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Film Reviews March 2009

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SIGNIS REVIEWS, March 2009


AMERICAN TEEN
BURNING PLAIN, The
CADILLAC RECORDS
CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC, The
CREW, The
FLAME AND CITRON
FRANKLYN
FRIDAY 13TH
GRAN TORINO
HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU
HOTEL FOR DOGS
INTERNATIONAL, The
NEW IN TOWN
NOTORIOUS
PINK PANTHER 2, The
PUSH
REVERB
UNBORN, The
UNINVITED, The
WATCHMEN
WENDY AND LUCY
YOUNG VICTORIA, The






HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU
(US, 2009, d. Ken Kwapis)
Friendsish, so to speak.
For many years (and through constant repeats), Friends has made quite an impact on the viewing public. The week-in, week-out activities of a group of 30-somethings, their friendships, their relationships, their work, their careers, families, all presented in a pleasantly glossy style, with some farce, some comedy and some quips, has become a way of communicating the details of lives, both serious and trivial, from the screen. Sex and the City derives from this approach. And this film takes its title and its chapter headings from Sex and the City and Jennifer Aniston is in it, so a constant reminder of Friends.
If the anguishes and the falling in and out of love of this particular American demographic holds a special appeal, then this film provides plenty of it, running over two hours.
But, while the situations might be important to the characters, are their personalities interesting enough to stay with them and has the film been made in the semi-blandly engaging television style? The personalities, of course, some yes, some no. The style is, yes, big screen TV style.
And the characters? Jennifer Connolly is very strong and makes her story worthwhile. She has a two-timing husband who professes love and even confesses to her and, while she is definitely a controller, the experience is hard for her. She works in an office with Ginnifer Goodwin who is, more or less, the central character. She is ingenuous, over-eager and sometimes quite irritating as she tries to sustain a relationship, especially with a real estate agent (Kevin Connolly) who is really in love with Scarlett Johansson (who seems to be becoming less and less impressive each film she makes). But, she is the object of the two-timing husband's affair. In the meantime, Jennifer Aniston, who also works in the office, would really like to marry her partner of seven years (Ben Affleck who, after directing the excellent Gone, Baby, Gone, has unwisely gone in front of the camera again). He doesn't. Oh, there are two more characters. Justin Long does quite a good job as the bar managing confidant who has all kinds of detached advice without realising he has fallen in love. And Drew Barrymore, taken in by an on-line Lothario, is a plain Jane who is also on the lookout for love.
So, there you are – if you want to enjoy another American romcom. Otherwise you may just not be into this kind of film.

HOTEL FOR DOGS
(US, 2008, d. Thor Freudenthal)
In the US cinema world at least, 2008 was the year of the dog. Audiences could check out a pampered Beverly Hills Chihuahua on the loose in Mexico or the adventures of television series, Bolt, or stay with a family and its dog in Marley and Me. And, Hotel for Dogs.
Emma Roberts and Jake Austen are two orphans, that Hollywood blend of the cute and the exasperating. The one who gets most exasperated is Don Cheadle as their social welfare officer trying to place them with foster parents. The latest foster parents are two out of date wannabe hippy musicians (that flatters them as far as 'music' goes), Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon.
The youngsters have a pet dog whom they conceal from the foster parents – which gets them into trouble with dog catchers. If you are still with this, the main action is that the strays of the city (and there are lots) are taken into a vacated, dilapidated hotel and the orphans (register and all) look after the dogs (with the help of some possessions and fittings purloined from the foster parents).
Well, you can't hide a hotel load of dogs for too long – something's gotta give. Actually, the sequences of the dogs, freed from the pound and racing through the city, are worth watching, giving non-dog-lovers a bit of unexpected excitement. But, since this film was made for kids and those who do love dogs, then the whole thing is a fantasy treat – although the sentiment factor is high and the pampering of the dogs in the remodelled hotel is too... But, it's only a fantasy..., isn't it?

