Friday, September 28, 2018

DREAMAWAY - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Preview

DREAMAWAY is a document that I really liked at first, but which outstayed its welcome.  What I loved was seeing behind and beyond a news story.  As a Brit, I was painfully aware of the terrorist attack on Sharm El Sheikh that led the UK government to ban direct flights to the resort. But other than knowing in some vague way that I can't safely travel to Egypt, I didn't give it another thought.  But this documentary focuses our attention on what happens to a tourist resort when one of its biggest markets is cut off. We are introduced to a cleaner, a DJ, a resort activity person, a guy who dresses up and poses with tourists - and see what their lives are when those tourists go away. And bear in mind that these are the lucky people - their hotel hasn't been shut down, as many other hotels, cafes and restaurants and bars have been.  They may be on half wages but they still have jobs.

The result is a melancholy and surreal film in which we see employees move into deserted hotel rooms - a cleaner with such a small amount of rooms to clean that she lies down in one and watches TV - a group of resort entertainers doing a aqua gym routine with no-one in the pool to join in - a DJ playing music to a deserted dancefloor. It's a very tangible picture of economic depression that reminded me a bit of footage of ghost towns in Florida and China after the financial crisis. Pristine new buildings with no-one to enjoy them is a very sad and pitiful thing. And the lives are sad and pitiable to - whether financially or emotionally - as the young girls complain about the lack of other girls to hang out with because the sacked workers have all gone home. 

Where I found the documentary lost me was in the more fanciful moments where the main characters speak to camera and then follow up a - I kid you not - inflatable giant black monkey on the back of a moving truck that seems to dole out life advice. I could've done without this and perhaps have done with more context or contrast.  I read somewhere that the film-makers had originally planned to do a compare and contrast between Sharm and Cairo and I would have preferred that.

DREAMAWAY has a running time of 86 minutes. There are still tickets available for one of two screenings at this year's BFI London Film Festival, where it is screening in the Documentary competition. The film does not yet have a commercial release date.

YOURS IN SISTERHOOD - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Preview

YOURS IN SISTERHOOD is a powerful and deeply affecting documentary to be watching the day after the Kavanaugh hearings and in the midst of the #timesup and #metoo movements.  In fact, before watching those hearings yesterday I watched an old episode of BOJACK HORSEMAN where the California Senate bans guns rather than have woman own them.  Diane says "I wouldn't have thought that politicians would hate women more than they love guns" or something to that extent.  

The tragedy of this situation is how little progress we seem to have made.  And this is perfectly encapsulated in this documentary which couples contemporary women with the words of those in the 1970s, who wrote letters to the feminist magazine Ms. 

Director Irene Lusztig takes a series of women of all races, ages and political views, and frames them squarely in the centre of their ordinary lives.  She pairs them with a letter that speaks to them - a modern cop reads a letter from a woman frustrated she can't get hired as a cop in the 70s - a modern student who is feminist AND pro-life, reads a letter from a woman who was the same in the 70s. The women read the letters and then comment on what it makes them feel or think.

What I love about this film is the multiplicity and diversity it shows of womanhood and feminism.  We see women struggling with workplace discrimination, misogyny in the home or school, living difficult lives. But their reactions cover sadness, anger, political provocation, perplexed confusion.  And their resolve covers different political stances. There's a richness and beauty in this that's rarely seen on screen where there's often a sense that there's a kind of "right" way to be a feminist and a set of views and positions that this must encompass.  And there's a healthy debate about whether Ms was - and the feminist debate still is - representative of the black experience, for example. The resulting film is provocative, uplifting, at the same time melancholy, and gripping. I would thoroughly recommend it.

YOURS IN SISTERHOOD has a running time of 101 minutes. It played Berlin, HotDocs, Melbourne and will play the BFI London Film Festival 2018.  There are still tickets available for both screenings.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

PACHAMAMA - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Preview

PACHAMAMA is an absolutely adorable children's animated movie from the people that brought you the lovely ERNEST AND CELESTINE. It's set in 16th-Century Peru where three cultures are in conflict. First of all we have the villagers who worship Pachamama, the Earth Mother, who gives them a good harvest. Then there are the Incas who demand tribute with seemingly little to offer in return - demanding rather than being symbiotic with nature.  And finally, new on the scene are the Spanish imperialists who are letting the Incas think they are in charge, for now. Amidst this dual attack on his village's peaceful life, our hero Tepulpai decides to prove his worth by rescuing his village's golden orb from the Incas, and the Spanish knight who sees it for the first time. He's helped by his friend Naira and her pet llama.

