Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

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Queen Christina of Sweden is a fascinating character; the only surviving child of the great Gustav II Adolph, she inherited the throne when he died in 1632. Once she came of age, she led Sweden out of the Thirty Years’ War and generally established a reputation as one of Europe’s weirdest and most interesting monarchs. She loved philosophy and learning, corresponded with Descartes, had all sorts of court intrigues, rejected the dress and behaviour expected of her as a woman, refused to marry and ultimately converted to Catholicism and abdicated the throne.

The problem of this film is, of course, that Christina’s actual life is much stranger and more interesting than this film wants to make it. It has a lot of good bits, but ultimately a voyage of philosophical discovery just isn’t all that cinematic an experience. It has a couple of additional problems: it’s in English, but most of the actors aren’t native English speakers, so it feels a little stilted and clumsy. It doesn’t feel like it can assume much knowledge about Swedish history on the part of its audience (probably fair), so it explains everything from the ground up, necessarily simplifying it. It’s also committed to telling as much of the story of Christina’s reign as possible, which means that everything feels a little … compressed.

Of course, the thing that attracted the most attention about this film when it came out is that its central love story is between Christina and one of her ladies in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre. This is one of those suspected relationships that is impossible to prove but looks not unlikely, and it seems to be the thing about this film that made the most lasting impression on fans and critics — both because it’s a historical drama with a relationship between two women at its centre (rare enough) and because it’s the only part of the plot that the film really gives any weight to, which is weird considering there’s all this fate-of-nations stuff going on.

But there are discrepancies in this plotline, presumably created to make Christina more sympathetic. For instance, in the film Sparre’s marriage is shown as something ginned up to separate Christina from her lover. In reality it happened at Christina’s instigation, which suggests a more complex attitude on the queen’s part.

So The Girl King feels rushed, and rushed in a way that gives it a weird emotional tone; it can only hit the highlights, so everything is turned up to 11 all the time. It lurches from exposition to crisis to confrontation to more exposition, with too little time to let its setting and characters breathe. It has some good performances, including Malin Buska as Christina and Patrick Bauchau as Descartes, but overall it feels jumbled. And it still leaves out most of her life, an eventful time that would just retroactively complicate things further.

I did like the little touches: the flock of sheep outside the cathedral was my favourite.

Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

Movie Monday: Hysteria (2011)

Well! This one’s a little bit risqué, at least by the standards of Movie Monday. Which is to say not very.

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OK, so, Hysteria is a 2011 rom-com and/or sex farce about the history of medicine. Hugh Dancy is Dr Mortimer Granville, an idealistic youngster who gets a job with a prosperous doctor (Jonathan Pryce). Pryce has two daughters (Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal), with predictable results. But the real twist is that Pryce’s specialty is hysteria, which he treats by way of genital massage. This was a real thing, more or less, and it’s mainly what I want to talk about — that and the technological development that goes with it.

So, whimsical Victorian comedy — and idealistic Victorian political subplot — aside, this is a really fascinating period in the murky history of public sexuality. The literature of sexuality had been trending away from the moral literature of the middle ages throughout the early modern period, resulting in a blend of moral and medical writing that gradually came to be dominated by the medical side. That included a lot of quack medical finger-wagging about how you should avoid impure thoughts and sit in cold baths and zap yourself with electricity if you started to think about sex, but it also created this weird moment where a certain class of medical practitioner basically made a living as a licensed and respectable prostitute.

Now how common this was I couldn’t tell you. I believe the standard popular work on the subject is Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasmwhich I haven’t actually read. But it’s interesting to note that this change from moral to medical, which still preserved the usual fierce condemnation of masturbation, essentially created an inadvertent loophole that allowed this strange side hustle to exist for a while.

There is a dark side, though: medicalising masturbation took it out of the realm of the penitential and into the realm of, y’know, surgical intervention. Take, for instance, the case of Isaac Baker Brown. Baker Brown subscribed to all the contemporary theories about masturbation — basically, that it was responsible for everything from indigestion and bad posture to heart disease and insanity. When faced with women who suffered from it, then, the obvious answer was clitoridectomy. He operated on a number of women between the early 1860s and 1867, when he was kicked out of the Obstetrical Society. His opponents don’t necessarily fill you with confidence, though — one critic said that doctors “have scarcely more right to remove a woman’s clitoris than we have to deprive a man of his penis,” which is a weird statement.

