Best of Year (2017) – Female Performance

artworks-000241909670-zi4ra4-t500x500It’s list time! A review of films released/screened in Australia in 2017. And first off is female performance.

The year is reportedly a strong one for female roles but that’s based on films released in the States in readiness for Oscar and/or Golden Globe glory. In Australia, it’s been a so-so year with only a handful of obvious performances to make the list. My main quandary was the order of the top two.

So my top five performances by a female in 2017 were:

5: Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth)
4: Viola Davis (Fences)
3: Ruth Nega (Loving)
2: Sally Hawkins (Maudie)
1: Hiam Abbass (Insyriated)

Relative newcomer Florence Pugh was a revelation in the spare, minimalist Lady MacBeth, the tale of a young woman sold into an oppressive marriage in 19th century England. Initially (although reluctantly) accepting her lot in life, the story becomes progressively sinister, with Pugh firmly at the centre of the scheming.

Viola Davis is a powerhouse of an actress and her Oscar-winning performance in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1950s set family drama, Fences, is a dream. It’s the performances that carry the day (Denzel Washington plays Davis’ husband) as the film cannot shake-off its stage origins.

Understated and nuanced, Ruth Nega is quietly impressive in Loving, based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the dirt poor couple whose mixed-race marriage broke all the rules on the statutes and led to changes in the law via the US Supreme Court.

My top two are potentially interchangeable. Both actresses were the central character in their respective films – and both were charismatic and beguiling in their own way.

Sally Hawkins is one of the most extraordinary actresses working today (and will likely feature in next year’s list with her acclaimed role in The Shape of Water): she was sensational in Maudie. If it wasn’t for The Shape of Water, Hawkins would likely be appearing in any number of ‘best of’ lists for the year, although the indie-feature, a fine character study with superb performances, loses its way as a narrative.

But year’s best performance belongs, to my mimd, to Hiam Abbass in the claustrophobic feature, Insyriated. Sadly unreleased commercially in Australia, the Belgian/Lebanese film was my personal highlight of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival.

A middle-class Syrian family is barricaded in their second-floor Damascus apartment as the civil war rages around them. A deeply impressive Hiam Abbass controls the household – and a film that is devastatingly direct in highlighting the impact of war.

 

 

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‘The Greatest Showman’

greatest_showman_ver7It’s a slick, entertaining, all-singing, all-dancing old-fashioned musical of the life of one of the greatest of all showmen – impresario P.T.Barnum.

The founder of the modern circus, according to The Greatest Showman the innovative Barnum (Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables, Wolverine – in a role he was born to play) overcame poverty, married for love (Michelle Williams – Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea) and tapped into the fascination of the bizarre by setting up a circus of morbid curiosities and ‘freaks’. Success follows, but in wanting acceptance by polite society, Barnum almost bankrupts himself and his marriage by touring the  Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Snowman) around America.

Sanitised to make it a family spectacle, The Greatest Showman, even with its patchy soundtrack, stirs the heart with its acceptance of difference and diversity, even if, at the end of the day, it’s shamelessly old-fashioned and predictable.

(The sad thing about the film is that its telling is very far from the truth, with Barnum early in his career dubiously involved in loopholes in the slave trade, did not come from a poor background and he made almost $15 million in today’s money from the Lind tour. There’s poetic license and then there’s poetic license).

Rating: 53%

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

28446947._UY1200_SS1200_My first experience of the award-laden Ali Smith – and I must admit I’m not totally sure what I have just read.

Is it the story of Elisabeth? Or is it the story of the 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, currently in a coma but where his dreams involve him as a fit, handsome young man? The two are former neighbours who struck up a friendship in spite of the enormous age difference (almost 70 years) between them. It is due to Daniel’s influence that Elisabeth is a junior lecturer in art history.

Is Autumn a story of history? Of memory? A socio-political, post-Brexit commentary? Past, present, future – Smith takes us on an ever-evolving journey as events of the past reflect in some way on the present (and therefore the future). There’s a sense of hopelessness and a lack of any sense of direction as Elisabeth sits by the bedside of Daniel. His non-responsiveness to external stimuli allows her to reflect on moments from her childhood.

But Smith’s latest is not a simple narrative of memory and recall. Her prose is not that straightforward!

In a time-fractured narrative, Elisabeth’s day-to-day experiences are interspersed with Daniel’s own fleeting memories of 1930s Germany and the Profumo sex scandal in 1960s Britain involving government ministers. A side-story is that of little known pioneer British Pop Artist, Pauline Boty, who died tragically young at the age of 25. The result is an expansive meditation on turning points in history – Profumo led to the ruling Conservative government losing the 1964 election, 1930s Germany saw the rise of fascism in Europe whilst Brexit has lead to massive schisms in British society.

