Essentially a sequel to the 1997 hit Mrs Brown, this film returns Judi Dench to play Queen Victoria in another relationship that shook up the royal household. It's such a perfect role for Dench that it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing her, and this film traces Victoria's final 15 years with plenty of lively humour and some pointed drama. The story is a bit thin, and some elements are difficult to believe, but it's thoroughly engaging.
The story opens in 1887, as Abdul (Ali Fazal) is selected to travel from India to London with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to present Queen Victoria (Dench) with special honour. In London, Abdul and Mohammed are called "the Hindus" even though they're Muslims, and told to stay out of sight with the servants. But Abdul catches the Queen's eye, and she brings him into her household as a personal tutor in Urdu and Islam. Her staff (headed by Tim Pigott-Smith) doesn't like this at all, and conspires with both the heir to the throne (Eddie Izzard) and the prime minister (Michael Gambon) to undermine Abdul's influence. But Victoria isn't having any of it, demanding that they respect him.
This is a story that was hidden for more than a century, because after Victoria's death all references to Abdul were erased from the official history. It was only the discovery of Abdul's journals that revealed the truth, and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) has clearly taken some artistic licence as he crafted the facts into an entertaining narrative that's packed with hilarious touches. Meanwhile, Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs in jaunty Downton Abbey style, never quite taking anything seriously.
Continue reading: Victoria & Abdul Review
Although this comedy-drama seems to have been written specifically to give Meryl Streep a chance to dress up and put on a silly show, it's actually all true. And it's hugely entertaining, generating gut-wrenching laughter and some sharply resonant emotions too. It's also a subtle exploration of pop culture, most notably privileged artists and the fact that there's more to stardom than just talent.
Streep shines as Florence, a socialite who hosts lavish parties in 1944 New York with her husband St Clair (Hugh Grant). Both of them are frustrated artists: Florence sees herself as an opera diva, while St Clair never quite made it as an actor. So at her parties, Florence puts on performances for her friends, oblivious to the fact that she's riotously off-key, while St Clair plays the doting husband, protecting her from criticism and hiring talented young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) as her accompanist. Florence doesn't really mind that St Clair has a woman (Rebecca Ferguson) on the side. But when she books Carnegie Hall to perform a concert for troops returning from Europe, St Clair realises that he can't protect her from a real audience.
Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears construct the story beautifully, building up to reveal Florence's voice in a painfully hilarious sequence that's expertly played by Streep, Grant and Helberg. Streep's enjoyment of the role is infectious, and she makes Florence sympathetic by letting us see her yearning to sing. She imagines she sounds like her operatic idols, so can't hear the strangled notes coming from her mouth. And those who don't applaud are laughing so heartily that surely they're just as entertained. Streep's performance soars through the performance scenes, but is just as powerful in the comedy and at moments when Florence is vulnerable and nervous.
Continue reading: Florence Foster Jenkins Review
A whooshing pace and snappy dialogue help bring this true story to life, tracing the triumphant and scandalous career of cyclist Lance Armstrong. And the energetic approach helps bring out several layers in Armstrong's perspective, exploring why a top sportsman would cheat to win. It also features a steely performance from Ben Foster that captures Armstrong's physicality and personality, but not in the usual ways.
When he was 25, Armstrong (Foster) was already a star, but his career was cut short in 1996 by advanced testicular cancer. After recovering, he retrained himself as a long-distance cyclist and launched a global cancer charity, then went on to win seven Tour de France titles. His friend, Irish journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) noticed that his improvement was too good to be true, and continually challenged him to be honest about his work with controversial doctor Michele Ferari (Guillaume Canet). Armstrong defended his name in court, but years later the truth came out that throughout his career he had been systematically cheating with banned drugs and blood-cleansing processes. The truth came out in 2010, but he didn't admit the deception until an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013.
Since this was so thoroughly reported in the media, and finely detailed in Alex Gibney's acclaimed documentary The Armstrong Lie, there aren't any surprises in this movie. And despite being based on Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins, the film takes Armstrong's perspective, trying to get under his skin to reveal his motivation. John Hodge's screenplay is insightful, building some strong dramatic suspense along the way, and the film is sharply well-directed by Stephen Frears, a filmmaker better known for softer movies (like Philomena and The Queen). But he guides Foster to a strikingly physical performance that's sweaty and aggressive, and also darkly internalised. Stand-outs in the supporting cast include Jesse Plemons as a fellow cyclist haunted by his conscience and Denis Menochet as Armstrong's team manager.
