“The Dressmaker”–Quirky Down-Under Drama

Based upon Rosalie Ham’s novel by the same name, The Dressmaker  (2015) gives us an opening scene in which  10-year-old Tilly Dunnage is being bullied by classmate Stewart Pettyman, the mayor’s son,  and a group of boys in Dungatar, a town in the  Australian outback. With little investigation she is sent away by police Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) for the boy’s murder.

Twenty-five years later (1951) Tilly (Kate Winslet) returns to Dungatar after a highly successful career as a couturier working in Paris.  Presumably returning to care for her mentally unstable mother Molly (Judy Davis), Tilly is mistreated by her mother and all the townspeople who have animus towards her for the alleged murder of Stewart Pettyman.  Her mother does not remember the past nor her daughter’s ordeal as a child, but clarity of mind soon prevails and Molly begins to realize her recall bias and the faulty, convenient memories of the townspeople of Dungatar.  Only a few townspeople, including Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Gertrude (the surprising Sarah Snook who plays “Shiv” in the HBO series Succession), are willing to accept Tilly as she is, not her rumored past. Tilly is immediately too generous in spirit and too sophisticated, not to mention too glamorous, for Dungatar. But, she’s also unwilling to forgive and forget.

The characters are a wonderful, unexpected and thoroughly captivating array of narrative weirdness which will hold viewers’ attention.   The goofball, comedic scenes–a crossdresser, for example– may or may not be a comfortable fit for some viewers.  And humor is mixed with the cusp of a thriller, Dexter-style, in a surprising plot twist.  In some ways The Dressmaker reminded this reviewer of the classic “The Visit” (1964) or the more recent “Dogville” (2003).

The actors embrace the mayhem, with the remarkable, always noteworthy and energetic Kate Winslet and Judy Davis in the lead roles.  As the events of The Dressmaker unspool, it is frequently unpredictable:  where will the narrative take us next?  And then it goes further than one would think:  into the absurd…in a good way.  The unexpected journey is one worth taking.  The ensemble of misfits is highly original and quirky, making The Dressmaker an enjoyable and cheeky indie film. 

Availability:  Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime

“Blackbird” (2019)–The Final Flight

In this timely and sensitive film, three generations get together for Christmas dinner–instead of  Thanksgiving, even though it actually is Thanksgiving.  As often happens in real-life family gatherings as well as in Blackbird, there will be dysfunction, a farrago scattered within warm laughter about shared memories and sometimes bitter accusations.  In this drama a dying mother assembles her family to spend a final weekend together before she ends her life.

An alarm goes off and Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor and husband to Lily (Susan Sarandon), reaches up to turn off the clock.   Lily is awake. Her left hand is permanently in a claw.  Nonetheless, she laboriously  lifts  her legs with her good right hand, determined to put her own slippers on, rejecting her husband’s assistance.

Lily has invited her two daughters (Kate Winslet as Jennifer and Mia Wasikowska as Anna) along with their partners and her grandson to one final dinner before she ends her suffering. She has a degenerative disease and with the permission of her family, decides to ingest pentobarbital administered by her husband. This weekend is their terminal goodbye, and Lily wants one more Christmas dinner before she goes.  She is anticipating a celebration, complete with tree and gifts, in a cozy family cocoon.

Jennifer arrives early with her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon). She has brought an odd and inappropriate gift.   “I can’t wait to see what the stores recommend for an event like this,” Lily says dryly as she struggles to open it with her good hand. Younger daughter Anna is late, bringing her uninvited partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Lily’s best friend, Elisabeth (Lindsay Duncan), also uninvited, somehow seems part of the family too. 

“Blackbird” is a simple tale, occasionally well-told without too much melodrama:  the tale of all tales– of life, death and family secrets and lies.  Unhealed wounds are everywhere and time is running out to heal them.  The stakes are very high.  The grandson is a sullen teenage outlier, the two adult daughters have extreme sibling rivalry, Jen’s husband is ignored, and the parents seem oblivious to how their children remember their family’s past time together.  The family friend is pulled into the conflict. Lily’s wish to die in a peaceful chemical cloud before her disease incapacitates her and takes all control from her grows more untenable as conflicts surface.

The ending of Blackbird could have been genuinely touching and emotionally powerful. Instead, the film devolves into a contrived and highly clichéd death bed scene.  While Blackbird adds sensitivity to a difficult and controversial subject, the film is far from subtle and does not conclude the story soon enough.  One wishes for a more powerful scene towards the end. 

Blackbird is filmed in a spectacular beach house only the fabulously wealthy can afford, with sterile interiors paralleling the sterile lives of the family gathered there. The bigger problem is that the world of the characters is not fully developed, with enough backstory to give each family the essential dimensions for us to understand and care about them. 

The stellar cast–especially the ensemble characters who are not the main focus–rescue this film and provide enough interest to sustain watching a film that does not quite live up to its potential.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

Note:  The reason for the title “Blackbird” is not clear.  Perhaps in homage to the Beatles’ song and the lyrics:  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”.   The song was not incorporated into the final cut but a shot of blackbirds flying in the sky appears in the middle of the film.

“Mare of Easttown”–Living with the Unacceptable

Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode HBOMax mini-series, we watch a mother,  Mare Sheehan (the remarkable Kate Winslet) attempting to come to terms with her unexpressed and unresolved grief over the death of her young adult son, Kevin. She is also a detective living in Easttown, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, who is  investigating the murder of an adolescent single mother, Erin McMenamin. 

