A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

Rosamund Pike & David Oyelowo

“Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” So said Ruth in the Old Testament and English clerical worker Ruth Williams lived them, when her beloved asked her to marry him. This beautifully done film about conflicting loyalties in the midst of implacable racism and power politics (trailer) was directed by Amma Assante and written by Guy Hibbert, based on the true story of Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland.

It takes place just after World War II, and the marriage was complicated. He was an African prince, and though she would become Queen of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), they were the only people who believed in the strength and staying power of their love. Botswana is the gentle landlocked nation north of South Africa, made vividly famous by Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. But when Ruth and Seretse traveled there from England, where he’d been studying, tensions were high. Some—notably his uncle and regent—opposed his marrying a white woman. Some—notably the British overseers of the protectorate—feared a reaction by the emergent apartheid government to the South. Opposition by those racist leaders would threaten the U.K.’s revenues from the South African diamond and gold mines. Promises were broken, but not Seretse and Ruth’s promises to each other.

The intransigence and overweening self-interest of colonial governments is all too predictable, yet there are voices in favor of Bechuanaland’s right to self-determination. Will they be loud enough? Will the Africans ever accept an English queen? Can Seretse secure his people’s future? My ignorance of African politics over a half-century ago meant the movie held surprises, even though the plot hews closely to real events.

David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama and helped produce the film, with Rosamund Pike as Ruth—quite a change from her portrayal as Gone Girl’s manipulative Amy. She can convey so much with just a slight quivering of the chin. Laura Carmichael is her loving sister, and Jack Davenport, their principal British antagonist.

This is quite a lovely film, with top-notch acting and beautiful scenery, bound up by ties of love between people and peoples.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 82%.

****Victoria: The Queen

Queen Victoria

detail of portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1859

By Julia Baird – This extensively researched biography landed in my “to read” pile at the same time the PBS series about Victoria was ready to begin. Naturally, differences in style and tone emerge, but the tv producers have hewn pretty close to the facts of Victoria’s early reign, as established by historian Baird.

Victoria was not the prudish, sexually repressed old lady we think of when we think “Victorian era.” That was Albert, actually. Victoria enjoyed her sex life and was disappointed when, after her ninth child was born, her doctor told her to have no more. She said something like, “What, no more fun in bed?” She became queen at eighteen and married at twenty-one. A youthful portrait, with a dash of the sultry, appears on the cover of Baird’s book. It’s the image of herself Victoria chose to bury with her husband.

When she became Queen, she initially relied heavily on the counsel of Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to whom she was greatly attached. He was a good mentor for Victoria, except in three areas, says Baird. He should have persuaded her to deal even-handedly with Britain’s political parties, not favoring one over another; he could have encouraged more concern for the poor; and he should have helped her repair relations with her mother.

By the time of her marriage, this headstrong young woman was accustomed to being queen. Yet she was deeply attached to Albert, who chafed under his limited role in British affairs of state, and they struggled to find a useful place for him. Ultimately, he worked tirelessly for the benefit of her country and its evolution into a modern society. Had he not died young, the 1800s would have been called “the Albertine era,” Baird says. But Albert did die when he and the queen were in their early 40s, and she wore black for the rest of her life. Her template became, Baird says, “weep with the women and dictate to the men, all while cushioning herself with a dramatic large grief.”

Victoria, too, worked hard. She wrote some 2,500 words a day—about 60 million words in her lifetime—letters, memoranda, diaries. Unfortunately, her voluminous papers were carefully “edited” by her family after her death. Daughter Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, who lived until 1944, took on the job of rewriting her mother’s diaries, turning the Queen’s interesting, quirky observations into dry prose, then burning the originals. Baird terms this “one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century.”

Victoria is great-great-great-great-great grandmother to the children of England’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton. It’s hard to believe so many generations have passed when Victoria remains so vivid in our cultural memory, for reasons this book amply justifies.

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

Jackie

Jackie, Natalie PortmanChilean director Pablo Larraín has created a mesmerizing film (trailer) about 34-year-old former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the unimaginably painful three days between the assassination of our 35th President and the funeral she orchestrated for him. A chief virtue of the film is that, although it is deeply moving, it is free of typically sentimental Hollywood touches. For Americans who remember those days, the film will unearth many painful memories.