THE INTERNATIONAL
(Germany/US/UK, d. Tom Tykwer)
If you are on the lookout for an intelligent thriller, well-paced, with discussions about issues and ideas, interspersed with some action, then The International can straight on to the list. If you are looking for the slambang side of things, then forget it. Actually, some audiences expressed disappointment in it because the ads led them to believe that this was some gung-ho kind of show.
Tom Tykwer emerged in the late 1990s as a director to look forward to, especially because of his Run, Lola, Run, where the brief action was repeated in three different ways, from three different points of view. He has not made many films though one of his was Heaven, with Cate Blanchett, based on a screenplay by Kzrysztof Kieslowski. Now he has made an international film, drawing on German technical skills, a cast from a large number of countries and location work all over the world.
One thing to note is the impressive photography, not just of characters interacting or action shots but the striking images of several cities, a lot of aerial shots, immersing the audience in the look and the ambience of each city so that the city becomes more than a location but an atmosphere. This is true of Berlin in the first part of the film, a murder outside the new main station. The headquarters of Interpol are in Lyon. There is an assassination outside one of the grand buildings of Milan. The international headquarters of the rogue bank in the film, its glass-fronted office buildings, are in Luxembourg. There is a pursuit of a killer through the streets of New York culminating in a spectacular shoot-out in the Simon Guggenheim gallery and, finally, a killing on the rooftops of Istanbul with magnificent views of the city in the background. This is striking international filming.
The plot itself is more than topical during credit crunch and bank collapsing days. In fact, it is based on episodes in the 1980s with a corrupt banker in Pakistan.
Here, the international bank, with its ruthless head (Ulrich Thomsen), its criminally-minded advisers (led by Armin Muehler Stuhl) and its assassin on the payroll (Brian F. O'Byrne) is based in Luxembourg. It is not interested so much in money and holdings as being an agent for arms deals. And, as is explained, arms deals mean control of countries who buy them and control of their debt. In these days of bank collapses and government bail-outs that gives audiences a lot to think about – and suspicions of what the heavily-bonused officials are up to.
When an FBI agent and an informer are killed, relentless Interpol agent Louis Salinger (an intensely convincing Clive Owen) follows up with the help of a New York DA (Naomi Watts), grabbing at, travelling far and wide to bring the truth to light. The various worlds they get mixed up in are murky and there is the perennial questions about whether the law is able to achieve justice or not. The final moments bring this home very effectively on the rooves of Istanbul.
A good thriller with something to say.

NEW IN TOWN
(US, 2009, d. Jonas Elmer)
Lightly likable.
A combination of romantic comedy conventions with a story of little people, the downsizing in the work force, challenging the moneyed bosses – something for a time of recession and credit crunch (although the film was produced before the current crisis).
Film buffs might say it is 'NeoCapraesque', a modern variation on the themes that Frank Capra made so popular in the 1930s (Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Mr Smith Goes to Washington as well as his post-war classic, It's a Wonderful Life). It is often said that Capra is unduly optimistic but, looking at his films again, one sees the tough reality underlying the hope and the realisation that people and their livelihoods could be destroyed. And 2009 is seeing it again.
This slight comedy drama is no classic. In fact, it received some very hostile reviews on its American release. One wonders why until the locals in Grand Ulm, Minnesota, appear with the folksy ways, their characteristic accents (which Fargo fans will recognise) and their simple solutions, especially bringing Jesus-talk into their conversation. They represent mid-west lifestyles and values that are considered too conservative by East Coast and West Coast commentators. The character played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Blanche, says as much towards the end of the film. Because the audience is meant to get to know these people and like them might irk a cosmopolitan critic.
The story is, in fact, the old one. Boards in Miami decide the New Ulm plant has to change or go. The executive charged with the mission of venturing into the cold and snowy state is city slicker, Lucy, ambitious to become a CEO (Renee Zellwegger). Sometimes she does well. At other times she more than puts her foot in it, especially concerning widower Ted (Harry Connick Jr) who is the union rep. Stu (J.K. Simmons) is the supervisor and Blanche is Lucy's assistant.
Plenty of nice scenes of meals, Christmas carols and Lucy helping Ted's daughter to get ready for a date. Plenty of factory scenes, especially when the plant has to be closed and the workers fight back. Plenty of ruthless business moves by callous executives.
Now this might take some believing, but the solution to all the problems is Blanche's secret tapioca recipe. You have never heard so many references to tapioca in any other film.
Familiar material but now quite topical.

