Film Reviews, TV Reviews

The Great…est of Period Drama Comedy

Lately, binge watching The Great has been giving me life. It’s a bit of a roller coaster as it tells the heavily fictionalized story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power by staging a coup only a few months into her husband’s reign (that part is true!). All of the things I love about a period drama are here: witty dialogue, petty schemes, and incredible costumes and scenery. Don’t get me wrong, though–the humor is pitch black and cynical AF, and there are some pretty disturbing murders, tortures, and the like.

Having consumed the series in its entirety (unless season 2 is in the cards?!), I’m having a bit of a meltdown about what to do with my life next. The time may be ripe to reexamine the rather niche comedy/period drama genre. Here are some suggestions in case you also promised to pace yourself on your latest TV series only to be confronted with your own deceit less than a week later.

Header image from Twitter account @TheGreatHulu

Film

Two woman stand side by side in glamorous dresses, looking directly at the camera.
Image copyright by BBC

Cold Comfort Farm

Based on a parody of the romantic pastoral novel, there is nothing subtle about this film adaptation, which features a stellar cast. In one of her first roles, Kate Beckinsale plays Flora Poste, a penniless young woman who goes to live with little known relatives in the English countryside. Absolutely every character is an over-the-top exaggeration, from Ian McKellen’s fire-and-brimstone preacher to Joanna Lumley’s glamorous socialite and Sheila Burrell’s embittered family matriarch who infamously “saw something nasty in the woodshed” long ago.

An Ideal Husband

Rupert Everett as the extremely Wilde-like Lord Goring is perfect casting. Actually, you can’t fault any of the cast here, which includes Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, and Julianne Moore. When a former lover arrives in town with a blackmail scheme that could ruin Lord Chiltern’s political career, it’s up to bff Goring to cleverly solve the problem, all while dodging marriages left and right. On reflection, this is a bit like a Jeeves and Wooster adventure, except Goring fills in for both characters, throwing in some cheerfully subversive wit for good measure.

Two women stand in a courtyard wearing Regency coats and hats.
Image by Ross McDonnell

Love and Friendship

Playing almost the polar opposite of her Cold Comfort Farm character, Kate Beckinsale brings the period drama charm again as the scheming social climber Lady Susan. A fairly young widow, Lady Susan seeks a wealthy husband for herself, as well as one for her daughter, and is perfectly fine with scandalizing all of polite society with her meddling. The thinly veiled insults and outraged indignation are incredibly entertaining. As an aside, I cannot wait to watch the new adaptation of Emma (actually, as a cheapskate, I can..but I’m not happy about it)!

Return of the Hero

A French language film for the list! Not going to lie, I tuned in mostly for Mélanie Laurent, but you can’t fault Jean Dujardin here either. Though Captain Neuville promises he will write to his fiancée every day when he goes off to war, it’s pretty clear to her sister Elisabeth that this is not going to happen. Recognizing what a tool the captain is, Elisabeth writes letters to her sister on his behalf, inventing all manner of heroic deeds he’s pulled off. This plan backfires terribly when, against all odds, Capt. Neuville survives the war and returns home, fully embraced by the family. Only Elisabeth knows what a fraud the captain is, but telling the truth will expose her own deception in this silly comedy.

A woman clasps a necklace behind a man's neck while he is shirtless and wearing heavy face makeup.
Image copyright 2004 by Lions Gate Films

Stage Beauty

Difficult as it is to imagine, our film takes place at a time when it was widely accepted that only men should appear on stage, even in female roles, and the idea of a woman acting was scandalous. As the most renowned actor playing female roles in Restoration-era England, Ned Kynaston’s star is falling just as Margaret Hughes rises. This is a bit of a period drama twist on A Star Is Born, except it’s quite funny and not a huge bummer (though I did quite like the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper/Sam Elliott’s moustache version).

Twelfth Night

Ah, the fluidity of gender roles: a classic Shakespearean theme. After a shipwreck leaves Viola stranded, her brother presumed dead, she adopts a man’s disguise to make her way in the local court. Though Imogen Stubbs stars, of course it’s Helena Bonham Carter who steals the show as Olivia, the clueless romantic in love with a disguised Viola; but, like any good period drama, the entire cast is excellent. Throw in more love triangles than you can shake a stick at, and you’ve got the heart and soul of a true Shakespearean comedy onscreen.

Television

American Princess

This one is cheating as it’s not a period drama; rather, it’s set rather uniquely at a modern-day Renaissance Faire. However, the parallels between time periods, the gorgeous costumes, and the interesting look at the hierarchy of the Ren Fair circuit should scratch the period drama itch for you–just be prepared for a lot of very Shakespearean humor (read: filthy). Word of caution: this was cancelled after only one season (so don’t get too attached), but things are wrapped up in a way that’s satisfying enough that it won’t leave you hanging.

A man wearing a crown smiles at the woman seated next to him, who is holding a bearded dragon.
The only relationship that matters to me in the series is the one between King Richard and lizard/dragon in disguise Tad Cooper; image copyright by ABC Studios.

Galavant

I’m honestly never going to get over the years of my life wasted caring about Once Upon a Time, aka the Disney Channel happy hour. But the couple of Galavant seasons we got during the show’s mid-season break almost make it all worth it. At once a sort of tribute to Monty Python and a parody of all things Disney, the comedy musical is ridiculously fun to watch (and the number of incredible cameos is unreal). With songs about poisoning the nobility, burning down villages with the help of a pet lizard (who’s secretly a dragon, of course), and how stupid feelings are, this seems like a distant cousin of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Jeeves and Wooster

This show never fails to make me laugh. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to the titular roles than Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie; their dynamic is so perfect in this series. As the painfully clueless Bertie Wooster stumbles into tricky situations (often where he ends up inadvertently engaged to a series of high society ladies), his valet Jeeves always manages to wrap things up neatly. One of my favorite episodes involves a scheme to steal an antique cow creamer, which could yield multiple broken engagements (and the wrath of the Nazi-esque Black Shorts) should it fail.