The film purports to recreate the interview between Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman)—caught as Rex Reed said “in the tragic headlights of history”—and an unnamed interviewer (Billy Crudup). In real life, the interviewer was prominent political journalist and historian Theodore H. White and, as in the movie, the interview took place only a week after the assassination for this issue of Life magazine. You can see his handwritten notes here.

Jackie appreciates the historical significance of her husband’s murder and is determined to give her husband his due. This is as much because she believes the office deserves it as it is to assure his legacy. She takes inspiration for the funeral from that of another assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of her grief, she embarks on an exercise in myth-making in which the interviewer (again, as in real life) is complicit.

She has had her own accomplishments, of course. She has restored much of the White House with historical accuracy and invited cultural icons for performances there. Her aim, she says, was to make everything in the People’s House “the best” it could be. In the three compressed days before the funeral, it is sometimes as if she is moving underwater through an ocean of grief. Yet much is demanded of her: planning the funeral and selecting the burial site, celebrating her son’s birthday November 25, preparing to move out of the White House, and supporting her children.

Natalie Portman well captures Jackie’s breathy delivery and Peter Sarsgaard Robert Kennedy’s Boston accent. Both give excellent performances, allowing you to set aside differences in physical appearance. As a result, Caspar Phillipson, who bears such a striking resemblance to Jack Kennedy, is startling in his brief role.

Larrain assembled a strong supporting cast—principally, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s secretary, Nancy Tuckerman; Billy Crudup as the interviewer; John Hurt (whom I did not at recognize at all) as the priest called in to counsel the distraught widow; and Richard E. Grant as her design consultant.

Next November 22, it will be 55 years since the assassination, and still the loss of innocence, the loss of Camelot, haunts us. Though this idyllic association was inspired by Jackie and first popularized by White, it took root in Americans’ minds because it seemed so right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 73%.

****Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

washington-star

The old Washington Star building; photo: wikimedia

By John Norris – You think women in journalism have a long way to go when you consider how being young, glamorous, blonde of hair and white of tooth seem to be hiring criteria, and when you learn how sexual harassment of them is more common than seems possible in 2016 (for organizations that make their living exposing secrets, after all). But then you read Mary McGrory’s compelling life story, written by John Norris—a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress—and realize the distance traveled is pretty far after all.

McGrory was from Boston, the first person in her Irish Catholic family to finish college, and she began her newspaper career at the bottom of a very tall ladder. She worked for a time in Boston, as an assistant to the Herald Traveler’s literary editor, but the quality of her writing propelled her to a position as assistant book critic at the Washington Star. The nation’s capital in 1947 was a boomtown, full of change, openness, mobility.

Six years later, Mary’s badgering of Star editor Newby Noyes led him to assign her to write a series of political profiles, and Mary began spending time with the men she’d be writing about for the next half-century, including new Senate minority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The positive reception the profiles received garnered her a plum assignment: covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. From there she covered the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign of 1956, becoming one of the nation’s most respected reporters and colorful commentators on the political scene.

After the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Washington Post snatched her up. She wrote for that paper for twenty-two more years, though the Star was always her first love. She covered multiple Presidential campaigns, the Kennedy presidency was a miracle for Mary, pushing all her loyalty buttons—Boston, her faith, and her admiration of the family.

The fates of those brothers were intimately, personally felt. By contrast, she loathed Richard Nixon: “If he were a horse, I would not buy him.” Her name appeared on his infamous “enemies list.” Regarding the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000, she said the race was a “battle between the unlikeable and the unprepared.”

Although well known for her scorching prose, Mary’s life off the page is also fascinating. It seems she had one or more affairs with prominent politicians and journalists, and LBJ once propositioned her. She was a great party-goer and -giver. Her entire time in Washington, she regularly volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home—a refuge for young unmarried women—and arranged with Ethel Kennedy for the children to have swimming parties at Hickory Hill, the Robert Kennedy family home in Virginia. She persuaded Hillary Clinton to visit at Christmas in 1995, the year journalist Tim Russert played Santa Claus. These children were the stand-ins for the children Mary, never married, didn’t have.

