Movie Monday: The Physician (2013)

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I seem to watch a lot of very long, worthy European historical dramas. This one is … well, it’s OK. It’s the 11th century, and young Rob (Tom Payne) is an orphan who gets raised by an itinerant barber-surgeon/quack (Stellan Skarsgård). Deciding he wants to go be a proper doctor after seeing a Jewish physician pull some advanced stuff, he sets off to Isfahan to study with the great Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). Along the way he has all kinds of adventures, with sandstorms and religious fanatics and daring rescues the Black Death and whatnot, and solves medical puzzles and falls in love with a girl (Emma Rigby) who is wedded to another and all that kind of thing.

And, you know, it’s … average. It has that general feeling of just slight predictable inadequacy that a lot of otherwise fine movies I cover here on movie Monday have.

Like a lot of films set in the middle ages, it takes a few central points (medicine in the Muslim world was very advanced compared to Europe in the 11th century, Ibn Sina is one of the greatest minds of the era) and expands them into a pretty by-the-numbers medical/personal drama with a little bit of action.

I understand that the portrayal of 11th-century England at the beginning is just meant to look like, you know, darkness, illness, ignorance, superstition and poverty, but it would help if it looked more like an ignorant, superstitious 11th-century. How did this dude wind up being called Rob? Was the author of the novel (I assume he has the same name in the novel) just too tired to Google “Old English name” or something? (I accept there may have been some people in England called Robert, I dunno, but it’s like setting your novel in modern-day Kentucky and calling the hero Etienne-Laurent de Saint-Luc. You’d only do it if you were making a point.

Anyway, I know this is short but I don’t have much to say about this. It is an OK average historical adventure movie.

Movie Monday: The Physician (2013)

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)

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

Imagine that it is the moderately distant future and you are a historian. Some highly specific catastrophe has wiped out historical records except for films (let’s say a cautious film buff built a very secure archive on the moon). Your task is to reconstruct the history of the Second World War, but the only tool you have available is war movies.

You would actually be able to get quite a lot, I should think: for instance, you’d be reasonably easily able to work out the dates, the places and the major combatants. You would be able to identify characters who almost certainly existed (Churchill, FDR, Hitler, various generals, various celebrated heroes, villains or victims). You could probably reconstruct a lot of the uniforms, equipment and technology, even some of the slang and language. You would know that there was a lot of fiction in your sources, but there would also be a lot that even the fantastical sources would agree on.

You would probably get a very exaggerated idea of the role of the US and Britain relative to the USSR, but you’d be a smart, critical person and you would think to yourself that this might be because of the much larger English-language film industry. You would know a lot less about the war in

When it came to specific incidents, though, it would be a lot harder. There are plenty of major battles that have several films about them, so it wouldn’t be hard to pin those down, but I suspect that there are a lot of quite real people and incidents which appear in only one film. You’d be unsure about those: you would know that “based on a true story” was a literary trope (with only a film archive surviving of Earth’s culture, you’d be something of a film-studies expert, after all) and not automatically credit it. So there would be a huge range of stories where you just wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were real or false.

You’d wind up arguing about historical events largely as works of art: so, for instance, Kelly’s Heroes has all the tropes of a comedy film, and comedy films are typically not historically accurate, so that one is probably unlikely. But there would be debate about it in each case. And there would be a huge number of events which were important but which, because they were simply never made into a movie, were completely lost to your knowledge — people whose actions influenced history greatly but who no one of your era would ever hear of.

You would be very conscious that you were studying, not a thing, but the stories told about that thing, and understanding those stories would be a challenging task in itself, requiring its own specific expertise.

This is — a little bit — what it’s like being a historian in most periods.

Now, I’m not saying that Movie Monday is anything more than just an excuse for me to mock things for the kinds of stories they tell about history. I just thought it was a fun analogy.

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

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)