MSPIFF 2019 Review: RED JOAN

Given that I have a thing for spy films AND I adore Dame Judi Dench, I knew I had to see Red Joan the second I saw the trailer. Dame Judi is best known to most moviegoers as James Bond’s tough-as-nails boss M, so the idea of her playing a British-born former spy who transfers nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets is undoubtedly intriguing. Red Joan is more in the vein of John Le Carré’s slo-burn type than an action-packed Bond flick, with most of the story told in flashback mode.

The film begins in modern day with the 80-something Joan Stanley tending her English garden. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and she’s charged with treason and whisked away by MI-5 for interrogation. Then we’re transported to Cambridge in the late 1930s. Young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is a bright, studious physics student who meets a new, rather mysterious fellow student Sonya (Tereza Srbova) who climbs through her window in a party dress. Her new charming, persuasive friend later takes Joan to a ‘film night,’ which is a cover for a meet-up with communist party sympathizer. The subsequent meetings and rendezvous with a Soviet-born student Leo (Tom Hughes) propel Joan into the world of espionage.

As I mentioned above, if you expect a high-octane thriller a la Bond, Bourne or Atomic Blonde, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. I for one enjoy both, there’s plenty of room for both styles in the genres. Inspired by the true story of Melitta Norwood, dubbed the “most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR,” Joan’s covert activities in the top secret nuclear research facility are far more grounded. The fact that back in the day women in the office were regarded as nothing more than secretaries was perhaps an advantage for female spies. Physics was (and still is) a male-dominated field where male chauvinism was the norm. On the flip side, it also makes Joan the perfect spy, as few would suspect that she’d possess the intellect to discern what the covert agency was building, let alone have the audacity to share those plans with the enemy.

Director Trevor Nunn, famous for his Shakespearean adaptations, adapted Norwood’s story based on Lindsay Shapero‘s script. Overall it’s a handsomely mounted production that should please fans of period pieces. The more I mull over this film though, there’s just something wanting. For one, because of the extensive flashback scenes, there isn’t enough of Dame Judi on screen for my liking. She’s billed as the lead, but Cookson clearly has the most screen time. But even with two actors playing the same character, the film barely scratches the surface in depicting a multi-layered woman in one of the most interesting times in history. Nunn depicts a series of espionage activities rather than deliver a compelling character study.  We barely get any insight into who Joan really is, her background, and why she did what she did. Even as her son Nick (Ben Miles) berated her ‘how could you?!’ and constantly asking her why, we only get generic answers like ‘I’m not a traitor… I love my country.’ 

For a film about a world filled with secrets, intrigue and imminent danger of being caught, the film also lacks any real tension. At times the romance get overly melodramatic that it often overpowers the story. I guess it’s a matter of expectations–I was expecting more of a mystery/suspense thriller than a spy romance. The performances are uneven as well. Cookson is quite fascinating to watch as a conflicted young woman who often finds herself in impossible situations. Naturally Joan is drawn to men who believe in her and sees her as her equal. As Leo, Tom Hughes comes across as rather lackluster and not charismatic enough for a supposedly sly, seductive character. Stephen Campbell Moore as Professor Max, Joan’s boss-turned-lover, fares a bit better here in a smaller role. Dame Judi herself is always solid, but given her immense acting cred, her talents is largely wasted in this film.

The biggest miss-opportunity any film could make is when it places its focus on the wrong thing, and I feel that it’s the case with Red Joan. It’s one of those movies that was entertaining enough because of the cast, but in the end I can’t help wonder what it could’ve been. Joan was described at one point as ‘one of the quickest minds in atomic physics,’ I wish the film had been as razor-sharp as its own protagonist.


Have you seen RED JOAN? What did you think?

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FlixChatter Review: BELLE (2013)

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As a big fan of period dramas, I’ve been looking forward to this film since last November when I first heard about it. Well, seven months later I finally got to see it and it’s certainly worth the wait.

The film opens with a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) picking up a young mixed-race girl from a ship and brought her to live with his aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), where she’s raised alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Unlike the Austen/Brontës adaptations, Belle is based on a true story. In fact, filmmaker Amma Assante was inspired by an 18th century painting of the real life miss Belle. It’s also the first time I saw a period drama starring a mixed race woman, an illegitimate child no less, which no doubt made for a tricky predicament growing up in Georgian era. Lord Mansfield tried to shelter her from the horror of slavery, but not from the dismal reality of racism.

