Local cinemas this week

Two tales of fantastically flawed women top the week’s new arthouse releases

NT Live: Fleabag

Many people think Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s Fleabag is the greatest TV comedy show ever. Could well be, it’s certainly a cultural landmark of some sort, and it’s no surprise that Amazon Prime grabbed an exclusive new content deal with the lanky, awkward and richly observant comedian. Reportedly worth a cool $20 mil, that does mean you’re not likely to see her anywhere else for a while. Though you could, if you hurry (some sessions are already sold out) get along to one of the NT Live versions of her breakout one-woman show, and catch the Fleabag that started it all…

And you should go, really… At least to be able to answer three questions: Is she actually as good as all that hype? Can anyone really deserve so many Emmys? Will I laugh so much that I’ll wet myself? Er… yes, yes and… yeah, that’s definitely a risk. Though at the start of the lacerating hour and twenty minutes all there is, alone on stage in a oversized red jumper and black jeans and seeming a bit lost, is a vulnerable-looking woman with just a chair and few voice-over prompts and sound-effects. The staging (by her friend and long-time collaborator Vicky Jones) is simplicity itself, and starts with an excruciating job interview. Then as the camera zeros in on her expressive face, the narrative turns rapidly into a free-flowing account of Fleabag’s colourfully promiscuous and frequently outrageous sexual CV. This is familiar turf for those who know the TV version, but in a theatre it’s a radically different experience – one which will just leave you in awe at her bravery. How can anyone get up on stage in front of an audience and say those things? It’s not just that her jokes are so filthy, a lot of comedians can do that… It’s more that she’s also so candid, so self-lacerating and so brutal. She’s vulnerable and hopeless, and yet at the same time, totally in control – the master of every situation she’s in with all those horrible men (the one she calls “the rodent” gets a fantastic roasting) she picks up seemingly at random.

You’ll quickly see why she’s been tagged a “bad feminist”, for Fleabag completely resets the goal posts for female comedians who want talk openly about sex . She’s the feminist who watches even more porn, who masturbates to videos of Zac Efron and Barak Obama, who drinks excessively and disastrously, sexts pics of her crotch and shags inappropriately and often. And only gradually gets to the point of why she needs that job in the first place – the painful tale of the suicide of her best friend and the fate of the guinea pig-themed cafe they ran together. There’s a radical departure to the TV version at the climax of that story. Which since it will upset anyone who owns a small mammal, I might just not mention here…

Phoebe Waller-Bridge has announced that she’s through with the character she’s lived with for six years, and this stage tour of Fleabag was the last. And who can blame her, she needs to aim those wicked grins and conspiratorial asides towards something new. The men in her life (and the audience) won’t be able to take much more of those wickedly dazzling takedowns either (and no, there’s no hot priest in this show to redeem us blokes). At the end she loops back to that interview, and with four well-chosen words, ends Fleabag’s career forever. So this may be your last chance to see quite so much savage brilliance, shame and sadness all in one place. Don’t miss it. Rated E (Exempt). Now showing at Dendy Newtown, Dendy Opera Quays and Palace Verona. ★★★★1/2


You’ll hardly recognise Renée Zellweger in Rupert Goold‘s patchy biopic which focusses on the singer’s London concerts in 1968, a year before her death. She squints her eyes in a grimace while pouting and pursing her lips – the upper one permanently pulled so far tightly upward it must have hurt. Does this make her look like Judy Garland, the amazingly talented singer her still passionate fans regard as the the greatest entertainer in the 20th century? Not being in their ranks, I really don’t know – my only reference is Google images, and, yeah, maybe a bit… But there’s not a lot of evidence here of the vitality and magic that still keeps Garland alive in the hearts of millions.

