Surprisingly, this is Neil Jordan’s first cinema film since Byzantium in 2012. He seems to have spent the intervening years working on two TV series and writing a couple of novels. It’s always good to see him back on the big screen and Greta shares some of the same elements as Byzantium, though the genre base has shifted from vampires to psychological horror with distinctive gothic touches. The principal characters are again played by talented female actors having a lot of fun. As Nick suggested after the screening, Greta is perhaps best described as ‘classy schlock’. I certainly found it entertaining and there might be something else there which a second viewing might illuminate – or not!
The premise is straightforward. Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a young woman down from university in Massachusetts and now waitressing in an upmarket restaurant in New York at a difficult time in her life after her mother’s death and her father’s distant behaviour. She has a flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) who appears to be a follower of ‘wellness’ regimes and the like. One day Frances finds an expensive handbag on the subway and takes it in person to the strange little house owned by Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Erica had warned her not to meet Greta, but initially Frances doesn’t mind the company of someone she sees as a lonely older woman and a social relationship begins. She learns that Greta is missing her own daughter’s company. But the initial companionship won’t last long. Greta is not someone you want to let into your life . . .
Greta is an unsettling film to watch. Although set in New York, the film was shot in Toronto and Dublin and Greta’s house and the restaurant where Frances works are odd locations. The film is shot beautifully by Seamus McGarvey (and presented from a 4K DCP in Bradford) and edited by Nick Emerson – a pair of Northern Irishmen to go with Sligo-born Neil Jordan. The music is by Javier Navarrete who composed for Byzantium and earlier for Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Nick was particularly taken by the sound design by Stefan Henrix. Sound is still and ‘understudied’ aspect of film narratives and on a first viewing/listening I find it difficult to analyse any sequence in detail. What I did notice in Greta was that apart from the very obvious music cueing of certain sequences (which works well I think) there is also a harshness and jarring effect coming through the combination of cinematography, editing and sound effects. From the limited amount of promotional material on the film that I’ve seen, Jordan (who co-wrote the script with Ray Wright, one-time collaborator with both George A. Romero and Wes Craven) wanted to look back to 1980s/90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction. What he seems to have achieved is a strange mix of that earlier period of thrillers sliding into horror with some modern concerns and characters. In this respect the casting of Moretz as the ‘up and coming’ young actor, pitted against Huppert seems a good choice. And while the mise en scène seems to look back, the use of modern phone technologies is well integrated in the narrative.
Once Greta’s behaviour teeters over into the clearly dangerous Jordan cranks up the pace, scrambling through the gears and the last third of the film is highly conventional but presented with real panache and one or two clever turns. It also includes an oddly humorous gruesome moment perhaps inspired by the Korean team working on the effects. Neil Jordan fans will also enjoy the brief appearance of Stephen Rea, the actor who most of all reminds us of Jordan’s early successes.
Greta has received very mixed reviews and similarly mixed responses from audiences. I think it works because Moretz takes her role seriously and plays it for real and Huppert is her usual marvellous self revelling in playing Liszt on the piano and dancing round the strange little room she inhabits. She’s made well over 100 films but I suspect she remembers some similar roles and characters she played for Chabrol. There are holes in the plot and you need to suspend belief but Jordan and his team create genuine excitement throughout the final section. I’m not going to show the trailer as it gives too much away. See it for the performances of the three women.
The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?
I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.
The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.
The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.
I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.
The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?
Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).
The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.
Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.
The Little Stranger is a beautifully made film adapted from a celebrated novel and directed by a ‘name’ director. It has four well-known star actors playing the leads and I liked it very much. It is also slow and in some ways sombre and its presentation from the distributors (Pathé/Fox in the UK) risks alienating its audience. Certainly that appears to have been the case in the US where it died in its second week, generating only $210 per screen from 477 screens. Its first weekend in the UK was poor but not disastrous, with a screen average of just over £1,000 from 297 screens giving it 13th place in the weekly chart. I suspect the film will skew older and therefore mid-week box office might be better.
The problem is that some audiences might be expecting a ghost story/horror film/haunted house picture when in fact it is a gothic melodrama set very carefully in 1948. Some IMDb comments suggest that for some US audiences the narrative will be bewildering but for older and more aware UK audiences, it should resonate.
Outline (NO SPOILERS!)
The film is adapted from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, her third to be Booker Prize nominated. She followed the 2006 The Night Watch, set in wartime 1940s London with a story set in 1948 during the period of the 1945-50 Labour government which transformed the UK. She claimed that this was a novel about a socialist Britain undergoing change.
Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a GP (General Practitioner) in rural Warwickshire, a 37 year-old bachelor somewhat reluctant to embrace the National Health Service which is slowly being introduced. One day he is summoned to ‘Hundreds Hall’, the local stately home now beginning to decay as inheritance tax bites into the upper middle-classes’ wealth. He’s been there once before as an 8-year-old boy in 1919 when the hall was still in its Imperial pomp putting on a show for the local villagers, but now he finds the young heir Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) to be a disabled RAF veteran, supported by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday has been called to see young Betty, the only servant left. Betty is frightened and miserable rather than sick and there is a suggestion that there is something in the great house which is not quite right. Faraday finds himself curiously drawn into the world of the Ayres, first treating Roderick’s condition and then becoming more deeply involved in the family’s affairs. It will be some time before Faraday becomes fully aware of the symptoms and the extent of the family’s decline. How he reacts to events and what he attempts to do (or not do) forms the basis of the narrative.
As directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a script by Lucinda Coxon, The Little Stranger is a slow-burning gothic tale well-served by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and music by Abrahamson’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rennicks. Production design, art direction, costume, sound design, location scouting etc. are all top-notch. The key is restraint – and repression. Gleeson seems to me to be both perfect for the role, but also in one sense ‘wrong’ somehow. (He’s actually a year younger than Ruth Wilson, but his character is meant to be ten years older than hers – I suppose that means she is also wrong for the role, but I don’t think it’s important). More important is Gleeson’s very severe appearance as Faraday and his carefully researched accent – which gives his narration a restrained rationality. We don’t get a first name for Faraday (named for the scientist?). The use of the surname puts the doctor in his place in terms of social class. The upper classes always used surnames in social situations, especially the men, following public school practice. Faraday addresses his patient as ‘Roderick’ or ‘Rod’ but if they were social acquaintances he would have called him ‘Ayres’.
The Little Stranger is all about social class. In some ways, Faraday is a working-class Tory. This has been a fairly common tradition in the UK in rural areas, especially in the families of servants (Faraday’s mother was a maid at the ‘big house’). But Faraday is made more complex by specific lines of dialogue in which he reveals some contradictory views about the Labour government’s policies. The real discourse about class focuses on the house which is crumbling physically and metaphorically as a symbol of the decline of the Ayres and their ilk. Most commentators have referred to Abrahamson’s last film Room because it featured in the 2017 Oscars, but I was reminded of What Richard Did (Ireland 2012) which also featured social class in quite subtle ways and was for me a more interesting film than Room.
Sarah Waters says of her initial research for the novel that she watched the films of the period, read popular novels and looked for the ‘voices’ of ordinary people. She kept in mind novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca 1941 by Hitchcock), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she watched I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur film loosely based on Jane Eyre that has some elements in common with The Little Stranger, including the ambiguity of events. Are they supernatural or the result of some kind of psychological disturbance? There are several shots of staircases that suggest a Hitchcockian narrative.
What is fascinating and satisfying about Waters’ complex narrative that is well-served here is that it has so many layers and narrative possibilities. The set-up offers us a potential romance between Faraday and Caroline and there is a key scene at a dance which I won’t spoil, except to point out that this is the only one of Waters’ narratives not to include a lesbian relationship. All we know about Caroline is that she was involved in the war effort but came back to the hall to help care for her brother. Many younger people during the war were politicised by the experience of ‘social mixing’ and in some ways Caroline is to the left of Faraday. As for Faraday himself , we also know only a little of his history. His parents struggled to give him an education and after qualifying as a doctor he spent the war years working in a military hospital. He has the chance to work in London but he seems obsessed with staying in the village. If this was a film made in the 1940s the central character might have been played by David Farrar or James Mason, both actors with very different personae to that of Domhnall Gleeson. I’m racking my brain to think of a 1940s cinema equivalent of the Faraday character and the actor who might play him. Trevor Howard seems a bit to smooth/posh.
Who or what is ‘The Little Stranger’? The people around me in the cinema seem to have made up their minds, but I think it is an open question. I’ll have to back to the novel, since I’ve forgotten Sarah Waters’ original ending. Perhaps I don’t want an ending anyway? The metaphor of the crumbling mansion, the new homes being built in the grounds by the local council and so on are fine for me. I note a couple of American reviews who see this as about ‘Britain in decline’. For me, 1948 signals the re-birth of Britain as a more equal society. Unfortunately the new world was not to last, but sweeping away the old to make room for the new is to be celebrated isn’t it? Perhaps ‘The Little Stranger’ is the infant welfare state?
