RED JOAN (2019)

April 20, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sir Trevor Nunn is a Tony Award winner best known for his stage productions, and for being director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 through 1986. The film is “inspired by a true story”, and Lindsay Shapero has adapted Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel, which was a blend of history and fiction taken from the life of Melita Norwood … the longest serving British KGB spy.

Dame Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley (the movie version of the aforementioned Ms. Norwood) whom we first meet as she is being arrested for treason by MI5 agents in May 2000. Most of the film consists of Joan being interrogated while having flashbacks to her earlier life, beginning in 1938 at Cambridge University. She was a hard-working nose-to-the grindstone Physics student who is drawn in to the fascinating world of Sonja (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes), who are supporters of the Soviet party. In the flashback scenes, young Joan is played by Sophie Cookson (who reminds of a young Faye Dunaway).

The film spends most of its time in flashback mode, and Ms. Cookson excels as the idealistic Joan first in her scenes with Sonja and Leo, and later with Stephen Campbell Moore who plays Professor Max Davies. Joan is recruited to work in the lab with Davies, as the secretly work to create the Atom bomb. It’s Sonja and Leo who coerce Joan into passing along secret documents that allow Stalin’s Russia to keep pace on bomb development. She easily flies under the radar since, as Sonja tells her, “Nobody would suspect us. We are women.”

From a historical perspective, the film kind of falls flat. It also doesn’t qualify as a British spy thriller since there are really no thrills to be found. “The Americans” TV show was infinitely better at the spy genre than this one; however, if the film works on any level, it’s as moral debate fodder. Joan clearly has her reasons for doing what she thought was right … leveling the playing field between super powers, so that none had an advantage. The question is, what is right and who is to decide? During this time, alliances were quite fluid between Russia, Britain and the United States, and she believed her actions saved lives.

Dame Judi is really not on screen much, and when she is, there’s little for her to do except play innocent and dream of years gone by. She was labeled “Granny spy”, and though her story is interesting, and does provide yet another aspect from WWII, the film itself never really grabs us as viewers. The early periods are well filmed with beautiful costumes and sets, but we are never as dumbstruck as Joan’s son (Ben Miles) when he admits he thought his mum was merely an over-educated librarian. As a character study, there’s something here … but as entertainment, it’s a bit lacking.

watch the trailer:


GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017)

October 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Are you ready for a family-oriented movie based on the origins of the universally beloved children’s character “Winnie the Pooh”? Well, despite the PG rating, this is not one for the kids – no matter how much they adore the cuddly, honey-loving bear. When you realize it was directed by Simon Curtis (WOMAN IN GOLD) and co-written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (MILLIONS), filmmakers known for their crowd-pleasing projects, the final version could be considered borderline deceitful.

It’s 1941 when we first see A.A. Milne and wife Daphne receiving an unwanted telegram whilst tending the English garden. We then flashback to 1916 when Mr. Milne was serving on the front lines of WWI, and returned with a severe case of shell-shock (described as PTSD today). His episodes can be set off by bees, balloons, and bulbs. This affliction also has him in a deep state of writer’s block accompanied by a need to write an important anti-war manuscript.

Domnhall Gleeson plays the famous writer and Margot Robbie his wife. The 1920 birth of their son Christopher Robin makes it clear that lousy parenting exists in every era. Neither father nor mother have much use for their offspring, so they enlist the help of a Nanny Olive, played by Kelly Macdonald. Does it sound like a wonderful family flick so far? Well things do pick up when C.R. is shown as an 8 year old played by screen wonder Will Tilston. His bright eyes and dimples so deep we wonder if they are CGI, bring joy to the viewers, even if the parents remain icy and self-centered.

The film’s middle segment allows father and son to bond on long walks through the 100 acre wood, and we are witness to how the toys become the familiar icons of children’s stories: Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and of course, Tigger. The picturesque English countryside makes a beautiful setting for the adorable and energetic C.R., known at home as Billy Moon (nicknames abound in the Milne household).

Unfortunately, the father-son segment leads to even more atrocious parenting. After the book is first published in 1926, young Christopher Robin becomes little more than a marketing piece for the family business. The walks in the woods are replaced by radio interviews and publicity appearances. No matter how Nou (the nickname for Nanny Olive) tries to bring normalcy to the boy’s life, the parents remain oblivious to what is happening.

Alex Lawther appears as the 18 year old Christopher Robin. He’s committed to serving his duty in WWII after surviving boarding school bullying and hazing. Equally important to him is escaping the shadow of the celebrity childhood, and finding his own identity – one that is not associated globally with a fuzzy bear. The innocence of childhood stolen by selfish parents is painful to watch, whether 90 years ago with the Milne’s, or today with any number of examples.

The 3 reasons to watch this film are: the photography is beautiful (cinematographer Ben Smithard), those other-worldly dimples of a smiling boy, and the near-guarantee that you will feel better about yourself as a parent (if not, you need immediate counseling, and so does your kid). In this case, being a well-made movie is not enough. The film is a bleak downer with the few exceptions teasing us with the infamous whimsy of the classic stories. Sometimes pulling the curtain back reveals a side of human nature akin to war itself. We are left with the impression that the audience and readers are to blame – being held accountable – for the misery suffered by the real Christopher Robin. Crowd-pleaser? More like the blame game.

watch the trailer: