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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Favourite (Movie), Maria by Callas (Documentary), Mary Queen of Scots (Movie), Love, etc (Novel), Philosophy of the Foot (Short Fiction) and The New Yorker's 95th Anniversary Issue (Magazine)

The Favourite (Movie) written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hault, Joe Alwyn.

I suppose the point of this title is that it poses a question: who exactly is the favourite?

We’re in the early years of the 18th century and two women are vying for bff status with England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). The long-standing favourite is Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). She appears to have almost absolute control over the Queen. We find out, eventually, through certain secret letters, why that may be. Meanwhile, along comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who once had some noble standing until her father lost his money. Now she’s begging for a job in the Queen’s palace. Pretty soon, her wily ways earn her the Queen’s friendship. Sarah and Abigail, being clever, scheming types, each have ways of advancing their own interests with the Queen. Wikipedia informs me that there’s a historical basis to this power struggle but perhaps not in the case of the lesbianism that the two rivals use to win the Queen’s favour.

Obviously, one of the things that this movie has going for it is that it provides three great roles for strong women. I found the Queen to be the most interesting of the three, even though she is not an attractive woman. Overweight, with a pudgy face, limping from attacks of gout and suffering from various skin afflictions, she can be petulant and bad tempered. Kooky too – take those seventeen rabbits hopping around her bedroom. And yet there’s a nobility about her as well as a contrasting vulnerability. The devotion to the rabbits doesn’t seem so weird when we learn that she’s been pregnant seventeen times, although none of her offspring have survived. (Her husband, Prince George of Denmark, is apparently dead at this point.)

Anne was queen at a time when monarchs had much more influence in affairs of state than they do these days when their function is largely ceremonial. It can be fascinating to watch Queen Anne trying to make up her mind when she’s forced to make difficult decisions between opposing camps. That’s another intriguing aspect of the movie – to see government ministers coming to her bedroom to argue their points. The main issue in contention is the war with France. The Tory leader of parliament wants to pour more resources into the war. This would require a doubling of the land tax; the speaker of the house opposes that, preferring that England sue for peace. One complication troubling the Queen when it comes to taking sides in this quarrel, is that her friend Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, is in command of the British army in France.

All of which would seem to make for a fascinating movie. But I didn’t enjoy it very much, largely because of the arty, off-the-wall style of the proceedings. Instead of a straight-forward narrative, we get something like a mash-up of Federico Fellini and Peter Greenaway. Scenes are visually super-imposed on each other. A score alternating between droning baroque and strident modern music constantly assails our ears. The atmosphere is torrid and feverish, not just because of the huge roaring fires in every room. The opulence is oppressive. So too the debauchery, the gluttony, the brutality and the decadence – e.g. the gentlemen of the court entertaining themselves by pelting fruit at a fat, naked man who’s forced to dance for them like a clown. The courtiers fire off the filthiest four-letter words we know, presumably to show that they can be as crude as we can.

Maybe some viewers can be thrilled with this immersive experience, this riotous assault on the senses. Maybe that’s enough for them. Some of us, however, may be left wondering: what’s the point?

 

Maria by Callas (Documentary) directed by Tom Volf

The blurb accompanying this documentary explains the moviemakers’ approach: "The life story of the legend told completely in her own words." This means that almost all the material in the film consists of interviews with Ms. Callas, clips of her performances and readings from her diaries and letters, with only a few snippets of commentary from anyone else. Given the inherent limitations of that approach, I suppose this is as good a film as you could hope for. I, however, found it somewhat superficial.

That’s because nobody ever digs behind the image, nobody offers any contrasting points of view. Even in moments that are supposedly candid, Ms. Callas is always perfectly coiffed, meticulously made-up and fashionably attired. Granted, she does allow some peeks into her feelings. She says, for instance, that it was her mother who pushed her into a singing career, whereas she wishes she could have had a more ordinary life with a family. She talks about the suffering when the public turns against you, when the press makes you pay for your success. In these revelations, she can be gracious and charming, but she always comes across as royalty condescending to throw a few crumbs to the populace, even when she’s parrying accusations of being tempestuous. You long for someone to talk about what she was really like.

