Monday, January 14, 2019

Four Period Pieces

 Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots. (Photo: Liam Daniel)

This piece contains reviews for Mary Queen of Scots,The Favourite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and At Eternity’s Gate

The promise of a movie about the struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin, Mary Stuart, who claimed her right to inherit the throne of England and wound up with her head on an executioner’s block, is the chance to see a dramatic clash between two charismatic actresses. But so far it hasn’t worked out very well for the Elizabeths. In the 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots Vanessa Redgrave’s lyrical performance as Mary made a far stronger impression than Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth (a role that she played later – and famously – on television), and in the new version, Mary Queen of Scots without the comma, Saiorse Ronan’s Mary is pretty much the whole show. That’s not the fault of Margot Robbie, who plays Elizabeth, but of Beau Willimon, who wrote the screenplay (based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart), and the director, Josie Rourke. They’ve chosen a dopey faux-feminist take on the historical narrative in which it’s the manipulative men in the two queens’ lives who keep messing everything up. (As if you had to transform the conflict between two female monarchs into a feminist story!) That point of view makes some sense for Mary, who is, at various times, at the mercy of the whims and power grabs of her half-brother James (James McArdle), her protector, Bothwell (Martin Compston), her homosexual husband, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), his father, the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle), and the Protestant reformer-minister John Knox (David Tennant), who uses every opportunity to proselytize against the Catholic Mary. (He manages to rev up the Scottish populace against her “whorish” ways, though she scarcely gets to sleep with anyone.) But the notion that Elizabeth, the most powerful woman in the history of England – perhaps the most powerful monarch after Cleopatra – has to buckle to a bunch of men who are in every way her inferior is dumbfounding. This unfortunate reading of the part diminishes Robbie, who is a fine actress (especially, I think, in The Legend of Tarzan and Z for Zachariah). When these two monarchs finally meet, clandestinely, spark should fly. Instead Rourke stages their tête-à-tête so that they’re not even facing each other until halfway through the scene.

You might spot Adrian Lester, Guy Pearce, Ian Hart, Simon Russell Beale and others among the assembled hordes in black and brown period costumes, but no one in the supporting cast makes much of an impression besides Tennant, who chews the scenery, and Jack Lowden. Lowden – the gifted young actor who played Oswald to Lesley Manville’s Mrs. Alving in Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts – manages to lend some complexity to the weak, charming Darnley, who sleeps with Mary’s minstrel confidant, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), on their wedding night and has sex with her only once, in order to give her an heir. The script’s treatment of sexuality provides the most interesting material in the picture, though Mary’s progressive attitude toward these gay men feels like a twenty-first-century add-on. Ronan, whom costume designer Alexandra Byrne dresses (magnificently) in shades of blue, gives a nuanced, emotionally varied performance. This is the third movie she’s starred in over the past year, and none has received much attention, and the others, The Seagull and the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach (in both of which she played opposite Billy Howle), aren’t very good pictures either. Still she’s terrific in all three. Ronan does so much superb work that she may be in danger of being taken for granted, but she remains one of our most exciting young actresses.

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.

I’ve rarely seen a movie as delighted with its own cleverness as The Favourite, a high comedy by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) set in Regency-era England, about a competition between two women, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and her high-born, low-fallen cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), for the affections of frail, widowed, miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The thing is, it’s not so damn clever. Lanthimos directs the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara so that every time a character drops a mean-spirited epigram, especially an obscene one (like Nicholas Hoult’s Harley, who is trying to get Abigail in bed, warning her that if she doesn’t watch out she’ll wind up in a hovel with scurvy whores, not knowing which one has a finger up her ass), or engages in nasty, gratuitous behavior (like the lords who amuse themselves by tossing oranges at one of their cohort, naked except for his flaming orange wig), the movie builds in a pause so we can whisper, “Ooh! Did he really say that?” or “Can you believe what these decadent aristocrats are up to?” Except for Colman, who gives an unimpeachable performance, and Stone whenever we’re permitted to see the desperation that causes Abigail to behave repulsively, the characters barely seem human. (I felt sorry for Weisz.) Anne’s lesbianism – she sleeps with both these ladies-in-waiting – is treated as a dirty joke. The film is loaded with affect, like the mostly impenetrable Brechtian chapter titles and the inept, anachronistic dance interludes. Stone has a distinctly present-day presence. I don’t mind that – it didn’t bother me when Diane Keaton played a turn-of-the-century prison warden’s wife in Mrs. Soffel, and Stone, like Keaton, is a smart enough actress to absorb the tension into her performance, to make it count for something. But Lanthimos, who is an idiot, thinks Stone’s contemporariness is cute and keeps playing it up, which makes her look, on and off, like she’s doing revue-sketch comedy. The Favourite is loathsome.

Jackamoe Buzzell and Prudence Wright Holmes in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is literally a mixed bag. It’s an anthology of half a dozen ironic western tales of varying quality. The first – the title story – features Tim Blake Nelson as a nerdy musical gunslinger whose singing is terrible but who is surprisingly quick on the draw. Nelson and the Coens bring out the worst in each other; this installment is painfully self-conscious, like something dreamed up by drunken frat boys. In the second, “Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a rustler who’s saved from being hanged by an Indian attack; it has a good punch line but that’s about all. The finale, “The Mortal Remains,” has Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Brendan Gleeson, but it doesn’t amount to much. The three gems are packed in back to back. In “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson gives a witty, laconic performance as a showman who travels from town to town with an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling, Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) who declaims everything from Shakespeare to the Declaration of Independence while The Impresario, as he’s called in the credits, collects contributions from the members of the audience. The humor is mostly visual, however, and Melling’s facial reactions supply much of it. “All Gold Canyon,” adapted from a Jack London story, is about a bedraggled prospector (an exuberant Tom Waits) who faces adversity when he turns up a gold vein. If the theme of the previous tales is the doggedness of fate, “All Gold Canyon” shifts the focus to a different sort of doggedness. The longest of the segments is “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White, and it’s the one with heart – the Coen Brothers in a True Grit mood. (True Grit is my personal favorite of their movies.) Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan do lovely work as the head of a wagon train bound for Oregon and a young woman who’s riding it to an uncertain future after her traveling companion, her brother (Jefferson Mays), dies en route. It’s well worth sitting through the first two stories to get to these three. The luminous cinematography is by Bruno Delbonnel.

Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate.

At Eternity’s Gate is at least the fifth movie to take on the life and career of Vincent Van Gogh, and in strictly visual terms it’s the most beautiful. The director, Julian Schnabel, and the photographer, Benoît Delhomme, turn the Arles landscapes into sensuous evocations of the artist’s canvases, so that – as in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner – we get a sort of preview of what Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) will put down in paint. Schnabel’s aim is to show us the world through the artist’s eyes, just as he showed us the world through the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the fashion-magazine editor afflicted with locked-in syndrome, in the first forty minutes of his extraordinary 2007 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The problem is that Robert Altman got there before him, in Vincent and Theo (1990), and Schnabel doesn’t have much to add. Altman was also working from a much more interesting script (by Julian Mitchell), though it’s possible that the screenplay for At Eternity’s Gate, which Schnabel co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, is better than it comes across, since most of the dialogue scenes are two-handed and he shoots them in a flat, shot/reaction shot format. I’m sure he had a reason, but the choice hobbles the dramatic impetus of the film. Dafoe looks startlingly like Van Gogh, but he gives a labored performance. There are a number of recognizable faces in the cast, like Mads Mikkelsen as a priest, Niels Arestrup as a madman and Amalric as Dr. Gachet, the art lover who treats Vincent after one of his breakdowns. (Altman dealt with Gachet satirically; Schnabel doesn’t. He also relies on a more up-to-date reading of the violence that led to Van Gogh’s death.) But the only member of the ensemble who stands out is Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin. The biggest disappointment is that Theo, Vincent’s brother and art dealer (played by Rupert Friend, well known to viewers of Homeland), has such a minor role. In the first Van Gogh biography, Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, Theo (James Donald) is the narrator and the voice of reason counterpointed against Kirk Douglas’s increasingly maddened Vincent; in Vincent and Theo he shares his brother’s obsessiveness. In At Eternity’s Gate he’s merely a supporting character in Van Gogh’s story.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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