It’s the sort of curiosity-prodding film that prompts a deep dive into Google, and there I learned that the real Garland once threw a butcher knife at one of her children, threatened to jump out of a window in front of another and that her daughter Liza Minnelli kept a stomach pump permanently on hand just in case it was needed in one of her multiple attempts to take her own life. But most people probably know as little about her as I did, only that she was Lizas fabulously flawed mum, a party girl in the Amy Winehouse mould with multiple addictions and sang “Over the Rainbow” wonderfully. Zellweger belts out her own numbers too, and does so pretty well. But you really have to like this sort of music – power ballads backed with big raucous show bands, and I don’t… 

Maybe that coloured my view the movie, which focuses on her last year – involving some triumphant concerts and a some emotionally wrenching duds when she was too bombed on booze and tranquillisers out to perform. Needy and neurotic, she got married for the fifth time to bartender Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) in London, but he turns out to be just another dud man trying to use her. Every now and then this dour and predictable downward spiral is spiked by flashbacks to her teenage years where she’s played by Darci Shaw. And as if to explain everything, they contain the now obligatory nods to #MeToo. MGM’s boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) treated her appallingly – his studio minions feeding her uppers to keep her skinny and hard-working, and downers to help her sleep – all in order to extract most of out their talented “commodity.” At one stage he touches her upper chest. True, Garland did later claim that he had groped her, but that she had brushed him off, and she continued to talk well of him after he died. Missing in this section is any reference to her powerful domineering mother, who (Google research again) was utterly loathsome. But then a fuller portrait of Garland’s incredibly complicated real life would mess with Judy’s simplistically reductive vision of female victimisation.

Jessie Buckley (centre right) plays her more sympathetic minder in London, but shows none of the fiery vibrancy of her previous breakout roles in Beast and Wild Rose. That’s probably the fault of the script, but she’s wasted here, and curiously flat. And sadly, despite Zellweger’s full-bore commitment, so is Judy. CTC from Oct 17. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton Street, Central and Dendy Newtown. ★★★

Worth a look: Strange But True

Maybe you’re trying to pick where you’ve seen rising star Margaret Quailley before (below)? So, she was “Pussycat” from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the hippie girl who tried to seduce the Brad Pitt character with a generous display of armpit hair (Spoiler alert: He resisted).

She doesn’t get up to anything quite so peculiar in Rowan Athale’s melodramatic mystery thriller (adapted from a John Searles novel), though you could say – turning up at her dead boyfriend Ronnie’s home five years after he was killed in the car accident she was complicit in and claiming to now be pregnant with his child – is pretty damn strange… She’s Melissa, and Ronnie’s mum Charlene (Amy Ryan) is definitely not happy to see either her or that protruding belly. Her son’s tragic death ruined her family – her surgeon hubby Richard (Greg Kinnear) abandoned ship and its pretty clear she’s never recovered. Despite younger son Phillip (Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson) seriously entertaining the idea of some sort of delayed paternity, Charlene goes ballistic and throws her out.

But the seeds of doubt have been planted, and gradually she starts to soften. Could it be some sort of miracle? Posthumous sperm collection? Did Richard, a surgeon who was on emergency ward duty the night Ronnie died facilitate that? Something occult? Whatever, Charlene seizes on the hope that Melissa, who swears the baby can only be Ronnie’s, just might be right – that her mysterious condition is some sort of blessing and that a new life could become an antidote to half a decade of grief.

The first two acts of the film, before it inevitably starts to turn far darker, are the strongest – especially as flashbacks to the night in question slowly reveal everyone has something to hide. Those tensions and familial dynamics feel real – aided by the acting chops of that stellar cast. But by the time a couple of other A-listers Blythe Danner and Brian Cox (so brilliant in Succession) as Melissa’s benevolent godparents begin to play a bigger part in the mystery, the illogical twists and turns of this tale have taken their toll. And what was once a freshly original domestic thriller turns both conventional and just a bit silly. Still, before that happens, Strange But True’s long suspenseful setup, fine performances from its powerhouse cast and haunting atmospherics do produce a dark and constantly-intriguing adult drama – one well worth checking out. M from Oct 17. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown. ★★★ 1/2

Reviews – Russell Edwards