Here’s the official UK trailer (with a few more spoilers than presented in the text above):
Maudie is the kind of film that as a young person I might have given a miss but now I’m older, and I hope wiser, I appreciated it a great deal. In simple terms Maudie is a partial biopic of Maud Lewis from Yarmouth in Nova Scotia who in later life found fame as a well-known ‘folk artist’ in Canada. Actually, however, it is mainly a moving love story about two people both too easily seen as marginal in their contemporary world.
Maud/Maudie (Sally Hawkins) comes from a ‘good’ background but she has developed severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and then, a different kind of social ‘disability’ sees her mistreated by her family. Determined to live her own life in small town Nova Scotia of the 1930s, she applies for an unlikely job as what is really a ‘scivvy’ (a maid, hired to do menial tasks) for a lonely fish peddler. His home is a small shack out of town on the main highway. There is barely room for him to live in the shack and she has to find a space alongside the dogs and chickens. Everett (Ethan Hawke) is an uncouth man who has struggled in the economic hardship of the Depression and he has no idea how to treat Maudie. When she starts to paint on pieces of card with any materials she can find his interest is only really aroused when he realises that there are people willing to pay a few cents for Maudie’s ‘art’. That’s the opening of a story we follow through to 1970 by which time Everett has mellowed and Maudie’s fame has spread nationally, though it will be many years before her paintings are traded at prices that reflect her importance for Canadian art.
There are two main reasons why Maudie works so well. First, it is a very beautiful film in its use of landscape and in the presentation of Maud Lewis’s art. Aisling Walsh is an Irish director who trained at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and then the National Film and TV School in the UK. She has made several features and also worked extensively in UK television for over twenty years. I note that she made one of the BBC’s Wallander films and I wonder whether the location shooting in Sweden in any way informed Maudie. She has said that she found Maud’s story familiar in some ways because of its connection to landscape and small-town life in the West of Ireland. Her vision is presented in the film through the lenses of Guy Godfree who trained in the US but is himself a Nova Scotian. I was struck by the light in the film, the skyscapes and long shots (of the arthritic Maud walking long distances). I was also struck by the music organised by Michael Timmins of the Montreal band Cowboy Junkies. Three distinctive singing voices come from Michael’s sister Margo Timmins, the magical Mary Margaret O’Hara and the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan providing a mix of Irish/Canadian folk/country/rock. The script was written by Sherry White from Newfoundland and in one of those quirks of funding, a film featuring distinctive landscapes was actually shot in Newfoundland because the Nova Scotian authorities decided to withdraw funding support for film productions. Labrador and Newfoundland stepped in to fill the gap. I can’t tell if that makes a difference but I’ve read that the landscapes are similar. Either way the film looks terrific.
The film’s beauty is complemented by two stunning central performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. They are quite different performances with Sally Hawkins studying carefully how to represent the impact of arthritis (which constricted the size of paintings Maud Lewis could attempt) and trying to learn the subtleties of a Canadian dialect. Her performance includes a lot of ‘external work’ to represent the twisted limbs of the arthritis sufferer but she definitely ‘inhabits’ the character and it never feels like simply ‘putting on an act’. By contrast, Ethan Hawke seems to be much more instinctive in his presentation of Everett. There are several interviews online in which Hawke seems to tease his audience by pretending to have done no preparation and praising Hawkins for her diligence. Both performances worked for me, but I think that Sally Hawkins was able to ‘age’ more convincingly over the course of the narrative which ends when she is in her late 60s. The real Everett was older but Ethan Hawke still seems middle-aged by the end. This is a common problem with biopics but it didn’t worry me in this case.
I’ve seen criticism of the film because of the way Everett treats Maud, especially when she first moves in. There are claims that this is domestic abuse and that the film isn’t critical enough of Everett’s behaviour. I can see that this might be a reading but I think that the narrative presents Everett as a man who has learned to live alone and is ignorant of how to treat anyone he has to share a house with. Maud must quickly see however that despite his rough demeanour he does not treat her differently because of her physical difficulties and social position. As their love slowly develops it builds towards a beautiful relationship.
I’m probably biased because I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative about small-time Canada in the 1930s-60s. This will go down as one of my favourite films of the year. It’s still on release in the UK and well worth seeing. In the first clip below you can watch a short National Film Board documentary about Maud Lewis and her paintings and then catch a glimpse of Sally Hawkins as Maud in the trailer for the film.