NOTORIOUS
(US, 2008, d. George Tillman Jr.)
You need to be a strong rap fan, even familiar with the 1990s history of rap on the US East Coast and the clash with the West Coast and the personalities, Tupac Shakur, and Sean Combs but, especially Chris Wallace who became the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls Otherwise it is all foreign territory, idiosyncratic music and rhythms, frank and often ugly lyrics which are both streetwise and street foolish.
Though it looks modern with much MTV visual and editing style with a high rap atmosphere, this is really, underneath, an old-fashioned biopic.
It opens with Small's death, uses his voiceover to tell his (short, dead at 24) life, back to Brooklyn, back to his staunch mother (a welcome Angela Bassett), his absent father, his school days and friends as well as ridicule because he was fat. (And in these sequences he is played by Wallace's own son). His adolescent years meant showing he was smart though the butt of teachers, that he dealt drugs and was in police trouble.
It shows his skill at rap lyrics, his growing popularity, concerts, fans, his becoming (literally at the end) too big for his boots. He has tantrums, is promiscuous and neglectful of his daughter.
He is caught up in the East Coast/West Coast contrived row with Tupac Shakur who is also shot to death. Smalls is later wounded but takes a change of musical pace and finds some remorse and peace, as well as a violent death.
The trappings are different and the film has been produced by Sean Combs (who comes out of it smelling like roses) but it is the same story as so many others. Jamal Woolard does a solid impersonation of B.I.G. And, that's it.

THE PINK PANTHER 2
(US, 2009, d. Harald Zwart)
Peter Sellers is Inspector Clouseau forever. Alan Arkin had a fling at the role in the 1960s. This is Steve Martin's second outing. The first did not particularly appeal.
Steve Martin has been re-making classics, re-doing Spencer Tracy as Father of the Bride and re-doing Clifton Webb in updated Cheaper by the Dozen movies. What he does as Inspector Clouseau is not create a character (which Peter Sellers did in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark) but make his presence felt in bumbling pomposity, slapstick and continued mugging (not that Peter Sellers did not mug in the later Pink Panther films),
So, for older fans, Steve Martin could be a liability. For those not so familiar with Peter Sellers, Stave Martin has become Inspector Clouseau.
That said, Pink Panther 2 is a far funnier experience than might have been expected. The sight gags should raise some laughs and there are some witty lines. The cast helps a great deal. John Cleese does his thing as Inspector Dreyfuss and gets more screen time than he has had in more recent times. There are returners from the firs film. Jean Reno plays straight man to Clouseau and Emily Mortimer is the bespectacled librarian in love with Clouseau. The detective dream team is good with Andy Garcia as a suave Italian, Alfred Molina very British and Yuki Matsuzaki very Japanese. Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai arrives as an expert on crime. Clouseau is anything but politically correct concerning women, flirting and harassment and racial respect. So Lily Tomlin has some amusing scenes where she tries to educate Clouseau.
And who should turn up as a suave villain but Jeremy Irons, along with singer Johnny Hallyday?
The animated credits and Henry Mancini's familiar theme are, as always, welcome.

PUSH
(US, 2009, d. Paul McGuigan)
The X Men films, The Matrix films and Asian martial arts films have all had their influence on trends in action shows as well as offering some kind of broadly mystical atmosphere. This is definitely the case with Push, one of those science-fiction fantasies that draws on all kinds of other films and does not quite make it to the level of itself being a film that will have an influence. For one thing, it is not always so easy to follow and with an assortment of characters who spend a lot of time chasing each other and employing different powers to elude capture, nodding off could be a comprehension hasard (although one of the Hong Kong agents has the power of squealing/screaming to burst eardrums).
What makes it more complicated to follow is that some of the powers are contradictory. Some people can see the future. Others can implant imagination and false memories, so one has to be alert as to what might be happening to the hero (Chris Evans) who is in love with a woman who seems to be the victim of the organisation that is experimenting with these powers (Camilla Belle) but who may also be an agent who willingly submitted to experiments. (Come to think of it, this is quite like the plot of the film, Cypher, with Jeremy Northam). Then there is a young girl (Dakota Fanning) who can see some of the future and draws it (not very artistically) and who is being pursued by Chinese agents and a boss (Djimon Housou).
That was an attempt to clarify – but it may not do the trick!
Otherwise, most of the action is set in Hong Kong and the actors do their best and the special effects team have a field day.

