Along with its other wicked attractions, The Favourite serves as a corrective to all those fluffy period movies where pretty costumes and set design function as the cinematic equivalent of a bubble bath. The art direction is plenty handsome here, too, and the film will likely collect a few Oscars for its physical production. But The Favourite uses its lavish backdrops in order to show off the nastiest sides of human behavior—this is a beautiful dinner spread with a rat as its centerpiece.
Is she or isn’t she? This is the question, and the tantalizing draw, of My Cousin Rachel, a new adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel. The story is the sort of genteel-gothic potboiler that du Maurier mastered in Rebecca, and like that novel it features a woman arriving at a mansion where mystery awaits. But this forceful new arrival is far from the meek, unnamed bride of Rebecca—she herself is the source of the mystery.
“Not all opinions are equal.” How good it is, in this our time of cultural lunacy, to have these words definitively spoken. The fact that the phrase is uttered in a not-especially-great film is perhaps disappointing, but you gotta start somewhere, and movies have been known to lead the cultural conversation. Even when they’re not great.
Denial is written by the esteemed David Hare and directed by the journeyman Mick Jackson, so you might be able to guess where it soars and where it staggers. Hare, the unsparing author of Plenty and Skylight, based the script on Deborah Lipstadt’s experience in the world of Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt is a New York-raised academic (she once taught at the University of Washington) who was sued for libel in British court in 1996 over her book Denying the Holocaust, which named English author David Irving as an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The UK legal system mandated that Lipstadt had to establish that what she said was true—a situation that essentially put her legal team in the strange position of proving the Holocaust happened.
From the hamfisted title to the Victorian-era plot machinations, The Light Between Oceans has rich potential to be the kind of insane project that might possibly turn into something great. Consider the elements: Derek Cianfrance, the passionate indie filmmaker who helmed the frowning Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, adapts a 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. The story’s twists and turns might make a romance novelist hesitate, but Cianfrance embraces them like the bold swain on a paperback cover. He casts two exceptional actors and strands them together at a remote New Zealand lighthouse during the shoot, encouraging improvisation and identification with their roles (sure enough, the actors began a relationship that continues to this day). The whole endeavor is neither commercial nor hip. Surely something intriguing must come out of this stew?
During his preliminary interview upon arrival at the program, David is asked the big question. If he does not fall in love with someone during his 45-day stay, what animal would he like to be transformed into? David chooses the lobster. His reasons are fully thought-out: Lobsters live for 100 years, they remain fertile, and they have blue blood, like aristocrats. Plus, he likes the sea. He’s been swimming for years.
The Lobster is like this: full of specific detail, but coy about saying what the hell is actually going on. It’s the first English-language film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2009 Dogtooth was a fine exercise in making skin crawl. Like that film, The Lobster comes on like a vaguely sinister George Saunders story, where it takes a while for the actual parameters of this self-contained world to disclose themselves. So we’ll tread lightly on blowing the plot.
The Deep Blue Sea (Music Box), adapted from Terence Rattigan’s play by Terence Davies, is ravishing and devastating, a romantic drama of impossible love between the cultured married woman (Rachel Weisz) and a hot-tempered working class war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) in the years after World War II.
The film slips back and forth through the story, as if “drifting in and out of memory” (as Davies describes it in his commentary), and the grace of his filmmaking enhances that quality of floating through her story, both in the moment of intimacy and looking back in hindsight. Davies connects on a deep, devoted level to Hester (Weisz), a woman who clearly married young to a much older man (Simon Russell Beale), a very proper judge from the aristocratic classes and old money. She only realizes how much she has missed out on the swooning ecstasy of love and passion and sex when her heart is carried away by Freddie (Hiddleston), a former RAF bomber pilot struggling to find his place in the post-war world.
All this is suggested rather than explicated as we tour her odyssey, which begins at her lowest, most desperate moment and drifts back on her tumultuous emotional journey. She very much likes her husband, a decent and affectionate and generous man, but she is brought to life by Freddie. Even when it is clear that any permanent relationship between them is doomed (their experiences are simply too different for their characters to bridge), she never wavers: love over compromise, even at the cost of such pain. Davies embraces her story as both tragic and liberating.
This is Davies’ first fictional film in over a decade, since the magnificent “The House of Mirth,” and he seems to have invested every frame of the film with his exhilaration of making movies once again as well as a bittersweet quality of regret for the films he never made. His direction is loving, intimate, and exquisite.
Davies is sensitive to the texture of British films as they looked in the 1950s and uses filters and delicate, soft lighting to achieve a specific look. Unfortunately, the digital mastering doesn’t handle the effects well, exaggerating the grain of the film stock and distorting the texture. The colors and tones shift from scene to scene and there’s a haze across the image in many shots. This may not be a problem for many viewers and it is only a distraction on some scenes, but to my eyes it is not true to the image as seen in theaters.
On Blu-ray and DVD with supplements. Terence Davies is joined by Ian Haden-Smith (taking the moderator role) for a lovely commentary track, where Davies discusses his approach and choices. Though the track has a habit of going silent for long periods toward the second half, it is filled with Davies’ affection not just for the film but the contributions of his collaborators (“You can’t direct that!” he gushes at particularly inspired nuances of performance). His love of making movies and the power of cinema is evident in every comment.
Also features a 28-minute “Terence Davies Master Class” lecture about his adaptation and approach to the film, the 11-minute “Realizing the Director’s Vision” with Davies and collaborators discuss the making of the film, and interviews with actors Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, plus an accompanying booklet with essays by producer Sean O’Connor and film critic Scott Tobias.