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.

Indie Film Spotlight: LET ME GO + Interview with writer/director Polly Steele

When I first heard about Let Me Go about a year ago, I was immediately intrigued. Not just in terms of its story, but I’ve always been a champion of #womeninfilm and this one has a female writer/director AND a terrific female ensemble cast! I really wanted to see the film at Bentonville Film Festival last Spring, but I had just wrapped my first short film Hearts Want so I timing was an issue. But thanks to Evolutionary Films for sending me the screener link that I was able to see it last month.

The film is based on a true story, and though films about the holocaust are a dime a dozen, writer/director Polly Steele told the story from an unconventional perspective. It’s a unique and compelling approach on a real life story from the past that’s still relevant today. I love the talented female cast who effectively portrayed three generation of daughters being affected by a horrific past. It’s a thought-provoking, heartbreaking yet beautiful film that I wish I could see on the big screen. If you get a chance to see this, don’t miss it. Not only is it an absorbing tale, it’s also a visually striking film with an equally gorgeous score.

Let Me Go is a film about mothers and daughters, it is about ghosts from the past and the impact they leave on the present. Developed from Helga Schneider’s true life story, it explores the effect on Helga’s life of being abandoned by her mother, Traudi in 1941 when she was just four years old. The film is set in the year 2000 following not only Helga and Traudi’s journeys but the next two generations and how Beth, Helga’s daughter and Emily her granddaughter are confronted with the long-term effects of Traudi’s leaving.

 

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Read my interview with Polly Steele on her journey into bringing Helga Schneider’s story to life on screen…

Q: There are so many films about the holocaust done already but your film tells a story from such a different perspective, that is from the family of the perpetrators, instead of the victims. Can you tell me what inspired you to write this story?

When I first found this story I had no idea what attracted me to it. Looking back it was probably the vulnerable face of a small child in the black and white photo on the back cover. This vulnerability echoed inside me somewhere and I read the book. I know that trauma arises from all sides in a conflict and Helga’s trauma is no less valid than anyone else’s. Helga’s story was a difficult story to tell after the war had ended, there was no space for stories like hers. Now that 75 years has past since the war, I think we can acknowledge that innocent children from all sides of a conflict suffer. We cannot move on from our own suffering unless we acknowledge the suffering of others.

Q: How did you first hear about Helga Schneider? Can you tell us the process of getting the rights to tell her story and how long it took you to write the script?

Polly (right) meeting Helga in Italy

After reading the book, I flew to Milan to meet her, she only spoke Italian and a little French and I spoke English and French and so we used her agent to translate and we sussed each other out with a lot of looking into each others eyes. I think we came to an understanding that day and I felt that she entrusted me with her life story, I am very grateful to her.

After seven years of writing and re-writing the script, working with various different companies and even putting it aside for a while, somehow the right team came together, the energy changed and here we are having raised the money in a year and made the film the following year, but the whole process was 10 years in the making.

Q: How involved was Helga herself in making this film? I believe you flew to Italy to meet with her?

After meeting her the first time, we kept in touch, I would write to her asking her questions and she would write back . I would google translate and on it went. After a couple of drafts of being completely true to her story I made a leap to include the two youngest characters who are fictitious, because I was fascinated with inherited trauma. I made these creative decisions with Helga’s blessing. The two new characters are based on information given to us by Helga who wanted to protect the real identity of her close family members. She understands now that her story has continued to affect those who came after her and that is what the film focuses on. Ironically when I met her again just before we started filming she told me that the two new characters were very accurate relative to her own experience.

Traudi (Karin Bertling), Beth (Jodhi May) Helga (Juliet Stevenson) and Emily (Lucy Boynton) – Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Q: I love the idea of a multi-generation of daughters being affected and dealing with a shared past. Would you share about the casting process for Juliet Stevenson, Lucy Boynton and Jodhi May, as well as Stanley Weber as the only prominent male character in the film?