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How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low in rank to dine with my family?

The question above that Belle posed to Lord Mansfield (whom she called ‘papa’) sums up her situation perfectly. Though Belle is brought up in such a privileged home, she’s constantly reminded of her place in the world, which is really no place for anyone to belong to. The color of her skin also prevents her from fully participating in society traditions and especially the issue of finding a suitable husband. The fact that Belle later becomes a woman of means after she inherited her father’s considerable fortune only made it trickier. It’s as if she’s a ‘free slave who begs for a master,’ Belle said to her confidante, a dashing and idealistic son of a vicar, John Davinier (Sam Reid).

Many people are likely comparing this film to 12 Years of Slave, but I think this this film is more akin to the excellent-yet-underrated Amazing Grace, which focused on British politician William Wilberforce who endeavored to end the British transatlantic slave trade in the late 1700s. As in Amazing Grace, there’s no gory brutality of slavery being shown, but it doesn’t mean we didn’t feel the barbaric reality of such practice. Yet unlike those two films (and most films of its kind), it’s intriguing to see the story of racial inequality from a woman’s point of view. The fact that we’ve got a British female director (Amma Assante) at the helm and a female screenwriter penning the script (Misan Sagay) certainly gave the film a unique perspective.

Assante’s astute direction offers a nice balance between the moral drama and the love story, as we become more and more invested in the characters, most especially Belle. I love how Assante re-enacted the making of the painting I mentioned above, it’s one of the many highlights of the film for me. There are also a few humorous moments to break the tension of the heavy subject matter. The cinematography and art direction are beautiful, the costumes are as gorgeous as the cast, but most importantly, it’s not style over substance. The dialog feels natural and the script is laden with lots of quotable remarks that really drive the sentiments home.

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As for the performances, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle is the heart and soul of this film. I was quite taken by the English actress’ nuanced and emotional performance right from the start. This is hopefully her first of many leading roles as she is not only beautiful, but has the screen charisma to match. She’s able to convey a deep sense of hurt, but is just as convincing when she’s fiercely-defiant. The ensemble cast is chock full of the best of British thespians, starting with Wilkinson and Watson, as well as Penelope Wilson and Miranda Richardson delivering memorable supporting roles. Aussie-born British actor Sam Reid has everything you’d want in a period drama hero: dashing, gentle, kind, and with strong conviction. His Davinier is almost too good to be true, plus his scorching chemistry with Mbatha-Raw made for some breathless moments. The weak link here to me is Tom Felton who once again plays a villain of sort, all contemptuous sneer as the racist would-be suitor to Belle’s cousin Elizabeth. He’s practically playing a variation of Harry Potter‘s Draco Malfoy here.

Though the finale is quite predictable, it still packs quite an emotional punch. Now, I don’t know how historically Belle had influenced the abolition of slavery in England, but it can be presumed that she had a hand in shaping the decision of Lord Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice in his ruling over the Zong Massacre case. It’s the case where the slaves were deemed more worthy dead than alive, a reality that could very well happened to Dido herself had it not been for the ‘grace of God,’ as Davinier put it. Even with the creative license taken, the essence of Belle’s story seems intact.

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Final Thoughts: I knew this film would be good, but I absolutely loved this film and one I’d definitely add to my Blu-ray collection. I always find the social class intricacies in period dramas deeply intriguing, but Belle adds more layers to that with the race and slavery issue, whilst keeping a love story at the core. I really think that even those who aren’t fond of this genre would find this moving and inspiring. An impressive sophomore effort from miss Assante, I sure hope continues to make more films in the future!


Have you seen Belle? I’d love to hear what you think.

Rental Pick: Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET (1996)

It took me 3 days but I finally finished the 4-hour long Shakespeare adaptation by Kenneth Branagh. I’d even use the term ‘masterpiece’ as it really was quite an undertaking to bring the Bard’s most famous play to life in such a grand and passionate fashion.

Please keep in mind that before seeing this, my knowledge of Shakespeare is minimal at best. I didn’t grow up reading Shakespearean text nor plays, nor did I ever attend any drama class where Old English was spoken. Of course I’ve heard the term ‘To be or not to be’ but in what context it was spoken I never knew. In fact, I even forgot (or simply didn’t know) that Hamlet was Danish! So I’m not going to be presumptuous and think that everyone knows the story of Hamlet, so here’s the gist:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home to find his father murdered and his mother remarrying the murderer, his uncle. Meanwhile, a war is brewing.