Six women dressed in Regency costume stand in a row with a man dressed in a soldier's uniform of the era.
Image copyright by Mammoth Screen

Lost in Austen

True confession: I’m not the biggest Austen fan, but I love an adaptation that underscores the social commentary and biting wit rather than romance. The story follows Amanda Price, a Londoner who magically switches places with Lizzie Bennett of Pride & Prejudice, which is clearly going to include a romantic plot here. Yet the unexpected twists and turns, fish out of water comedy, and backhanded compliments make for an amusing watch. In no other Austen adaptation will characters speak so openly about lesbians, reenacting the famous Darcy in the lake scene, or waxing pubic hair.

Vanity Fair

To be honest, I don’t think this adaptation is really what William Thackeray had in mind, but IDGAF. It’s virtually impossible not to like and even root for the incredibly manipulative Becky Sharp; through this interpretation of the novel, Becky is a survivor responding to narrowly defined morality, class structures, and gender roles. Olivia Cooke is such a delight to watch in this role, and the odd decision to have Michael Palin as Thackeray interjecting wry commentary while on a carousel just works for me.

A middle-aged man with a stethoscope and notebook stands next to a young man with identical accessories.
Image copyright 2012 by Big Talk Productions

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

Finally, one that’s set in Russia! Pitch black humor, some truly gruesome medical procedures on camera, and a familiar face (Adam Godley, the power-hungry Patriarch in The Great), this is perhaps the closest series to matching The Great in tone. No one is especially likeable, nor half as clever as they believe, but it’s all so satisfyingly dark. Plus Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe having deeply cynical conversations with each other as the younger and older versions of the protagonist is so fun to watch.

Honorable mentions too obvious to bring up previously

Clearly, The Favourite, written by The Great writer/creator Tony McNamara. Managing to balance the absurdity of the characters with their vulnerability, this film is so entertaining even as it’s quite heartbreaking (and absolutely packed with social and political commentary).

Additionally, any number of films by Mel Brooks or the Monty Python crew, as well as the entire run of Blackadder. I feel pretty confident that Lord Flashheart would be right at home in Peter III’s court.

I’d also add Jojo Rabbit even though it’s emotionally devastating at times. However, Taika Waititi’s mad sense of humor and appreciation for dark comedy are on par with the tone of The Great.

What are you watching to stay wryly amused, darkly entertained, or otherwise occupied?

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or: Paint Me Like One of Your French Girls

If there’s any lesson I hope you learn from this blog, it’s that I am always on board for a period drama. Although our theme on the Blog Collab this month is mental health, we’re rolling along with a questionably related French lesbian period drama. Not going to lie–I just really wanted to watch this film regardless of theme since I missed it in theaters.

The Film:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The Premise:

After being commissioned to secretly paint a wedding portrait of a young woman, artist Marianne finds herself conflicted when she develops romantic feelings for her subject.

The Ramble:

*Spoilers follow*

Marianne is a drawing teacher in late 1700s France, remaining aloof as she pushes her students to do their best. It’s clear there are feelings bubbling beneath her cool exterior when she spots one of her paintings on display in the classroom. This particular painting, the titular Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was painted a long time ago yet maintains a powerful pull on Marianne. So let’s journey back a long time ago, shall we?

After arriving on a stunningly gorgeous island off the coast of France, art supplies in tow, it’s clear Marianne has her work cut out for her with a new portrait commission. Not only is the large estate rather empty and ominous in all of the best ways we’d expect from a Gothic-tinged period drama, but the subject of her portrait, Héloïse, will likely be less than cooperative.

On a windswept beach, a blonde woman looks seriously at a dark-haired woman.

After smoking a pipe in the nude (for real), Marianne gets her night cheese on, gathering all of the gossip she can from maid Sophie. As it turns out, Héloïse has only recently returned home after spending much of her life in a convent. After the unexpected death of her sister, Héloïse will inherit her life plan, marrying the Milanese gentleman intended for her sister. Sophie reveals that Héloïse’s sister did not die by accident–rather, her death was a suicide.

A naked woman sits on the floor in front of the fire in a dimly lit room, lighting a pipe.

Now that Héloïse will marry, her mother has commissioned a wedding portrait to mark the occasion. However, Héloïse destroyed the painting created by the previous artist and absolutely refuses to sit for another portrait. As a result, Marianne will have to be sneaky, posing as a walking companion for Héloïse, who has not been allowed to leave the house since her sister’s death. Any portrait work Marianne completes will be done in secret in only a week.

To make things even more complicated, Héloïse is incredibly gorgeous and full of life, so Marianne is almost immediately attracted to her. As a single woman who makes her living as an artist, Marianne enjoys a level of freedom Héloïse can only dream of, introducing her to music she’s never heard before and giving her an idea of what life in Milan might be like. As the two bond, Marianne feels increasingly guilty about her deception. When the portrait is complete, she decides Héloïse will hear the truth from her.

After the portrait is unveiled, Marianne destroys it before Héloïse’s mother can see it, claiming it isn’t good enough. And, while it was perhaps accurate, Marianne does feel it fails to capture the truth of Héloïse’s nature. Though extremely aggravated, Héloïse’s mother agrees that Marianne can repaint the portrait, especially when Héloïse declares that she will cooperate fully by sitting to pose. Héloïse’s mother will be away for five days, after which she expects to see results.

A blonde woman in an elegant green dress faces a dark-haired woman wearing a burnt orange dress.

Left to their own devices, Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie create their own little utopia free from men and any sort of authority figures. They cook together, come up with a solution to Sophie’s troubles together, and discuss the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice together. And Marianne and Héloïse spend a lot of time casting intense looks at each other. We get a glimpse at the inspiration for the titular portrait of a lady on fire. However, in true Gothic fashion, Marianne is haunted by a ghostly vision of Héloïse in a wedding dress.

A woman stands in a clearing of a field at night, the bottom of her dress on fire.

What will happen when the portrait is complete and Héloïse’s mother returns home?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

*Swoon.* This film is absolutely stunning from just about every angle. First of all, the cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the incredible scenery, costumes, and sets. It’s impossible not to feel instantly transported right into the story as it unfolds so delicately and deliberately.