REVERB
(UK, 2008, d. Eitan Arrusi)
There are ominous indications during the credits that this is going to be a slasher/horror film. However, it soon settles into a seemingly normal story of two people who work in a call centre and who have a past association with friends in a band which has now broken up. One of the friends does a favour and lets them go into a studio building over night so that Alex (Leo Gregory), the band leader, hopes to put down a track which will revive his inspiration and career. He goes with his friend, Maddy (a vigorous Eva Birthistle). While the situation has a touch of the eerie, it seems ordinary enough (despite bumps in the night).
However, the horror conventions begin to infiltrate, strange sounds in recordings, cries for help, incantations. Then Alex has some hallucinatory experiences and Maddy fears that there is going to be blood.
It helps if you have been in a recording studio and understand how some of the equipment works. (EMI Music participated in production.)
Writer-director, Eitan Arrusi, takes his plotline from those suspicions of the past (and present?): that there are evil words hidden in some recordings, evil power, and that satanic messages can be heard when a song is played backwards. He creates a strange musician from the 1970s, showing him in a grim video that he made at the time, with part of a track, The Blood Room, which was meant to be played with the video. There is talk of dabbling in the occult and that old story of finding immortality after selling one's soul to live on in the music. Has the musician returned? Is he taking possession of Alex? How dangerous will this be for Maddy and two other friends who help out?
The film keeps its atmosphere, increasing the tension and using the conventions of this kind of horror to some chilling effect.

A SHORT STAY IN SWITZERLAND
(UK, 2009, d. Simon Curtis)
Dr Anne Tucker made headlines (and television news and documentaries) when she opted for assisted suicide at the Dignitas Centre in Zurich, an institution able to function under Swiss law but which is an option of last resort for those who come from countries which could prosecute them for such action.
This then is a drama that puts before its audience intellectual and emotional arguments in favour of and against assisted suicide (a theme taken up in the feature films, Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, both 2004). Clearly, those who hold strong opinions either way will not be swayed by the film. One thing to note, however, is that while print and radio are media where it is possible to present rational argument with some clarity and force, film and television, being visual and narrative media, are much stronger in presenting emotional argument.
Julie Walters, who can show her wilder side on screen – just think of her obstreperous performance in Mamma Mia – can also do serious very well indeed (as she did with Mary Whitehouse in Filth). This is one of her best performances, often very still and quiet so that the audience has the chance to ponder what has happened to her and what she is thinking and feeling.
Dr Tucker's husband died of the same disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, a debilitating disease that almost completely restricted communication. Dr Tucker was a business-like professional of the no-nonsense variety so, when she foresaw here situation, she decided to act. Her children had very mixed feelings. This makes for the drama, for and against what she did. The repercussions for the family in facing a death, in facing this kind of choice, are brought to the fore even though her children finally and for one, rather unwillingly, acquiesced in their mother's decision and went to Zurich with her.
In any moral issue, it is important to have the real-life dimensions in all their contradictions as part of the process of discernment and moral decision, otherwise it is a cold text-book exercise that can be easily solved like an equation, quick rational principles and answers for the problematic rather than a holistic approach where the rational interacts with the emotional that gives not just a solution but also a 'pastoral' agenda for all involved.

