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Les femmes de l'ombre (2008)
Mixed bag that entertains despite its flaws
The premise of Jean-Paul Salomé's 'Les femmes de l'ombre' is as simple as it is effective: a hastily assembled team of female commandos is tasked with liberating a British man who ended up in a German hospital. He needs to be freed before the Germans realise that he might have information on the imminent Normandy landings. As usual, the plan goes awry, and the women are asked to go to Paris to take care of some loose ends.
What unfolds is a battle of wits, of torture, and of actual fire fights between the British SOE-affiliated French resistance fighters led by Pierre Desfontaines (Julien Boisselier) and his sister Louise Desfontaines (Sophie Marceau) on the one hand, and the loathsome Karl Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu) on the other.
While the events often strain credulity, and sometimes feel completely impossible, I was able to enjoy this little adventure through German-occupied France because of its high pace, interesting locations, and credible visuals. I suppose some will see this as a negative, and decry its similarities to the nonsensical American action films of which there is certainly no shortage. There's certainly something to that, and I would join them in hoping we'll someday see a more realistic take on these brave women who risked everything for their family, friends, and country. The Germans do a good job of living up to their reputation, though, and the film is appropriately dedicated to the women who fought against Nazi barbarity.
The acting is mostly fine, and I would ascribe any lack of characterization or credibility to the script rather than the men and women involved. I'd also like to echo the comment of another reviewer in that I would have liked to see more of Maya Sansa's Maria Luzzato, who seemed like a more interesting character than the two younger members of Desfontaines' group.
All in all, I found this film to be an enjoyable ride through France in June 1944. We are reminded, if perhaps not as accurately as possible, of the great sacrifice made by both men and women to put an end to the horrors Germany inflicted on millions of innocent Europeans. It might not be perfect, but it works well enough, and I think this perspective on the war will appeal to parts of the public that might otherwise not be interested. If so, it'll have accomplished a good thing, because as Ray Bradbury famously wrote in his book Fahrenheit 451 (1953): "We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run."
The Duchess (2008)
A question of expectations
I'm of two minds about this film. On the one hand, Saul Dibb has managed to turn a book into an entertaining film about the trials and tribulation - and, let's keep things in perspective, extremely privileged life - of the frolicking Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley). It hits all the targets of the romantic genre, and does so with a nice mix of emotional scenes, witty banter, and even some interesting discussions.
Some, because on the other hand the film fails to step beyond the confines of its genre and to really engage with the historical period in which the events take place. The female protagonist gets married to a Duke (Ralph Fiennes), is supposedly unhappy (but wastes little time exploiting the new social options presented to her because of said marriage), and soon the viewer is on board with Georgiana for a ride through all the familiar scenes: her husband's mistresses, her own dalliances with young dreamers, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. etc. The political scheming in the background is mentioned, but there is very little interaction between the events of the story and the historical context. In the final minutes of the film, lines of text assure the viewer that Georgiana was one of the most influential women of her day (in England, one assumes). Unfortunately, not much of that supposed influence is shown in the film, where Georgiana has to make do with a short scene in which she rallies a crowd of a few dozen spectators at a political campaign event.
It's all the more unfortunate that this angle of Georgiana's character was left underexposed, because in the first few minutes of the film she quickly finds herself in a rather witty back-and-forth with one of her husband's political allies, Charles Fox (Simon McBurney). Those scenes, so teasingly shown in the trailer, are sadly moved to the sidelines soon after. If those reading this felt similarly disappointed by this, I can recommend Patrice Leconte's 1996 film Ridicule. It's an excellent and very witty look at the French court in roughly the same time.
So all in all, if you're looking at this film as a romantic historical drama, it's actually not all that bad. But unfortunately it's also not much more than that. A shame, especially because this is an era in which there should be no shortage of great characters from which to draw inspiration for far more interesting stories and films.