So as funny as the concepts behind this film are, it’s not all fun and games in the world of Victorian sexual medicine. In retrospect I sup

As for the movie, it’s funny and full of anachronisms. It’s sufficiently light-hearted that you can’t really criticise it for any of those lapses, though!

Movie Monday: Hysteria (2011)

Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

In the many years of Movie Monday on this blog — honestly, it’s been the most consistent feature — I have mainly focused on trash. This is for a number of reasons: a lot of it is easy to find on the web, it’s fun to write about and, crucially, it tends to be short, with glaring flaws that I can make funny jokes about.

So here I am writing about a Big Serious Film from Big Name Director Steven Spielberg, and it’s about the Cold War and oh Lord here we go.

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OK, so. Bridge of Spies is based on a thing that did really happen, and is pretty faithful to its inspiration by the standards of a historical drama. In 1957, the FBI arrested a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (here played by Mark Rylance); he was defended by a lawyer named James B. Donovan (Hanks), who fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court despite the fact that no one wanted the guy acquitted. In 1961, Donovan was also involved in exchanging Abel for good ol’ Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down by the Soviets in 1960, together with an American grad student named Frederic Pryor who had been arrested by the East Germans basically for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that’s quite an interesting story, but as we all know, historical movies must be About Something. So what is Bridge of Spies about?

Well, I guess it’s supposed to be about integrity. Donovan is supposed to be a guy who is sort of fundamentally honest, willing to appeal the Abel case because Those Are the Rules, but who grows into a more humane honesty when he tries to save Pryor (who is of no value as an intelligence asset) as well as Powers (who is, of course, very valuable).

Cold War movies tend to be spy thrillers, war movies or stories about finding the shared humanity with people who are supposed to be your enemies. Unless they’re set exclusively in America, in which case they’re about people of principle standing up to a paranoid and repressive American security state (e.g. Good Night and Good Luck). Here, it’s … a little more complicated?

So we start out with the story of Donovan v. Paranoid and Repressive American Security State (hereinafter PRASS). In this one, PRASS, in the persons of a cynical CIA agent (Scott Shepherd), a rich jerk judge (Dakin Matthews), a rich jerk law boss (Alan Alda), and so on, wants Donovan to just bend the rules (inform on Abel, take a dive in court) for the sake of America, but he believes that the rules are America, fights hard for his client and his principles, and incidentally becomes friends with Abel, who is an unassuming guy with a wry sense of humour.

Now that might lead you to think that this is one of those movies about how the Cold War twisted American society into a rotten old maze of institutionalised hatred and partisan self-interest and whatnot, but in the second part of the movie our action moves to East Germany. And of course East Germany is a total shitshow, a mixture of repressive institutions, desperate poverty and the good ol’ Russian boot. And once there things become even twistier and more ambiguous than they were back in the US.

Put these two parts together and the movie becomes both more nuanced and a little simpler: the world is a snaky mess of dirtbags, even if they are dirtbags with nuance and human value, and in such a world it’s important to be as little of a dirtbag as you can be. Something like that, anyway? I mean, you know, Tom Hanks as a figure of weary everyman integrity, just like … most movies.

Historically, it does the things most such films do: it compresses its story, it punches it up and it simplifies it. So, for instance, people were not happy with Donovan in real life, but in the movie someone shoots at his house, which I believe did not happen. Pryor was arrested in East Berlin, but in the movie East German troops beat him up at a half-built Berlin Wall, which was already complete by the time he was arrested. Donovan had a rough time in East Berlin, but he didn’t get mugged like he does in the movie, I don’t think. And of course the film just basically skips the years between 1958 and 1961, making it seem like the whole story takes place in the space of, I don’t know, a few months.

Movie-wise, you know, it’s a film about the Cold War that does, I think, a pretty decent job of showing the murkiness of international relations of the era and which, while critical of American institutions, doesn’t sugar-coat the nature of Eastern Bloc states in doing so. Oh, and it actually deals with the differences between the USSR and its clients, which is something you don’t often see. And it has good performances and a pretty good script and a good general sense of the weirdness of things. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but I enjoyed it.

Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

I tend to just stick any historical film that turns up on Netflix in my list with the aim of writing about it for this blog, even if I don’t really know anything about it. That was the case with The Siege of Jadotville, a 2016 Irish movie about the, er, siege of Jadotville, in which a force of Katangan militia and mercenaries attacked a force of Irish UN peacekeepers in 1961. The film is based on a 2006 book about the battle, which reopened interest in a battle that had basically been overlooked for many of the intervening decades.

The whole thing was part of the Congo Crisis, specifically the Katanga secession, in which a mineral-rich southern province seceded from the newly-independent Republic of the Congo, backed by European mining interests. Bloody civil war over mineral rights in a Cold War context, with massacres, incompetence, and so on. Ugly stuff, today mainly remembered for the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in a possibly-suspicious plane crash. I suspect that the murky political nature of the conflict — and the fact that the defenders ultimately surrendered to forces that weren’t a real army — is the reason for the general silence about the event, but I’m not an expert.

In terms of war movies, this definitely is one. A tough, smart commander (Jamie Dornan), a bunch of mildly-individualised squaddies, and the double-dealing SOBs back at headquarters who hang the men out to dry. Some historical context, some scenery, plenty of exciting battle scenes and a couple of bigger-name actors in supporting roles (including Mark Strong as Conor Cruise O’Brien, here given a very unsympathetic treatment).

It’s nice to see a movie about a lesser-known conflict. It’s also nice to see a movie that focuses on soldiers who are explicitly not a bunch of battle-hardened tough guys. Indeed, much is made of the fact that this is the Irish army’s first real overseas deployment. You definitely get the appropriate sense of desperate, improvised heroism, like a more frantic Zulu: historians estimate the defenders of Jadotville killed about 300 of their attackers for losses of, er, zero. Whether that’s true or whether they see double when they’re counting enemy bodies as has been the ccase in various conflicts around the world I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s an enjoyable, well-made war movie about an interesting conflict that’s (mostly) effectively evoked. If you like war movies and feel like watching one some evening, this is definitely worth your time.

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

Movie Monday: Belle (2013)

I mentioned earlier that some of my tutoring students are doing a unit on the history of migrant and minority communities in Britain. As part of that, they watched this film: a biopic about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of a Royal Navy officer and a West Indian woman named Maria Belle (or Bell). Raised by relatives in England, Dido Belle had a pretty unusual life for a mixed-race woman of the time. We don’t know every detail, but she seemed to live with the family — and her uncle was the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, so a pretty high-ranking family — on conditions of some (although perhaps not total?) equality.

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The film fictionalises the story (since, as I said, we don’t know as much as we might about Dido Belle’s life) and focuses on a couple of things: the legal battles concerning slavery in 18th-century England and Dido’s romance with serious-looking legal student John Davinier. She did in fact marry a John Davinier, but I don’t think this guy has much in common with him.

So it’s clearly going for a sort of Austen-movie style, with young ladies worrying about finding suitable husbands and who’s got £2,000 a year, and might the stern son of a local clergyman have feelings for our heroine? The romance, of course, ties in to both Belle’s race and the issue of social class — the challenge set up by the film is that Dido is from an aristocratic family, and therefore shouldn’t marry beneath herself, but because she’s mixed-race British people of the correct social class won’t be interested. Unless, that is, they are handsome fortune-hunters being pressured by Miranda Richardson to do it.

The legal plot focuses on the Zong case, which was a court battle relating to insurance payments on slaves killed by the crew of a slave ship. Mansfield’s decision is seen as a stepping-stone toward the abolition of slavery, and it plays a big role in the film, but the question of romance (with an abolitionist) is definitely foremost. Which is fair enough; I am not a legal historian, but I am given to understand that a) Belle wasn’t particularly involved in the Zong case — that’s just something Mansfield’s critics said as a jab — and b) the idea that Mansfield was moving toward abolition in that case is probably an overstatement. Publicity surrounding the case did stimulate anti-slavery activism, though, and it was seen as important that Mansfield had ruled against the slavers, who were an important economic pressure group.