THE UNBORN
(US, 2009, d. David S. Goyer)
A small horror film where the heroine, Casey (Odette Yustman) spends a lot of time dreaming, the dreams being terrifying premonitions about what might happen to her, especially from a seemingly diabolical child, ghostly, as well as creatures that come out of walls to creep all over her. She also has 'episodes' (probably the best word) where faces appear in cabinets and horrors appear even when she is awake. She spends a lot of the film's time wondering what they mean, talking things over (especially via computer at night) with her best friend (Meagan Good) as well as with her boyfriend (Cam Gigandet). When a real little boy starts saying the same threatening words and one of her irises changes colour, it is time for some professional help, especially when the optician asks whether she is a twin.
Of course, she is. Her brother died in the womb. Now there are messages that he wants to be born. So much, so familiar enough.
What makes this film different and worth some attention is the Jewish background and foreground that David S. Goyer (who wrote the Blade movies and contributed to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) elaborates. Firstly, our heroine is linked maternally to experiments on twins in Auschwitz. Secondly, the mystery woman in articles that were in her mother's box is her grandmother and was part of these experiments. As played by Jane Alexander, she is a dignified woman who wakes and recites her morning prayer. And the mythology that Goyer draws on is that of the Dybbuk, the Evil spirit that moves from person to person in its malevolence.
Which brings us to the last twenty minutes or more which is an exorcism. Gary Oldman plays a rabbi who is investigating the myth of the dog with upturned head (appearing in Casey's dreams as well as madly pursuing the grandmother through an institution for the elderly). He is also translating a ritual for exorcism. The ritual itself is explained in terms of the symbolic number ten and other Jewish tenets (which may or not be accurate and need scholarly checking since they could be mere Hollywood inventions – which often happens when Catholic rituals are allegedly portrayed). There is talk of inter-faith collaboration because the evil is said to pre-date religions, so the rabbi and a Protestant priest conduct the ceremony (filmed in an old institution where the stained glass images are Catholic).
It is only an average film and horror fans have complained that it is not scary enough. And, if there is a sequel, will it be called The Unborn-again!

THE UNINVITED
(US, 2009, d. The Guard Brothers)
A rather neat little thriller, not in the chatty sense of neat meaning pretty good, although it is that, but neat in the sense that there are clues as to what is going on for those on the alert and they all come together very neatly by the final credits, no loose ends. It is a streamlined adaptation of a more elaborate Korean film, Two Sisters.
Anna, the teenage daughter of a successful writer (David Strathairn) has frightening dreams. She discusses them with her therapist at the institution where she has lived since the tragic death in a fire of her invalid mother. She is ready now to go back home. She finds her sister, Alex, and Rachel, the nurse who was employed to look after her mother and who now seems to be in charge of the house and has plans to marry her father.
Anna seems to settle in though she has some strange dreams and some accompanying odd behaviour. But, it is clear that she and her sister dislike Rachel intensely and are intent on unmasking her. Rachel seems nice but has her unpleasant moments with the girls. A young man who had made some advances on Anna at a beach party confides in her that he knows what really happened on the night of her mother's death.
The film moves quite briskly and is not overlong. The father is bewildered. The sister works in tandem with Anna to gain back the situation from Rachel. Rachel is shaping up as the wicked stepmother.
There is a twist which most, including the reviewer, did not see coming. And, as has been said, by the credits we realise that all the plot elements and clues have been explained.
The credibility of the plot depends on the performances of Emily Browning as the emotionally fragile Anna and Elizabeth Banks (appearing in many films these days) as Rachel. They are both effective and, in retrospect, so is the film and its mystery.