The opening night scene at Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, with the three guards witnessing the ‘ghost’ of the deceased King Hamlet felt like it went on forever. But as soon as the scenes move to inside the castle depicting the festivities of the wedding between Prince Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and his mother Gertrude, things started to pick up.

I LOVE this scene. Right from when the hero of the story is introduced (as displayed in the main banner above) with an interesting camera angle that suggests Hamlet’s loneliness and despair, the entire scene is exquisitely shot. Throughout the jubilant affair, Hamlet’s expression is stoic and blatantly mournful, wearing black when everyone is dressed in colorful attire. The ending of that scene with all the confetti flying in the air is just not only looks gorgeous, but it’s really a beautiful intro into the dynamics of the main characters in the room.

There are a lot of things I admire about this film. The Shakespearean dialog can be a source of frustration to some but I really think it enriches the story way more than if they had gone with modern English. Before seeing this, the other Shakespeare adaptations I saw were Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo & Juliet (both the Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann’s version), so I’m somewhat familiar with the ‘thou, thine, thee’ use of words but still, for the first half hour or so of watching Hamlet, I was quite overwhelmed. But after a while I actually became enthralled by it. I think the art of speaking is lost nowadays, people swear so much that every other word is replaced by some expletive to express whether disappointment or praise… so to hear people speaking in this manner with not a single f-word or JC (this one always makes my ears burn!) spoken in the entire 4-hour movie is quite refreshing.

Then there is the cast… in addition to Branagh, we’ve got Kate Winslet, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, and Robin Williams.

Many of them only have brief cameo, but each actor brought something special to their roles. I especially enjoy seeing two of my favorite actors, Heston and Sewell, though they didn’t share a scene together. I thought Billy Crystal as the grave-maker was somewhat an unlikely choice, and he didn’t even alter his speaking voice at all. It sounded a bit jarring at first, but after a while I found it amusing. It’s quite an interesting contrast to Derek Jacobi, whose delivery is so natural it’s as if the London-born actor was actually born speaking that way.

Out of the main cast, Kate Winslet as Ophelia really stood out to me… her performance is nothing short of phenomenal. Whether she’s projecting fear of Hamlet’s madness or heartbreak as she mourns her father, her acting is simply sublime. I dare say that she perhaps eclipsed Branagh himself, though he too is impressive. I enjoy all the soliloquy scenes he did, and I always thought Branagh has a rich speaking voice. The character actors are particularly notable, especially Nicholas Farrell and Michael Maloney as Horatio and Laertes respectively, both of them had so many lines but both seemed undaunted. I recognized both of them right away from the BBC miniseries The Jury which also stars Jacobi (a fantastic legal drama btw, I highly recommend it).

I’ve since learned that this is the first “full-length” film version of Hamlet ever made and the most ‘complete.’ As I’ve mentioned, it’s one of the longest feature film I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most beautiful. There is such a grand, sweeping feel to this film, an ‘epic’ quality if you will. As it turns out, this film was shot in 65mm, in fact, as of last year, this was the last studio film to be filmed entirely using that high-resolution process. The shot is particularly effective in the castle invasion scene as the Norwegian troops came marching in. I learned in the Special Features section that the crew had to cover that entire castle compound with fake snow!

To complement the gorgeous visuals, Branagh worked with his longtime collaborator Patrick Doyle to score the movie. I adore Doyle’s work, I could easily add Hamlet‘s soundtrack as one of my favorites from the Scottish composer. So really, this film has it all… dazzling visuals, superb script, beautiful music, and fantastic cast. Oh, and a momentous ending! The film sort of opens in that main hall in Elsinore and the climax takes place in the same spot. This time, the crowd gathers to watch Hamlet and Laertes in a sword-fight. It’s an exquisite scene… not only is the duel the most action-packed scene of the whole film, it’s also packed with emotional roller coaster. All the madness, hatred and seething rage that has been building amongst them is at the boiling point, and when Hamlet finally gets to avenge his dead father, it was a great moment. It’s short-lived of course, hence the tragedy.

I’m glad I finally watch this film. I think I appreciate it even more after having seen the behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews. It’s an ambitious endeavor but Branagh pulls it off beautifully. Now that I’ve seen this, I’m interested to see other Hamlet adaptations out there but I believe this adaptation will stand as one of the best, if not the best of them all. Definitely a piece of cinema to treasure for generations to come.