Continue reading: The Program Review
Based on a true story, this warm drama uses sharp humour to keep from tipping over into sloppy sentiment. It's still hugely emotional, but in a shamelessly entertaining way. And it gives Judi Dench and Steve Coogan characters they can really sink their teeth into as the twists and turns of the real events unfold.
In 2002, cynical London journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) has just been sacked from his job as a government spin doctor, so his editor suggests he try a human interest story to get back to work. He hates the idea until he meets Philomena (Dench), a retired Irishwoman who was raised by nuns in a workhouse, where she was forced to give her baby son up for adoption some 50 years ago. She'd like to know what happened to him, so Martin accompanies her back to Ireland and then on to America, where the babies were sold. But their search doesn't go as expected, and what they discover is startlingly moving.
As he did with The Queen, director Frears gives the film a gentle, light tone that helps balance the intensely serious subject matter. He also encourages his cast to deliver understated performances, which is especially effective for the usually broad Coogan. And of course Dench is simply wonderful as a feisty straight-talker who isn't thrown by anything she encounters. Gurgling under everything is an astute look at religious heritage: Martin is a lapsed Catholic who can't understand why Philomena still has a devout faith, because of what the church has done to her. And as the story continues, he begins to understand the strength this gives her.
Continue reading: Philomena Review
This year's Women in Film and Television (WFTV) Awards had a strong influence from the Olympics, which had dominated national thought and energy for years leading up to the summer's event, reports the Guardian. The Olympics has affected a few people personally- namely, the competitors and their coaches- but also, as these awards note, the hard working people that made it all possible for us to watch and enjoy.
Clare Balding won Achievement of the Year for her work presenting the Olympics She said: "I take the award on behalf of all of the women in sports television. I think it's important for young girls who are, I hope, watching us and thinking 'that's a job I want to do' to know that warmth, humour, intelligence, doing your homework; that's what matters." And adding a jolly quip, she said, "I'm not getting this award because of what I look like, or my dress sense - we all know that." She really is a shining light for women's role models, an arena that has been sadly saturated by the Bella Swans and Katie Prices for many years seems to be hitting a turning point in not only the representation of women, but of their perceived value.
The Chief Exec of WFTV Kate Kinnimont highlighted the summer's sports achievements and their residual impact saying that she was very proud that "three... winners - Clare Balding, Barbara Slater and Tracey Seaward - were key players in delivering the most watched TV event in UK broadcasting history, the London Olympics".
It begins with the landslide election of Prime Minister Tony Blair (a shockingly good Michael Sheen) and moves to the car accident that led to Di's death. Frears then meditates on the decisions and the struggle between modernism and tradition that Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and her family must consider in the wake of not just a familial, but worldwide, day of mourning. For those who don't remember, after the death, there was major pressure for the family to mourn in public, to show their grief and prove that even though Di wasn't part of the family anymore, they were still in a state of solemnity.
Continue reading: The Queen Review
Okwe (newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor) works as a cab driver by day and a hotel desk clerk by night, regularly chewing addictive plant leaves to keep himself from dozing off. An illegal immigrant and former doctor who's arrived in London to flee political forces who sought his arrest in Nigeria, Okwe now resides on the couch of fellow hotel employee Senay (Amelie's Audrey Tautou), a Turkish maid whose legal immigrant status, in a puzzling twist that's never fully explained, prohibits her from being employed. The two social outcasts keep their friendship hidden from their fellow coworkers, each interested in blending into the environment like a chameleon changing spots to elude predators. In a city that eagerly makes use of immigrant labor, Okwe and Senay are the tattered fringe of society, forced to endure humiliation and unable to fight back for fear that their presence might be detected by the immigration police who constantly scour the city's underbelly. What's not mentioned, however, is that since Okwe is an illegal immigrant, he doesn't have any right being in London, and this near-sighted portrayal of his situation - one can assume that his life in London, no matter how difficult and unpleasant, is better than the life in Nigeria that he fled, although the film glosses over this fact - saps some of our sympathy for him.
Continue reading: Dirty Pretty Things Review
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