Mary Queen of Scots is a film of Ps and Qs. It possesses perfect performances from its entire cast, especially its leading queens, Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I. Ronan has been an electrifying screen presence since Atonement, and her subsequent roles in such varied fare as Hanna, Brooklyn and Lady Bird have highlighted her extraordinary talent and charisma. Here she excels as Mary, a woman driven by ambition but tempered by compassion, focused on achieving the throne of England and seeing herself as the saviour of Scotland. Presented by director Josie Rourke as well as costume designer Alexandra Byrne as a Joan of Arc-esque figure, Mary commands the screen and her court, until the political power plays of her courtiers undermine her. Meanwhile Elizabeth – played with anguish and steely resolve by Robbie – manages her court with Machiavellian cunning often disguised as acquiescence. The scheming amongst nobles both English and Scottish is a narrative parallel between the two major strands of Beau Willimon’s screenplay. Rourke expresses these strands with visual parallels as well, cutting between graphic matches of each queen or between similar drapes or sheets. These veils are significant as these women are veiled from the world around them, unable to trust the men whom they work with while these same men plot against her. This is the grimmest of the film’s Ps, as Mary Queen of Scots is a tale of two women encountering the ruthlessness of the patriarchy. Threatened by these women who offer compassion, understanding and equal religious rights to their subjects, the nobles of both countries manipulate and manoeuvre around their sovereigns, resorting to any means necessary to further their pursuit of power. The final image of Mary’s face, which recalls the opening scene, underscores the tragic tone of this grim portrait of the parallels of power and the pitilessness of patriarchy.
The other day, a cat offered its opinion on the Oscar nominations. At any other time, this would seem strange, but Oscar season is when all opinions on film quality and aesthetic worthiness become, according to all and sundry offering opinions, The Truth. Whatever the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates for awards, everyone from a broadsheet critic to a tweeting cat knows better.
I have opinions on the nominations, but I’m more interested in what they represent rather than knowing, let alone deciding, The Truth about the best films of last year. I am pleased to see some of my favourites from last year nominated, and while other top films of mine have been largely or entirely overlooked, I don’t think the Academy members are wrong, just have different views. In the run up to the awards, I’ll post my views and predictions on the various nominees, but for starters, let’s consider the nominees for Best Picture.
The dominant story around the nominations is the inclusion of Black Panther. The first superhero film to receive this accolade, it is also a significant black film. A blockbuster with a predominantly black cast, that succeeded critically and commercially with its incorporation of commentary about racial history and isolationism, the nomination of Black Panther is a hugely significant cultural event. Criticism of this nomination is largely based around the film’s lack of aesthetic quality: seemingly the film ‘is not really good enough’ to be nominated.
These criticisms do not specify the standards by which film quality should be measured, and imply elitist attitudes against blockbusters and superhero films in general. This cultural prejudice is interesting, since while less harmful, it is no less a prejudice than that based on skin colour. Artistic merit is subjective, and while there may be critical standards that could be considered objective, perhaps from the practitioners such as editors and cinematographers, these standards are unlikely to be universally accepted. Therefore, it seems more appropriate, and certainly less arrogant, to embrace the various subjective positions and accept the wonderful diversity of perspectives.
Speaking of diversity, I wonder if a predominantly white superhero film would have attracted such discussion. The nomination of Black Panther probably is more a political statement than an artistic one, as the members of AMPAS present themselves as progressive. The other nominees also suggest this different approach, with only two of the Best Picture nominees focused upon white men. Of these, I am yet to see Vice so will post my review subsequently, but at the very least it seems to be a satire of conservative white power, a point underscored by Christian Bale’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.
A Star Is Born is probably the most traditional and conservative of the nominees, being a remake of a popular rags-to-riches story in which a man helps a woman while wrestling with his personal demons. I loved the film and have no problem with it being nominated, but I am glad it is the only typical nominee. The biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is also typical, but its focus on a gay musician of Asian descent makes it unusual. Films focused on gay characters have received limited awards attention, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight being earlier examples. I’m not the biggest fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, and controversy around its director may keep it out of the frontrunning, but I applaud its inclusion.
Another film with homosexual elements is The Favourite, a surprising inclusion because of its focus upon women but also because it is such an odd film. ‘Costume dramas’ do attract attention – see Sense & Sensibility, Elizabeth, Shakespeare In Love – but rarely with this level of frank sexuality and dark comedy. To me, it is another weird choice, and all the better for it. Roma I am yet to see, but from a racial and gender perspective it is refreshing to see a film about a working-class woman in Mexico recognised. Green Book casts an eye over American racial history, much like Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and Hidden Figures, and once I’ve seen it I’ll let you know what I think.