I actually learned a lot about this period of Peruvian history from the film, and made a promise to myself to discover more. I was intrigued by the idea of this native Andean culture being hollistic and harmonic, with the animation often drawing back to show us a lush landscape and really giving us depth and height.  The colour palette is warm and welcoming.  And then this village becomes threatened both from within and without. The Incans are drawn somehow more boxily rather than in round organic shapes, hiding with their wealth inside their temples - and this becomes even more extreme with the sharp angles of the Spanish metal helmets and horses, seeking to possess the orb without really understanding it.  

And of course, set against this, there's just a lovely story of a kind of arrogant whiny boy who discovers his own abilities and a newfound respect for his own culture through the film. It's an absolute joy to behold. 

PACHAMAMA has a running time of 72 minutes. Sadly there aren't tickets left for the only screening during the BFI London Film Festival 2018 but watch out for future commercial release dates.

A PARIS EDUCATION aka MES PROVINCIALES - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Preview

Sweet tap-dancing Christ, this film really is the most boring pile of pretentious wank. Sit around for over 2 hours and watch whiny French film students have apparently deep and meaningful conversations about Art while fucking indiscriminately and being arrogant and bitchy.  The central character in this film - Matias - is meant to be our hero - an uncompromising wannabe auteur of integrity who worships the greats. But in reality he's just a jumped-up arrogant prick.  And he is worshipped by the film's protagonist Etienne - the provincial rube of the title who goes to Paris to study cinema, even before Etienne has even met Matias. In fact, as many women as Etienne cheats on his girlfriend with, this is the real love story of the film. The problem is that while Matias is unlikeable, Etienne is a banal void - dull, reactive, artistically blocked so we never actually see him create anything.  What makes this talky, endless, actionless nonsense even worse is that it's shot in black and white and laced with a Beethoven-heavy soundtrack for no real reason other than its director Jean-Paul Civeyrac is as pretentious as Matias. And let's be clear, this is not that kind of crisp elegant black and white photography of films like MANHATTAN. Nope. DP Pierre-Hubert Martin's whites are never white, his blacks lack depth - the whole thing just feels muddy.  Quite like the mind of its characters.  Avoid at all costs. 

A PARIS EDUCATION has a running time of 136 minutes. It played Berlin 2018 and was released in France and USA this summer. There are still tickets available for all three screenings at this year's BFI London Film Festival.

AFTER THE SCREAMING STOPS - BFI London Film Festival 2018 Preview

Confessions of a cine-blogger - I once was a Brosette!  This may mean nothing to millennials but back in the late 80s Bros was a massively successful teen boy band with an army of fans who all wore the same clothes called Brosettes. The band contained twin brothers Matt and Luke Goss - singer and drummer respectively - and a chap called Craig Logan.  At the height of their fame they were like Wham! was in the early 80s - but after three albums it all fell apart. Craig got ME and had to quit (although a bit of googling reveals he went on to have a successful career as a record exec and talent manager - hooray!) and then the twins fell out and the band was over. What this fantastic documentary does is show just how intense and crazy that sudden rise to fame is, and just how devastating it is when it's yanked away from you.  Luke describes how there just wasn't any money because it had all been tied up in the band, and how he had to ask his fiancee for her engagement ring back. It's a familiar story from many a teen band that collapsed and a story that I feel will be of interest to people who hadn't heard of the band before watching the film.

Once the band collapsed, Luke went on to work in film, featuring in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy movies, and both continued to pursue music. The framing device of this film is to show the twins preparing for a reunion gig at the O2 - one of London's largest and highest profile venues. We see them in the rehearsal room with the pressure clearly getting to them - erupting into deeply bitter and personal attacks on each other. There's occasional humour in some of the pressure they put on themselves and the grandiose terms in which they frame their comeback, but the film never crosses the line of laughing AT them.  Instead, there's a deep vein of humanity of these two brothers, struggling to patch up their emotional relationship as much as their careers.  It's really fascinating stuff.

AFTER THE SCREAMING STOPS has a running time of 98 minutes. The movie will be released in cinemas on 9th Nov and to own on DVD/download on 12th Nov. There are still tickets available for 2 out of the 3 performances at this year's BFI London Film Festival. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

MR SOUL! - BFI London Film Festival 2018 Preview

MR SOUL! is why I love documentary film. It's a movie that takes me into a subject that I had no knowledge of, gives me a rounded and intimate look at it, and leaves me with a passionate appreciation of its achievement.  It broadens my mind and uplifts my heart.  The only sadness is that the documentary's subject - the late 60s and early 70s african-american cultural TV show Soul, hosted by subversive icon Ellis Haizlip - didn't survive longer, and to my lifetime.  But maybe I should just be thankful it existed in the first place. 