Indefatigable Mary McGrory, pioneer woman in journalism, astute and opinionated, winner of a Four Freedoms Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, mentor to women journalists, had a stroke at her desk in 2003 and her health—and worse, her powers of speech—never recovered. Her simple tombstone in Antrim, Mass., reads exactly the way she wanted it to:  name, dates, and the inscription “Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.”

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”–Mary McGrory

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep, & Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins

Based on the true story of socialite, arts patron, and would-be coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, this Stephen Frears movie (trailer, with a nice feature afterward) is a perfect summer entertainment. Even though practically everyone other than her doting, doddering age-peers recognizes how truly awful her singing is and how bizarre are her costumes, the movie nevertheless is persistently upbeat and goodhearted.

Florence is generous and kind and, while it’s clear she’ll never be the singer she thinks she is, in Meryl Streep’s wonderful characterization, you don’t hold her delusions against her. Streep is supported by Hugh Grant, in a wholly sympathetic portrayal of Florence’s unfailingly supportive husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a handsome actor seven years younger than Florence in real life.

I fell in love with her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, as played by Simon Helberg. McMoon starts his new gig as her accompanist with great enthusiasm and the promise of a much fatter wallet, and when he hears her sing, his growing shock and bewilderment is priceless.

The only mean-spirited skunk in the whole film is New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson. His headline after Florence’s 1944 Carnegie Hall appearance called her the world’s worst singer. Nice opening credits, great classic cars, love her beads!

As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says, “there are no wrong notes in this film,” and the audience loved her “so-bad-it’s-good” performances, and you will too!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 86%; audiences 77%.

Genius

Jude Law, GeniusDirector Michael Grandage’s movie Genius (trailer) about the relationship between legendary Scribners & Sons editor Maxwell Perkins and flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe had received generally tepid reviews. (while I’m delighted an editor is finally receiving screen time!).

Wolfe was an author whose moods, enthusiasms, and output were not easily corralled, even by someone with Perkins’s experience. After all, he had already brought works to the public from other writers with outsized personalities and personal difficulties–notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s easy to imagine the slammed doors that would greet an author today who showed up with a 5000-page manuscript as Wolfe did with his second book, Of Time and the River. The challenging task of turning this behemoth into a publishable manuscript epitomizes the editor’s dilemma: “Are we really making books better,” Perkins says, “or just making them different?” Getting 5000 pages down to a still-hefty 900 made Wolfe’s work different, for sure. And better, at least in the sense of more likely to be read.

Colin Firth, as Perkins, keeps his hat on during almost the entirety of the movie, symbolic perhaps of how his character tries to keep a lid on his difficult author. Jude Law as Wolfe is by turns outrageous, contrite, drunk, hostile, and sentimental. Pretty much like the novels, actually. His performance is consistently inconsistent and always interesting. He shows Wolfe as a man with a lot of words bottled up inside him who can’t always control the way they pour out.

It’s odd to see a mostly British and Australian cast playing so many titans of American literary history, including Perkins and Wolfe, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. (The Hemingway scene required an ending credit for “marlin fabricator.”) The women in the lives of the protagonists are Laura Linney as Mrs Perkins, perfect as always, and Nicole Kidman, who believably portrays the obsessed Mrs. Bernstein. She’s left her husband to cultivate and promote the much younger Wolfe and has her own flair for the dramatic. The performances make the movie worth seeing.

The National Book Award-winning Perkins biography by A. Scott Berg was transformed into a screenplay by John Logan. New Yorker critic Richard Brody dings the script for its departures from the detailed and more richly peopled original, including the book’s fuller explanation for the rupture between Wolfe and Scribners. Brody says a lawsuit and Wolfe’s unsavory political views played a part, and leaving them out does seem a mistake.

Portraying in cinema an intrinsically intellectual and abstract enterprise is difficult (The Man Who Knew Infinity struggles with the same challenge). Like me, reviewer Glenn Kenny at Roger Ebert.com apparently had not read the book, so did not have Brody’s reservations. Kenny found “the exchanges between editor and author exhilarating. Logan’s script . . . is invested in the craft of words like few other movies nowadays, even those ostensibly about writers.”

Wolfe blasted onto the American literary scene like a runaway train and departed before he could accomplish a judicious application of the brakes. Yet, he eventually realized who’d kept him on course, as his moving deathbed letter attests.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 48%; audiences: 56%.