Speaking of American racial history, I am thrilled to see my favourite film of last year nominated in multiple categories. BlacKkKlansman draws attention to important events with contemporary parallels, while engaging with and subverting cinematic norms. Spike Lee has long been a public face of African-American cinema, and Academy recognition brings attention to this important film.
It is easy to read many of the nominations as political. I do not see this as a problem. Film and the film industry are political, and in an age of social media everyone can be politically engaged. By engaging with debates over representation through their attention to films that address gender, race and sexuality, the members of AMPAS demonstrate social engagement. Ironically, to perpetuate lofty and undefined levels of ‘artistic quality’ would be more elitist and out of touch, as AMPAS has long been accused of. This is a radical time, and what we see in these nominations are contributions to debate and discussion. One of the most prominent platforms in the world is contributing to the debate, and that is something I applaud.
The Death of Supermanis one of the bestselling comic books ever published, shifting over six million copies upon its release in 1993. The story’s bold premise and provocative artwork is turned into animated pictures, complete with a fine ensemble of voice actors. The Death of Supermancharts the arrival of the seemingly indestructible alien beast Doomsday, its rampage through Metropolis (and the Justice League) and its battle with the Man of Steel. Like many a superhero tale, The Death of Supermanalso engages with ideas of identity and roles. A romance blossoms between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the latter of whom struggles to reconcile his public and secret identities. The other members of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Lantern, as well as Lex Luthor, also worry about Superman’s role, and these concerns run throughout the film and its sequel.
The adaptation struggles to bring the emotional heft to the screen, not least due to rather stilted animation. Compared to recent fare likeIncredibles 2and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, this superhero adventure feels lacklustre and uninspired. Character movements lack fluidity, backgrounds are often under-developed and the film falls into an unfortunate space between comic book and animation, lacking verve and dynamism. Where The Death of Supermandoes succeed, perhaps surprisingly, is in its brutality. The violence inflicted by Doomsday is bloody and often graphic, from crushed and severed heads to battered and bloody heroes. The eventual conflict between Superman and Doomsday is compelling and does deliver in the physical and emotional stakes, even though the end is known. While the journey to the climax is not always engaging, it is a hard viewer who does not experience a lump in their throat
The follow-up, Reign of the Supermen, is more successful in the animation stakes, offering greater vibrancy and movement. It also has a good line in humour, which is while present is less at home in The Death of Superman. In Reign of the Supermen, the humour is effective, especially the comedic quips of the Flash and Green Lantern. The film also does some exploration of power and its proper uses, the various ‘Supermen’ offering different takes on the concept. On the downside, the Supermen as well as the overarching plot seems overtly derivative of other cinematic superhero adventures, which leads to the film feeling like a half-hearted imitation of The Avengers. Overall, this double bill falls short in several ways, but does provide thrills and laughs in others.
The Favourite is bizarre and quite extraordinary. From the exquisite central performances to the unsettling score to the rich production design and cinematography that is both alienating and involving, director Yorgis Lanthimos works the rich and pungent script of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara into something that is simultaneously alluring and discomfiting. The film focuses on the mentally and physically afflicted Queen Anne, played with utter fearlessness by Olivia Colman, at the time of writing Golden Globe winner and BAFTA and Oscar-nominated. Anne’s life is one of difficulty and pain, made bearable by her close companion Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who effectively runs the kingdom by virtue of having the Queen’s ear. Into this hermetically sealed environment comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who inveigles her way first into Sarah’s confidence and from there into Anne’s. Meanwhile, political machinations abound as rival political leaders Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) and Robert Harley (Nicolas Hoult) attempt to curry favour with the Queen through her shifting favourites. The courtly dramas and in-fighting vary from the vicious to the absurd, and Lanthimoss’ camera does not so much capture what takes place as peer quizzically at it. DOP Robbie Ryan’s frequent use of a fishbowl lens adds to the sense of peculiarity, as do a number of strange dissolves between scenes that highlight the interpretation of personal, political, sexual, economic and social agendas, not to mention rabbits. The Favourite is a seriously odd film, and a deliciously intriguing one as a result.