The story starts in the mid-60s where mainstream TV is dominated by straight white narratives and African Americans are depicted on TV as people to be pitied or vilified - victims of poverty or perpetrators of crime.  Into this space comes an openly gay black man - already something radical - called Ellis Haizlip. He starts a national PBS TV show out of New York. The show features proud, "woke" black people - demonstrating their talent in the sphere of music, poetry, dance, philosophy, literary critique.... That level of unashamed black pride is itself subversive and radical. But more explicitly, the show doesn't shy away from politics - interviewing James Baldwin and Miriam Makeba. Perhaps most significantly - but also eerily - we see Ellis interview Louis Farrakhan with an audience packed with members of the Nation of Islam.  Ellis tackles the homophobia inherent in their beliefs bravely. 

The sad part of this story is that I can't think of something similar even in our time - a mainstream tv show where black culture is highlighted and celebrated and interrogated without being mediated by white media.  And it makes it all the more sad when Nixon tried to exert influence on the station to cancel the show that Ellis refused to go out onto the streets and protest. Instead, this seemingly amazing show ended and a beautiful moment was lost. Still, for the sadness of its end, I found this film profoundly inspiring, and hope that something similar can be fired up by the current generation of creators.

MR SOUL! has a running time of 110 minutes. The movie played Tribeca 2018. There are still tickets available for both screenings at the BFI London Film Festival 2018.


I'm not a superfan but I do love watching tennis, and I have a fondness for Mack, so I was very much looking forward to watching this new documentary, screening as part of the Documentary Competition at this year's BFI London Film Festival. But I have to say that I found it curiously hard work.  

Director Julien Faraut uses an archive of footage amassed by Gil de Kermadec over the the early 1980s at Roland-Garros.  In this period, there was a single TV feed that was syndicated out to all the global TV channels. But Gil wasn't interested in that. He came from a background in sports training films and cared about technique -particularly in-match technique. And so he got permission to  shoot on court and aimed his camera at the player - and only the player - capturing intense intimate footage and using what was then pioneering tech in slo-mo and computer tracking to show the technique and skill behind the shots.  Gil admits that he didn't care as much about the match or context as just observing the player at close quarters - and McEnroe - with his combination of superb technique and volatile temper - was perhaps the perfect observation subject.  The problem is that as much as we gain in our knowledge of technique, we lose in not seeing the rest of the match! I want to see the other parts of the court.  I also found some of Matthieu Amalric's narration pretentious - I know I'm seeing a legendary player without that kind of pseudo-philosophical Eric Cantona nonsense and an intercut with AMADEUS (the truly jump the shark moment in this doc.) And then we get the final part of the doc which shows us the notorious 1984 match where McEnroe seemingly throws the match against Ivan Lendl. In all honesty, it's way more interesting to just rewatch in on Youtube. 

JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION has a running time of 95 minutes.  It played Cannes earlier this year. There are still tickets available for both performances at the BFI London Film Festival 2018. 


Spoilers follow.

Where to begin with the third version of A STAR IS BORN, and by far my least favourite. This was produced in 1976 and starred Barbra Streisand in the Esther Blodgett - now Esther Hoffman role.  She's a Jewish soul singer with an afro, an of-its-time wardrobe and a thirst for success and stumbles into the life of Kris Kristofferson's John Norman Howard - an alcoholic stadium rock star and all around arsehole.  The movie is directed by screenwriter Frank Pierson, who never directed a feature again so burned was he by dealing with Streisand. Kristofferson also had nothing good to say. But I am cast back to a line in the film where Streisand's Esther says "I know you think I'm being difficult, but I just want to get it right."  Amen, sister.  And this really does signal one of the profound changes from the first two films. The Esther Blodgett's may have been ambitious but earnest and wide-eyed but Esther Hoffman is much more street-wise and tough.  Unlike her predecessors she refuses to change her name or image or sound to confirm to what the studios want, and takes her success on her own terms. In fact it doesn't feel like she compromises at all. She also gets her man, except that he's a raging alcoholic.  And when he dies - more of which later, she doesn't need much persuading to go back on stage.  She does so as if it's her birthright. Where her predecessors' tearily announced themselves to be Mrs Norman Maine, Ms Streisand is always only and always Ms Streisand.  The final concert shows her singing to him but utterly her own woman. 

