The Keeping Room has large things to say about war, and how war fosters rape and dehumanization. This timely message is wielded in a blunt-force manner—so blunt that the idea becomes unintentionally sensationalized. We are in the South in 1865, as General Sherman scorches the surviving landscapes of the Civil War. Two sisters, Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit), remain at an isolated farmhouse—not a plantation, but not a shack, either—along with a woman they formerly treated as property, Mad (Muna Otaru). Like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, they wear their now-shabby dresses and till the soil. The crux of the movie is what happens when two moonshine-swilling Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) arrive, with rape and murder on their animalistic minds.
Although it tells a mildly fantastical tale of ghosts and a magical mansion, When Marnie Was There is best at capturing authentic childhood experience. Even the sound is right. Maybe it stands out because we’re watching an animated movie, but the ambient noise is uncannily good. When the heroine arrives at her new home for the summer, every creaky floorboard and tinkling wind-chime gives a feeling of “Yes, that’s exactly how that sounds.” Those things are felt more keenly when experienced in a new place, which is the situation for Anna. She’s been sent to the seaside by her frustrated adoptive mother, who suspects a change of scenery would benefit the shy girl. Anna stays with a kindly older couple, but her imagination is captured by the moody house across a tidal flat, where ethereal blonde Marnie offers friendship. (SIFF will screen both the original Japanese-language version, with subtitles, and the dubbed version, with Hailee Steinfeld as Anna and Kieran Shipka as Marnie.)
Tommy Lee Jones, as actor and director, clearly cares a lot about the Western. Is there an audience that cares with him? The once-dominant genre has declined so steeply since the 1970s that each new one is an event, and Jones has become one of the few people still riding herd on the form. (Though ailing at the movies, the myth of the West is alive and well in American politics, currently full of gun-totin’, hog-castratin’ candidates.) The Homesman is so good it makes you wish Jones could somehow make a Western a year, just to keep exploring the pockets of American frontier experience that still need filling in. This one offers a series of new wrinkles, beginning with its route: The story goes from west to east, the opposite of most Westerns.
Didn’t we just have a big-screen version of Romeo and Juliet, you ask?
Actually, it’s been 17 years since Baz Luhrmann’s imaginative take on the Shakespeare play, in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes played out the tragical tale.
And even if you wonder why the world needs another version of R&J, such doubts are dispelled within the first five minutes of this movie. Oh, yeah, that’s right: This is a cracking good story with rich characters and gorgeous language. I prithee, bring it on.
There’s nothing conceptual or fancy about this version. We’re in the Verona that Shakespeare imagined, caught between the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague. Digital effects stand in for expensive scenery, and the title roles are played by actors young enough to be credible as lovestruck teenagers.
[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]
Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.
The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.