4.5 out of 5 reels


If you’ve seen this film, I’d love to know what you think. If not, what is your favorite Shakespeare film adaptation so far?

Weekend Roundup: Musings on A Room with a View

It’s Monday again! Did you all have a nice weekend? Well, it’s a nice one weather-wise here in the Twin Cities, in fact, it could very well be one of the best Halloween weather ever. We usually get snow or unusually chilly temps, but yesterday there wasn’t a cloud in the gorgeous blue sky and it was warm enough to forgo your jacket!

Friday was Girls Movie Night for October, where my girlfriends and I take turn hosting dinner and a movie. A Room with a View had been on our to-watch list for some time, but due to a couple of snafus on my part, we haven’t been able to get the movie until now. It’s a Merchant-Ivory period drama starring a then 19-year-old Helena Bonham Carter set in Edwardian England at the turn of the 20th century. I suggested this movie after reading all the accolades this movie got (winning 3 Oscars, and a slew of other awards), and the story of illicit romance appeals to me.

The movie opens with a gorgeous view of Florence where Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter) and her chaperon Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) are vacationing. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the view from the room they were promised to get, and they complain about it over dinner (I suppose I’d be too given the view is of the Ponte Vecchio bridge over Arno river!). Upon learning about the situation, fellow guests Mr. Emerson and his son George gladly give up their room-with-a-view to Lucy and Charlotte. Before long, sparks fly between George and Lucy, and George makes sure Lucy knows it. But Charlotte reminds Lucy that George isn’t the perfect suitor, as the Emersons aren’t as socially acceptable (basically for being too ‘open’ for such a stifled society), and so she must let her go and marry someone her family would approve. To complicate matters, the Emersons end up becoming their neighbors and not only disrupts her nuptial plans but also challenge her way of thinking, as well as those closest to her.

Perhaps I should give this movie another go, but upon initial viewing, it didn’t wow me as much as I thought it would. I like the premise of the movie, but I thought the movie is kind of all over the place and boring at times. I actually dozed off the last 15 minutes of the movie, I did wake up just before the closing credits when George & Lucy sit by the window exactly like in the movie poster. It’s quite obvious the plot is predictable, but I don’t mind that so much if I can just get into characters. Aside from their first unexpected but passionate kiss in the fields, I never quite get into the main love story. The baby-faced Bonham Carter captured the sweet innocence of her character, yet she just wasn’t captivating enough for me to root for her. But the worst part is Julian Sands’ stilted performance, which pretty much drew jeers from my girlfriends for his unconvincing delivery. He just wasn’t compelling enough in the ‘romeo’ role, in fact, there’s a lack of emotion from the romance the entire plot is built on, which is a pity as it would’ve been a far more engaging movie. There are strong performances from Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, but the scene stealer here is the unrecognizable Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil, Lucy’s bookish and pretentious fiance. His character is a stark contrast to the free-spirited, fun-loving George, and we’re supposed to dislike him, but his amusing portrayal truly is one of the highlights of the movie. No wonder Daniel’s career is light years ahead of the actor in the lead role.

Photo courtesy of Pixelcrave.net

Oh, one thing I didn’t quite expect from this period drama is the scene of male frontal nudity in the skinny dipping scene. I’m not talking about a brief glimpse but an extensive scene of the three male characters being shown clowning around freely in and out of water, there’s even a chase scene that lead to the women discovering George and Lucy’s brother Freddy in their birthday suit. I suppose it’s meant to show the stark contrast between the openness of the modern sensibilities and the repressed culture of the day, which seems to suggest that modesty equals ‘uptight.’ Well, call us old fashioned but we we were as taken aback as the female characters in the movie and we certainly won’t be comfortable running into guys skinny dipping in real life. The scene itself is pretty hilarious, it wasn’t scandalous or obscene, but it did take us away from the movie for a little bit.

Overall, it’s a decent movie and I’m glad I watched it, but I can’t say I love it. It’s a gorgeous movie for sure, what with the Florentine art and architecture, the melodious Beethoven music and the picturesque scenes of Italy and English countryside, if only the romance is equally bewitching. If anything though, it made me want to go back to Firenze pronto!

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Anybody has seen this film? Well, what did you think?