Category: Biopic

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.

Vice (US 2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush, photo by Matt Kennedy © Annapurna Pictures 2018

Most of the critical attention given to Vice has focused on Christian Bale’s remarkable performance as Dick Cheney in this biopic, of sorts, about the American politician. It is an extraordinary performance, not least in dealing with all the prostheses and make-up necessary to represent the older Cheney. Equal praise should go to Amy Adams, also unrecognisable in her depiction of Cheney’s life partner Lynne. But I think the real questions to ask about this film are to do with its purpose. As I used to suggest to media students, the best starting place is to discuss the purpose of a media text and also to examine who made it.

I should point out that I watched this film with a group of friends on a social night out (screening and meal) and it wouldn’t have been my choice, but I went along with a group decision. I therefore watched the film with a slight prejudice and the knowledge that I have mainly avoided films about US politicians and especially about Republican politicians. But here I’ll try to be objective. This film, written and directed by Adam McKay focuses on Dick Cheney’s rise to become arguably the most powerful Vice President in US history during the two George W. Bush administrations from 2001-9. It begins with a brief look at Cheney as a student thrown out by Yale and then given a dressing down by Lynne before a recovery at the University of Wyoming and an eventual internship in Washington DC. Cheney’s starts a political career during the 1968 Nixon presidency.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who inspires Cheney when addressing interns in 1968

Is this meant to be ‘entertainment’ or is it first and foremost a political satire aiming to expose Cheney’s shenanigans? I guess that many audiences (apart from die-hard Republicans) will find it entertaining. I did laugh, but mainly ironically at the acute analysis. Mackay adopts an approach utilising a range of devices which arguably ‘distance’ us from the realism of events. There are some surreal moments of editing, there is a character who talks to camera and there are some bravura casting decisions which I took to be deliberate exaggerations. The comic actor Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell gives a performance as George W. Bush, both of which seem broad satire to me. There are some animated characters plus the use of archive footage and there are other ‘whacky’ devices that I won’t describe so as not to spoil your possible enjoyment. But do all of these devices and the coherent satire of monsters like Dick and Lynne add up to a politically challenging exposé? I’m genuinely not sure.

Political satire has become a difficult business. The film opens with a statement along the lines of “This is all true, or as true as is possible in discussing someone as secretive as Dick Cheney. We did our fucking best!” And that seems a reasonable statement. But when you consider that Cheney is not in prison and that he still has the millions he ‘earned’ as a result of Halliburton’s commercial interest in the post-invasion clear-up in Iraq – and that Donald Trump is still the current President despite all the charges against him –  the reality of American political life seems beyond satire.

I will admit that I learned things about the foundation of Fox News and the de-regulation of American broadcasting that I didn’t know and I should have known and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps there is an argument that the film is ‘educational’? When it comes to who made it, the film appears to be a Hollywood ‘art film’ production as an ‘independent film’ that cost $60 million according to IMDb. I wonder if the huge budget for an ‘independent’ undermines the credibility of the film? Personally, I found the casting of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and the bizarre presence of Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon academic and politician, each fitted in with the satire but also drew attention away from the exposé. I realise that I’m probably guilty of criticising this film for things that I would find acceptable in other, non-American, films, but that’s my problem with American politics.

The remarkable performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams are at the centre of the film. Only the eyes tell me this is Bale?

Perhaps the main problem with Vice is that in trying to cover such a long period of American politics (and aspects of Cheney’s personal life) it’s inevitable that some issues are left out or dealt with in a perfunctory way. That is in its own way quite proper when the major issues need more time.

I know audiences will have enjoyed the film. I wonder what they will take away from it beyond the laughs and the performances of Bale and Adams? In North America audiences are holding up after 8 weeks on release but I think the film will need to do well in the international market to at least cover its costs if that budget estimate is correct. So far, it is doing well in many territories. What I don’t know is whether the audience in the US is only the ‘libtards’ (a term used in the film) or whether audiences outside the US are thinking ‘OMG!’ or laughing nervously at the thought that someone like Cheney could discover ways of gaining so much power. Seeing an archive clip of Tony Blair supporting the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is possibly the worst moment in the film for many of us Brits.

Colette (UK-Hungary-US 2018)

Bouyed by the success of her first novel, Gabrielle (Keira Knightley) and ‘Willy’ (Dominic West) stroll in the countryside outside Paris

Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.

Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.

The young Gabrielle with braids – her story is told through changes in her hair and costumes as much as the dialogue

Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.

Gabrielle has her palm read by Willy’s friend Gaston (Jake Graf)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.

Gabrielle towards the end of the narrative when she is touring as a performer and creating an identity not connected to Willy. (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.

Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.

A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016)

A promotional image for the film suggesting the African-British ‘marriage’

It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.

A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.

The couple meet in London . . .

In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced  a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.

Jack Davenport plays the British official who obstructs democracy in Bechuanaland and lends support to apartheid South Africa

The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.

But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.