The character of John Norman Howard is the second major change from the first two movies where the protagonist was an actor called Norman Maine, a tragic jaded cynic who wanted the best for his wife.  Maine may have been a drunk but he was never infantile or wantonly destructive. Even the awards show incident was never silly or feckless - but rather came from a place of deep hurt and self-destruction.  Norman Maine is a noble figure and we sympathise with deeply, making his final act suicide a tragedy. He is in many ways the true dramatic centre of the film.   But in this version, John Norman Howard is an indulgent man-child who behaves recklessly putting other people's lives in danger from the first scene of the film. He's unlikeable and unrelatable and it seems entirely appropriate that he would cheat on his wife, and that his final sacrifice would be ambiguous. Does he commit suicide when he realises that Esther won't leave him, even after infidelity, or is his car accident just another alcoholic fuck-up? Who knows.  Who cares? And a version of A STAR IS BORN where I don't care about its tragic hero is thin indeed.

So the drama doesn't work, even though it does get a pleasingly feminist spin. And then we have all the songs, and costumes, which have REALLY dated - I mean beyond how the Judy Garland song and dance numbers have dated.  There's not a scene worth watching here, unless you're a fan of Streisand and Paul Williams hit Evergreen, which I am not.  Worse still, the style of the film comes across as a kind of pastiche of NASHVILLE. Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion's script often tries to do that Robert Altman thing of having characters talk over each other.  It felt fake and pretentious here. 

There is literally nothing worth watching in this film.

A STAR IS BORN is rated R and has a running time of 139 minutes. 


The second version of the 1954 is also my second favourite - but almost by average. Inside this sprawling 154 minute song and dance extravaganza there's a beautifully acted tragic drama of around 90 minutes of equal quality and perhaps greater satirical scorn than the 1937 original. James Mason as the alcoholic jaded star Norman Maine is just as tragic as Fredric March's original, and perhaps moreso - there's just something particular in the hang-dog way he carries himself in the iconic awards ceremony scene that's utterly heartbreaking.  This film also goes far further in satirising the Hollywood machine.  There's a scene in which Judy Garland is made over by the press department - told her face is all wrong - which must have cut very close to the bone for an actress who struggled with her self-image and weight and fed pills since she was a teenager to keep her weight in check. 

The problem is that surrounding all this drama are a handful of Judy Garland song-and-dance numbers. This is an interesting break with the original where we occasionally saw the renamed Vicky Lester act, but sort of took her breathtaking talent as read.  In this version, we are very much invited to indulge in the talent of Judy Garland playing herself.  the problem is that, for me at least, the numbers by Arlan and Gershwin just don't hold up.   "The Man That Got Away" remains an absolute heart-breaker of a torchsong but the other setpieces just aren't memorable. You watch one to remind yourself of just how good Garland is, but after that - well, I'm sorry to say I hit the fast forward button - especially during a 15 minute medley that finishes the first half of the film.

The result is a film that doesn't hold up as well as the original because the music and format date it - hold up the story we actually care about - and distract from the central tragedy of Norman Maine.  It's a film desperately in need of an edit and I am thoroughly unsurprised that the studio tried to hack it down, and that it proved a commercial flop on its initial release. That said, if you find the right scenes, does make an emotional impact, and hues very close to the original, with many lines transposed directly from one to the other.  James Mason deserved an Oscar.  


Thoughts on the previous versions of A STAR IS BORN - the 1937 version

With the forthcoming release of the latest incarnation of A STAR IS BORN, I thought I would go back and watch the prior versions to see which had fared better over time, and how the story has subtly shifted to reflect changing mores. In all of the movies, the story is broadly the same (SPOILERS FOLLOW!): a young talented woman dreams of becoming a star. She catches the attention of a famous older man who has already achieved that fame, and has indeed become jaded by it, falling into a cynical alcoholism. But whatever his own cynicism toward the industry, he believes in the ingenue's talent and wants her to attain that uncomplicated success that he hasn't been able to achieve for himself. They fall in love. She becomes successful. They marry.  In a pivotal scene, he drunkenly embarrasses her but she remains loyal to him, even to the point of being willing to give up her career to nurse him back to health. He cannot bear for her to make this sacrifice and commits suicide to allow her to be free.  In the famous final scene of the film, she arrives at her latest premiere, announcing herself as "Mrs Norman Maine" in his honour. At least this is what happens in the first two versions of the film - we'll discuss how the third version deviates from it later.