A final note on the acting: Ralph Fiennes is great as William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, as is Simon McBurney as the politician Charles Fox. Dominic Cooper and Hayley Atwell gave two decent but unexciting (which isn't necessarily bad) performances as Charles Grey and Bess Foster respectively. As for Georgiana herself? I can understand directors are reluctant to use different actors for the same role, but wanting a 22 year old Keira Knightley to portray both a 17 year old newly-wed and a 35 year old mother was perhaps a bit too much to ask. Knightley makes the most of it, and some scenes are well done indeed, but on the whole it wasn't really working out for me.
Recommended for easy romantic watching, not so for an engaging historical drama.
Toussaint Louverture (2012)
Starts off great, then rushes to the finish
I first learned of Toussaint Louverture and his accomplishments on Hispaniola by way of American sources of the period, and their take on him was conflicted for all the obvious reasons (a republican revolution sounds good, but it being led by a black former-slave surely seems a bit uncomfortable). This two-part series was a great introduction to the man from a more direct and personal perspective.
The basic framework of the film is as follows; in 1802 Toussaint Louverture is held captive in a prison in France, where a young aid to Napoleon Bonaparte is sent to extract from him the key to uncovering his great treasure, rumoured to be worth millions. Louverture is reluctant to cooperate at first, but gradually opens up to the man, perhaps recognizing that it might be a good way to get his own side of the story recorded in history. The film then switches back and forth between scenes of Louverture's life in the French colony of Saint-Domingue and his increasingly uncomfortable stay at Fort de Joux in eastern France.
The first part of the series is quite strong: we see how the young Toussaint is traded at the colony's slave markets, meets his future wife, learns to read and write, etc. It's a tight, well executed introduction to life at the plantation and to his background. At some point the already tense relation between the monarchists and republicans, French and Spanish, and inevitably the white, black and mulatto population leads to violence. Toussaint becomes involved, rises through the ranks of the 'blacks', and after some small skirmishes comes into contact with the Spanish. It's at this point that the story seems to start cutting corners. Before too long, Toussaint finds himself in a number of situations and positions that, while not necessarily historically inaccurate, might seem somewhat hard to follow because they follow each other in such rapid succession. Towards the end, the film even has Toussaint summarize events from his prison in France, which made me wonder if this was intended to be a longer series of perhaps three or four parts that had to be wrapped up in the second film. Or perhaps the rushed feeling of the second film was the result of budgetary constraints that meant that some of the military episodes of his life couldn't be shown. I don't know.
In any case, Jimmy Jean-Louis makes for a fantastic Toussaint Louverture. He shows a great range of emotions and exudes both wisdom and authority. It's not hard to imagine such a man becoming the leader of a revolt. I was also impressed by the performances of Aïssa Maïga as Toussaint's wife Suzanne, Yann Ebonge as his nephew Moïse, and Hubert Koundé as Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Though not shown in the film, Dessalines would eventually declare Haïti independent from France. On the French side we see Pierre Cassignard as the French general Étienne Maynaud Bizefranc de Lavaux, Eric Viellard as the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, and Stany Coppet as the scheming leader of the mulatto faction Benoit Joseph André Rigaud. All give convincing portrayals of their characters, as each seeks to navigate the continuously changing political and military landscape. It's important to remember that in this time the French revolution was still very much a current event, and the rise and fall of Maximilien de Robespierre cast long shadows across the Atlantic Ocean. I was less impressed by the French characters in France itself, but I don't want to ascribe that to the actors (Arthur Jugnot, Féodor Atkine, and Julie Dray) because that side of the story has only a fraction of the screen time compared to the main storyline in Saint-Domingue and serves mostly as a framework.
All in all then, this series of two films is definitely worth taking a look at if you're interested in the period, region, the history of slavery, the story of 'the only successful slave revolt in history' (though the Mamluks might disagree), or even just Jimmy Jean-Louis' excellent portrayal of Toussaint Louverture.
As for his treasure? Like Zhou Enlai famously said: 'It is too early to say'.
Adventure on the steppes
Genghis Khan: The Biography this movie is not, and how could it be? Much of the history of the warlords young life is wrapped in legend and convenient events. Because the trilogy that this film was meant to be the first part of never saw the light of day - director Bodrov first lost interest, then wanted to make only a second part, and eventually nothing came of it - I can forgive the mostly uncritical take on this man who would grow up to be one of history's most murderous tyrants.