It’s no secret that I love a period drama, and this one is so lovely. The lingering looks, the graceful (if extremely uncomfortable) fashions, the eerie visions late at night! All of this plus a lesbian romance, feminist themes, and commentary about class status, and I’m in love even though this film broke my heart.

I adore how real the characters feel, and what a unique character Marianne is. Though I haven’t given her much attention in my review, Sophie, the maid, is quite incredible too. Despite being part of a class meant to lead a nameless, faceless existence, Sophie is her own person. She is observant and compassionate, while her pregnancy highlights the vulnerability of her position. Just quit, men. Quit it.

As a great period drama should, this film simultaneously makes me want to live in the exact setting while also being so grateful for not living in an earlier time than our own (though it’s a reminder of how far we have to go for women’s and LGBTQ rights). The circumstances for women at the time are pretty bleak, and it’s heartbreaking that the love and freedom Marianne and Héloïse find doesn’t last. But the film manages to celebrate what these characters achieve without pity; it’s miraculous they carved out space for themselves at all, even if it was a tiny amount for a short time. That being said, I dare you to watch this and tell me the ending didn’t destroy you emotionally.

Would my blog wife exchange long, lingering looks with this one or let it all burn down? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Nightingale, or: Bloody White People

There’s nothing like a revenge film to make me grateful most infractions against me are fairly minor, and I can brush them off and continue on binge watching Netflix shows in my sweatpants. It just looks so tiring, doesn’t it? And in this case, trekking through the Tasmanian wilderness, getting eaten alive by leeches, catching and preparing roasted wallaby for dinner–it makes me want to simply forget and forgive. However, when the offenses you’ve experienced are rape, murder, denial of your freedom, and witnessing genocidal war, sometimes the path of vengeance is the route you have to take.

The Film:

The Nightingale

The Premise:

With the help of an Aboriginal guide, a young Irish convict in Tasmania seeks vengeance on the soldiers who destroyed her family.

The Ramble:

Set during the Black War, Irish convict Clare is just one of many living in and around violence in colonial Tasmania. She has carved out a difficult life for herself alongside husband Aidan and a young daughter even as she faces violence, rape, and the denial of her freedom from irredeemably awful Lieutenant Hawkins.

See, Clare’s sentence actually ended months ago; however, because Hawkins is unwilling to sign off on the paperwork that will recognize this fact, she is stuck in limbo. Instead, she is to continue cooking, cleaning, entertaining the troops with her lovely singing voice, and enduring sexual assault, with no end in sight.

a young woman lies in bed next to a baby

Surely something will happen to change Clare’s life for the better? Alas, no. The arrival of a superior officer is meant to signal Hawkins’ promotion to a northern post. But since Hawkins is a horrendous person and a less than inspiring leader, he is denied the promotion. Worse, the final mark against him seems to be the fistfight he and Aidan engage in after Hawkins refuses to sign off on Clare’s papers.

Blaming Clare and Aidan for his own failure to get the promotion, Hawkins pays a visit to their cottage with a couple of loyal soldiers. In an absolutely brutal scene, Clare loses her husband and daughter, is repeatedly assaulted, and left for dead. When she learns that Hawkins and a couple of men have headed north to apply for the promotion in person, Clare swears to track them down and seek revenge.

Clare recruits Aboriginal tracker Billy to help her find the soldiers. In order to persuade him, Clare offers Billy a shilling now and additional payment later, telling him the lie that she’s seeking a reunion with her husband, who is traveling with the group. Billy has become jaded from guiding white soldiers in the past, but he reluctantly agrees to help Clare.

a man in military uniform looks ahead in a forested area, with two men and a boy following close behind

Meanwhile, Hawkins has recruited several convicts to help him, along with Billy’s uncle to lead their party. One of the soldiers encounters Lowanna, an Aboriginal woman, abducting her and repeatedly raping her.

Truth be told, though Clare doesn’t commit acts of physical violence, she is quite contemptuous in her initial treatment of Billy. Though he is a knowledgeable guide, she disregards his advice, constantly calls him “boy,” and seems incapable of recognizing his own pain (i.e. murder of his family) at the hands of the English. In a scene I’m not super comfortable with, Clare tells Billy she’s Irish, not English, and therefore implicitly has nothing to do with the genocide happening all around her. Clare finally checks her attitude a bit, but only after Billy fucking saves her from drowning when she attempts to cross a river he literally just told her not to cross because of the strong current.

Shortly before Clare and Billy catch up with Hawkins, the soldiers face a group of Aboriginal trackers attempting to reunite with Lowanna. The soldier who killed Clare’s baby is injured by a spear, and limps away. When Clare tracks him down, it becomes clear her mission isn’t the innocent goal of finding her husband as she brutally shoots, stabs, and beats the man to death. I’m not saying I felt any pity for this man, but the disturbing violence of the scene makes it difficult to find much satisfaction in this revenge.

an Aboriginal man and a woman covered in blood stand next to each other in the woods, a horse beside them

Clare’s revenge is cut short when the rest of the soldiers escape and another group stumbles upon the murder scene. Add to this mix an illness, a moment of hesitation, and a separation from Billy, and things are looking pretty bleak for Clare. Will she complete her mission of vengeance…even if the cost is Billy’s life?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

A social justice-oriented period drama about a woman seeking vengeance against genocidal misogynists? Sounds like a film plucked right from my dreams. Perhaps my disappointment is one reason I disliked this film so intensely, but here are some other reasons this one just didn’t click for me.

First off, I do not believe in censorship; however, I find it tough to believe that repeated, explicit scenes of sexual violence are necessary. There are so many rape scenes in this film, and they are much more graphic than I feel is needed. The rape of Lowanna is especially mishandled as she is a rather flat character, onscreen exclusively to suffer and die. In comparison with Clare’s story, Lowanna’s assault feels set up to be a lesser, secondary pain. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the way this narrative is set up and the way Lowanna is a plot device rather than a person.