Not that the movie is without its attractions. The music, first of all. Only five or six arias are sung right through with the camera on Ms. Callas. I’ve often heard recordings of her singing but had never seen films of her performances. One thing that strikes me is that she often has her eyelids lowered, or even closed, which gives the impression that the music is simply pouring out of her, as if it is an expression of herself, without any thought of notes on a score. That can be very engaging.

I’m glad to say that the movie does include a full performance of "Visi d’arte" from Puccini’s Tosca, one of Ms. Callas’ signature pieces. However, the filming at this point gives the impression of over-acting, which is unfortunate in the case of a woman who was renowned for her sensitive acting, as compared to many other opera singers. In my opinion, the best performance in the film is of an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. (In black and white, with orchestra behind the singer, it looks like it was taped for television.) The voice is at its sweetest and purest and you don’t get much of that odd dark sound that was often heard in the Callas voice in the lower register.

In some ways, the film employs documentary techniques with great skill. For instance, we’re hearing a love letter that Ms. Callas has written to Aristotle Onassis while we see him elbowing his way through a crowd of henchmen and followers. But who is that woman we eventually notice over his shoulder? It’s not Maria, it’s Jackie! Thus the great tragedy of Ms. Callas’ life is introduced and it’s handled with candour and simplicity.

But I found other aspects of the documentary technique annoying. Much of what we’re watching appears to be flickering 8mm home movies taken backstage or in other intimate settings. The quality of the recorded sound in these situations can be inadequate, with the result that it’s hard to make out what’s being said. On the grander scale, we’re frequently given glimpses of performances, crowds arriving at theatres, Ms. Callas emerging from limousines, with titles in the upper right corner of the screen giving us the locations and dates. But these clips go by so quickly and chaotically that they raise more questions than they answer. We’re often left to wonder: is this the same theatre, the same performance, that was introduced a moment earlier? Sometimes, we seem to be getting montages of various performances of the same work. Sometimes, you can’t help wondering why there were cameras in the theatre. And why were the house lights on in some cases? And who took those movies of Ms. Callas and Aristotle Onassis on his yacht? Perhaps the filmmakers are just trying to give the impresssion of a lot of glamour and excitement; they don’t care much about the specific details and facts that some viewers might like to have nailed down.

In that respect, then, the movie can be seen as a nostalgic look at an era when opera singers were international megastars. Everywhere that Ms. Callas goes, it appears, she’s pursued by a phalanx of photographers. Those flash bulbs are always popping. And this was in the day when most of us had never heard the word ‘paparazzi.’ Who can imagine an opera singer getting that kind of attention today? Maybe the movie appeals most to people who pine for a time when they did.

 

Mary Queen of Scots (Movie) written by Beau Willimon, based on the book by John Gay; directed by Josie Rourke; starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, James McCardle, Joe Alwyn, Ismael Cruz Cordova, David Tennant

On the way out of the theatre, I heard two elderly women agreeing that the movie was "lovely" and "wonderful."

I was tempted to ask them what it was that they liked about it. Perhaps the settings: horses galloping across the moors, smokey castle rooms with roaring fires? Outfits: voluminous dresses and elaborate hair-dos? High-flown language? Arch drama? A sense of history?

It’s a good movie, if you like historical costume dramas. Unlike The Favourite, this one delivers the narrative without a lot of arty overlay. Still, it’s not the kind of movie that appeals particularly to me. I did hang in until the end, because I wanted to try to understand the politics. That wasn’t easy. It’s almost as if the movie-makers expect you to have a rough understanding of the situation before you come to the movie. If you read up on the history, you find that it’s almost impossible to keep track of the plots and counter-plots, the betrayals and the double-crossings. This movie tries to simplify things considerably but I was still plagued with questions throughout. What’s with Mary’s half-brother? Why wouldn’t he be on the throne of Scotland? What exactly is the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth? Was Mary commiting adultery with the Italian courtier or not? What was her husband’s role in the rebellion against her? The movie didn’t provide much clarity on any of these issues.