The original 1937 version of A STAR IS BORN remains my favourite and - to my mind - still holds up as a straightforward tragic drama and investigation of the corrupt Hollywood machine. The film's credentials are impeccable. It was directed by William A Wellman (THE PUBLIC ENEMY), based on a screenplay by THE Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carso. The evocative score was composed by Max Steiner (CASABLANCA) and its technicolor photography was ground-breaking - achieving a more naturalistic feel than its predecessors and winning DP W Howard Greene (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD) the first ever Oscar for a technicolor film.  In front of the lens, the film stars Fredric March (THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) as the tortured actor Norman Maine and the sweetly sincere Janet Gaynor as his discovery, Esther Blodgett.

What I love about this version is that there's a real pathos in Fredric March's performance and while Gaynor is earnest she never looks like a pushover.  In fact the opening scene of this film has a rather gothic old relative warning her that she'll have to make sacrifices for fame, and though wide-eyed, Esther always seems open-eyed too.  This makes her marriage to Norman all the more heroic.  What's more shocking is his decision to take such an extreme decision at the end of the film.  It's as though he knows she'll never leave him so he has to leave her and allow her to flourish.  In that sense, it's the ultimate sacrifice.  What I also love about this is that the pure nobility of the act contrasts with what has also been a film about the fickle manipulation of Hollywood - the press agents, the paparazzi, the fakery.  And so there's an irony that these two lovers have married under their real names - deemed to ugly to be used in Hollywood -and that even when "Vicky" declares herself to "Mrs Norman Maine" she isn't really at all. Even that is a Hollywood construction. It makes the ending satisfyingly ambiguous or bittersweet.  She has become what he hoped, and what she hoped for herself, but she has necessarily compromised herself in the process, as the old woman warned her at the start. 

The 1937 version of A STAR IS BORN has a running time of 111 minutes. It won the Oscar for Best Original Story and an honorary award for its photography.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


AMERICAN ANIMALS is a beautifully crafted docu-drama about four feckless college students who decided to try to steal some valuable books - including Audobon's Birds of America - from their college library. They don't need the money. One of them even aspires to join the FBI when asked to join the heist.  They seem to do it just because... maybe boredom, or the need to feel special in some way?  It's all so moronic it hurts my brain. Nonetheless, it makes for a fascinating story because documentary director Bart Layton (THE IMPOSTER) does a fantastic job of contrasting the slippery memories and justifications of the real life protagonists -interviewed on screen - with his docudrama recreation (starring Barry Keoghan - THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER).  For those of you who loved the conflicting memories and elisions of I, TONYA, then this is the film for you. In brilliantly edited and framed scenes Layton takes us from his fictional characters reminiscences of events to the real people, deftly altering the "record" and showing how untrustworthy it actually is. There's also a superb attempt to take us inside the mind of its protagonists, showing us the heist as they imagined it might go, in an Ocean's Eleven style, Dave Grusin scored tour-de-force. And the end of what do we get? Genuine remorse - yes. But also a faintly disturbing feeling that is what kids being raised on a diet of instant gratification will aspire to - life experience and defining moments that are unearned.  Frightening, indeed. 

AMERICAN ANIMALS has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R. It was released in the USA this summer and is currently on release in the UK.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


World War Two is over and Poland has fallen behind the Iron Curtain. The new government wants to create and train a troupe of singers and dancers to show off the Polish folk tradition. Charismatic and talented Zula (Joanna Kulig) cons her way into the school by pretending to be a naive fresh-faced country girl and becomes the star of the show.  The musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) stays with the troupe despite pressure to include songs in praise of Stalin so that he can be close to her. They fall in love. They decide to defect. He goes, she stays. Why? Years later she marries and follows him to Paris and begins again as a jazz singer.  And yet something once again pulls her back to Poland, despite the risk of returning a traitor, and the double risk of Wiktor following her.  

At its heart, COLD WAR is a story about the impossibility of love in a society of total politics. The personal is political in a totalitarian state - to admit of love is bourgeois - indulgent - diverting energy and devotion from the state. David Lean told the same story - Boris Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO - but on an epic sweeping scale.  Pawel Pawlikowski's version is intimate, claustrophobic, concise, but no less visually stunning nor affecting. The black and white photography, the aspect ratio, contains the story while the lovers try to break out of it. It works beautifully. Both lead performances are perfect but it's Joanna Kulig that is the most memorable in what must be an Oscar-worthy display - a combination of Julie Christie's Lara and Anita Ekberg's Sylvia.  If anything trumps the performances it's the music - from full-throated a cappella renditions of folk songs to the jazz scene of post-war Paris to the tawdry mock-Latin pop of the 60s.  This truly is a remarkable film.