I’m also unconvinced that the way race is addressed in this film as a whole works particularly well. It takes Clare a really long time to recognize Billy’s humanity. She treats him so badly throughout the film, while Billy must consistently play the role of exceptional man of color, proving he excels in tracking and survival skills. Though Billy and Clare ultimately develop a deeply felt mutual understanding, it’s gross that Billy has to prove himself multiple times and face mortal wounds just to be recognized as a human being.

I will credit this film for casting Aboriginal actors to play Aboriginal characters. Additionally, as this was shot on location in Tasmania, the cinematography is stunning.

Overall, the brutal and unflinching violence of this film is off-putting to me rather than effective. At worst, it feels voyeuristic; at best, it lacks subtlety. For me, the explicit violence replaces the sense of psychological terror that may have served this film better.

Would my blog wife lead this one safely across a rushing river or unleash violent revenge upon it? Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Crooked House, or: Make a Mountain of a Mole Hill

And then there were none…except for one last film of period drama month. This week brings us a family of ritzy one percenters, a disputed inheritance, and…murder? That’s right–not only is this film a period drama, but also an Agatha Christie murder mystery. And yes, that does rhyme.

The Film:

Crooked House

The Premise:

The granddaughter of a recently deceased businessman hires her former lover to investigate the circumstances surrounding his…murder?

The Ramble:

After the death of the family patriarch Aristide, the Leonides family is in mourning but not overly troubled. Everyone, that is, except for granddaughter Sophia. Suspecting he was poisoned with his own glaucoma treatment, Sophia hires former lover Charles, now a private investigator. Charles initially dismisses her request to find out the truth about her grandfather’s death, but his lingering feelings for Sophia and detective’s determination quickly change his mind.

a woman smoking a cigarette sits across from a man at a disorganized desk

In order to learn what happened, Charles will need to cozy up to the family…and they are a quirky bunch indeed. Good thing he was also a spy posing as a diplomat in Cairo, which is a relevant detail for some reason…?

An appropriately fierce Glenn Close plays Aristide’s sister-in-law from his first marriage, and is engaged in hunting down moles with a shotgun when she makes her first appearance.

Meanwhile, a rather glam pseudo-goth Gillian Anderson is a dramatic former actress who mostly lounges around drinking.

a woman with dark hair wearing black sprawls across a chaise lounge

Aristide’s sons are constantly at odds over disputes surrounding the family business. The younger son is convinced that Aristide’s much younger wife Brenda is responsible for his father’s murder.

The only staff still around the house are the cook and the nanny, who cares for youngest grandchild Josephine. Fancying herself something of a detective, Josephine observes the family and takes careful notes of their activity.

Brenda’s scandalous past as a Vegas showgirl makes her suspect to the family, while Brenda herself appears to deeply mourn Aristide’s death and resents the family’s mooching. She does confess to giving Aristide the injection that killed him, though she believed it to be his daily dose of insulin.

a group of family members sit at an elegantly set dining table

As Sophia and Charles become close again, Charles begins to uncover the family’s dirt, including the deceased. Aristide was apparently a piece of work, overlooking his first son in favor of his second, controlling his grandchildren’s lives, and sort of generally being a manipulative dickbag.

In a shocking twist, Charles learns that Arisitde’s final will was never signed; therefore, the next of kin, aka Brenda, is set to inherit everything.

When the nanny turns up dead, finding the killer takes on a new sense of urgency. After twists and turns aplenty, Charles believes he’s finally unraveled the truth–but is it too late?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m obsessed with Glenn and Gillian in this film, but, like most of the actors here, they are extremely underutilized. They don’t really get a lot to do, and our focus here is on Charles, who is pretty fucking boring, honestly. Admittedly, I kind of checked out whenever we got the scandalous details of his sordid past (lol), but I’m still not totally sure why everyone kept talking about him being a spy; I really expected this plot point to tie in better with the rest of the story.

I don’t know what it was about this film, but there was something about it that felt more like a parody of an Agatha Christie novel rather than the real thing. And maybe because of the cynical times we live in, I suspected the murderer almost immediately and the reveal didn’t have the shock factor it was meant to.

However, the moments we do get from the phenomenal cast are great, and the costuming is to die for. Literally.

Would my lovely blog wife drink in excess with this one or take a shotgun to it like an unwelcome mole in the garden? Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Daughters of the Dust, or: Nana Knows Best

Period dramas continue!  This week we cross the pond to southern Georgia for a look at a dying way of life and the determination to hold onto heritage in spite of this.

The Film:

Daughters of the Dust

The Premise:

The extended branches of a Gullah family in Georgia reunite for a final celebration together before leaving the island they’ve inhabited for years.

The Ramble:

At Ibo Landing in 1902 Georgia, the Peazant family gathers from far and wide as they prepare to leave their home.  The Peazants are Gullah, a people whose ancestors were slaves brought from Africa and have lived on an island in Ibo Landing for generations.  Seeking new opportunities north, the family determines they will leave this land behind–though some are more on board with this plan than others.

a group of African-Americans in early 20th century clothing stand on a sandy beach

Cousins Viola and Yellow Mary travel to the island for a final meal with their family on their ancestral lands.  The two are rather different:  Viola is religious and optimistic about opportunities that await north.  Meanwhile, Yellow Mary was scandalously banished from the family years ago, now returning with her lady lover Trula.  Yellow Mary is welcomed only by Eula, her cousin by marriage.

Eula is deeply conflicted about her pregnancy, as she is married to and loves her husband Eli; however, she was raped on the mainland and is unsure who the baby’s father is.  She hopes to convince Eli that the baby is his no matter what, but Eli’s feelings of anger and helplessness will not abate.  Our story is narrated by this child, a daughter who already feels a connection to her grandmother.