Mansfield’s summation in the Zong case in the film is actually taken from another important anti-slavery case, the Somersett case, in which he famously said that slavery was “odious” and “incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political,” but it glosses over the more complex context of what he was actually saying — that slavery couldn’t be supported by common law but only by “positive law.” This was the decision that established that slavery was illegal in England and Wales, and is usually given as more persuasive evidence of Mansfield’s anti-slavery position than the Zong case.

It looks good, it’s well-shot and it has a lot of good people in it: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is good in the title role. But the dialogue is … well, it could be better; it sounds stiff, and not quite authentic. Some of the exposition is pretty obvious. And it is a little slower than it might be. Perhaps a lot slower in places. That would be fine if the slowness came from character-illuminating digressions or scenes that were genuinely funny or exciting by themselves. But a lot of them are just slow expository scenes in which very good actors explain things to each other in a stately, dignified way.

So as a drama it isn’t completely successful, and as a period piece it has to be treated with caution, simply because we know so little about its very compelling subject. But it’s an interesting piece, and especially good, I thought, in its portrayal of the hurtful racism of people who weren’t trying to be hurtful racists — indeed, who were being as much of the opposite as practicality would allow. Social norms are a hell of a thing, and even people genuinely trying to be kind and caring can use them to hurt others, which is something that often gets overlooked in films about prejudice in historical periods. It’s a shame, then, that much of the rest of the film is kind of … rote.

A note about the painting: one of the subplots is about the famous painting of Dido and her cousin, once thought to be by Zoffany (who I only really know from Gilbert and Sullivan) but now attributed to an unnamed painter.

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In the film, the painting is portrayed as a statement of the characters’ equality — the two women are on the same eyeline, which is something art historians have pointed out about it. But there are also a lot of signs of racial difference in the image — the seated, reading white woman and the almost impish black woman carrying the platter of fruit representing a distinction between culture and nature that was often given a racial edge in the art of the era.

 

Movie Monday: Belle (2013)

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)

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Today’s film is another one of those ones that just cropped up on Netflix and I thought I’d give a spin. At the risk of national stereotyping, my assumption before starting this is that it’s going to be a searching look at the extent of Dutch complicity with the Nazis in WWII — a theme that was famously explored in what (I think?) is the big-name Dutch war movie, Soldier of Orange. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Anyway, I guess my point is that a certain amount of uncomfortable ambiguity or outright condemnation is the norm in European films dealing with this era, which I have to say forms a refreshing contrast to the rah-rah-rah tone in a lot of the other foreign films I watch. But since this movie’s about an asshole who helped the Germans kill Dutch Jews and got away with it, I bet I’m not going to be super happy about the movie, no matter how refreshing it is. Let’s watch.

It’s an interesting approach — we see Riphagen at first as an ambiguous figure, resenting the Germans he works with and seeming to want to protect the hidden Jews he discovers in hiding. And outwardly this seems like a premise with which we’re familiar — a Schindler’s List kind of deal in which someone working within the Nazi system, morally compromised perhaps but ultimately trying to do some kind of good, is going to save some Jewish lives.

Thiiiiis … ain’t that kind of movie. And I almost feel bad about writing it up, because I think that if you went into it cold the twist could be very effective. But who does that? The summary of who Dries Riphagen was is in the Netflix description, and of course I always go and look things up when I’m writing a Movie Monday post (although I don’t speak Dutch, so I’m a bit limited in this case).

There’s a B-plot, as well, in which baby-faced goodie Jan (a cop by day, charged with rounding up Jews and so on) and his buddies in the Resistance try to outwit the Germans and so on. He’s romancing another young patriot, but she might not be all she seems — and perhaps he is not such a baby-faced goodie after all.

There’s a good deal of working the audience based on similarities to other film genres going on here, I think — so a lot of Riphagen’s style (and this seems to be historical) is very based on the kind of American mobster look, and the film plays on that as well; we’re used to seeing really bad, dangerous people as principled in some way or as romantic scoundrels, and the movie plays with that a bit.

