billy Wilder at his finest is damn near unbeatable, and he gets fabulous performances out of the entire cast (especially poor spurned Miss Olsen).  Its a film where the central characters have to seize their self-respect with both hands, because if they don’t… well, no one else is going to do it for them – and yet it ends on a moment of joy that’s all but effervescent.  You feel like you’ve fallen in love or drunk a bottle of champagne at the end of it, and to pull that off, given the thematics, is quite a trick.  

(The Apartment always reminds me how sad it is that ‘prestige’ directors don’t make romantic-comedies any more.  Like, what would a David Fincher rom-com look like – wouldn’t it be fascinating to see?  A sincere one, I mean, not some deconstruction that disappears up its own backside.  On the other hand, we should probably all be grateful Christopher Nolan’s never made one).  (It’s also a surprisingly beautiful film when you see it on the big screen – black and white often tends to get kind muddy on small screens, so I’d never have known this if I hadn’t gone to see it at the BFI).

I’d also recommend The Goodbye Girl, which does an incredible thing and turns Richard Dreyfus into a desirable romantic hero.  (I kid, I kid).  I could pretend that the only reason I like this film is all the theatrical references (Streetcar – though Richard Dreyfus as Stanley is a real stretch casting-wise – Richard III, etc), but it’s a surprisingly genuine look at what ‘opposites attract’ actually looks like.  And it has that rare thing – a child actor who isn’t insufferable.

For sheer fun I love Strictly Ballroom (one of the first films I ever saw in the cinema).  It’s a dance movie that actually shows the dancing, which is genuinely fantastic (you can tell it’s proper dancing because you can see the actors’ feet – they must have had to rehearse the final sequence for weeks).  I think this is because Paul Mercurio was a dancer first, before he was an actor, but Baz Luhrmann directs him very intelligently – you’d never know he wasn’t a professional from the performance.  I’m a fan of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (if ever there was play suited to hyperactive excess), but in general I think he has been ruined by money.  The romanticism of Strictly Ballroom works precisely because it has to be comparatively low-key.  (Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard ‘Bogo-Pogo’ said in an Australian accent).  

I have a suspicion that television has contributed somewhat to the decline of the film romantic-comedy – so many shows use an ongoing will-they-won’t-they to generate narrative tension, and television can string out the tension for years if it suits the story.  (That even a show like Veep, which most people wouldn’t dream of considering a romantic-comedy, gets a substantial element of its narrative tension from a will-they-won’t-they, shows how reliant the medium is on unresolved sexual tension as a form of narrative propulsion).  

10 Things I Hate About You is a film I loved as a teenager, and which has aged incredibly well – I don’t think I appreciated at the time just how overtly feminist it is, and Heath Ledger’s performance was justifiably star-making.  I also love The Truth About Cats and Dogs, though it is an instance of film relying on pretty extreme behaviour from its characters to make the story work.  In general, the more wacky a romantic-comedy tries to be, the less effective it actually is.  Note, this is one reason the first Bridget Jones film stands up so well (whereas the sequels…) most of the action (even the wacky elements) springs naturally from the characters, rather than the other way round.

There are some romantic comedies I really like that I can’t justify – One Fine Day and Just Like Heaven for example.  Neither of them is what I’d call a good film, but my goodness, New York and San Francisco look stunning in both of them.  I also think Bridesmaids is a good film, but the ‘romantic-comedy’ element of it is kind of the least interesting part.  Some Like it Hot is one of the all time great comedies, but, again, the romantic element is relatively minor – though, to be fair, Marilyn Monroe does some of her best work in it.  Girl deserved an Oscar for the scene in the train bathroom, which is hilarious and heartbreaking simultaneously. There’s also an Irish film A Date for Mad Mary which I’d strongly recommend for anyone who enjoys the genre, though it’s a lot grittier than most romantic-comedies.  Still, any film that can make Athlone look beautiful is truly special.

Home Again

You know, romantic-comedy is my favourite genre, hands down. People who know me in real life often find that confusing because, well, I’m a theatre geek, Shakespeare and Beckett are my favourite playwrights, I went to see Krapp’s Last Tape four times (and hope to see it many, many more in my lifetime), so my liking a genre that is often presumed to be fluffy and regressive and trivial, is seen as an odd character quirk. (I won’t get into the gendered assumptions underlying the dismissal of the genre – let’s just say I’m aware of them).