The climax of Bryan Singer / Dexter Fletcher’s Bohemian Rhapsody is a real time reconstruction of Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. The sequence exemplifies what works and fails in this uneven biopic of Freddie Mercury, a towering figure of flamboyance and creativity, both of which are on display in Rami Malek’s electrifying performance. The sequence is thrilling and enrapturing, conveying a sense of the atmosphere at Live Aid which is a cultural touchstone for many music fans, and Queen fans could ask for little more. However, what does the film offer for non-Queen fans? Singer and Fletcher, working from Anthony McCarten’s script, display adoration for the music and the creative minds behind it, including Freddie himself, Bryan May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello). The scenes of creativity are some of the film’s most entertaining, especially the composition of ‘We Will Rock You’. By drawing the whole band in some detail, Bohemian Rhapsody does express the tension between friendship and creativity. The downside is that there is little dramatic weight behind these scenes. This lack of gravity is despite Freddie’s various personal dramas, such as his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), his realization and embrace of his true sexuality, and his diagnosis of AIDS. These topics are progressed through rather than struggled with, lacking the emotional heft and stylistic flair of the concert sequences. The most striking moment of the film is an aerial tracking shot over the Live Aid audience, which gives a sense not only of the scale of the event but also briefly expresses the enthralling experience. Beyond the concert sequences, however, Bohemian Rhapsody maintains a frustrating distance from its subject, presenting a rhapsodic life without expressing it.
Bumblebee is a film based on two central elements, and the viewer’s engagement will likely rest largely on their response to these elements. The first is nostalgia: nostalgia for 80s music and fashion, not to mention the movies, and the original Transformers, officially branded as Generation One. This emphasis upon nostalgia connects Bumblebee with the recent Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse as well as Mary Poppins Returns, since all three films trade heavily on nostalgia but also feature their own innovations. For a certain generation (to which this writer belongs), Transformers: Generation One was a big part of childhood, and when the live action films arrived in 2007, it seemed like the culmination of a twenty-year wait. Michael Bay (who serves in a producer capacity here) delivered a certain type of movie, inflected with a ‘lad’ mentality that could be entertaining while also being deeply problematic. Director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson (the first female screenwriter in this franchise) explore issues of loss and grief, finding family and the restorative power of love. This leads to a more innocent Transformers story, without crass sexualisation but instead a touching central friendship that owes more to The Extra-Terrestrial than Age of Extinction. Teenage protagonist Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) struggles to connect with her family, but bonds with the transforming Volkswagen Beetle that she ‘adopts’. This conceit of connection offers something for audiences with no existing connection to the brand. Knight also incorporates a touching teen romance that echoes those of John Hughes while playing second fiddle to the central friendship, and it is heart-warming to see this young woman embracing the large yellow robot. Nor does the film skimp on the action, as Knight delivers several brilliant set pieces that both echo the 80s cartoon and declare this film’s distinct identity. Those raised on Bay’s movies may be surprised by an extended long shot of two robots fighting and an ironically human heart to this combat, as well as a healthy mistrust of the military-industrial complex. With its winning combination of freshness and familiarity, action and emotion, Bumblebee is a great film for all the family. You could even say it has the Touch.
There is a moment in Mary Poppins Returns when the titular magical nanny, played with sparkling brilliance by Emily Blunt, looks directly into the camera before plunging backwards into a bathtub. This look to camera is an acknowledgement of audience expectations, that manages to be completely uncynical or overly knowing. The shot is indicative of Rob Marshall’s superlative sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, as throughout Mary Poppins Returns, audience’s knowledge of Mary Poppins and the Banks children is acknowledged with postmodern awareness. Despite this acknowledgement, and quite remarkably, the film never slips into parody, or becomes too clever, or loses sight of its central, irresistible charm. Blunt is charm personified as Mary Poppins: from her cut-glass accent to her no-nonsense attitude to the neat curl of her ankles, Blunt’s performance can stand alongside Julie Andrews’ in the pantheon of great performances. Alongside her, Lin Manuel Garcia, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters and Colin Firth, as well as the younger performers Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, all embody their characters beautifully, blending adult weariness with childlike delight. Not that every moment is happy – grief hangs heavily over the Banks household and the economic context mirrors our contemporary times. Problems of mounting debt and eviction notices are not simply dealt with by snapping fingers or singing, demonstrating the need for hard work, cooperation, compassion and a little bit of luck in the overcoming of obstacles. Nonetheless, at other points, Mary Poppins Returns launches into unadulterated and unashamed fantasy. The aforementioned bathtub scene is a highlight, as is a sequence into a bowl that blends cutting edge digital effects with classic Disney animation. This sequence also combines musical whimsy with real world concerns, rendered through a thrilling chase scene. It serves as a microcosm of the film as a whole: a magnificent amalgamation of styles, genres, themes, tones, nostalgia and innovation. In fact, one might say that it is practically perfect in every way.