Nana, the family’s grandmother and oldest member, feels that leaving Ibo Landing is unnatural and an effective abandonment of the family’s culture.  She encourages the younger generations to connect to the ancestors and celebrate the ways of their people.

a woman seated in a chair holds the shoulders of a woman crouching in front of her

Honestly, there’s not a lot of structure to this film’s narrative, but given that the entire family is gathered for a reunion dinner, clearly there will be drama.  Are the bonds of family and culture enough to keep everyone together in spirit if not in location?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This film is beautifully shot and very clearly a labor of love.  The characters, especially the women, shine here.  I enjoy seeing the power and determination of Nana, Eula, and Yellow Mary as they remain true to themselves.  The relationship between Eula and Yellow Mary is especially great too.  It’s so wonderful to see how the film works as a meta-narrative, emphasizing the importance of preserving and embracing Gullah heritage, while itself acting as an intentional preservation and celebration of this history.

However, personally, I prefer a bit more narrative structure in a film.  The focus here is on the family’s relationships with their culture and each other rather than the specific events of the story, but I still wanted to a little more action going on.

Will my blog wife stay connected to this film or leave it behind without a backward glance?  Find out here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Royal Night Out, or: God, Raves the Queen

If you can’t party after literally defeating the Nazis in Europe, when exactly is an appropriate time to celebrate?  That is the philosophical question this week’s film considers, while also pondering how many people in 1945 England just happened to have Hitler effigies lying around for an improvised Bonfire Night.

The Film:

A Royal Night Out

The Premise:

After the Allied victory in WWII, princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spend a wild night out on the town.

The Ramble:

May 8, 1945, aka VE Day.  It seems as if all of London is off to celebrate–everyone, that is, except for two Windsor princesses very much in need of a night out.

After much pleading with their parents, Elizabeth and Margaret finally strike a deal:  the two sisters will get a night out until 1:00am, provided they return with a report on how the masses respond to the King’s midnight address (most likely feedback:  who the eff picks midnight as a good time to address the nation?!?!).  Though they will attempt to blend in with the crowd, they will be accompanied by two royal guards, who will serve as their chaperones.

A woman in a blue suit and a man in an officer's uniform stand in an elegantly decorated room.

Margaret is so ready to party that she doesn’t even care.  Dressed in matching pink, the two are vaguely reminiscent of the twins in The Shining as they descend the grand staircase.  I absolutely cannot imagine willingly matching my sister’s outfit for a night out on the town, but hey…different times.

Almost immediately, the princesses’ plans seem to be thwarted when they end up in a ritzy party full of the stuffy old nobility (is there any other kind?).  Margaret gets into shenanigans with a naval officer and easily ditches all members of her party.  Elizabeth loses the guards too, but doesn’t manage to catch up with her sister.

While Elizabeth does manage to hitch a ride on the bus in pursuit of Margaret, she is on a decidedly less fun bus.  Even on the boring regular bus, fares must be paid–a thought that hasn’t occurred to Elizabeth.  Luckily, her seatmate Jack, an airman, comes to the rescue by paying her fare, though they both manage to fall off the bus in a way that’s sweet in a rom-com, but would be horrendously painful in real life.

A young woman on a bus drinks alcohol from a glass, surrounded by other revelers.

Having failed to track down Margaret, Elizabeth is in a bar when the clock strikes midnight.  The rowdy masses quiet down and respectfully listen to George’s speech–everyone except for Jack.  He reacts angrily to the speech and dismisses all of the posh gits in power.  Elizabeth is annoyed but needs help getting to Trafalgar Square, where she believes she’ll find Margaret.  There are so many goddamn people in that square that that I would have immediately turned around and gone home, sister or no sister.

Margaret has, in fact, gone to Trafalgar–but by now she’s on her way to a house of ill repute with , who drugs her drink(!?!??!?!).  The owner of this establishment, who seems to be some kind of mafioso (or whatever kind of person just happens to collect horse heads in a bucket), comes to her rescue.  True to form, Margaret is keen to get to the next place rumored to have a great party, and she now has a new escort.

Two young women swing dance together, wearing pink dresses and gloves.

Elizabeth and Margaret finally reunite, though their guards and the military police happen to arrive at the same location.  When the military police seize Jack, Elizabeth reveals her true identity.  But can she help him even though he can never be…part of her world?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Imagine a film is made about your epic night out…and you basically just drink and dance and come home a little past curfew.  Don’t get me wrong–our leads in the film are great, and Princess Margaret is appropriately the queen of partying.  (Speaking of the cast, I would have killed for Emily Watson and Rupert Everett to have more to do; I love them so much, but most of their cues in the script must have been “look disapproving.”)  However, this night out is a bit of a non-story, and I have trouble understanding the point of this film.  We learn about the experiences of royalty and civilian alike during the war, and even get a sobering look at neighborhoods bombed in the Blitz.  Everything else about this film is so breezy that these moments don’t have the emotional impact they should.

For a film about a night out, there’s a lot of time spent running around London in a farcical way, which gets tiresome.  And it may not be a great sign for a film when a decent number of major plot points remind me of Disney’s Aladdin?  But without the catchy songs and upbeat genie sidekick.  Perhaps I also had unrealistic expectations of how the film’s plot would play out.

Things I Expected But Did Not Happen in This Film:

  • Rupert Everett and Emily Watson are crowned the actual King and Queen of England in honor of their disapproving frowns
  • Princess Margaret runs away and becomes an acrobat but is fired after she tries to skin the circus animals to make a fur shrug
  • Princess Elizabeth joins a group of anarchists determined to rid the UK of the monarchy
  • Jeeves and Wooster are chased around a nightclub after stealing a cow creamer

Things That Did Happen in This Film:

  • Elizabeth rather elegantly chugs a pint
  • Margaret goes to a club of ill repute and refers to herself as P2 in an incredibly posh manner
  • Elizabeth pushes around a passed out Margaret in a wheelbarrow
  • Emily Watson as the Queen Mother imperiously asks “Hwhere have you been?”
  • King George VI reveals his most secret (and arguably saddest) desire:  to ride public transit

The moral of the story is I only care about the royal family when they’re being insane, and there’s not a ton of that going on here.  Where is the Princess Margaret movie we deserve???

Would my blog wife crown this one queen or wear the crown herself?  Find out in her review here!