WATCHMEN
(US, 2009, d. Zack Snyder)
There are two main approaches to reviewing a film version of a graphic novel, especially one that has developed a cult following for almost a quarter of a century, as has Watchmen. Firstly, there will be the reviews by the fans, those who know the original so well that they have visualised the films themselves and will be eager to see how accurate the film version is or how well the makers have interpreted the content and characters as well as finding visual parallels to the book. Then there will be the reviews by those who may not be familiar at all with the original but who have an appreciation of films and have built up an experience of film versions of graphic novels. The first kind of review can be found on the Internet Movie Data Base and, prolifically, on the blogs and interactive sites. The second kind of review will come from the critics in the public media, in print, on air, on screen or in cyberspace. This review will be of the latter kind.
I found Watchmen most impressive.
Whether it does justice to the original material, created by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore (1986-7), I don't know. But, as a film, despite its 160 minutes, it is never less than interesting. It almost goes without saying (so that is why it is being said here) that this is not a film for the wider audience who might be puzzled by its style, by the conventions of the graphic novel, by the intricacy of the plot. Obviously, some audiences will find the visual violence (far less than I would have expected) too much for them. Despite the hype and marketing, this is a specialist film.
The opening certainly gets the attention. One of the superheroes. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is attacked in his apartment by a human or humanoid with superhuman strength and is killed. The voiceover commentary, which recurs at key times, comes from the diary of another, very bizarre, member of the group which began in the 1940s as The Minutemen, and, after saving lives and other heroics (some of which were of a dubious moral and political nature) have retired. This is Dr Rorschach whose bandage-like mask has continually moving and altering blots. Jackie Earle Haley is frighteningly effective with and without the mask. Dr Rorschach begins investigating the murder and other attempts on the Watchmen.
Then come the credits, with a fascinating visual trek through mid-20th century American history, from the end of the war, through Vietnam, Cuban crisis, JFK and his assassination and the election of Richard Nixon. It is now 1985 as we move into a parallel world where Nixon has been elected for a third term and is involved in a nuclear standoff with Russia (Henry Kissinger prominent as his adviser). Once we make the switch to the other world with this alteration of history and the murder of The Comedian, we are ready to move with whatever happens, believable or not, in the drama that unfolds.
While there is a thread concerning the five minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock (moving to four minutes to twelve), the film is episodic insofar as it focuses in turn on the Watchmen group and gives us the back stories of their heroism (or not) which suggests that victory in Vietnam, Watergate, All the President's Men and other events may have had more sinister implications. Ultimately, this leads to a nuclear confrontation and an insanely intelligent mastermind who feels that the only way to peace is by the sacrifice of millions lives in a nuclear holocaust.
In entering into an alternate world, the audience definitely has to suspend disbelief.
In the back stories, The Comedian does not come out very well though he has an opportunity to see the malice of his ways. Most interesting is the story of Dr Manhattan, a mutant creature with foreknowledge of his own life, not others, who was the victim of an accident in a reactor in 1959. This sends us back to a nice era with some nice people, especially Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), who becomes Dr Manhattan, a well-known public figure who becomes the scapegoat of the villain. He loves Laurie Jupiter, once Silk Spectre II, his assistant but is impeded by his work and his sense of doom. (Her mother, Silk Spectre I is now a retired alcoholic, somewhat cynical, veteran of the old days (Carla Gugino).) Laurie also relies on Dan, formerly Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) who has retired but has inherited enough money to continue his engineering of super-vehicles (in a Bruce Wayne kind of way). Dan and Laurie really would like to go into action again and do so, rescuing people from a burning building and getting Dr Rorschach out of prison after he is framed for murder. The prison scenes have most of the violence.
The other member of the group, who has gone public and is feted by the media, is Adrian Veidt, once Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), wealthy and the owner of many companies.
Director Zack Snyder made an impact in 2007 with 300, not so much for plot and performance (it was more than a bit silly in its re-creation of the battle of Thermopolae where the Spartans resisted the Persians), but rather with the graphic novel visuals. They were strikingly real and stylised. This is true here but this time the realism in look is to the fore – which makes some of the graphic sequences and visuals even more impressive. With these two films, whether Watchmen is a commercial success or not, Snyder's films will be studied and written about because of their cinema style.

