Local cinemas this week

An under-rated literary biopic, a movie to raise your glasses to, and one to avoid

Mary Shelley

Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadja (about a young girl desperate to own a bicycle she’s forbidden to ride) caused quite a stir back in 2012, with critics worldwide heaping praise on the first feminist work to come out of the deeply conservative Kingdom. They’ve been less kind to her follow-up – a far more ambitious film which examines how at age 18 Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein. Its low Rotten Tomatoes score may put some off, but don’t let it. There’s plenty of meat in this fascinating story, and Elle Fanning, just 17 herself when the film was shot, plays Mary with an acute intelligence way beyond her years. Besides, those convinced that all men are either devious and controlling, or pompous and overbearing (sensitive poets and progressive writers included – especially them!) will find plenty of evidence here to back them up.

Mary wasn’t even able to get her book published under her own name at first – nobody then believed an 18 year girl was capable of writing anything of merit, at least on her own. Even her dad William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), himself supposedly a free-thinking radical bookseller and publisher – was less than supportive. Earlier at only 16, the bookish and talented Mary had fallen hard for the dashingly romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (a suitably pretty Douglas Booth), and who wouldn’t – he who looks like a poster boy from the Twilight movies. After consummating their passion on the gravestone of her dead mother (as you do!) they ran off together – Percy carelessly abandoning his existing young wife and child. For some reason Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) tags along – into a world of free-love and “enlightened” promiscuity unencumbered by boring notions like honesty and fidelity. Which, as in our more recent progressive times, happens to suit men just fine… Meanwhile Claire, a bit of a wild child, has it off with Percy and takes up with Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), though really she’s little more than a groupie to the glam superstar writer. Dispossessed by her father, and often broke (even then poets didn’t make any money), Mary soon learns about the bleaker side to being “free”, especially as contraception wasn’t available and child mortality rates were high.

On one of this bohemian groups’ wild sojourns at Byron’s Geneva villa, Mary first came up with the idea for her classic gothic horror masterpiece. Al Mansour’s intelligent reappraisal of this short period in her life has more depth than many reviewers have recognised – her argument being that Mary twisted all her own passion and disappointed heartbreak into the lonely, misunderstood and beleaguered “monster” that her own society had created –  a mythical creature whose legacy has endured to this day. Its the sort of film which will prompt lots of googling, for there’s plenty more to learn about these tumultuous times in the talented young writer’s life. “One day Mary will write a work that will surpass us all,” Percy at least had the good sense to recognise. And how right he was. PG from July 5. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St and Palace Central ★★★★

Back to Burgundy

Cédric Klapisch’s Back to Burgundy is tailor-made for modern arthouse cinemas – at least the profitable bits of them that sell you upscale plonk at super-upscale prices. The luscious scenery in this French film about a squabbling family of vintners is enough to convince even teetotallers (and dedicated beer-drinkers like me) to take two glasses of pinot-noir into the cinema, or at least order a double sized serve. And guess what – Palace are offering a “two glasses for the price of one” special deal with tickets to this movie – now who would have thunk it…

It’s certainly an lovely film to look at, but the family drama, while diverting enough, is not so convincing. It centres around 30-something Jean’s (Pio Marmaï) out-of-the-blue return to his family estate after a ten year absence in the wake of his father’s death. He was once the natural heir, though he left because his dad was a bit of a dick. Fair enough but its not explained why he has had no contact with his two younger siblings Jérémie (François Civil) and Juliette (Ana Girardot) who’ve been running the farm ever since. Not even to tell them he’s now married, has a son and owns a vineyard in Australia, apparently… Maybe we don’t have Skype or the internet in Australia? (Er, no, we do). It’s strange too that adults who grew up on a big successful farm would be completely ignorant of basic agricultural economics. Or not have planned for France’s inheritance tax laws (though phew, at least we don’t have them down here!)  So the division and future of the estate, a problem compounded by fact that Jean’s down-under venture isn’t travelling too well and neither is his marriage, sets up the fairly low-key drama that follows – with a few minor sidesteps into other aspects of everyone’s personal lives.

But what’s Australia got to offer that these vine-covered valleys in one of the most beautiful bits of France don’t have in gorgeous abundance? Not much, apparently (the short Australian scenes were shot in Spain, btw) – the Buorgogne region’s hills and the French wine-making lifestyle look just as seductive in the sparkling harvest season as they do in Autumn, Winter and Spring – for yes, that’s how long Jean takes deciding what to do. And how was his shaky Aussie operation doing in all that time? (Hmm, dunno…) But by the time those two glasses (maybe three, why not? Go on…) have been emptied, few drinkers (I mean viewers) will even notice that the boilerplate plot they’ve sat through may have been just a bit on the nose. M from July 5.  Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central, and Dendy Newtown ★★★

ps. Please remember to return your glasses to the bar.

Also opening locally this week

It’s fantastic news that Stan have financially backed an Aussie movie (they should, for unlike Netflix and Amazon, the Fairfax/Nine owned streamer is an Aussie company). Not so great that The Second  (now screening exclusively at Palace Cinemas for two weeks before its Stan debut) is another in the long list of local disappointments that will only convince movie-goers once again they’ve been right to steer clear of Aussie features at the cinema (if Swinging Safari left anyone prepared to go to one ever again, that is). Not helped at all by the wooden dialogue, curiously stilted performances from Rachael Blake and Susie Porter and an unintentionally hilarious one from Vince Colosimo. It’s about a writer of  supposedly “steamy” sexy thrillers (Blake), framed by a story within a story which harks back to an older story (how very arthouse), all of which are at first utterly baffling and then finally absurd. The most confusing thing is why it was made at all. MA15+ at Palace Norton St and Palace Central 

Also – Ant-Man and the Wasp (everywhere, unpreviewed).

Reviews – Russell Edwards