Film Reviews

Thousand Pieces of Gold, or: My Own Prospecting Idaho

It.  Is.  Period drama month!!!  To celebrate, I’m throwing an extra period drama or two into this month’s lineup, along with our usual Blog Collab programming.  The only thing I love more than a period drama is a socially conscious period drama, so this film scores major points with me.

The Film:

Thousand Pieces of Gold

The Premise:

After being sold as a bride in the States, Chinese-American Lalu attempts to take charge of her destiny and forge a life for herself.

The Ramble:

Lalu and her family belong to a group of nomadic shepherds in remote northern China.  After an especially bad drought, the family is starving, and it seems unlikely everyone will survive.  Lalu’s father makes the heartbreaking decision to sell her as a mail-order bride so she and the rest of the family can live.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reality of Lalu’s situation is hidden and, rather than becoming a bride, she is sold at auction to a Chinese trader named Li Po.  Unbeknownst to her, Li Po works for a man who operates a saloon and brothel as the gold rush winds down in Idaho.

a woman on horseback rides next to a man riding a horse, mountains in the background

Along the way to the States, Lalu is relieved to have someone to talk to and remember the Chinese legends surrounding the constellations.  Li Po also helps Lalu learn some basic English so she can avoid the creepy men of the States, but he doesn’t stay around long enough to help her much beyond that.

Upon arriving in Idaho, Lalu realizes Li Po’s employer Hong King doesn’t intend to marry her at all; in fact, he intends to hire her out as a sex worker…while he keeps all of the profits, of course.  Lalu becomes Polly as Hong King assures her this will be easier for white people to understand.

Shockingly, the white men of small-town Idaho are pretty much garbage except for Hong King’s friend Charlie.  He shows Lalu around town and points out Chinatown, a small but bustling part of the town.

After Aunt Zelda from Sabrina the Teenage Witch(!) gets Lalu ready, she will make her debut at the saloon.  Hong King plans to accept the highest bid for Lalu, but no one is particularly interested after she fights off a man who gets handsy.  Charlie, who owns the saloon, intervenes and demands Hong King find other work for Lalu.  As a compromise, Lalu works for Hong King cooking and cleaning, but still has to sleep with him.  Gross.

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Eventually, Li Po returns to Idaho and Lalu confronts him about his role in selling her to Hong King.  Li Po promises to buy Lalu’s freedom, but it will take time to earn enough money.  Pleased with Li Po’s promise, Lalu sleeps with him…which leads Hong King to beat a dead horse yet again (not a euphemism).  Hong King decides that, since Lalu consents to sex with one man, she should earn him some money by sleeping with other men.

a man dressed as a cowboy holds hands with a woman, while a man in the background looks on

Again, Charlie intervenes, challenging Hong King to a game of cards.  Charlie wagers the deed to the bar against Lalu’s freedom, winning the game.  Lalu, afraid that Charlie will just gamble her away to someone else, resists his advances.  Charlie is disappointed Lalu isn’t more grateful (eye roll), but he does leave her alone.  He tells Lalu she is free, and she begins to take in laundry to earn a living.

Shortly after, Li Po arrives back in town with the money to buy Lalu from Hong King.  When he discovers Lalu now lives with Charlie, he is scandalized and leaves town again without waiting for an explanation.  Lalu is heartbroken but determined to be independent.  Despite Charlie’s objections, she moves out and manages the boarding house, saving as much money as she can to return to China.

a man leans down, presenting a woman seated in a field with a small bouquet of wildflowers

Now an independent lady, Lalu attends Chinese New Year celebrations with Charlie.  The festivities are cut short when a group of racist dudes show up and injure several people, including Charlie.  Soon after, all Chinese immigrants in the area are given eviction notices and told to leave town.  Though Charlie hopes Lalu will stay, she believes she will never belong in Idaho and remains intent on leaving for China.

With her Chinese and American identities pulling her in opposing directions, where can Lalu call home?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is totally a romance novel in disguise and I love it.  However, as a period drama it takes on issues I’ve almost never seen on film:  real laws excluding Chinese immigrants from owning businesses, sudden reversals on immigration quotas, and (un)official racist policies driving Chinese-Americans from their homes.  I remember learning about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act in my history classes, but I wish we had talked more about what this actually meant for Chinese communities…and the lasting legacy of racist policies.

In addition to the social messages, the characters feel real.  Lalu struggles to find a place in the States without losing her identity.  Mistreated by many people, she is bruised but determined, and takes shit from no one.  Charlie is also a layered character who is, in some ways, a product of his time.  While he doesn’t pressure Lalu to sleep with him, he does still have expectations about Lalu magically reciprocating his feelings.  And he does benefit from the racist law banning Hong King from owning a business.

I didn’t include it in my review as I am trying to keep my word count under control, but the relationship between Aunt Zelda and Lalu is quite sweet.  I’m always here for female solidarity, and their relationship also serves to differentiate between types of sex work.  Lalu’s situation is terrible as she doesn’t choose to be a sex worker; Aunt Zelda, however, seems to embrace her role and the freedom it allows her.  This is a nuanced distinction for any film to make, and I’m proud of one of my favorite genres for being ahead of the game on this.

I am pleased, period drama gods.

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Lady J, or: Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Soft laughter echoing across marble stairs.  Gently twirling parasols.  Delicate lace sleeves.  More hats than you could wear in a lifetime.  It can only be period drama month on the Blog Collab.

The Film:

Lady J

The Premise:

A woman of the French nobility seeks revenge on the libertine who broke her heart.

The Ramble:

The Marquis des Arcis is a piece of work, let me tell you.  A libertine who claims to love all of his conquests, the Marquis has his sights set on widowed Madame de La Pommeraye.

Fully aware of his terrible reputation, Pommeraye resists his advances, proclaiming her belief in friendship only, not love.  However, the Marquis and his charm begin to take effect, and the two become lovers.

A man kisses the hand of a woman dressed in fashionable pink dress and hat.

Even from the French countryside, news travels fast, and Pommeraye becomes the subject of nasty gossip in Paris.  Unconcerned as their love is so pure, Pommeraye prances merrily along.

