THE SECRET GARDEN (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel was first published in 1911, “The Secret Garden” has become one of the most popular and oft-read children’s books. Previous film adaptations include the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and Dean Stockwell, and the 1993 version with Kate Maberly and Maggie Smith. Additionally, the novel has been adapted numerous times for the stage and television. Director Marc Munden is working with the screenplay adapted by Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017), and the two had previously collaborated on the BBC series “National Treasure”. Readers of the beloved novel will certainly recognize the changes and differences within this version, both in characters and theme.

As the film begins, we are told it’s “the eve of Partition”, which was the 1947 division of British India into two separate states: India and Pakistan. This timing is, of course, quite a bit later than Ms. Burnett’s setting, but the effect is the same – young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned when her parents die, and left alone when the servants desert her. She is shipped off to live with an uncle (Oscar winner Colin Firth) she doesn’t know. Accompanied to massive Misselthwaite Manor by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary quickly understands that Uncle Archibald Craven is a grieving widow (his wife was Mary’s mother’s sister) who is not to be disturbed, and his hunchback is not to be stared upon. Mary soon learns that her spoiled brat manner will not be tolerated, though her natural spunk will prove advantageous. The young girl is one who is accustomed to be waited on, while also wanting to prove her independence.

Mary’s imagination is extraordinary and she often asks, “Do you want to hear a story?” CGI effects allow us to see what she has envisioned, whether it’s the wallpaper coming to life, or her mother and aunt frolicking through the halls or swinging in the garden. Mary soon befriends Martha the maid (Isis Davis), and then happens upon “Jemima” the dog while wandering the estate grounds. It’s here where the fantastical and supernatural meet reality, and a helpful Robin leads Mary to the key that unlocks the gates of the gardens that have been locked away since Uncle’s wife died. Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) go on adventures through the garden – a garden which has mystical powers.

One evening Mary hears cries echoing in the halls of Misselthwaite. Despite being forbidden from exploring, she discovers her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) locked away in a far off bedroom. Colin is a sickly child, supposedly stricken with a spinal problem that keeps him from going outside. Mary continues to visit Colin, and soon she and Dickon are sneaking Colin into the secret garden, where the magical healing powers begin to take hold. The titular garden doesn’t make an appearance until about one hour in, but its beauty and wonder are on full display.

This is a story about the power of loss and grief and depression, and it offers the life lesson that the things we care for blossom and grow and thrive. This version has some elements of such classics as “Peter Pan” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” in that fantasy and magic play a much larger role than in the novel. Director Munden employs a darker approach and seems to emphasize self-discovery. Young actress Dixie Egerickx was a standout in the recently watched SUMMERLAND, and she is terrific here – despite the changes to the story that some fans might not embrace. The film seems a bit disjointed at times, but it’s always a feast for the eyes, and offers up one of the year’s best scores, courtesy of Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (ATONEMENT, 2007).

Available Video on Demand August 7, 2020

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RADIOACTIVE (2020)

July 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. There can never be enough movies made or books written about remarkable people with incredible accomplishments. Marie Curie was certainly a remarkable woman and her accomplishments were such scientific break-throughs that we are still using them today. Director Marjane Satrapi’s (Oscar nominated for PERSEPOLIS, 2007) film is based on the 2010 book “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss, and the screenplay was adapted by Jack Thorne (THE AERONAUTS, 2019).

The film opens in 1934 Paris, and we see an enfeebled Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) collapse and get rushed to hospital – a sequence used by director Satrapi as a framing device. The film quickly flashes back to 1893 when a headstrong and brilliant twenty-something Marie Salomea Sklodowska gets kicked out of her laboratory for being … well … a bit too headstrong for the times. Soon she meets an equally headstrong and also brilliant scientist named Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Pierre recognizes the potential if they combine forces, while Marie initially demands her independence, having never found another scientist worthy of the efforts required for collaboration.

The initial flirtations between brainy scientists is as clumsy and awkward as one might expect. In general, the film struggles with how to best address Curie’s personal life with her professional life and the challenges she faced as a brilliant woman in an era when male scientists didn’t much appreciate a woman scientist telling them they have “misunderstood the atom”, as she and her husband announce the discovery of not one, but two new elements: radium and polonium. Romance and science and equality are a lot for one film to tackle, and this one flounders a bit.