WENDY AND LUCY
(US, 2008, d. Kelly Reichhardt)
Wendy and Lucy is a brief portrait of a young woman travelling from Indiana to Alaska for a summer job who is stranded in Oregon with her dog, has some bad experiences for a couple of days, and then moves on.
Audiences who relish films that emphasise art and craft over flair and effects will welcome this very plain film. It is quite unfussy. It is quite unhurried. It relies on audiences being interested in Wendy (and it should be mentioned at once that Lucy is her dog). It is a slice of life presented in minimalist style.
One of the difficulties with this kind of minimalist film-making is that the director must ensure that the audience is really interested in the character and appreciates events and situations. Michelle Williams is quietly effective as Wendy. A supporting cast of character actors make the situations seem real (although Wendy's momentary attempt at shoplifting when she did have some money raises some dramatic questions about her behaviour and motivation). There is a security guard who moves her on out of the supermarket parking lot but is kindly later. A very proper young man demands prosecution because of the shoplifting. A mechanic (Will Patton) explains why Wendy's car has broken down.
But, many audiences will find they have minimal interest in Wendy and her experiences which the even-paced minimalist style will not increase. With all the best will in the world, and admiring the skills brought to the film-making, this was the experience of this reviewer.

THE YOUNG VICTORIA
(UK, 2009, d. Jean-Marc? Vallee)
Here is a worthwhile period drama and glance back at English heritage. It has beautiful and regal settings (including the interiors for Buckingham Palace), attractive locations, lots of regency costumes and everything to delight audiences who relish the look of a film. But, it has a lot more for those whose appreciation of detail is more 'big picture' and cursory. It takes us back to the late 1830s and someone we have rarely met or even know about, the young Victoria.
The film also has the advantage of a solid performance by Emily Blunt who takes us inside the mind and feelings of the young princess and the young queen. She is nicely matched by Rupert Friend as Prince Albert (after his somewhat wooden performance as the effete hero of Stephen Frears' Belle Epoque film, Cheri), bringing him alive as a person and not merely a consort let alone the person who lingered for forty years as a memory in Victoria's life. And the fine acting extends to the supporting roles, Paul Bettany as a youngish Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (the actor being almost twenty years younger than Melbourne was at the time), Miranda Richardson as Victoria's dominating mother and Mark Strong as her Svengali-like companion, the ambitious Sir John Conroy who plotted for Victoria's signing an agreement for a regency by her mother. She didn't sign and William IV dies just after she turned 18 and she assumed the throne.
Jim Broadbent does a very interesting cameo as William IV and Harriet Walter is Queen Adelaide who seems to have given Victoria better advice than her mother.
The literate and historically grounded screenplay is by actor and writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Separate Lies) and the director is Canadian, Jean-Marc? Vallee (CRAZY).
The film-making background is quite impressive – and, at 95 minutes, the film is not likely to outlast its welcome.
So, what is it telling us about this Young Victoria?
The first thing is that she was so protected from real life as she grew up that it is difficult to know what her true personality was at that time. She could not go anywhere in the house unaccompanied. She had little social life. She was not allowed to read novels until she was 16 (and read Sir Walter Scott). She was the victim of a life of observing protocols.
Apart from her grief in losing her father when young,she did not rate so highly in her mother's affections, despite protestations on the part of her mother that she did. Her mother was under the control of Sir John Conroy who was determined that Victoria should sign a concession to regency document before she turned 18, allowing her mother to rule (and Conroy to rule her). Whatever it was in Victoria, she refused to sign.
Another issue was her marriage. With the family interconnections amongst the 19th century rulers of Europe, there was always an eager eye for a profitable arranged marriage. Leopold of Belgium features largely in the film, eager for a marriage that would supply him with British support should he experience trouble. This was made known to a cousin in the Saxe-Coburg? family, Albert.
When Albert visited Victoria, they became friends, he a perfect gentleman and she an independent but susceptible young woman. The film suggests at least affection at first sight but the love gradually grew through correspondence and Victoria's difficulties in the first years of her reign, over-reliance on Melbourne, a clash with Prime Minister, Robert Peel, the management of her household and some unpopularity with the people.
The film makes the relationship between Victoria and Albert something of a tender blossoming of love, shared interests (although a clash when Albert felt that he was being sidelined in affairs of state and Victoria treated him with a heavy hand followed by reconciliation) and the final information about their 20 years' marriage, their children, Albert's death and the queen's devotion.
Obviously, Victoria was able to develop a personality and a character.


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