Starring: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Froggatt, Maisie Williams, Tom Sturridge, Ben Hardy, Ciara Charteris, Owen Richards
Released: 6th July 2018
In 1818 Mary Shelley produced one of the most influential texts in literature: Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus. Her novel attracted a huge degree of critical attention and gained increasing cultural importance, so much so that the circumstances of its composition has achieved a kind of mythic status.
During the summer of 1816 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley were in Switzerland with Mary’s stepsister, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori. One rainy day after reading a book of ghostly tales, Byron suggested that they should try writing their own horror stories. Stimulated by her love of science and discussions she had had with Dr. Polidori, Mary began working on Frankenstein – she was nineteen years old
In their bio-pic Mary Shelley, director Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda, 2012) and screenwriter Emma Jensen have somewhat smoothed over Mary’s turbulent and controversial life. The film begins while the young Mary (Elle Fanning) still lives with her father, radical author turned bookseller (and writer of the Gothic novel Caleb Williams) William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her disdainful stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and a loving stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley).
Mary’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the firebrand writer of A Vindication for the Rights of Woman (1792) which argued that women were not inferior to men. This advocate of equal rights and free love died only days after giving birth to her daughter. A frequent visitor to her mother’s grave, Mary begins to experiment with writing and, feeling close to death and loss, she is most attracted by ghost stories.
Mary is not liked by her stepmother (who sent her own daughters away to school but refrained from giving Mary a formal education). Her father however, gives her access to his extensive library and, sensitive to the tensions at home, sends Mary off to Scotland to stay with William Baxter (Owen Richards) where she finds domestic tranquillity and congenial companionship with Baxter’s daughter Isabel (Maisie Williams).
It is also here that she first meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Once Mary is back in London, Percy again appears and becomes her father’s protégé, but he continues to focus his attention on Mary.
Percy is still only 21 but has already abandoned one wife and child. However, he has a soft way with words and his Romantic idealism appeals to Mary’s radical education so, despite these impediments, he persuades the teenage girl to run away with him, accompanied by her stepsister Claire. Mary’s actions create a painful estrangement from her father who does not approve of Percy or his designs on his young daughter.
The amorous liaison imagined by the sixteen-year-old Mary soon turns out to be much less idyllic than she had hoped. She and Percy are considered scandalous and shunned by polite society, Percy’s male friends assume that Mary is sexually available, Percy is disinherited, and serious money troubles ensue.
Inevitably, Mary soon realises that Percy’s ideas about the unconventional, liberated life that he and Mary should share are not the same as her own, and their mercurial relationship is plagued by Percy’s selfish behaviour and infidelities, followed by further declarations of love. It is most severely tested by the death of their baby daughter, only days after her birth.
A distraction from the devastation Mary feels after the death of her baby results in the infamous summer spent at Lord Byron’s chateau in Geneva. Byron (Tom Sturridge) is a wealthy, swaggering, entitled cad, who lives only for his own pleasure and the fame that the popularity of his poetry brings him. He welcomes Mary, Percy and Claire (his lover), as he declares himself bored with his current guest, Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), whom he insults mercilessly.
It may be hard for modern audiences to imagine, but the Romantic poets were the rock stars of their day and attracted similar adulation from young females, who were in effect, groupies, and were used in the same way. As Byron reveals in a moment of candour – intellectual, educated men like himself and Percy, hope for enough intelligence in a woman to appreciate and admire their poetry, but not enough to have ideas or opinions of her own.
The film examines the discrepancy between ideals and practice when it comes to liberation and equality between the sexes. Traditional roles may oppress and frustrate women, but the supposed freedom and hedonism that Percy and Lord Byron offer to Mary and Claire prove to be only on the terms of the men themselves, and result in a different kind of burden which also brings misery and regret. The atmosphere at the chateau is further tainted by the news that Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, (Ciara Charteris) has drowned herself.
One might expect that the film would indicate how Mary was shaped by the many losses, difficulties, and disappointments of her life, but instead filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour tends to revel in the love story, the costumes and the poetic flights. Picturesque as the film is, Mary Shelley only scratches the surface of what must have been very intense experiences which formed an exceptional woman.
Both Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth are extremely pretty to look at in period costume, and Fanning in particular, plays her role with sensitivity, but a story as audacious, thematically complex and influential as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deserves a more penetrating examination regarding the circumstances leading up to its origin.
As the creator of Frankenstein, Mary wasn’t even given authorial credit for what is considered the prototype for countless sci-fi and horror stories. It was assumed that Percy Shelley had written the book, since he had penned the preface. It was her influential father, William Godwin who, several years later, ensured that the book was reprinted with Mary’s name on the cover.
It seems that Al-Mansour and Jensen are at pains to highlight the sense of Mary Shelley’s modernity and offer a defence of female creativity, but the differences between male and female writing – the men are understood to be motivated by ideas, while women write about feelings – gives a simplistic view which undermines Mary’s intellectual autonomy and her abiding interest in politics and science.
Mary’s story Frankenstein thus appears to be merely a therapeutic expression of her emotional pain, but this does not do justice to the intellectual aspects of her story which concern questions regarding the moral quandaries and risks of scientific and technological innovation, the philosophical complexity of human identity and the political exploitation of a labouring class created by the industrial revolution and famine.
Mary Shelly, as an examination of a highly unconventional historical figure, is diminished by its conventional framework. The extraordinary story of how a self-educated British teen, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had the intellect, talent, life experience and literary ambition to create one of the seminal novels in the English language, the narrative of which has generated numerous imitations and adaptations throughout the centuries, remains relatively unappreciated.
Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)
Directed By: Gaspar Noé
Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer
Reviewed By: Dion Wyn
Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.
Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.
Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?
Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.
Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and untameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.
The Little Stranger ★★★★
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.
Released: 21st September 2018
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.
Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.
From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.
The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain. This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.
Released: 19th October 2018
Directed By: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Marcello Fonte
Reviewed By: Rhys Handley
Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.
But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.
When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.
Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.
To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.
In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.
Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.
Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.
An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.
Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.
No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.
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