But it would have been interesting to see where this all came from. The film hints at his desire to unite the Mongols, to give them 'simple laws'. But as we all know, there are no Mongols in Baghdad or Kiev, great cities of the age that were all but destroyed by Mongol invaders. Their inhabitants were killed or enslaved - and for what? At one point in the film it is said that all Mongols do is 'steal and kill'. So it seems: half a millennium after the Romans of Constantinopolis built the wondrous Hagia Sophia, the Mongols came up with the 'simple law' that betraying your Khan was a capital offense. That might be revolutionary on the steppes, but its not very impressive in the larger scheme of things.
As such, the movie is barely more than an interesting adventure on the steppes of central Asia. There's the determined, strong and divinely favoured hero and his faithful, strong-willed and beautiful wife, the friend-turned-enemy, the small skirmish, the big battle. It's all rather formulaic, but it works well enough - and the steppes themselves are nothing short of impressive. There are some fantastic landscape shots in this film.
So despite its dubious history, its uncritical approach to this much-hated historic figure, and the unoriginal storytelling, I still found myself entertained throughout the films two hour duration.
Defying Gravity (2009)
High school in space
Whatever else is true about Defying Gravity, I thought the art had a nice touch to it; from the interior and exterior of the ship, to the costumes and the gear of the astronauts. It might not live up to the standards of more science-based speculations as to the future of space travel, but it certainly has a recognizable flavour of its own.
Other reviews have already commented on the ridiculous and juvenile conversations and motivations of the characters in this series. From their incoherent giggling, being unable to control their sexual urges, to disregarding critical instructions from mission control, these 'astronauts' are almost insulting to the real men and women who were and are a part of the space programs of Earth's various nations.
After giving up on the series relatively early, I read about how the story was supposed to have unfolded over the course of a few seasons. Though this outline was filled with the same unimpressive high school level personal drama that featured in the released episodes, there was actually quite an interesting spark of imagination underlying it all. The premise for this massive journey around the solar system might have been implausible, but there is not necessarily something wrong with that in the speculative genre that science fiction is.
Sadly, it seems a desire to drag the series out over various years led to the more interesting story being sidelined in favour of the same kind of cookiecutter 'drama' that you can find in dozens of other forgettable series.
Mibu gishi den (2002)
Interesting movie, but not without its flaws
When the Last Sword is Drawn is one of the more interesting depictions of Japan's last generation of samurai. However, this context immediately introduces a problem, because the Boshin War and its implications on Japanese society are not generally understood by non-Japanese audiences. Doctors moving to China, samurai being mowed down by primitive machine guns, the Emperor and the Shogun at war, people being tied to a clan or a 'land'? These elements all play a role in the story, and add to it, but a (superficial) knowledge of them is taken for granted by the director.
The movie itself starts off well. The introduction of the characters, their motivations, and their places within the story are handled to-the-point in a series of tightly scripted and edited scenes that switch between present (1899), past and pre-past, so to speak. As the story unfolds, the relations between the characters develop along interesting lines, as motivations become more clear and emotions start to ramp up on all sides.
After the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in January 1868, these emotions become somewhat problematic. The melodramatic scenes following this event are drawn out, repetitive and lack the focus and tightness of the first hour or so of the film. In the final sequences, the connection between the past and present is made, and while the 'surprise' did indeed make me grin, I'm not sure it was really necessary to take so long to build up to that one short moment.
Nevertheless, this is a film well worth seeing. Kiichi Nakai is excellent as samurai Kanichiro Yoshimura, and Koichi Sato makes a convincing Hajime Saito. Takehiro Murata, Atsushi Ito and Yuji Miyake make for an interesting Ono family, and Sansei Shiomi and Masato Sakai are a great bunch of samurai. Yui Natsukawa isn't on screen for long, but portrays the difficulties of Shizu's position as the wife of the 'traitor' Yoshimura very well indeed. Finally, what's not to like about Miki Nakatani as Nui? Her story as an orphaned and traded-around girl is quite tragic in and of itself, and it was great to see Nui, as a woman, get involved in the main, male-dominated, series of events.
Les adieux à la reine (2012)
The winds of change
Despite having a great interest in the late 18th century, I have not found many films that strike my particular chords. 'Les adieux à la reine' is one of them, and it does so mainly for two reasons: first, because it nicely shows us the dark underbelly of the lavish gold-plated upper rooms of the French royal palace at Versailles, exposing the system that contradicted the later observation by that inveterate revolutionary Thomas Jefferson, who was the American minister to France from 1785 to 1789, that: 'the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.' Second, because it shows us that for all their faults, the royals and their noble entourage where people too. People who did not voluntarily run for office, who loved their children and friends as much as anyone else would, and whose fears of what might be done to their loved ones and themselves drove them to nightmares and tears. Even if it was true that 'Louis must die that the country may live', as that great butcherer of men, Maximilien Robespierre, later remarked, the violent character of the French Revolution must surely have done great damage to their proclaimed ideals as well.
Some have criticized the two main actresses for appearing stiff and lacking spontaneity; and I can certainly see where that is coming from, but rather than seeing this as a negative, I think it works to illustrate the strict protocols and the ever present divides of class and status that permeate life at Versailles. With one notable exception, the personal opinions and whims of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) are simply not tolerated by anyone other than her fellow servants. A seeming relaxed and smiling social better instantly turns on her the moment she does anything deemed unacceptable, and when she finally does 'win the love' of Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) it is for reasons completely out of line with what Sidonie might have wished for, but should probably have come to expect.
Because if there is one thing about the character of Sidonie that I would criticize, it is exactly that: for someone seemingly so inquisitive, so observant of social protocol, and yet so willing to force her will through at certain times, she appears completely unable to assert herself around Queen Marie Antoinette - even when the rats are leaving the sinking ship, to use a Dutch expression. But perhaps this is unfair: perhaps she really did feel unconditional love towards the Queen.
Speaking of love, who can fault Queen Marie Antoinette for being completely swept off her feet by Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, 'la duchesse de Polignac' (Virginie Ledoyen). The movie seems to portray her as a somewhat more recent and distant presence at the court than she was in reality, but regardless, it gives the viewers a peak into the upper layers of society at Versailles. If the adage 'play or be played' is too modern a description, something more contemporary would surely have conveyed the same idea.
All in all, I consider this to be a fine film indeed. Diane Kruger gives us one of the more believable portrayals of Queen Marie Antoinette in recent times. If nothing else, acknowledgement of the fact that she was a mother in her mid-30s, and not a frivolous 20 year old, is a good start. But the film goes further, probably in line with the recent trend among historians to view Queen Marie Antoinette in a more positive light.
One final note about the supposed pornographic nature of some scenes, pointed out in the reviews of others (mostly Americans); there is nudity, a kiss, and some longing stares. But this is nothing out of the ordinary in French, and indeed most European, films. Don't miss out on this film for fear of seeing a naked torso!
Anno 1790 (2011)
Derivative detective series in an interesting setting
Anno 1790 is a fairly derivative detective series, but the fact that it takes place in the capital of late 18th century Sweden makes it worth a watch. There are numerous interesting references to the conflicts and social movements and conditions of the day that set the series apart from similar productions in contemporary times; from politics, class society, science and medicine to religious groups.
Looming in the background is the revolution in France, which some perceive as the start of a new era of freedom and equality while others see it as a harbinger of dangerous anarchism. Nevertheless, the daily concerns of the characters dominate the series and while some of the cases Johan Gustav Dåådh (Peter Eggers) has to investigate are interesting, most follow fairly predictable story-lines.
Though they feature prominently in the final episode, I was disappointed that we didn't see more of Märta Raxelius (Sara Turpin) and her band of revolutionaries. Not everything had to revolve around this political conflict, of course, but I'm sure it would have been a more interesting sub-plot than the inevitable impossible romance that the protagonist ends up in.