This film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of ‘Bradford Pride’. It was introduced as the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship. That’s certainly a claim that is worth unpacking, but first I need to outline what kind of film this is. It certainly belongs in the category of mainstream Bollywood, being a Vidhu Vinod Chopra production presented by Fox Star. (It was released in February this year and I wonder what is happening to Star with the sale of Fox to Disney?) It features three stars who span the history of Hindi popular cinema from veterans Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla to Rajkummar Rao as a representative of the younger generation. But it is a début feature for writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar. The central character, Sweety, is a young woman from the Punjab played by Anil Kapoor’s own daughter Sonam Kapoor. Ms Kapoor has had several leading roles in Hindi productions but whether she qualifies as a ‘star’ for mainstream audiences is open to debate.
These production details are important as the avowed aim of Shelly Chopra Dhar was to make a film which would present the taboo subject of a lesbian relationship not just to the urban multiplex crowd but also to the traditional audiences of small town India. As many scholars and commentators have noted, Bollywood’s biggest problem in recent years has been that split between sophisticated audiences in the Metros and the traditional concept of the ‘All India’ audiences across the country (or at least across North India). I’m not sure she has succeeded.
It’s tricky to discuss how the film was received in India. The film’s promotion seems to have tried to maintain the surprise while the impending release was already generating controversy. In 2018 the Indian Supreme Court made decisions which seem to guarantee a choice of marriage partner to all citizens, yet there are various state regulations and legislation for different religious groups. At least one IMDb ‘user’ complains about a lack of warning about the film’s content (she had taken her young girls to a screening of what she thought would be a family/romantic comedy).
The narrative begins with a family wedding in Delhi at which enough hints are dropped that Sweety has met the girl of her dreams in the form of Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, a Tamil actor making her Hindi debut). The film’s title refers to the song first used in the Anil Kapoor film 1942: A Love Story (1994) when he meets Manisha Koirala. The 1994 film was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. I don’t know if the song title and memories of the 1994 film confused audiences but Sweety’s attraction to Kuhu must be kept secret. After the wedding, Sweety and her family return to Moga in Punjab where her father Balbir (Anil Kapoor) is the owner of a large garment factory. Meanwhile Rajkummar Rao is introduced in Delhi as Sahil, a struggling Muslim playwright whose latest play is in rehearsal. Sweety is visiting Delhi and comes into the theatre to hide as we realise later when her angry brother Babloo bursts in. Sahil feels compelled to rescue Sweety and a chase begins. I won’t spoil the narrative any further except to say that Sahil is clearly smitten with Sweety and she, unaware that he is the writer of the play she has just watched, tells him it doesn’t convey ‘real love’ which is always more ‘complicated’. This is our clue to what will follow. Sahil will go to Moga with a plan to win Sweety. We will learn more of Sweety’s backstory through flashbacks. There will be a comedy of confusion and ‘complication’ and a grand finale in which all will be revealed/resolved. In this respect the film seems traditional and straightforward. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much in noting that Sweety’s secret will be fully revealed in a public performance, so that the cinema audience will have the same revelation as the audience for the performance in the narrative. Intriguingly, the idea for the narrative is taken from P.G. Wodehouse’s 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress. The novel has twice been adapted for the stage and for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Joan Fontaine film. It was most recently staged in 2015. Once aware of this it is easy to see the narrative mechanisms at play in the Bollywood film.
As I left the screening, a group of four women in front of me were discussing the film and they seemed to agree that it picked up the pace in the second half after a slow opening. We had a few moments of dark screen where the Intermission would have been. The convention appears to still hold in Bollywood despite this film being only 120 minutes long. I’m not the target audience for the film but I doubt that it will have satisfied its intended audience, although there were some quite moving moments when a young teenage girl in the audience for Sweety’s performance is clearly affected by what she sees. I also thought it was quite clever to use the same actors for the younger Sweety in the flashbacks and as performers in the show. But there are two whopping problems. First Sonham Kapoor seems miscast. Bollywood has never bothered too much about realism but it’s difficult to take an actor in her thirties playing ten years younger. I have to agree with the many comments that she just doesn’t have the vital spark that this character needs. But perhaps that is partly because she barely gets to touch Kuhu in the film. An embrace and holding hands is more or less the limit.
The other reason why the central couple are not central is that the re-teaming of Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla works so well. They play out several comic scenes and at one point I was almost hoping that the narrative would switch and explore the ‘feminisation’ of the Anil Kapoor character (whose mother stopped him becoming a chef and didn’t allow him into the kitchen because it isn’t ‘man’s work’). Rajkummar Rao is not really given enough to do (see Newton (India 2017) for one of his outstanding performances). As for the other ‘casting’, of Moga as a small town outside the Metros, I think that’s another missed opportunity, especially with Balbir as such an important local business person. The ‘real’ Moga appears to be a city of 300,000 people but the film representation could be anywhere. Perhaps that’s the point.
The music and dance sequences seemed OK to me but nothing special. I don’t regret seeing the film and I did enjoy many scenes but I can’t see this as a film that will break down barriers. It promises to explore the ‘complications’ of Sweety’s love relationships but barely touches the surface. I have written about a couple of much more challenging films from Malayalam cinema (The Journey 2004) and from Hindi cinema Margarita with a Straw (2014) and there is always the classic of late parallel cinema, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. I accept that these are three films made by ‘diasporic directors’ based in North America and that they are not mainstream cinema. In its review Bollywoodhungama.com lists several other titles and comes to more or less the same conclusions about Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as I’ve outlined above. But it ends with the suggestion that “At the box office, its appeal will be restricted to niche urban multiplex audiences”. The review appears to have predicted correctly and after two weeks the title was declared a ‘flop’ in India (Bollywood box office analysts are brutal) even though it made 20 crore rupees in the first two weeks (around $2.86 million) in India.
