Month: February, 2020


Verdict: A stylish and smart big-screen treatment the Austin classic.

The oft-adapted classic, Jane Austin’s Emma, seems to be a screenwriters dream. Not least because of the book’s intriguing plot contrivances that drip with romantic machinations, but more because it has at its centre a wonderfully complex female character that bristles with feisty agency. Emma is a story of misguided match-making as she (played by a mischievous Anya Taylor-Joy) plays cupid for others who blindly bare the brunt of her bad advice.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.

Kiwi word-smith Eleanor Catton appears to have relished her opportunity to adapt the queen of romantic mismanagement for the big screen. Plunging her pen deep into the pages of Austin’s book, Catton has gilded this plucky production with delightful attention to Austin’s wonderfully witty prose. She has avoided pandering to the “Downton Abbey sect” and its more easily digestible frippery. Rather, this version feels more faithful to the source material than prior renditions which will no doubt delight fans of Austin. Those less familiar with Austin’s work might find the sharp word-play and dizzying array of characters a tad disorienting.  It is a complex web that Emma weaves and it appears that Catton doesn’t suffer fools, so if its a more contemporary version you’re after, then perhaps Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hill’s update, Clueless (a good film in its own right), might be a better option.

The film’s tagline “Handsome, clever, and rich” is not only an apt summation of its protagonist, but also describes Catton’s intelligent screenplay and a production that brims with all the trimmings that come with a romantic romp through the early nineteenth century. Costumes, finery and luxuriously green-gardened estates—it’s all there along with an excellent ensemble cast that includes Bill Nighy hitting peak Nighy.

If I had one reservation, it is that director Autumn de Wilde, in her feature debut, hasn’t quite lived up to her music-video roots. Her name might look lovely on the poster, but the film’s beautiful production design and vivid cinematography should’ve been weaved into something a little more kinetic.  But de Wilde’s lack is thankfully made up for by Catton’s biting script and Anya Taylor-Joy whose embodiment of Emma proves a whimsical delight.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

For Sama

Verdict: Probably the most courageous documentary you’ll see this year.

The horrors of civil war are explored in Waad Al-Kateab’s Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama. A Syrian journalist and reluctant hero, Waad recounts her tumultuous five years trapped within the besieged city of Aleppo along with her husband Hamza and their newborn daughter, Sama. They lived a meagre existence while working at a makeshift hospital during Assad’s brutal assault on the city.

Armed only with Waad’s handheld camera and Hamza’s surgical know-how (but both with an inspiring supply of courage), the couple do their best to save lives with limited resources. The film is a heart-breaking assault on your senses and doesn’t pull any punches as the seemingly endless conveyor-belt of wounded—civilian casualties of Assad’s unforgivably ill-targeted bombings—pass through the hospital doors.  Yet, behind the bloodshed For Sama presents itself as a love story on many levels; one of Waad and Hamza’s love for each other, also one of compassionate love for the city of Aleppo, but ultimately, as the title suggests, this film is Waad’s love letter to her daughter, Sama.

Waad explains how the plight of the rebels was muddied by an influx of Islamic extremists. However, the film wisely avoids getting too bogged down in the politics of war, rather, locking its attention on the plight of the innocent civilians at ground level, specifically the children caught up in the bombing. One heartbreaking scene in which two young boys softly weep over the body of their brother, a victim of yet another bomb, is particularly difficult to stomach. Such scenes, harrowing as they are, are necessary and serve to focus the film’s humanist concerns, as well as crystallise Waad and Hamza’s personal moral edict to stay and save lives rather than flee.

Never losing sight of the medium of film, Waad and her co-director Edward Watts have wrangled over 500 hours of hand-held footage and weaved it into a strong piece of cinema. The result is a profoundly intimate yet horrifically heartbreaking film—a powerful document of love and injustice that traverses an array of emotions. For Sama is essential viewing.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

A Hidden Life

Verdict: A deeply moving Malick mood piece.

Based on the letters between Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War, and his wife Fani (played by Valerie Pachner), this true story revisits one of history’s many forgotten wartime martyrs. The couple forge out seemingly utopian lives as farmers outside a remote village beneath the picturesque Austrian Alps. But when Franz (played by August Diehl), a devout Christian, refuses to bend the knee before the evil of Hitler’s Nazi regime, it threatens to shatter their idyllic lifestyle. His refusal to sign an oath of allegiance is an act that would have him thrown into prison and potentially sentenced to death for treason. 

Those who appreciated writer/director Terence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life, will welcome Malick’s return to form. He’s had a few misses since, but A Hidden Life represents a renewed conviction for his craft—one of whispered fever dreams laced with periods of lucid connection to nature, all built on liberated camera movement, vibrant imagery, and oiled with fluid editing patterns. It is tactile film-making par excellence that pipes straight into your soul.  Yes, Malick’s best films are more spiritual experiences rather than mere entertainment.  

However, at nearly three hours long some might find Malick’s contemplative style too taxing, with a seemingly endless supply of swooning camera movements that are sublime, yes, but also numerous. Those less versed in Malick’s style will question if this relatively simple story could’ve been trimmed to a more digestible length. For that, Malick himself might be considered a conscientious objector to today’s popcorn movies, stubbornly forging out a work of meaningful cinematic art without bowing the knee to today’s ever shortening attention span. I applaud him for it, because what we have here is a master work. 

A Hidden Life unflinchingly locks us inside Franz’s moral conundrum. First showing paradise, with humanity and nature living as intended high in the pristine Austrian Alps, and then with a slow, prowling, cloying, camera ushering in the inexorable threat of Hitler. Paradise lost, indeed. 

It’s an anachronistic parable for our Trumpian times, sympathetic to lives of moral fortitude lost in the white noise of history. A Hidden Life is a graceful and hauntingly beautiful symphony for the senses that is urgently pertinent. I loved it.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.