Weekend Movie Pick: Wildcat

The award-winning author Flannery O’Connor is something of an acquired taste. You may be familiar with her Southern Gothic stories, her preoccupation with religion, especially Roman Catholicism (she attended mass daily), her deep understanding of human nature and its propensity to darkness and violence, and her startling candor. She said, for example, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Lastly, we recall her suffering with the crippling autoimmune condition systemic lupus erythematosus, which took her father’s life, and whose inevitable difficult progression she knew all too well.

O’Connor died at age 39. Now she comes blazing back to life in this bracing movie directed and co-written (with Shelby Gaines) by Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter, Maya Hawke, as O’Connor and Laura Linney as her mother, Regina (trailer), both of whom do brilliant work here. Flannery lived with her mother almost all of her life, and their relationship was obviously pivotal to the author’s view of human nature and its shortcomings.

O’Connor never gave her stories’ characters an easy way out, they never defaulted to a formulaic happy ending or an excess of sentimentality. What comes through in the stories is how strongly she rejected the shallow “niceness” of the people around her. Under her characters’ good manners and professed propriety, she saw a core of racism and religious hypocrisy. Her own mother was the epitome of Southern graciousness and, naturally, did not understand Flannery’s writing at all.

The film weaves together scenes from O’Connor’s life and relationships with dramatized excerpts from her stories. (It helps probably to be somewhat familiar with the actual stories, but works, regardless.) Interestingly, the mostly awful male characters in these recreations are played by a succession of actors, whereas Hawke and Linney play the sparring (mostly) female characters. They approach each of these fictional relationships fresh and without condescension. Relationships are complicated; you can love and despise a person at the same time.

Critic Jeffrey M. Anderson wrote, “This fine depiction of a great author avoids typical biopic trappings, instead concentrating on the rhythms of the artistic process and capturing O’Connor’s voice in a visual way.” Some critics object to the intrusion of the stories in the narrative of her life, but to me they illustrate so much, so effectively, showing us what she thought and found important.

Below left is a photo of the Little Library outside O’Connor’s childhood home on Lafayette Square in Savannah, which we visited a few years ago. She loved birds, especially peacocks, and raised many of them. The movie scenes take place at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in New York with her publisher, and mostly around Milledgeville, Georgia, where the family relocated when she was a teenager. We visited the house (below right) and museum in Milledgeville last year.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 56%; audiences 74%.

Mr. Holmes

Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes, Sherlock

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes

In Mr. Holmes (trailer), it’s post-war England, and the elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), lives on a remote property on the Sussex coast. He tends his bees and shuns detecting, ever since the tragic conclusion of his last case some 35 years earlier. But he’s bothered by John Watson’s account of the case and a movie about it, both of which got the wrong end of the stick.

Between stretches of mentoring his housekeeper’s young son Roger in the details of managing an apiary, avoiding his housekeeper (played to a “T” by Laura Linney), who is apprehensive his declining physical state and advancing dementia will soon be too much for her to handle, trying unproven botanical memory aids, and enjoying terrific view of Seven Sisters white cliffs, Holmes has taken pen in hand to write his own record of that final case. Its details are elusive and come back to him only in fits and starts.

The movie is based on a 2005 literary mystery by Mitch Cullin, A Slight Trick of the Mind, which “is not a detective story; it’s a work of literary fiction, and as such it’s much more interested in the mysteries Holmes can never solve,” said Salon reviewer Laura Miller.

Director Bill Condon obtained fine performances by McKellen and Linney, as well as the strong supporting cast, including Roger Allam (who plays Holmes’s doctor), Milo Parker (Roger), Hattie Moraham (as the principal in his last case), and Hiroyuki Sanada (who provides Holmes some of his botanicals, but issues his own challenge to the aging detective). Late in life, that challenge teaches Holmes an important lesson.

For my taste there was too much aging and not enough mystery. Perhaps Monsters and Critics’ Ron Wilkinson captured the problem when he wrote, “A charming but fatally slow exposition.” Too, more should have been done cosmetically to differentiate the 93-year-old Holmes from the flashbacks of him at age 58.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences, 78%.