As the film and science progress, director Satrapi intersperses flash-forward vignettes to show how Curie’s discovery of radioactivity is used in the future for both good and not so good. These dropped-in segments include cancer treatment for a little boy in 1957, the Enola Gay bombing Hiroshima in 1945, the Atomic Bomb test in 1961 Nevada, and of course, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The segments aren’t always a smooth transition from Curie’s story, but they make the point of how scientists don’t always have control over how their discoveries are applied. There is even a scene where Pierre shows Marie some comical uses entrepreneurs found of trying to capitalize on their discovery, and how their work might factor in to everyday life.

As a biography or profile of Marie Curie’s life and accomplishments, the film hits the high notes, though we do wish it dug a bit deeper. The gender prejudices of the times are somewhat underplayed, and even Marie herself claims lack of funds and the fact that she wasn’t a natural born Parisian held her back more than the roadblocks she faced as a female scientist. It would seem reasonable that those issues were likely tied together and should not be separated. She lashes out at Pierre regarding the Nobel committee initially keeping her name off the submission, but of course this anger is misplaced, as Pierre demanded she be included.

The historical aspect of her winning two Nobel Prizes is not treated as the astonishing accomplishment it is, but time is spent on a personal scandal that occurred after Pierre’s death. We do see Marie sleeping with a sample of her radioactive uranium, and watch her slow physical deterioration, including an incessant cough and damaged skin. Late in the film, Anya Taylor-Joy plays her daughter Irene, and we see the two of them head onto the battlefield to provide mobile x-ray devices for injured soldiers. The Curie family tree is filled with renowned scientists (Irene and her husband Frederick jointly won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for artificial radioactivity), and some of these discoveries literally changed the world – including cancer treatments. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect any movie to capture the historical importance of Marie Curie, but we are somehow left feeling she deserved better.

Premieres July 24, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video

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THE AERONAUTS (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ‘Up, up, and away, in my beautiful balloon.’ That song says nothing about a lack of oxygen (hypoxemia), a malfunctioning valve, or frost bite … all of which come into play in this story inspired by real life events of 1862 in London. Tom Harper directed the excellent WILD ROSE earlier this year, and for this one, he and his co-writer Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017) base the story on both the real life record-breaking flight of scientist James Glaisher and balloon pilot Henry Coxwell, and Richard Holmes’ book “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.’

Reuniting from THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014) where they played Stephen Hawking and wife Jane, are Eddie Redmayne (as scientist-with-a-chip James Glaisher) and Felicity Jones (as fictional balloon pilot Amelia Wren/Rennes … yes, naming your female pilot Amelia is so very creative). Courageous real life balloon pilot Henry Coxwell gets nary a mention here, as new world cinema must require a female lead or co-lead for every filmmaker not named Martin Scorsese. So, to heck with history, Amelia Wren is now the hero of this adventure!

As it turns out, Ms. Jones’ character is the more interesting of the two. Amelia’s initial showmanship catches nerdy Glaisher off-guard, though in fact, both are over-compensating. He, for his inferiority complex and the ridicule he endures from his fellow brainiacs at the Royal Society of London, and she for the tragic loss of her beloved husband in a balloon mishap. The mismatched pair are on a mission to fly higher than any human has previously flown, and in the process, allow Glaisher to record all the atmospheric readings possible in order to prove to the skeptics that meteorology is legitimate, and the weather can be predicted (although almost 160 years later, most weather reporters still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it).

It’s a tricky thing filming two characters who spend most of the movie floating tens of thousands of feet above ground in a wicker basket. The banter between the two should be crisp and the connection or disconnect should add intrigue. Here, the two characters are dwarfed by the giant balloon and the challenges that brings. What begins as an adventure morphs into a tale of survival. Storms, frostbite and technical issues provide the conflict. We do have flashbacks to background on both Amelia and Glaisher. Himesh Patel (star of this year’s YESTERDAY) plays Glaisher’s best friend, while Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid are Glaisher’s parents. Vincent Perez appears as Amelia’s husband Pierre.

I was fortunate enough to see this in a theatre and the big screen allows for the balloon effects to have full impact. There is no doubt that streaming this on your TV will not be as impressive … although anyone suffering from acrophobia will likely still experience some discomfort. The scenes in the balloon are thrilling, and Amelia’s rescue mission up the ropes is stunning and beautifully filmed by cinematographer George Steel; however, the flashback scenes are quick to deflate the excitement. The upside here is that the English really did break the French record on the flight … even if the filmmaker had to bend history so Amelia could get credit.

watch the trailer: