“EMMA” (2020) Review

“EMMA” (2020) Review

Between 2009 and 2020, Hollywood and the British film/television industries had created a handful of productions that either spoofed or were inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, I can only recall one movie that was more or less a straightforward adaptation – 2016’s “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, an adaptation of Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan”. So imagine my surprise when I learned a new and straightforward adaptation of an Austen novel hit the movie theaters back in February 2020.

I had been even more thrilled that this new movie turned out to be a straightforward adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma” . . . which happened to be my favorite written by her. This 2020 adaptation, helmed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, starred Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. I am certain that many Austen fans are familiar with the 1815 novel’s narrative. “EMMA” is the story of a spoiled and over privileged young Englishwoman named Emma Woodhouse, who resides at her wealthy father’s country estate near the town of Highbury. Emma is not only spoiled and over privileged, but overestimates her own matchmaking abilities and is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives.

Ever since its release last year, film critics and moviegoers had been praising “EMMA” to the skies. In fact, the movie was so high on the critical list that I was surprised it failed to end up receiving major film award nominations during the 2020/2021 award season. A great deal of this praise was focused on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn for his portrayal of George Knightley, Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse; and Autumn de Wilde’s direction. Does the movie deserve such high praise? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I certainly cannot deny that “EMMA” is a beautiful looking film. I found Christopher Blauvelt’s photography to be very sharp and colorful. In fact, the film’s color palette almost seemed similar to the color schemes found in Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs. Overall, the visual style for “EMMA” seemed to radiate strong and bright colors with a dash of pastels. Very stylized. But as much as I found all of this eye catching, I also found myself a little put off by this stylized artistry – especially for a movie in a period rural setting.

Speaking of artistry, there had been a great deal of praise for Byrne’s costumes. And I can see why. Granted, I am not fond of some of the pastel color schemes. I cannot deny I found her creations – especially those for the movie’s women characters – were eye catching, as shown below:

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I had a few complaints regarding the film’s costumes and hairstyles. The men’s trousers struck me as a little too baggy for the 1810s. I get it. Actors like Bill Nighy found historical trousers a bit tight. But I feel the trousers featured in “EMMA” struck me as a bit too comfortable looking from a visual viewpoint. And then there was the hairstyle used by Anya Taylor-Joy in the film. For some reason, I found her side curls a bit too long and rather frizzy looking. Instead of the mid-1810s, her hairstyle struck me as an example of hairstyles worn by women during the early-to-mid 1840s.

Someone had claimed that “EMMA” was a very faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. Was it? Frankly, I thought it was no more or less faithful than any of the costumed versions. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton followed the major beats of Austen’s novel, except for one scene – namely the Crown Inn ball. I will discuss that later. The movie also did an excellent job in capturing the comic nature of Austen’s novel. This was apparent in nearly every scene featuring Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse. I also enjoyed those scenes featuring the introduction of Augusta Elton, Emma’s reactions to Jane Fairfax and her attempts to play matchmaker for Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. But the movie also featured some good dramatic moments, thanks to De Wilde’s direction and the film’s cast. I am speaking of the scenes that featured Mr. Knightley’s scolding of Emma for her rudeness towards the impoverished Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic; Mr. Knightley’s marriage proposal and the revelation of Harriet’s engagement to tenant farmer Robert Martin.

“EMMA” had received a great deal of acclaim from film critics, moviegoers and Jane Austen fans. Many had claimed it as the best adaptation of the 1815 novel. Do I feel the same? No. No, I do not. In fact, out of the five film and television adaptations I have seen, I would probably rank it at number four. Perhaps I had very high expectations of this movie. It is an adaptation of my favorite Austen novel. And it is the first straightforward Austen adaptation since the 2009 television miniseries of same novel. Perhaps this movie is better than I had original assume. Then again, looking back on some of the film’s aspects – I think not.

A good deal of my problems with “EMMA” stemmed from the portrayal of the main character, Emma Woodhouse. How can I say this? Thanks to Catton’s screenplay and De Wilde’s direction, Emma came off as more brittle and chilly than any other version I have ever seen. Granted, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. This was apparently in her strong sense of class status, which manifested in her erroneous belief that Harriet Smith was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat or gentry landowner, instead of someone from a lower class. Emma’s snobbery was also reflected in her contempt towards the impoverished Miss Bates, despite the latter being a “gentlewoman” and a member of the landed gentry. Emma’s snobbery, a product of her upbringing, also manifested in her own ego and belief that she is always right. Yes, Emma possessed negative traits. But she also had her share of positive ones. She possessed a warm heart, compassion for the poor (at least those not from her class), intelligence, and an ability to face her faults. This cinematic portrayal of Emma Woodhouse as a brittle and slightly chilly bitch struck me as a little off putting and extreme.

Another example of the exaggeration in this production was Mr. Knightley’s reaction to his dance with Emma at the Crown Inn ball. Many have not only praised the sensuality of the pair’s dance, but also Mr. Knightly’s reaction upon returning home to his estate, Donwell Abbey. What happened? George Knightley seemed to be in some kind of emotional fit, while he stripped off some of his clothes and began writhing on the floor. What in the fuck was that about? That scene struck me as so ridiculous. Other actors who have portrayed Knightley have managed to portray the character’s awareness of his love for Emma without behaving like a teenager in heat.