Here’s a trailer (no subs) that demonstrates how Sweety’s ‘secret’ is kept.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Disobedience is a wonderful film. It is quite a feat to make a film nearly two hours long that focuses on the intimate relationships of three childhood friends in later life plus the significant absence of a father and short sequences with assorted relatives and fellow members of a religious community. It is even more remarkable when English isn’t your first language and your film is set in a closed community that you don’t necessarily know much about. I’d read something about the film and the book it was based on, but as often happens these days, I immediately forgot who the director was. Part way through the film I thought this must be a female director who is handling these scenes so sensitively and I remembered that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Naomi Alderman. The end credits reminded me it was actually the Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio in the middle of a run of three films made over two years. A Fantastic Woman arrived in the UK earlier this year and his English language remake of his own Gloria (2013) is released in the US next year.
Lelio approaches his task with two familiar strategies. One is a ‘don’t explain’ approach in which audiences are required to wait and attempt to puzzle out who is related to whom when Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka lands back in North London from New York. We work out quickly that she is the daughter of the Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) who died during the opening sequence in his synagogue. But whose house are we now in and what do all these people mean to Ronit? Ronit has decided to live ‘outside’ this very specific Jewish community as a single woman working as an art photographer. Her single status and her professional life is a concern for her relatives. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Ronit is welcomed by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who she has known since childhood and who was her father’s protegé. Eventually she will also meet Esti (Rachel McAdams) who was the third member of a childhood trio. At this point I feel I need to say that Esti looks younger than the other two. In one sense this isn’t a problem but the script insists that they were together as children and Weisz and Nivola are 8 and 6 years older than McAdams. Perhaps this is a commentary on the ‘maturity’ of characters rather than actual age? I only mention this because the age difference is palpable. It also makes it more difficult to work out how the characters are related.
The second strategy is to use a shooting style that switches between long shots and close-ups. The film was shot mainly in streets of semi-detached houses in Hendon. The close-up style at times uses a very shallow field of focus so that characters move into and out of focus very quickly. There is a tension between the ‘openness’ of the long shots of streets and the confining atmosphere of the ‘closed’ community. The author of the original novel, Naomi Alderman writes in the Guardian about how she felt watching the adaptation of her novel about the frumkeit of Hendon, the very specific Orthodox Jewish community in North London. I hadn’t realised that there are important differences between this community and those of Golders Green and other parts of North London, especially Stamford Hill, the centre of Ultra Orthodox congregations. Ms Alderman suggests her novel, written during the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, was the first to focus on this kind of Jewish community since George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in 1876. She suggests that there have been others since. She wrote the novel while still ‘frum‘ or ‘observant’ of the teachings of her synagogue and writing it was part of the process of acknowledging her LGBT+ status. All of this is part of the film and when Esti and Ronit ‘escape’ the confines of the community, they find a hotel in Central London where they can rekindle the passion they had for each other as teenagers.
The film’s narrative is kept almost completely within the community apart from the episode referenced above. This means that it isn’t a narrative about conflict between the community and the wider world but rather, as the title suggests, within the community itself, posing the question of the freedom to act and what pursuing or prohibiting that freedom means in terms of obedience/disobedience. There is a danger, perhaps, of treating the restraints of such a life style as ‘exotic’, but I think that is avoided in Lelio’s presentation of the story. My one disappointment with the film is that there are no subtitles for the Hebrew spoken in the synagogue. I’m assuming that there is also Yiddish spoken in the film (‘frum‘ as I understand derives from Yiddish?). I’d have liked to know more about what was being said but perhaps this ‘withholding’ of knowledge is part of Lelio’s approach as outlined above. I knew there was something odd about Esti’s hair, but I hadn’t realised that a sheitel or wig was required for a married woman in the community.
The success of the film depends to a large extent on the performances of the three leads and the supporting cast, including Alan Corduner as Uncle Moshe. In some ways, the key role is Dovid and Alessandro Nivola manages to represent a character whose actions appear ambivalent. He is in the opening scene as his mentor makes his final speech about freedom and he is the one who makes crucial decisions about freedom at the end of the film. In between we can’t be absolutely sure what he is thinking or indeed feeling – but it is a struggle. It is the two women who seem able to be able to act, to some extent, on their emotional impulses. The film should be a melodrama but Lelio’s approach drains much of the potential for ‘excess’ in the colour and mise en scène – several scenes deal with the rituals of mourning and remembering the absent father figure. But there is music and the small group singing, especially of male voices, is very affecting.
Rachel Weisz was a producer on the film having optioned the novel. I’m not sure how much she was then involved as a producer. The crew list includes many ‘executive’ and ‘line’ producers and I suspect the major burden was borne by Frida Torresblanco of Braven Films. She is a significant figure in Hispanic films, now based in New York. I’m not generally pleased with the trend for filmmakers from smaller producing countries to move in anglophone productions but I have to admit that Sebastián Lelio is very successful with this venture and I look forward to Gloria Bell – I just hope we get it sooner rather than later.
PS. Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC1 about the history of the Jewish community in Leeds. This seemed to have a ‘Reformed’ rather than Orthodox practice but it was equally revealing about migration and a community within a community. A Very British History: The Jews of Leeds is on iPlayer for 29 days.