But, as it turns out, Riphagen is only helping Jews hide from the Nazis as a means of getting money and valuables out of them for his supposed assistance; once the well is dry, or they start to get wise, they get fed to the Germans, and off strolls Riphagen, pocketing the cash and putting up his mistress in a hapless old Jewish lady’s comfy flat.

One of the Things I Always Say is that it’s a mistake to assume that police states are efficient; most of the time, they’re the same blend of venality, careerism, infighting and incompetence that characterises any human endeavour, but amplified by increased power and lack of oversight. This is a common misconception — perhaps because police states work so hard at presenting an image of ruthless efficiency, or perhaps because people assume that if you try harder at something you get better at it — and I think it’s quite a dangerous one, since it gives people mistaken ideas about public safety policy (to say the least). This isn’t to say police states aren’t dangerous, of course. That was one of the things about The Lives of Others that I really enjoyed: it portrayed the East German police state as a genuine threat without making it seem superhuman.

But actually, most of the film isn’t about Riphagen’s wartime activities: the Allies show up by the halfway mark. A lot of it is focused on Riphagen and his wife and their experiences as the Netherlands fall to the Allies, including his stint as a counter-insurgency type, looking for arms drops for the Resistance and that kind of thing. He keeps playing the double-agent card, and you keep hoping that he’s going to get caught up with, even though you know he won’t. The real people involved in his postwar pursuit and escape, Wim Sanders and Frits Kerkoven, also start to show up as larger characters. It also starts to get into the disorganisation of the late- and post-war Netherlands, including the usual division between Communist and pro-Western Resistance types, just in case you needed a reminder that the good guys aren’t necessarily any better organised.

They do a fine old job of making a city being liberated at the end of WWII — usually portrayed as a sort of joyous holiday — seem sinister and menacing.

So it’s a historical biopic, a crime movie and a spy thriller. It’s a useful corrective to some common notions about the war and at the same time a really frustrating and depressing film. It’s well-made, although to be perfectly honest I’m not sure it quite fills its two-hour-plus running time. Still, I’m glad I watched it, and to the best of my limited knowledge it seems like a reasonable and nuanced portrayal of the complexities and betrayals of wartime Holland.

And in the end, baby-faced goodie Jan comes up short. Virtue is punished, vice rewarded, and everything goes to cold, hard hell.

So … maybe not the ideal viewing choice for a guy like me.

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A few weeks ago I wrote about the recent TV version of Wolf Hall. This week we’re back in the 16th century with the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, a much more flattering portrayal of Thomas More.

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And of course it’s a classic, with every son of a gun in the world in it: Orson Welles is Wolsey, Paul Scofield is More, and, well, I mean, just look at that poster up above.

It’s good, of course — won Best Picture, full of great actors, lush visuals, all that kind of thing. Robert Shaw shouts like anything. Leo McKern is a fantastic counterpoint to Wolf Hall‘s version of Cromwell; a real devious son of a bitch but without the motivating principle.

So what sort of picture of More are we painting here? Basically one that portrays him as an example of principle, principle writ large. And that naturally means glossing over all the stuff More did that, while it might very well have been an expression of his principles, rather clashes with ours (More burned heretics, but everyone burned heretics). In essence it builds up to the moments of principled defiance that characterised More’s end and made him famous. There is a fantastic line where the Duke of Norfolk calls his behaviour “disproportionate” as if it’s the worst thing he can think of.

And that’s not a bad eye on an aspect of 16th-century society that has some parallels in a lot of societies — the idea that “go along, get along” is actually a principle rather than a shameful compromise. Not that it’s an original observation, necessarily, but it’s expressed well.

Anyway, it’s a story about moral conflict where Wolf Hall is essentially a political story that presents the moral compromises that result from the political strategies used to serve moral agendas. It’s an interesting contrast between interpretations of a time that has become synonymous with moral conflict.

I’m impressed by the fact that claims to be “a motion picture entertainment for all times,” which is … I’m not sure about that. It’s a little bit of a historical pageant, and visually it doesn’t have much to distinguish itself other than lots of velvet. But this is the kind of thing they put on movie posters back i8n the day.

So I liked it, but you don’t need me to tell you that a movie that won Best Picture is good.

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)