I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light, Hank WilliamsThe recent biopics of jazz musicians Chet Baker and Miles Davis (haven’t seen it yet) have been dinged for being impressionistic, improvisational, jazzy and showing only a limited period of their subject’s lives, in the case of Miles Ahead, 1979. With I Saw the Light (trailer), about country music legend Hank Williams, written and directed by Marc Abraham, we see the perils of the conventional treatment.

It’s a too familiar formula. Although this one skips over the difficult childhood and lacks the manager-as-ripoff-artist, we do have the rocky rise to stardom, wild success with 36 Top Ten singles, the lure of alcohol, drugs and dames, and missed shots at redemption—the whole gloomy self-destructive spiral. Truthfully, because Hank Williams died at age 29, his didn’t really have much chance to have a significant story arc to his life, which suggests something other than a chronology might have worked better. Instead, we have a movie that critic J. Olson says is “flatter than a silver dollar pancake.”

That fundamental problem is not redeemed by top-notch acting and the music. Tom Hiddleston (a Brit, no less) is a believable Williams—charming, uninterested in what people think of him (maybe he should have been)—and Hiddleston sings all the songs, which apparently were filmed live. Elizabeth Olsen is his wife Audrey Mae, tired of watching him lose the struggle with his demons and miffed he doesn’t support her singing career. She’s cute, but she’s a truly awful singer. Bradley Whitford plays Williams’s supportive manager, Fred Rose, and the guys in Hank’s band seem like the real thing, too.

Williams had a congenital back problem—a mild form of spina bifida—that may have made him prone to injuries. In any case, the injuries sure contributed to the development of chronic back pain, which explains that slight waist-bend in the movie posters, and exposed Williams to all the hazards associated with self-medication.

If you love country music, you’ll enjoy this film, even though you know the ending. If you’re not a fan, you know the ending too. This film makes the efforts to break out of the mold in the Baker and Davis films that much more appreciated.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 19%; audiences, 51%.

Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke, Chet Baker, Born To Be BlueEthan Hawke stars in this beautifully acted portrayal of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker during his prime. Know that the film (trailer) treats the facts of Baker’s actual biography, as one reviewer said, more like a chord chart than a score and riffs from there. What is true-to-life is that Baker was an only child, born on a lonely ranch in Yale, Oklahoma, and went on to have numerous relationships with women and a long-term relationship with heroin.

Musically, he was a progenitor of West Coast Swing, but always had his eye on the New York scene, with the mantra: “Look out Dizzy, look out, Miles. There’s a little white California boy coming for you.”

An accident when Baker was 12 caused him to lose a front tooth, after which he had to re-learn to play the trumpet. That was a mere warmup to the effort he had to put in after his drug dealer pistol-whipped him and knocked out all of his front teeth, destroying his embouchure. Yet, he couldn’t stay away from heroin. He thought it made his playing better, and he was all about his music.

While Baker had a great talent for improvisation and sustaining a melodic line, he had no talent at all for being happy. After one important comeback milestone, his manager (Callum Keith Rennie) asks, “Would you try to be happy for more than ten seconds?” This line provides the ironic overlay to the choice of title for the film, one of Baker’s big hits. Hawke did the films vocals; the trumpet playing was by Canadian trumpeter Kevin Turcotte.

Written and directed by Robert Budreau, the movie has an opening scene that shows how a girl he picked up after a performance casually introduced him to heroin, and he didn’t say no. This scene turns out to be part of a movie being made about him and whether such a significant life event happened in such an offhand way, we don’t know. The insertion of black and white scenes, some of which may be from the movie (which was never finished) or from his memory, plays with the order of events, especially early in the film, an improvisational approach to history that mimics jazz music itself.

Although Baker does get clean for a several years as he is recovering his playing ability, a return to heroin remains a risk in the music business. As his parole officer says, “You go into a barber shop and sit in the chair long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.” Still, his parole officer, his girlfriend—the delectable Carmen Ejogo (playing a composite of several women)—his manager, and many musicians wanted him to succeed, including Dizzie Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan. Miles Davis, notoriously prickly, was not a fan, and we’ll get a chance to get his side of the story in the biopic with Don Cheadle, coming soon.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 84%.