I don’t often go to see rom-coms in the cinema, since they are so often terrible, and sadly, Home Again did not disappoint in this regard. I have a certain…regard for Nancy Meyer films, as they are often slyly progressive (as well as showcasing enviable kitchen design). They’re films you can watch with your mother and, odd as that sounds, I absolutely mean that as a compliment.

Home Again is a complete failure of a Nancy Meyer film (which it isn’t – technically – but it certainly trades on her name). At the most fundamental level, it doesn’t know who it’s about. Is it the story of Reese Witherspoon rebuilding her life and learning to love again after being hurt, or the story of three no-hopers (albeit, remarkably handsome, educated, financially solvent no-hopers) trying to make it in Hollywood?

The film tries to be both and, unsurprisingly, fails completely. I admit La La Land soured me on the “privileged, beautiful people can make it after all” narrative, but part of it is…those stories are always written with such disdain for the actual struggles creative people face, and Home Again is no exception to that irritating rule. The desperate actor starts getting auditions for pilots in his THIRD week in LA – the writer actually TURNS UP HIS NOSE AT PAYING WORK. PAYING WORK! (If there was one moment that all but made me boil over with rage it was this one, in case you couldn’t tell. I haven’t felt such instant loathing for a fictional character since Angel Clare in Tess of the Durbervilles).

Needless to say – getting paid jobs in your first month trying IS NOT STRUGGLING oh my god all the writers I know would hate you.


Where this confusion really shows is in the supporting characters – the ones who are there really just to make the plot work. Michael Sheen for instance…is he a delightful twinkly-eyed rogue or a manipulative and borderline abusive partner? By definition he cannot be both simultaneously, and that is a line you want to keep your male character absolutely on the right side of (Veep writers, take note), unless you are actually writing an exploration of how intimate relationship abuse is often hidden by a veneer of charm. The writer of Home Again is definitely not writing that story, so why have him waver back and forth across that line?

Or Reid Scott’s character who, frankly, doesn’t deserve the name of ‘character.’ On the one hand, he’s supposed to be a successful producer who can make dreams come true, but on the other he proposes a “found footage romance” which is definitely the worst idea I’ve ever heard (the writer character (no I can’t be bothered to remember anyone’s names) calls this out, thank god). He is apparently cut-throat and unpredictable and hard to please, but also lets the douchebag director stay in his (gorgeous) house when he ‘breaks up’ with his friends, because he’s what…just that nice a guy? (Also, in his main scene I got completely distracted by just how beautiful the California coast behind him was). Not to mention, he’s one of FIVE dickhead producers in the film, which seems…excessive, to say the least. Given that some of the dickhead producers are behind the friends falling out (for reasons I refuse to go into because I will RAGE) wouldn’t it have been more efficient to make them all ONE character, who’s manipulation would therefore be more threatening?

As for Reese Witherspoon, the film never bothers to make her financial situation clear, which causes all kinds of problems. Is she struggling to survive after separating from her husband, and therefore returning to her childhood home and starting a business is a desperate attempt to provide for herself and her children? Or is she determined not to rest on her inherited wealth (which she clearly has) and to build something of her own, thus setting a good example for her daughters?

Either of those plot lines can work – really, they can. But they cannot both exist simultaneously, and yet the film seems to alternate between them scene-to-scene as required. Among other things, it makes impossible for the audience to work out how seriously to take her battle with Lake Bell’s character, because the stakes are completely unclear.

(I see this film as proof of how talented actors can be completely screwed over by a bad script – Reese Witherspoon, Reid Scott and above all Michael Sheen have all done MUCH better work elsewhere, but you’d never know it. On the other hand, if this is the price Reese Witherspoon has to pay for another Wild or Big Little Lies, I’ll allow it. I would take five more minutes with Madeline Martha Mackenzie over this entire film).

The film doesn’t even really FINISH as such. There’s an emotional climax which relies on the writer character not disappointing Reese Witherspoon’s daughter and her crippling anxiety issues. Except those anxiety issues are never actually SHOWN to us – the script says they exist, but never depicts them and…well asking a pre-teen actress to accurately depict crippling anxiety is a lot even when the script does most of the work for her. When it doesn’t…put it this way, she’s a nice young lady, who I’m sure tried her very best.

The one thing the film did get right is casting, it should be said. The two little girls absolutely look like the off-spring of Reese Witherspoon and Michael Sheen, the three struggling artists invest their (paper-thin) characters with a lot of charm, and it took a film this bad for me to realise just how engaging and…watchable a presence Reese Witherspoon really is. (I’d really like to see her play off Will Smith some day).

But ugh, Hollywood. Romantic-comedy is hard…but it’s not THAT hard.