Juliet came on board very early on. She read the script and then we met and she followed the films progress always remaining committed. She was our rock.  Jodhi also met me early on in the process and committed whole heartedly, she was fascinated by the subject of inherited trauma and also stayed with us until we were green lit. Lucy I saw on a taped video that she did in L.A and immediately thought she had a special something, elegance, an innocent maturity if that is possible and a very natural look on the screen. Lucy could only confirm very close to shooting but thats because she was up for another film at the same time but luckily we got her! Karin was the last to join and the most difficult character to cast. No one wanted to be a hardcore Nazi… but then we cast our net wider and Karin was waiting in the wings in Stockholm and she is a Gem! I am very proud of all of them and Stanley Weber, and Eva Magyar, I think they all did an amazing job.

Stanley Weber in a still from the film

Q: This is the second narrative feature you wrote and directed. What’s the biggest challenge for you as indie filmmaker in terms of bringing your story vision to life?

These days making an independent feature is an incredibly difficult task…to get the stars to align is a rare and beautiful thing but I also believe that as a woman it has been even harder. This was not an easy story to tell, but I had an amazing team of people supporting me and the film. My producer Lizzie Pickering who has been incredible, raising money relentlessly, never giving up as well as our Executive Producers Georges Tsitos who kept us on track from the beginning and then Rupert Labrum who was our first serious investor and stayed loyally with us until the end and many more who subsequently joined. We gathered support by holding storytelling circles in peoples houses and inviting them to listen to a video of Helga and hear her story and then slowly, slowly the money came.

Q: There are some really difficult scenes to watch, especially between Helga and her mother. Can you tell me what’s been the most challenging aspect of filming this?

Filming any scene whatever the content is about making sure that the actors are 100% in the space and time and world that they are meant to be inhabiting, that way they are authentic and then we have done our job. The whole reason that the scenes between Traudi and Helga are different from anything that I have seen before on this subject is that Traudi makes us understand from her perspective what normal was for them in that extreme situation. It is untenable for us in our world knowing what happened, to accept what she says but it’s equally important that we realise what it was like in their shoes. Helga’s dearest wish is that the film may play a tiny part in preventing history from repeating itself.

Still from Let Me Go trailer – All images are courtesy of Evolutionary Films

Q: I love that the films are shot on location and it was stunningly shot by Michael Wood, set to a lush score by Phil Selway. Can you share about finding the locations in the UK and Austria, as well as the scoring process?

Michael Wood is an amazing D.O.P but then he also had the fabulous Alex Walker our designer to pair up with. The two of them did a beautiful job with few resources. David Broder our other producer found Minley Manor in Kent which was used for the old peoples home and then we decided that being in a few key places in Vienna was crucial, like the Judenplatz and so made the financial commitment to shoot in Vienna too. Michael understood very quickly what I wanted to do with the light in this film and the energy of the restless camera. I feel he achieved a great look and Alex also indulged my minimalist approach to spaces, allowing me to eliminate a lot of props and furniture so that we could really focus on the emotional intensity in some of the scenes. We had a great thing going between the three of us. I also want to mention Daniel Goddard who I have worked with for many years as an editor, he too completely understood what I was aiming for, he is a very sensitive and experienced editor and worked wonders.

Philip Selway has been amazing from the absolute beginning. He came on board before most other people and immediately started talking to me about the script. He was so supportive and also so positive about the story, he really understood the themes and spent a lot of time building up sound beds and themes laying the foundations for what turned out to be a stunningly beautiful score. Philip was key in keeping me true to my initial ideas.

Q: Last but not least, would you tell me some of films that’ve influenced you, particularly those dealing with WWII?

I actually grew up in many different countries but spent ten years of my childhood in France and was very influenced by French films. They have far more stories that are about the emotional journey rather than the physical one and that very much influences how I like to tell stories. I can’t say that I see this film as a WWII film and so never approached it like that. I just wanted to tell the story of a family , who had lost their men in the war and had to find their way in the world together, four women , carrying with them a secret that was so extraordinarily heavy, a secret that could have destroyed them all, but they were given a moment in time to let it go, to tell the truth and to let it go and in that way there is hope.
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The film is available in UK cinemas & digital download on September 15. Hopefully it’ll be available in the US soon.
For more info visit Letmegomovie.com


Thanks so much Polly for chatting with me!