When the Marquis must travel for business, so our troubles begin.  As he travels more frequently, he becomes increasingly distant.  Unable to take it any longer, Pommeraye confronts the Marquis about the lack of love between them.  Heartbroken over their breakup, Pommeraye nevertheless remains friends with her ex…while also doing some scheming.  Of course there’s scheming.

A woman with a parasol touches the shoulder of a man while they walk in a forested area.

After hearing some scandalous gossip from her bestie, Pommeraye hatches an inspired plan.  The scandal involves a woman born out of wedlock who nevertheless makes a good match to a member of the nobility.  As it turns out, her fiancé is a next-level schemer, and arranges for a fake wedding.  When she takes him to court, this woman inevitably loses, and turns with her daughter to a den of vice (le gasp) where they earn a living through sex work.

Inspired to seek vengeance against the Marquis with these two women, Pommeraye sets them up in a flat of their own as long as they follow the path of righteousness.

After introducing the Marquis to her pious friend and lovely daughter, he becomes obsessed.  So consumed with his thoughts of Mademoiselle J, the Marquis begs Pommeraye to reunite them.  Pommeraye at last allows him to join them for dinner when he “happens to be in the neighborhood.”  During dinner, Pommeraye grills him on the questionable morality of libertines and prods him to speak in praise of living by the words of Christ.

A man and woman dressed elegantly talk to a woman and her teenage daughter, who are dressed somberly.

Hiring the equivalent of 19th century PIs, the Marquis tracks down Mademoiselle J and propositions her repeatedly.  He writes romantic letters, offering jewels, houses, monthly income, and significant amounts of his fortune.

Pommeraye, intercepting his letters, urges Madame J to reject all of these offers as they are not enough.  Finally, the Marquis realizes the only acceptable offer is one of marriage, which Mademoiselle J is reluctant to accept.  Conflicted about lying about her past and her feelings for the Marquis, Mademoiselle J eventually accepts as a way to provide for her mother.

A woman in an elaborate yellow dress reads a letter in an elegant room as servants look on.

Shortly after the wedding, Pommeraye takes Madame J and the newlyweds on a fun day trip…to the den of vice (dun dun dun).  How will the Marquis react when he learns the truth about Mademoiselle J’s past and Pommeraye’s present schemes?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I am always here for a period drama.  The scenery, the costumes, the melodrama, the passive-aggressive lines of dialogue–I love it so much.

Though the obvious comparison is probably Dangerous Liaisons, this is actually quite sweet for a revenge film. Pommeraye herself starts out as a somewhat sympathetic character, but her schemes ultimately have the power to hurt a lot of people and she gives zero fucks.

I appreciate that this is reasonably progressive concerning women’s sexuality, especially where period dramas are concerned.  The Marquis is of course a bit of a douche when it comes to Mademoiselle J’s past as a sex worker, but the story resists the idea that she is somehow unclean or immoral.  Meanwhile, Pommeraye’s schemes actually do, as promised, ensure that a man no longer acts as a libertine (though not necessarily in the way she intends).

There’s also quite a lot of farcical fun here.  The scene at dinner cracked me up with all of the uncomfortable squirming the Marquis endured.  The amount of times he unconvincingly just happens to bump into Madame J and her daughter is quite entertaining too.

Would my blog wife remain steadfast or plan an elaborate fake wedding just to get this one off her case?  Find out by reading her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Mary Shelley, or: If You Like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Getting Caught in the Rain

It’s 2019.  It’s almost the 2nd month of 2019.  But while it’s still month number one, we do what we want, we watch what we want.  And this week we take a trip 200ish years into the past with a brilliant writer and real-life heroine.

The Film:

Mary Shelley

The Premise:

An examination of the events in Mary Shelley’s life that led to the creation of her iconic Gothic novel, Frankenstein.

The Ramble:

Mary Shelley (née Godwin), like your average teen, likes to hang out around her mother’s grave and invent creepy ghost stories for her siblings.

Since the death of her famous mother, Mary’s father William Godwin, a philosopher in his own right, has remarried.  Her stepmother (aka Anna from Downton Abbey) despises Mary and her distracted, creative mind, and the two are frequently at odds.  After an especially contentious fight, Mary is unceremoniously sent off to live in Scotland with a radical philosopher and his family.

Two teen girls sit in the dark in front of a tree, a small lamp between them.

Though miserable, things are looking up when Mary befriends one of the daughters of the family, Arya Stark Isabel.  They bond over their interest in all things occult and the desire to summon the ghosts of their deceased mothers.  You know, teen stuff.  The two pass the time enjoyably enough until Percy Shelley arrives on the literal winds of change. Significant stares are exchanged.  Repartee is traded.

A young woman grins at a smiling man in front of a tree.

Unfortunately, a blossoming new romance grinds to a halt when Mary receives the news that her stepsister Claire is gravely ill.  Mary rushes to her side only to discover, rather than being at death’s door, Claire has been desperately bored.

Luckily, Percy is a massive fanboy when it comes to Mary’s parents, and it doesn’t take much convincing for her father to take him on as a protégé.  From then on, it’s secret notes, hanging out in graveyards, getting caught in the rain, and drinking sacramental wine.

However, it’s sort of a buzzkill when Percy’s wife and daughter arrive on the scene, bursting Mary’s bubble.  Having been raised with her radical parents’ ideas, Mary is all for free love and embracing an unconventional lifestyle.  Her father is decidedly not ok with this and cuts her off when she runs away with Percy, bringing Claire along for the ride.

Unsurprisingly, being young, poor, and in love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Percy can’t get anyone to publish his work, yet insists on throwing elaborate dinner parties for his sleazy friends.  Meanwhile, Mary is expecting and worried about her baby’s future.

A woman sits in bed, holding a baby. Next to them, a man holds the baby's hand and looks tenderly at the woman.

Predictably, the creditors come.  Forced to flee on a cold, rainy evening, Mary’s newborn baby is not long for this world.