Mare is a local hero, a high-school basketball champion dating back 25 years. She now has multiple setbacks and tragedies to deal with:  an unsolved missing case of a young girl, a divorce, her judgmental mother, her grief-stricken and wounded daughter Siobhan, a professor boyfriend, her best friend’s suspicions, and an ex- addict ex-daughter-in-law battling for custody of Mare’s grandson.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness Mare– and all those impacted by Kevin’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes before the final closing, Mare consoles a widow who doesn’t know how to deal with the death of his wife:  “After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable.”

The supporting ensemble cast– which includes Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential), Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County), Evan Peters (American Horror Story), and Jean Smart (Hope Springs, The Accountant) — is exceptional.  All integrate their characters’ backstories, whether revealed on screen or on their faces, as past histories remaining untold.  Winslet, Nicholson, and Smart deliver shattering, emotionally brittle performances, often leaving them trembling from their open wounds. In unforgettable scenes pairing Winslet with Nicholson and Winslet with Smart, we see female empowerment and vulnerability simultaneously and inseparably.   Simply brilliant acting!

Availability:  HBOMax for streaming

“Ammonite”–Two Women Shedding Their Shell

This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight.   Ammonite, set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).  Their friendship transforms both of their lives.

Charlotte Murchison visits Mary Anning’s fossil shop with her dilettante husband, Roderick (James McArdle), who wishes to observe Mary discovering the fossils that have made her well-known at the British Museum yet paradoxically unknown.  Charlotte is supposed to convalesce by the sea while her husband seeks Mary’s know-how and ostensibly hopes to elevate his reputation without attribution to Mary’s tutelage.

Ammonite film

Living a solitary and deeply lonely existence with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), who plays with nine ceramic figurines symbolizing the deceased children, Mary is not interested at all in Roderick’s offer to pay generously for a “tour” of her fossil sites.  Reluctantly, at her mother’s urging, she obliges his request.

Mary silently and coldly witnesses how Roderick treats his wife more roughly than he would the delicate care required for revealing the beauty of a fossil.  As a talented paleontologist who discovers what lies beneath the surface, Mary has little use for either of them.

Disenchanted with his beautiful young wife “who used to shine and dazzle”, Roderick abandons her while he continues his explorations abroad.  In the interim, we see Anning slowly uncover the intrinsic beauty of Charlotte.

The grey of Ammonite’s cinematography, underscoring the depressing and cold isolation of both Mary and Charlotte, is sharply contrasted to the color in the scenes of their friendship and intimacy.   Both actors’ faces convey the inner conflict and almost unbearable loneliness in one exquisitely graceful scene after the next. Nothing is  forced or manufactured and both Winslet and Ronan are evenly matched, seasoned performers whose intelligent decisions never misfire.  Both characters, at times, seem to be screaming for help from the bottom of a well.  Viewers first see the two women detached and wounded, their icy cold veneers slowly warming and cracking, revealing buried vulnerability needing to be excavated.

There’s so much grace and nuance in these two actors’ performance with remarkably little dialogue and no narration.  Individual, wordless moments that express both an understated delight and the devastating knowledge that it may not last are superimposed upon an extraordinarily palpable chemistry between Ronan and Winslet.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical drama, biopics, and women’s history.

Note:  Anning was a genuine legend in her own time.  Her fossil shop is now the Lyme Regis Museum.  For an interesting article on the historical accuracy of her life and the film’s interpretation of her friendship with Murchison, see the March 20, 2019 article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/mary-anning-lesbian-palaeontologist-women-film

“Contagion”–Infects Us All

Contagion

With the tagline: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone”, this B-rated movie “Contagion” (2011), directed by Stephen Soderbergh, is eerily prescient nine years later.

A pandemic–“a novel virus”– is about to create havoc, beginning with the opening scene where Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the Hong Kong airport, waiting to catch a plane back to Chicago.  Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) will soon discover that his wife is patient zero–the  original carrier of the deadly virus which begins to get out of control in a matter of days.  The CDC’s principal investigators,   Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet)  and Dr. Cheever   (Laurence Fishburne),  attempt to identify the virus and develop a vaccine while analyzing the exponential rate of growth.  Everyone worldwide is advised to stay calm, maintain social distancing (yes, they use that term) and wear masks to avoid touching their own faces.  It is unsettling to hear terms now commonplace such as fomites (the surfaces to which viruses cling) and R0 (“r-naught”)–the number of people a single carrier infects.   

Contagion movie

Several days pass before anyone realizes the extent or gravity of this new virus. In Contagion we see hospital workers with insufficient protective equipment,– some without N95 masks,– succumb as first responders. Do you hear the Twilight Zone theme song yet?  The Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Cheever’s investigative team, is villified and accused of conspiracies.  An unethical journalist profits from a homeopathic “cure” which creates mobs at local drugstores.  Looting and panic ensue.

As the contagion spreads to millions of people worldwide, societal order begins to break down as people panic in the uncertainty that a vaccine will be developed. 

The second time around, viewing Contagion is a chilling déjà vu. No longer a film of science fiction, depicting a dystopia in the distant future, Contagion is a cautionary tale right now… for all of us.

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!