Some contemporary sensibilities that crept into the movie did not help to make the historical period believable. There’s a man in Mary’s court, for instance, who appears to be gay. (He likes dressing in women’s clothes and dancing with the women in Mary’s bedroom.) Mary magnanimously tells him that he’s free to be whoever he wants to be in her company. Even when he seduces her husband on their wedding night, she tells him that’s okay because he didn’t act against his nature. Sounds like this sixteenth-century monarch has been reading Dan Savage’s sex advice column in NOW magazine.

It may be be unfair to judge an actor’s performance on the basis of the way she has appeared in other roles, but sometimes you can’t shake a first impression. This is my problem with Saoirse Ronan as Mary. From movies like Brooklyn and On Chesil Beach, I’ve come to think of Ms. Ronan as an intelligent, sensitive person but sweet and innocent. Not that she doesn’t show a feisty spark here, but she seems to me like a sweet, innocent person trying to show a feisty spark. She doesn’t have the regal gravitas that the role calls for; she tries for it but it doesn’t feel inherent in her.

It may also be unfair to criticize an actor in a historical drama for seeming too modern. After all, we don’t know exactly how people came across in historical periods which have left us no filmed evidence. Still, I couldn’t get over the feeling that Margot Robbie’s reactions and moods, in the role of Elizabeth I, struck too contemporary a note. Good as she is as an actor, she wasn’t able to convince me that she was a person living in that long bygone era.

At first, Jack Lowden, in the role of Mary’s husband, Harry, struck me as just another pretty boy: blonde-ish hair, strong jaw, good complexion, good teeth, sweet smile. As the movie progressed, though, he showed himself to be more of an actor than you were expecting. In some scenes, the complexity and/or the ambiguity of his responses to awkward situations were captivating. (A note about what strikes me as a casting blooper, though: Mr. Lowden, who played Harry, is not quite the identical twin of Joe Alwyn, who played Robert, Queen Elizabeth’s boyfriend, but the two men are the same physical type: fair-haired, fresh-faced, boyish good looks. In the early scenes of the movie, where there was a lot of cutting back and forth between the courts of England and of Scotland, this similarity in the appearances of the two actors created more confusion for a person who was already struggling to understand the goings-on.)

It was sometimes difficult to make distinctions among the other hairy, bearded, virile men but James McCardle did stand out as a noble but conflicted James, half brother to Mary. David Tennant was also notable, in an odious way, as the hate-filled John Knox.

 

Love, etc (Novel) by Julian Barnes, 2000

Please excuse the pun, but, as far as I know, this is a novel way of presenting a novel. The story is conveyed in several short monologues from the main characters. They’re each addressing the reader as "you," as though they were each putting forward their case, their own interpretation of things, to see what you think about the mess they find themselves in.

That muddle mainly concerns Stuart, Gillian and Oliver, all of them Brits. Stuart and Gillian were married until Oliver came along. Now Gillian and Oliver are together and they have two kids. After the breakup of Stuart and Gillian’s marriage, he moved to the US, where he became a successful businessman, but now he’s back in the UK and has re-entered the lives of Gillian and Oliver. Other speakers who pop up from time to time are an American ex-wife of Stuart’s, a woman he’s dating now, Oliver and Gillian’s kids, Gillian’s mother, and a psychiatrist. There’s even a cameo from Gillian’s father.

The pay-off from these various points of view is that you get vastly different interpretations of what’s happening. One sex scene, for example, plays out in three different ways, according to who’s telling the story and when it’s being told. The chatty way these Brits interact and the complications of their involvements with each other remind me of Iris Murdoch’s characters but the writing here is clipped and succinct, compared to Ms. Murdoch’s more voluminous prose.

In some respects, the novel goes where it looks like it’s going to go, but not quite in the way you’re expecting. Julian Barnes’ genius as a novelist means that practically every page is graced with some fascinating observation. Opening the book at random, for example, I find Stuart thinking about the fact that when pigs are stressed by over-crowding, they start biting off each others’ tails. And what about people, then? "We just live on top of one another, higgledy-piggledy – is that were the phrase comes from? – and bite off one another’s tails." He sums up his reflections on the subject with the thought: "And given our stress levels and what most of us eat, I bet we taste horrible."

And here’s Gillian talking about how she tries to keep Oliver from getting depressed:

I get on with things. I am Little Miss Brisk. Now Mrs. Brisk. I think – I hope – that if I keep a structure to our lives, then Oliver can rattle around inside without coming to much harm. I tried to explain this to him once, and he said, ‘Oh, you mean like in a padded cell?’ Which is why I don’t explain things so much any more. I just get on with them.

The one slight drawback of the book, to my taste, is that the voice of Oliver eventually becomes tiresome. He’s supposed to be witty, creative, arty, ego-centric and somewhat hapless, as contrasted with Stuart’s more grounded, common-sensical approach to life. Granted, Mr. Barnes does make the two men sound like individual characters but Oliver’s cleverness and his wordy showing off tend to grate after a while. You begin to feel that the writer is trying too hard to make Oliver’s character distinctive.

 

Philosophy of the Foot (Short Fiction) by Taymour Soomro The New Yorker, January 7, 2019

This short piece gives us two aspects of the daily life of Amer, a young man living in Karachi. First, there’s his relationship with his mother, who’s confined to a wheelchair and who argues with her caregiver all day. They live in an apartment in what sounds like a somewhat insalubrious neighbourhood. In the background, there’s some controversy about the loss of their family home, presumably due to the nefarious dealings of some relative. Then there’s Amer’s new friendship with a teenage boy who repairs shoes at a makeshift stall on the street at the foot of the apartment building. Nothing much is resolved, it’s just one of those "slice of life" things. (I’m guessing that it’s excerpted from a novel) What makes it touching is a tenderness on Amer’s part as he threads his way through some tricky terrain, always remaining open-minded and hopeful. Also, the other boy’s philosophical thoughts about feet strike a poignant contrast to his lowly status.

 

The New Yorker (Magazine), December 3, 2018

This issue, celebrating the New Yorker’s ninety-fifth anniversary, offers several gems from the magazine’s archives. One of the things I find most interesting in the collection is that it presents styles of writing that strike me as very different from what we find in the magazine today. Hannah Arendt’s essay (from 1975) remembers her friend W. H. Auden in long, musing paragraphs that go wherever her thoughts take her, unlike the clipped, carefully tailored paragraphs that are more typical of the magazine as we know it now. James Baldwin’s 1962 essay on the plight of the black person in America is one long, anguished cry of pain, a personal blood-letting such as you seldom see in the New Yorker. John Updike’s "Snowing in Greenwich Village" (1956) introduces the Maples, a young married couple who have just moved to a new apartment on West Thirteenth Street. (Didn’t the Maples become mainstays of his fiction?) It’s one of those tentative, edgy things, where you think something’s going to happen but the main point is that it doesn’t happen – the sort of story that Mr. Updike perfected. But this story, which must have come near the beginning of his New Yorker career, features a somewhat arch, literary tone, loaded with adjectives and adverbs, that I expect the writer would have eschewed in his maturity.

In one way or another, nearly all the articles and stories focus – appropriately – on some aspect of life in New York. In a 1999 piece, Frank McCourt lets his hilarious narrator loose on the trials of a callow young Irishman just landed in the city. There’s a 1995 essay from Nancy Franklin, the magazine’s former tv critic, about learning to live like a true New Yorker. Jean Stafford’s short story, "Children Are Bored on Sunday" (1948) ponders the predicament of an intelligent young woman who has trouble fitting into the mileu of the city’s intelligentsia. On the other hand, some excerpts from the diaries of the comic novelist Dawn Powell, published in the magazine in 1995, give a humorous spin to her assorted encounters with the movers and shakers of the city’s literary crowd. At one party, she listens to a conversation between James Thurber and S.J. Perelman who talk about nothing but contracts and book sales. "Thus does the wit flow from these two talented fellows," notes Ms. Powell.

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