Meanwhile, Claire has news of her own:  after meeting the infamous Lord Byron during a night out a the theater, she became immediately pregnant after he looked at her.  /Also she’s been having an affair with him for the past few months.  Interpreting a letter from Byron as an invitation to visit, Claire and the gang head off for a month-long binge and general drunkenness and debauchery.

A man and woman who are dressed elegantly stand close to each other in a crowded theater.

All of this is leading to that famous weekend that produced those Gothic masterpieces, Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre.  Throughout all of this, I should mention, Byron predictably acts like a bag of dicks.  Percy isn’t much better, though John is sweet if a doormat.

After drafting her most famous work, Mary struggles with finding a publisher.  Eventually, she is able to publish anonymously on the condition that Percy writes an introduction…which means everyone in the world will think he is the writer.

Frustrated and hurt, Mary’s relationship with Percy deteriorates and her career as a writer seems over before it’s begun.  We all know she will ultimately become one of the most important English writers, period…but how will she get there with the odds stacked against her?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I am always up for a period drama.  And–no surprise–Elle Fanning is brilliant as ever.  However, as a whole this film fell somewhat flat for me.  I get that a successful writer’s life does involve a lot of scenes that wouldn’t be exceptionally thrilling onscreen.  But Mary comes across as such a boring person at times; I wish we had gotten inside of her brain a bit more to explore her brilliance.

Most of the time, we are focused on Mary and Percy’s relationship angst.  And, admittedly, a lot of the Romantics were probably huge douchebags, but Percy doesn’t come across looking great here.  From what I remember, Percy was supportive of Mary’s writing and never tried to claim credit for her work (though people did assume Frankenstein was his work).

The film also makes the odd choice of quoting from Percy’s poetry A LOT.  I understand the choice to use Percy’s words as Mary finds her voice as a writer, but it really got under my skin.  Remember Bright Star, which featured so much beautiful Keats poetry because it was a film ABOUT Keats?  This film is ABOUT Mary Shelley, so her words should take priority over Percy’s…unlike, you know, that thing all of those 19th century dudes were taken to task for IN THIS FILM.

Would my darling blog wife skip romantically through the rain with this one or ditch it in the mud like it’s the heteropatriarchy?  Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Madame Bovary, or: Arsenic and Gold Plates

November is the month of love on the blog–specifically love for the Blog Collab and our partnership.  In line with age-old tradition, our theme for this month revolves around choosing films that remind us of each other.  This week is Christa’s pick, and I think I’ve done well for myself if period dramas are the films immediately associated with me.

The Film:

Madame Bovary (2014)

The Premise:

France.  Extramarital affairs.  Massive debts as a result of too many gold encased centerpieces.  You know the drill.

The Ramble:

If 150+ years isn’t long enough to catch up on the basic plot of this story, this film considerately drops a few hints right away that it doesn’t end super well for the titular Madame Bovary.  Guess what?  Being a middle class married woman in the 19th century French countryside isn’t usually the most fun in literature.

Short diversion:  though set in France, this adaptation feels English AF, and the accents are confusing.  We have pseudo-French, British, American, and a few I couldn’t identify super easily.  Call me old-fashioned, but I want to hear actors in a French story at least make an attempt to put on a terrible French accent.

Returning to our story–almost immediately after her education in what looks like the world’s most boring martial arts school (but is actually a French convent), Emma marries a youngish doctor and moves to a small town outside of Rouen.  Everyone is stoked about the good match she’s made and predicts she’ll enjoy a comfortable, quiet life with her husband.  A ha ha.  Ha.

A man and woman ride through the French countryside on a horse-drawn buggy.
They see me rollin’…

For whatever reason, Paul Giamatti has a small role in this as a pharmacist/unintentional wingman for Emma.  He introduces Emma to a young legal clerk, Leon, with the dubious honor of being the last romantic in France.  Though Emma is really into this guy, the most scandalous thing she’s willing to do is walk slowly through a golden field with him.  That seems to be the end of that (at least for now).

A man and woman walk through a field together.
Period drama requirements satisfied in this scene:  bonnets, sideburns, symbolically wild/flowy hair on men, walking in fields.

Bored with the countryside, Emma tries to convince her husband to move to a city with more excitement or at least some more dudes to scope out.  Sorry, Emma–not going to happen.  Her only consolation is buying expensive shit on credit so she’ll have a shiny new wardrobe and extravagant decor.

After some time, Emma meets a marquis at a really fancy fox hunting party (which also makes this story feel even more fucking English).  Though initially Emma only offers friendship to the Marquis, she becomes tired with the constant disappointment that is life and begins an affair with him.  Eventually, Emma plans to run away to Paris with the Marquis, but…that doesn’t work out very well for her.  She does get some apricots out of it, though.

A woman stands in front of a table filled with food, reading a letter.
Break-up note accompanied by food is…not the worst idea, actually.

Luckily, Leon shows up again around this time.  However, Emma has also amassed much more debt than her husband can ever pay off by this point.  Unless Emma can rustle up 10,000 francs, she will lose everything.  Guess who’s there for her in her hour of need?

Spoiler:  it rhymes with marsenic.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I do always love the scenery, costumes, and symbolism of a period drama.  The sweeping landscape shots are beautiful, though (again), there’s something about all of this that feels so English.

However, we’re sorely missing a glimpse into Emma’s inner workings.  We see her reacting to feelings of emptiness and boredom without understanding where these feelings come from or what drives her to spending money and conducting affairs.  She’s also described as intelligent yet overly romantic, but neither of these characteristics shines through.  In this adaptation, Emma is actually somewhat boring herself and honestly not the brightest.  As a result, there is very little redeeming about her character, and it’s difficult to be sad when she meets an unhappy end.

At a certain point, this film ends up feeling like it’s crossing off items on the period drama checklist:  furtive glances at church, melancholy walks in the countryside, forbidden meetings at night.  You can get all that and more from so many other period dramas, in addition to more fully developed characters and deeper significance (plus less confusing accents).

Would Christa plate this one in gold or send it away to walk alone in the woods?  Find out in her review here!