I was quite curious to see Manchester by the Sea which was considered one of the best movies of the year and received two Academy Awards. Overall I was quite disappointed (relative to the expectations and the fuzz) and I believe that the success of this film is due merely to the dry season that was 2016 for the American film industry, with a selection missing movies that were both ambitions and well made, and with criteria for promotion and selection as nominees dominated by non-cinematographic arguments.
There are certainly many reasons for the film to be interesting. The script is well written (director Kenneth Lonergan has authored several smart scripts beyond the ones of his own movies) and builds carefully the characters while gradually dissipating the fog around their past and the reasons they behave as they do with a mix of the progressing story and flash-back scenes interleaved in a clever manner. The atmosphere of the small town by the sea not far from Boston is well described, the characters that populate it are credible, and the cinematography is so poignant that it makes us feel the cold, the wind, the proximity of the sea. All these cannot however hide the thin content of the story – a mix of a tutoring story of a teenage boy orphaned by his father and of guilt caused by the responsibility of a terrible tragedy in the past of the uncle assuming the parenting. One way or another all characters in the story are marked bu grief – how they cope with it and what are the consequences of the disappearance and absence of the dear ones differs. The problem is that the story is thinner than the materials it is built from, and the characters are less interesting from the moment we understand their stories. I happened to see this film three days after 20th Century Women which was also bringing to screen a piece of life including the story of coming of age of a teen boy. What a difference between the characters in the two movies, between the rich and interesting universe of Mike Mills‘ film and the dry and empty world of the world described by Kenneth Lonergan!
What about acting? A lot was written and said about Casey Affleck‘s performance which earned him the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award. I appreciate his acting of a man who hardly survives the grief, but there is nothing unexpected or interesting in the character. He is under shock, he has accesses of violence, he tries to do best to help his nephew, but is and will be forever marked by the tragedy of his life. All these are obvious. Are these worth an Academy Award? I doubt. Young Lucas Hedges provides actually a good counterpoint with some unexpected but well placed humor for a teenager who sometimes acts as the adult in the difficult relationship with his uncle. The rest of the cast does well, with Michelle Williams being wasted talent in a film that is not bad, but is certainly overrated and in many moments simply boring.
The life and death of Irène Némirovsky and the fate of the cycle of novels that inspired ‘Suite francaise‘ could be the subject of a thrilling movie, a different one. Born in 1903 in an Ukrainian Jewish family, she took refuge to France after the First World War with her family flying the Russian revolution, but was never granted French citizenship. Converting to Catholicism and writing French nationalistic (some consider these anti-Semitic) fiction did not spare her the fate of the majority of the French Jews – deportation to the concentration camps and death (at Auschwitz). ‘Suite francaise’ was planned to be a five volumes saga about the years of war, written as the events happened. Irene Nemirovsky wrote only two of them before being deported, the manuscript was unread for more than half of a century until discovered by her daughter and published as what has become a historical novel about the years of the war.
I did not read (yet) the books, but from the synopsis on Wikipedia I understand that the script departs quite afar from the original. The (spectacular) introduction scenes may not be in the book but they are useful to understand the context and the historical moment. Similarly, the final seems to be a Hollywood patch, not necessarily adding anything. The core of the film resides in the building love story between the young French woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the German officer who is allocated to live in their house. It’s a complex relationship, and the merit of the script is that it avoids the black-white, bad-good nuances and moral judgments leaving room for the feelings and emotions. There is also a strong social content, both in the main story (are love or even co-existence allowed between occupier and occupied? here is a question valid also in other times and places) and in the secondary story of the mayor-viscount who pays with his life the price of collaboration. Ambiguity is however the tone that works here best.
One of the hard obstacles for viewers of ‘Suite francaise’ is the fact that the film is American and spoken in English. I do not know whom I should ask, but I would certainly loved to see a French version. Maybe it’s still easier for the non-French to deal with the theme of ‘la collaboration’?Beautiful and fragile Michelle Williams and tormented and introspective Matthias Schoenaerts do both good acting jobs in the main roles, but best of all is Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother-in-law who may make you change your mind about the moral fabric of the French high classes. Saul Dibb is only at his third long feature film and directs with kind of an academic touch not exactly to my taste, but there are many good reasons to go and see this film.
Films about film making, about famous actors and directors were very much en vogue a few years ago, and “My Week with Marilyn” belongs to this wave. About that time two (good) movies about the master of suspense were made, one came from Hollywood – Hitchcock -, the other from the BBC – The Girl. ‘My Week with Marilyn’ combines The Forces,being a coproduction of Hollywood (Weinstein) and BBC, about another Anglo-American film making experience. This time it’s not about a great English director getting to the peak of fame on the shores of the Pacific, but about the ultimate American star and sex symbol, Marylin Monroe landing in 1957 the UK to make ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. That was from a certain point of view a stellar encounter of the third degree, between the comet of Hollywood and the star of the English stage and screen Laurence Olivier. On the sides it was also the story of the encounter of a young ‘third’ (number is important) studios assistant with the woman of any man’s dream in the epoch. Colin Clark was the name of the character, he wrote a book of memories about the experience, and the film extends the subject to a romantic story – carrying into the film the ups and downs of adaptations of memoirs or ‘true stories’.
The question one asks himself when seeing this film is ‘was Marilyn Monroe really the awful actress that is described here?’ I probably need to watch the 1957 film (it is available for free on the Internet) to have an answer. The closing text run on screen before credits tells us that the next film of Marilyn was to be ‘Some Like It Hot’ – the most famous film she ever made. Maybe the problem was her uprooting from Hollywood to the British Pinewood studios? ‘My Week with Marilyn’ does not explore this track. Was she also the terribly insecure and unhappy human being that is described here, too beautiful to be ever loved for anything but her physical appearance? This seems more plausible, especially because we know the end of her life. Did she really get comfort and moral support in the relation with a young and anonymous assistant, one of the tens of figures in the shadows in any film production, as the script claims? Were there ever buddies of a love story in this relation? Probably only in the mind of the memoirs writer, but who really cares? The character played by Eddie Redmayne is so unconvincing that I was wondering if his lack of charisma was the result of masterful acting or directing or of lack of talent and … well .. charisma.
With quite a thin story, and with a BBC style of directing that avoids too thick an intervention in the story telling, much of the film relies on acting and actors. Talking about acting let me start with the supporting roles. The list is really impressive, having on-screen Judy Dench or Emma Watson is a pleasure, although for each of them I have wished the roles were more consistent. If anybody was concerned that Kenneth Branagh will approach the role of Olivier with too much deference to make it real, he can rest quite – Branach constructs a real life Olivier, infuriated by the lack of talent and professional ethics of the American star, but also a middle aged man fascinated by the beauty and by the romance of the superb blonde with the camera. In the lead role Michelle Williams creates a Marilyn that risks to replace the real Monroe in the minds of those who see this film. Her Academy Awards nomination was highly deserved.
It’s one of those films made with love for cinema, one of the cases when superb acting overcomes the lack of consistency of the story that is being brought to screen.