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Movie Reviews

Mary Shelley ★★★

An examination of a highly unconventional historical figure, diminished by its conventional framework.



Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

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.

Movie Reviews

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald



Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★



Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.



Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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