FlixChatter Review: The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019)

In a year where there are plenty of female-empowerment films being released, this is one that I wasn’t aware it was being made. I saw this on a screener as there was no theatrical screening, and I had seen its trailer a week prior that piqued my interest. I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Rani of Jhansi, who garnered a reputation as the Joan of Arc of the East. In the mid 1800s, the tender age of 24, the queen-turned-warrior led her people into battle against the British empire, and became a symbol of resistance against British rule for Indian nationalists. On top of being such a juicy feminist story, this project is especially intriguing to me because of the mother/daughter collaboration, acclaimed artist Swati Bhise as the writer/director and Devika Bhise as the star as well as co-writer.

Partly narrated by Devika herself, the film opens with the story of her life during British Imperial rule. Rani Lakshmibai became queen when she married the Maharaja of Jhansi, but lost her firstborn son and had to adopt a son to secure a male heir to the throne. Though there had been rebellions against the British, Rani was initially reluctant to rebel. But all that changed when The British East India Company forced the annexation of Jhansi, rejecting her adopted son’s claim to the throne upon her husband’s untimely death.

Known as a patron of the arts and educators of Indian culture, Swati Bhise seems more concerned about enlightening the audience instead of telling a compelling narrative. Newcomer Devika Bhise (who I had seen in a small role in The Man Who Knew Infinity) has the stature and temperament to make her believable as a natural-born leader. She may not be the most skilled performer, but there’s enough conviction there that I was invested in her journey. I do think she looks far too glamorous as someone who’s supposed to be more of a tomboy trained in shooting, horsemanship, fencing, etc.

The casting of the British characters is in one word, peculiar. There’s Rupert Everett (British army officer Hugh Rose) sporting a ghastly facial hair as if he’d botched an audition for Abe Lincoln, while Nathaniel Parker is all pomp and snide as the main villain Sir Robert Hamilton. One of my fave Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi (first PM Lord Palmerston) is only relegated to lengthy arguments with the overly-emotional Queen Victoria (Jodhi May). The film aimed to contrast two different women-in-power who defied the patriarchal cultural expectations of the time, that of Rani and Queen Victoria. The movie showed the Queen having a close friendship with her Muslim Indian attendant Abdul Karim, who apparently is also from Jhansi, only I read that he’s born much later than the events that took place here.

Now, the main issue I had with the film is the general lack of energy and so much emphasis on melodrama rather than action. For a film with ‘warrior’ in its title, there’s barely any action scenes apart from the final sequence. Now, I don’t mind a ‘talky’ war film, if the script were sharp enough to keep one’s attention. Rani said she’s no stranger to battle and has led her army to combat many times. As filmmaking adage says ‘show don’t tell,’ it would be nice to at least see some of that. The all-female soldiers’ training scene looked as if they’re gearing up for a battle re-enactment at a local cultural event, barely convincing as an actual army, let alone one formidable enough to go against the British army. The bland dialogue (whether in Hindi or English) leaves much to be desired as well, sorely lacking in nuance.

I do appreciate the restraint from interjecting romance into the picture, though the Bhise pair did hint of repressed feelings between Rani and the conflicted Major Robert Ellis (Ben Lamb), a personal friend of her family who tried to maintain peace between Jhansi and the East India company. While he wears the British army uniform, the way he gazes at Rani shows where his true loyalty lies. The two have a pretty palpable chemistry. In fact, Lamb showed more emotions in the 15+ minute scenes he shared with Devika Bhise than he did in the entire two movies of Netflix’s A Christmas Prince!

I give props to the filmmakers for their ambitions and valiant efforts. The film looks beautiful, with gorgeous costumes and set pieces. The battle scenes in the third act is pretty decently-mounted, though not quite so epic. I think such a phenomenal freedom fighter deserves a much more thrilling depiction, but I’m still glad this film exists. As a film that’s meant to inspire, it did make me want to learn more about Rani Lakshmibai. So if that’s the primary intent of the filmmakers, then I think the film achieved that.

– Review by Ruth Maramis


Have you seen The Warrior Queen of Jhansi? I’d love to hear what you think.

FlixChatter Review: Cinderella (2015)

CinderellaPosterGrowing up watching Disney fairy tale movies, I have to admit Cinderella wasn’t my favorite heroine. Over the years though, as there are more and more adaptations of this quintessential underdog story (more so than any other Disney “princesses” it seems), the more I appreciate the animated classic. Lately the cinematic trend is reinvention, giving a classic tale a new twist or perspective, such as Snow White & the Huntsman and Maleficent, and so naturally I thought we’d see the same thing with Cinderella. Well, it turns out that this film stayed true to its classic story, you could even say it paid tribute to the animated film, with some surprises thrown in. But by going the conventional route doesn’t mean it’s dull and boring, in fact the opposite is true. There’s something so lively and refreshing about Kenneth Branagh‘s vision that even some of its most sentimental moments aren’t without charm.

Being that it’s the origin story of Cinderella, the movie begins with young Ella whose blissful existence is cut short when her dotting mother suddenly fell ill. Before she passed away, she instilled in her daughter to ‘have courage and be kind,’ a life motto young Ella takes to heart. And so, as life kept coming at her with one terrible blow after another, especially after the arrival of her stepmother and two step-sisters, Ella never gives up hope. I was skeptical at first about Lily James‘ casting in the titular role, but I quickly warmed up to her. There’s a pleasant countenance about her that makes her believable as a benevolent and sweet-tempered girl equipped with inner strength to face the cruelty inflicted upon her by her new *family.* Instead of running away from her problems, she choose to endure.

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Ella’s no damsel in distress either. I love how the sweet and swoon-worthy meet-up with the dashing Prince, who refers to himself as Kit to hide his true identity, reveals her independent spirit. “Just because it’s done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done,” she tells Kit in protest of him hunting deer for sport. The prince was immediately smitten by her, perhaps he’s also impressed that she rides her horse without a saddle! Richard Madden effortlessly steals Ella’s heart, and every maiden in the audience, with his impossible good looks and almost indecent sex appeal. As if the filmmakers weren’t sure of that, they had to outfit him in those distractingly tight white pants! I don’t know why they need to digitally enhanced his blue eyes though, I mean he’s already hunky enough with his eyes the way God made ’em!

Cinderella_PrinceCharming cinderella_prince_firstmeetIn any case, I like that he fell for her whilst Ella’s still dressed as a maid, though I actually think she’s the most attractive this way, so fresh-faced and full of life. Unlike the animated version, the Prince also gets a back-story here, and the father/son relationship depiction is quite moving. The Ella-Kit meet-up is my favorite scene of the entire movie! Yes, more so than the entire ball scene or even the transformation scene. In fact, I’m not too fond of Cinderella’s look for the ball — her hair is huge, the ball gown is huge, it’s just overwhelming. Overall there’s more chemistry between her and the Prince in that brief meet-up.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be Cinderella without the wicked stepmother and Cate Blanchett is an absolute delight to watch in the role. Looking as stunning and regal as ever, the great Cate was scene stealing all the way through with her elegant icy-ness. The Aussie thespian is obviously having fun with the role, there’s a twinkle in her eye and sense of mischief as she relish in being bad.

Holliday Granger and Sophie McShera are ok as the two vile stepsisters, they’re a bit over the top at times, yet not nearly as memorable as Cate was even when she was standing still. It’s fun seeing Helena Bonham Carter being the comic relief as the fairy godmother and the film’s narrator. Derek Jacobi adds Shakespearean gravitas as the Prince’s ailing father, whilst Ben Chaplin is affecting as Cinderella’s doting father. In attempt to making the cast a little more diverse, Branagh cast Nonso Anozie as Captain (who’s in his previous movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the guests at the ball are racially-diverse.

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The production design is really something to behold. This is easily one of the best looking movie I’ve seen in a while, and I’m not just talking about the beautiful cast. The costume design by Sandy Powell is simply amazing, especially Cate’s jewel-toned, richly-embroidered dresses, blending 1940s with 19th century style. Everyone’s talking about Cinderella’s gorgeous ball dress – and Lily James’ teeny-tiny waist – but I think Cate’s outfits are equally breathtaking to look at. Oh and those glass slippers… well, that’s fairy tale for ya, the funniest bit was when the fairy godmother say they’d be comfortable, ha! Apparently they’re made of real Swarovski crystals fit only for mannequins. So the scene of Cinderella having those on is made possible by the magic of CGI.

Chris Weitz‘s script might seem simple and conventional, but it’s quite challenging to somehow make the story fresh without making it unnecessarily dark or edgy just for the sake of it. I’ve been a longtime fan of Patrick Doyle‘s gorgeous music and Branagh’s longtime collaborator once again delivered! The music fits the genre perfectly, it has that elegant, sweepingly lush feel to it, but also with a bit of whimsy.

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But the biggest kudos has to be given to Kenneth Branagh and his impeccable directing style. He somehow made something *old* feels new again. I think it starts with his vision for the main characters, with an empowered Cinderella who, despite being mistreated, remains true to her moral principles. In this article, “[Branagh] likened it to the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi.” Ok so that might’ve been a bit of a stretch, but I get the point. The love story feels richer and more emotionally involving because you believe there’s more than just the obvious physical attraction. Branagh’s quoted in the article as saying, “When you watch this film, you see Cinderella is such an amazing woman. My biggest thing was how do I create a man that is worthy of her?” I came away from the movie thinking that Cinderella rescues the Prince just as much as he rescues her.

I enjoyed this movie so much I just might see it again on the big screen as it’s such a visual treat. But I wouldn’t say it’s style over substance, there’s a nice balance of drama, humor, and even action to please the young and the young-at-heart. Though the movie is infused with such an infectious sense of optimism with its bright, lush colors and lavish set pieces, there are genuine poignant moments to keep it grounded. The scene when Ella receives news of her father’s sudden passing is one of those scenes that made me tear up.

If you’re on the fence about this one, I’d say give it a try. You just might be pleasantly surprised. I think I’d get the Blu-ray as I could see myself enjoying this for years to come.

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Have you seen Cinderella? Well, did you like it more or less than I did?