The Great (Hulu / STAN) TV review

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Tony McNamara is a prolific Australian playwright and TV writer who shifted to the big big leagues with his screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, which garnered him an Oscar nomination. Now he’s the credited creator and principal writer on The Great, which plays, essentially, like the TV series of The Favourite – and that’s a good, good thing.

Instead of a royal castle in 18th Century England, we’re in a royal castle in 18th Century Russia, and instead of Queen Anne, we’ve got the young German woman, Sophie, who was to become Catherine The Great (Elle Fanning). At the beginning of the series, she is betrothed to Peter III, the Emperor of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), and quickly discovers that he is immature, volatile and ridiculous (among other undesirable traits). If you know your history you’ll know where this is headed; our fun is going on that journey, as Sophie/Catherine must very quickly learn how to navigate, survive, prosper and ultimately take control within Peter’s raucous court.

And fun it absolutely is! This show is a constant delight. As with The Favourite, McNamara’s primary comedic conceit is that these 18th Century courts were full of childish, drunken, asinine men, drinking, brawling, bickering and forever pandering. The women are portrayed as more mature but no less scheming: survival in court is by any means necessary. Catherine’s corresponding character in The Favourite is not Queen Anne, but the young servant Abigail, played by Emma Stone; each is smart enough to plot their moves through the madhouse with ever-evolving tactics, accumulating allies along the way, while always realising that the seat of power is unassailable, until it is not.

Fanning is superb and Hoult – with the flashier role – astounding. He’s been building up to this sort of comic extravagance for awhile now – he played a similar role in The Favourite – and everything he does here is gold, every line reading, every physical bit, every expression. His Peter is a precise, masterful comic creation.

If you loved The Favourite you’ll love this; I would go so far as to suggest the directors have even been told to ape, to some degree, Lanthimos’ style. The production design is similar, the set-up obviously so, but the biggest connective tissue is McNamara, whose obsession with this sort of material – The Great began as a sprawling two-part play at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008 – has finally to come to roost, spectacularly. This is TV at its finest, boldest, and most thrillingly auteurist. It is McNamara’s vision, and it is indeed great.


the beguiled women

***1/2 (out of five)

Sofia Coppola’s new Beguiled, crediting both the 1966 novel and the 1971 screenplay as source material, is a surprisingly snappy and relentlessly atmospheric slice of “Southern Gothic”. Although Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gleefully fetishise the Spanish moss, southern live oak trees and glamorously decaying architectural features of their gorgeous south Louisiana plantation locations, Coppola and her editor, Sarah Flack, refuse to dwell on them. The melodramatic, sultry story takes precedence over the pretty pictures, marking what some will claim as a maturing of Coppola’s style (I will), while some may miss the lugubriousness of The Virgin Suicides, which is her closest film, aesthetically and thematically, to this one.

Top-billed Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is sheltered within a grand girl’s seminary in Virginia. The small group of women living there claim it is Christian values keeping them from immediately handing him over to the Confederate soldiers – their soldiers – who are omnipresent nearby and who routinely check in on the women at the seminary gates. In reality, it is sexual desire. Farrell’s entrance into the house sets each and every one of their hearts and other parts aflutter, and as they individually make plays for his affection, so too he, as clever as he is handsome, plays them off against each other. Of course, this is southern gothic, and you don’t need to be Tennessee Williams to know what kind of trouble all this furtive flirting may lead to.

TheBeguiled colin and kirsten

The film is completely apolitical. Coppola has said as much in multiple interviews, and also freely discussed shooting Farrell with an unapologetically objectifying gaze. He does look too gorgeous for the given circumstances – his haircut, for one thing, is too sharp for a soldier’s shears – but thankfully he doesn’t have the modern Hollywood Male Body, which would have made him ludicrous (that said, his body looks fantastic, just not condom-full-of-walnuts). The film is also not particularly interested in history and certainly not the details of the war (the Louisiana locations, with their hanging moss, even defy the vegetation of Virginia). Really, the film is set in an American south during an American Civil War; it is abstracted, fairy-tale.

The plot and motivations are melodramatic and overcooked, deliberately and enjoyably. Each of four generations of actresses gets to have enormous fun straining their desire against their tight corsets: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Australia’s own Angourie Rice, who remains uncannily brilliant in her mid-teens. If anything, I would have liked to see all of them allowed perhaps ten percent more scenery to chew; because the film is so fast (it’s all done and dusted in 93 minutes) their motivations seem to be a step behind their actual actions. I actually suspect that a lot more was shot, with the intention of letting the film breathe and luxuriate in the style of The Virgin Suicides, and then a radical decision was made to accelerate everything in the editing suite. If true, that choice may have made for a few jarring moments, but has resulted in Coppola’s leanest, meanest film, and one that is less an objet d’art than a guilty pleasure.

The Beguiled Clint
Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the 1971 version.

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20th Century Women

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WATCH my review of 20th Century Women on Watch This


**** (out of five)

There have been countless coming-of-age comedy/dramas about significant years in young men’s lives: the year they got laid, the year their father died, the year they lost their innocence. But never have I seen a film about the year a fifteen year-old became a feminist. Mike Mills’ autobiographical 20th Century Women is just that, and it is wonderful.

It’s interesting to review 20th Century Women in the wake of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, which is also an autobiographical portrait of the filmmaker’s mother. While a young woman – obviously Hansen-Løve’s surrogate – only briefly appears in Things To Come, having very little impact on the story, in 20th Century Women the protagonist is obviously the “Mike Mills” character, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). So in Things To Come, Hansen-Løve shows you her mother; in 20th Century Women, Mills shows you his mother’s effect on him.

But not just hers – most definitely not! Mills grew up surrounded by women, and the fictionalised account he offers here makes them three: his / Jamie’s mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dad’s nowhere to be seen, but there’s another lodger, William (Billy Crudup), supplying at least a version of mature(ish!) masculinity. (Incidentally, Mills’ last film Beginners (2010) was based on his father, who came out as a gay man in his mid-70s).

It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and Dorothea, a graphic artist, runs her large, rambling, constantly-under-renovation house like a very laid-back boarding house. Her boarders William and Abbie are both, essentially, escaping their lives while trying to figure out new ones, while Julie escapes nightly from her own home into Jaime’s bedroom to sleep with him platonically, which is more than a little confusing to his roiling hormones. Sensing the changes exploding within him, his mother enlists the aid of Abbie and Julie in his emotional education, but Abbie’s determined feminism and Julie’s own confusing pubescence aren’t necessarily the life lessons Dorothea is hoping to offer. As a fifty-five year old professional woman with a slightly bohemian lifestyle, Dorothea is a little too late for the revolution, but also an embodiment of its basic ideals.

The film is punctuated with quotes from the feminist texts Jaime reads throughout the year along with clips from the punk bands he is listening to (both thanks to Abbie). This juxtaposition is original and thrilling. What an intense experience, to be listening to The Raincoats while reading Our Bodies, Ourselves while surrounded by three generations of women all trying to figure it out for themselves! Mills makes it personal, touching and true. It all smells very real, very honest, very heartfelt.

It’s also really funny. I laughed out loud – a lot – at some of the best lines this year. The humour flows organically, from the situation and from the truth of the characters. Nothing feels forced. No emotions are coerced. Everything feels genuine, artistic, pure.

And the performances are fantastic. Much has already been said about Bening’s excellent, multi-faceted portrayal (the film came out in the United States months ago) but Gerwig and Fanning both give career-bests. Zumann is always believable and crafty with a sly zinger, and Crudup’s performance is – here’s that horrible critic’s word – revelatory. Humble, odd, gentle, yet disarmingly sexual, William is an enigmatic, extremely rich character, completely realised. It’s a houseful ensemble of excellence, in a thoroughly entertaining, sophisticated, beautifully crafted film. Highly, highly recommended.