COLD WAR has a running time of 88 minutes and is out in the UK in cinemas and on demand. It opens in the USA on December 21st.  The film played Cannes 2018 where Pawel Pawlikowski won Best Director. 


I massively enjoyed Guy Ritchie's retelling of the KING ARTHUR myth - it was funny, fast-paced, had some really superb visuals and a kinetic score.  It sets itself up perfectly for a sequel that isn't going to happen because for some bizarre reason no-one else liked it.  Close your ears to their whining and give it a go because it's stonkingly good fun! 

In Ritchie's version of the tale, we have a mythical version of post-Roman Britain in which King Uther (Eric Bana) has been trained by a mage called Merlin and given a magical sword called Excalibur.  His evil brother Vortigern (Jude Law is superb cigar-chomping mode) kills his brother and seizes the crown but has one problem - Excalibur is stuck in a stone and he can't remove it.  He also has a second problem but he doesn't know it yet.  Uther's son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) was saved as a baby and ended up being raised in a brothel.  The main action of this film sees him extract the sword from the stone, realise his true inheritance, struggle to accept it, but overcome this hesitation thanks to an ethereal Lady In The Lake, and save Britain from Vortigern's black magic. 

So far so good.  I have no truck with purists saying that Ritchie has changed the story.  It's a story that is endlessly malleable. It's a myth from an oral tradition that takes some shreds of actual history and runs wild, and has done for centuries. I also love how Guy Ritchie gets certain things really right - the clash between the forces of modernity and the old beliefs in magicks - this is Britain  at a time of deeply contested philosophy - pagan vs Christian - Briton vs Roman - you name it. 

Anyway, this is KING ARTHUR with all the energy, vivid characterisation, underdog energy and sharp dialogue of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS.  What's even more impressive is that despite all the jokes and lad-humour, the movie worked on a deeper level.  There's a particular character moment that actually moved me because I was so invested in the characters. And the way in which Ritchie imagines the Lady in the Lake is stunning. Of course there's also lots of cheap CGI and silly fight scenes but it doesn't matter - because I liked hanging out with this group of usurpers - I loved the moment at the end when order was restored and Goosefat Bill became Ser William again - I loved the diversity of the Knights of the Round Table, and I want my sequel GODAMMIT!

KING ARTHUR has a running time of 123 minutes and is rated PG-13. 


In 1816 a young woman called Mary Shelley created the story of Frankenstein - the "monster" created by assembling corpses and revivifying them with electricity.  It's a story of an innocent, faithful creature misused by the real monster, Doctor Frankstein. The monster is violent and vengeful but also displays more humanity than his creator.  The woman who created this story was not just sensitive and romantic with a capital R, but deeply intelligent, well-read in the classics, fascinated by science - an active participant in the political and philosophical debates of the day. Her reputation as a radical philosopher may not be in the same league as that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, but her fictional creation has achieved more fame, and argued more powerfully for the radical cause. And yet history has diminished her - describing her more often as the scandalous girl seduced by Percy Bysshe Shelley, keeper of his artistic legacy, and almost by chance creator of a gothic masterpiece. Only very recently has she been subject to serious intellectual enquiry. And in this film I had hoped to see a similarly respectful portrayal of this radical woman.

The film is okay as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far or deep enough. It is very good at portraying Mary as a naive silly little girl who falls for a charming but vain and capricious seducer.  But it makes a fateful and disrespectful error in portraying her as being extremely passive. She watches and observes as men show her things - articles of galvanism or gothic paintings - which will work their way into her famous book.  But nowhere does it show Mary to be an active agent in her intellectual life.  There's nowhere that we SEE Mary as interested in science. We're just told by a bunch of male characters that she is.  The result is a heroine that is admirably free of cant, but one that is frustratingly passive. And it becomes very difficult to understand why she keeps returning to her emotionally abusive husband because he too is a pretty face. If there's no credible intellectual spark between the too, what's there to engage with?

That said the film is occasionally worth watching for the odd engaging performance - Tom Sturridge gets Byron exactly right.  But dialogue that is occasionally anachronistic, too conscious of the #timesup movement, and lead characters who are too thinly drawn, undermine the entire project. 

MARY SHELLEY has a running time of 120 minutes.  The film is available to rent and own.