Yet, for all its expansiveness and inventiveness, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, Autumn fails to engage. Its lack of coherency undermines its sensibility and Smith’s storytelling acumen. Her prose is, at times, beautifully written and deeply profound, but at other times deliberately obscure and pretentious – the literary equivalent of an art-house film. Argument is that life is hardly coherent, a maze through which we travel.

Autumn was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Smith’s fourth nomination) but lost out to American writer George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘The Hiding Place’ by Trezza Azzopardi

268016A debut novel, The Hiding Place is a memoir-like narrative as the adult Dolores returns to her childhood home following the death of her mother, Mary. It’s been many years since Dol was last in the much-changed Tiger Bay, Cardiff, the scene of extensive emotional and physical abuse within the family.

Fostered out when a mere five years old, Dol’s memories come flooding back as she wanders through the dilapidated terrace house, hemmed in by the semi-derelict neighbourhood. Five sisters; the handsome, debonair father; a beautiful but overtly nervous Mary – all consigned to history until today.

But many of Dol’s memories are unreliable, viewed from the perspective of the youngest child. As her sisters slowly appear in readiness for the funeral, so truths and altered memories are triggered. The change in perspective brings shattering realisations to Dol.

Disfigured by fire as a baby, abandoned by the serial gambler of a father who loses the family livelihood in a card game, ultimately abandoned by the mother as she dips in and out of sanity, Dolores looks back at a childhood of grim poverty and few opportunities. Instead of love and warmth, family life offered fear and reprisals, uncertainty and pain, hunger and neglect. The grimy 1960s dockside setting of Tiger Bay added to the desolation and sense of isolation.

It’s a disturbing tale of the gradual disintegration of the troubled Gauci family mirrored by the slow demolition of the city’s slums. Evocative in its telling, the girls are forced to navigate their lives and the irresponsibility of their parents. Yet it is only as an adult that Dol realises that the common experiences of her memories are not necessarily shared.

Much lauded on release, The Hiding Place was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize. A recent creative writing graduate, Trezza Azzopardi was sitting alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro on that list. Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was presented with the award.

 

‘Justice League’

justice_league_comiccon_keyartA ponderous launch of the DC superhero collective as a ponderous Ben Affleck looks to bring together the not-so-happy cohort. With the honourable Superman (Henry Cavill) no longer in the picture and crime on the increase, it’s no easy task for Batman and his latest ally, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).

The rise of Steppenwolf, dormant for 5,000 years, and the threat to mankind finally brings Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) into the mix.

Justice League has its moments but as an entertainment, it needs a more convincing lightness of touch and humour. Battle scenes are pedestrian, the chirpy Flash humour not quite funny enough, the interface between characters needing work. The Zack Snyder (director) of Sucker Punch is needed!

Rating: 37%

‘Wonder Wheel’

WonderWheel_1Sht_FM1It’s 1950s Coney Island and, in his latest feature, Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) explores the failed American dream as both Ginny (Kate Winslet – Titanic, Steve Jobs) and Humpty (Jim Belushi – Saturday Night Live, Red Heat) struggle through a claustrophobic marriage.

Living in a run down shack overlooking the pleasure park, money is tight, laughter rare – the perfect environment for the arrival of Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage. Carolina (Juno Temple – Atonement, Maleficent) has left her husband – a small-time New Jersey mobster – with nothing to her name.

As his name suggests, Humpty is in for a great fall as Ginny becomes involved in an affair with the local lifesaver (narrator of the film, Justin Timberlake – The Social Network, In Time) and Carolina disappears.

With more than a nod to the anger and melancholia of missed opportunity of  Tennessee Williams and 1950s British kitchen-sink dramas (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night Sunday Morning), Allen is in a sombre mood in what is essentially a chamber drama that sadly veers too frequently towards silliness and melodrama, wasting an excellent cast.

Rating: 44%

 

‘Voyeur’

RYVY8vSA fascinating documentary centred around the figure of Gerald Foos, a former Colorado motel owner who bought into the business so that he could secretly watch guests through specially designed ceiling vents.

But what begins as an exploration around voyeurism and the extreme lengths Foos goes to satisfy his needs evolves into a tale of two narcissists. Long retired, Foos manipulates or omits information to ensure he remains centre of attention. Iconic investigative journalist Gay Talese overlooks the veracity of a few pertinent facts as deadlines for the The New Yorker article and publication of his book loom.

Oddly enough, the interest in Foos declines as the documentary progresses (there’s only so much that can be said about watching people through a ceiling vent) as debonair septuagenarian Talese wrests control of the film from the filmmakers, Myles Kane (Journey to Planet X) and Josh Koury (Journey to Planet X, Standing By Yourself) .

Rating: 50%

‘Murder on the Orient Express’

v1.bTsxMjQxNTA3MjtqOzE3NTU4OzEyMDA7MTAwMDsxNDgwIndulgent telling of the Agatha Christie 1934 whodunnit, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Cinderella) is limited in any radicalised new version – the very point is that it all takes place within the confines of the train.

Like his 1974 predecessor, Sidney Lumet who filled the train with stars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave), Branagh has opted for a stellar cast in the hope of skating over some of the shortfalls in the plot.

Branagh himself plays the famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot but even with support from the likes of Johnny Depp, Michele Pfeiffer and Judi Dench, the film never gets up enough emotional steam to thrill: it’s just a little too busy looking at its own sumptuous reflection to make sure it looks good.

Rating: 49%

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

17930610One of Australia’s most consistent writers, Alex Miller has, in Lovesong, produced one of his finest books.

A haunting melancholia pervades, a poignancy almost too painful to witness as John Patterner tells the tale of a married couple living a life of love, dreams, compromise, deceit and almost unbearable sadness. It is his life, shared with the beautiful Sabiha and their young daughter, Houria.

The two meet in a café in Vaugirard, an off-the-tourist-track working-class neighbourhood in Paris. Sabiha, newly arrived from Tunisia, is living with her recently widowed aunt, Houria, owner of the Chez Dom. John enters the café having taken the wrong train to Chartres and a sudden rainstorm sends him searching for shelter. Spending a few months travelling away from his native Australia, John’s original plan was to spend only a few days in the French capital. Meeting Sabiha changes all that.

It’s almost twenty years before John returns to Australia and its here the book’s narrator, Ken, a successful novelist, first meets him and, over time, hears this plangent story.

Gentle, lyrical and poetic in its telling, a tragic love story unfolds among the fragrant spices and sweet pastries of Chez Dom with its predominantly male migrant North African customers searching for a home away from home. An unlikely yet contented marriage, running the café after the death of Houria, is overshadowed by the lack of the daughter Sabiha is convinced has always been promised her. Their lives are in limbo: the two have agreed they will return to Australia only after their daughter has met her Tunisian grandfather. Receiving news that her father is dying, the idea that Sabiha might die childless pushes her into taking action with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

A deceptively simply written narrative in the form of a therapeutic confession, Lovesong contains many hidden (and not so hidden) depths about love, relationships, loneliness, ageing. But it’s also a gift – Ken himself has ambitions for the tale with its believable characters who are vulnerable yet resilient, fragile yet tough when needed.

Shortlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award (Miller’s sixth), Lovesong lost out to Peter Temple and Truth.

 

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2015

1503647227678My first completed Miles Franklin Award shortlist for a given year! The Award, presented each year to a novel which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, was first established back in 1957 (making it older than the Booker) with Patrick White and Voss the first recipient.

The 2015 Award was presented to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, the fourth woman in a row to win. The irony was not lost on the Australian literary world – following controversy over all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011, the alternative Stella Prize was established for novels written by women and first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany and Mateship With Birds (a further irony is that the 2013 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was an all-women affair).

The 2015 shortlist:
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys
Sofie LagunaThe Eye of the Sheep
Joan LondonThe Golden Age
Christine PiperAfter Darkness
Craig SherborneTree Palace

With the exception of Christine Piper’s debut novel After Darkness, the shortlisted books all feature children as significant characters and dealing with abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctionality and/or tensions within the family.

It was not a ‘classic’ year – the shortlist is a solid list of well-written books, predominantly domestic in theme and outlook, but which lack a greater perspective. Only Piper’s narrative of the internment of Japanese residents on Australian soil during World War II looks beyond the immediacy of environment, whether rural (Tree Palace) or suburban.

Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content, After Darkness is, to my mind, the weakest of the works on the shortlist. A renowned short story writer, Piper’s novel would have made an excellent long short story. Tree Palace also struggles – strong on authentic dialogue but its lack of social authenticity weakens the overall narrative.

The three novels directly involving children are the strongest works on the shortlist. Like Tree Palace, Joan London’s The Golden Age, whilst eminently readable, needed more social edginess in its telling of 1950s provincial Perth wracked by the devastating polio epidemic and its impact on a Hungarian refugee family, survivors of the war.

That leaves Golden Boys and The Eye of the Sheep, pretty neck-and-neck in my personal opinion. But by a very short head, I favoured Sonya Hartnett’s novel. Sofie Laguna’s story of six year-old Jimmy Flick was superb until the last chapter – a too-neat tying of knots and a father’s redemption having emotionally abused Jimmy throughout. Abuse is also prevalent in the disquieting Golden Boys, set in the 1970s and a time of confused innocence that turns out to be a rude, confronting coming-of-age with its own codes of conduct and justice.

So personally my vote would have gone to Golden Boys – but by so short a head that I have no issue with The Eye of the Sheep being favoured over Sonya Hartnett’s novel (and having recently met Sofie, I completely understand why she would not want her novel to spiral down into the dark underbelly of child abuse and leave the very loveable Jimmy in such a negative space).