Speaking of heat, who can forget Harriet Smith’s orgasmic reaction to the idea of being Mrs. Elton? Many critics and Austen fans thrilled over the sight of a female character in a Jane Austen production having an orgasm. I will not castigate De Wilde for this directorial choice. I am merely wondering why she had included this scene in the first place. If Harriet was going to have an orgasm, why not have her bring up the subject to a possibly flabbergasted Emma? Why include this moment without any real follow through? Having an orgasm must have been something of a novelty for a young woman like Harriet, who was inexperienced with sexual thoughts or feelings.

And then there was Emma and Mr. Knightley’s dance at the Crown Inn ball. The latter sequence is usually one of my favorites in any adaptation of “EMMA”. The one exception proved to be the 1972 miniseries, which ended the sequence after Emma had suggested they dance. I almost enjoyed the sequence in this film . . . except it featured Emma obviously feeling attracted to Mr. Knightley during this dance. And I thought this was a big mistake. Why? Because Emma was never that consciously aware of her attraction to Mr. Knightley, until Harriet had confessed her crush on the landowner. And that happened near the end of the story. In other words, by showing Emma’s obvious feelings for Knightley during the ball, Autumn De Wilde rushed their story . . . and was forced to retract in the scene that featured Harriet’s confession. I feel this was another poor decision on the filmmaker’s part.

If I have to be honest, I think De Wilde, along with screenwriter Eleanor Catton, made a number of poor decisions regarding the film’s narrative. I have already pointed out three of those decisions in the previous paragraphs. But there were more. De Wilde and Catton changed the dynamics between Mr. Woodhouse and his older daughter and son-in-law, Isabella and John Knightley. In the novel and previous adaptations, the younger Mr. Knightley had always seemed more annoyed and at times, cankerous toward Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria. In this version, Isabella’s hypochondria is portrayed as more irritating. And instead of reacting to his wife’s complaints, John suppressed his reactions and ended up being portrayed as a henpecked husband. For some reason, De Wilde and Catton thought it was necessary to take the bite out of John Knightley, making him a weaker character. Why? I have not the foggiest idea, but I did miss the character’s biting wit.

In my review of the 1996 television version of “Emma”, I had complained how screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Diarmuid Lawrence had minimized part of Harriet’s character arc and focused just a bit too much on Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In the 1996 movie version, the opposite happened. Writer-director Douglas McGrath had focused more on Harriet’s arc than the Frank/Jane arc. Well De Wilde and Catton ended up repeating McGrath’s mistake by focusing too much on Harriet, at the expense of Frank and Jane. Worse, Frank and Jane’s arc seemed focused on even less than in the 1996 McGrath film. The couple barely seemed to exist. And a result of this is that Frank’s father, Colonel Weston, barely seemed to exist. Mrs. Weston fared better due to her being Emma’s former governess. But I was really shocked at how little De Wilde and Catton focused on Mr. Elton and his overbearing bride, Augusta Elton. The movie did focus a good deal on Mr. Elton in those scenes featuring Emma’s attempts to match him with Harriet. But following his marriage, his character – along with Mrs. Elton’s – seemed to slowly recede into the background following their tea at Hartfield with the Woodhouses. By allowing very little focus on these characters, De Wilde and Catton had left out so many good moments in their effort to streamline Austen’s story for theatrical film. Even more so than the two versions from 1996.

Because of this streamlining, a good deal of the cast had very little opportunity to develop their characters on screen. Oliver Chris and Chloe Pirrie gave solid comic performances in their portrayal of John and Isabella Knightley, despite my irritation at the changing dynamics of their relationship. Rupert Graves was pretty much wasted as the over-friendly Colonel Weston. Miranda Hart gave a funny performance as the impoverished spinster Miss Bates. Unfortunately, I was distracted by her less-than-impoverished wardrobe in several scenes. If you had asked for my opinion of Amber Anderson’s portrayal of Jane Fairfax, I would not have been able to give it to you. I have no memory of her performance. She made no impact on the movie or its narrative, other than coming off as uncharacteristically supercilious. Tanya Reynolds struck me as a rather funny Mrs. Elton . . . at least in the scene featuring the Eltons’ tea with the Woodhouses at Hartfield. Otherwise, I have no real memory of her other scenes in the movie. Callum Turner has always struck me as a memorable performer. And I have to admit that his portrayal of Frank Churchill certainly made an impression on me. But the impression was not always . . . positive. One, he did not have enough scenes in this movie and his character arc struck me as rather rushed. And two, I thought his Frank Churchill was a bit too smarmy for my tastes.

Thankfully, “EMMA” did feature some memorable supporting performances. Gemma Whelen gave a lovely and warm performance as Emma’s former governess and close friend, Mrs. Weston. Josh O’Connor gave an excellent performance as the social-climbing vicar, Mr. Elton. I must say that I found his comic timing impeccable and thought he gave one of the best performances in the movie. However, I thought there were times when his Mr. Elton came off as a sexual predator. I get it . . . Mr. Elton was basically a fortune hunter. But I thought O’Connor went too far in the scene that featured Emma’s rejection of his marriage proposal. For a moment, I thought he was going to sexually assault her. That was a bit too much. Mia Goth’s portrayal of the clueless Harriet Smith struck me as spot-on and very skillful. Granted, I did not care for the “Harriet has an orgasm” moment, but I cannot deny that Goth’s acting was excellent in the scene. Bill Nighy gave a skillfully comic portrayal as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. Yes, there were moments when his usual tics (found in many of his performances) threatened to overwhelm his performance in this film. But I think he managed to more or less keep it together.

One performance that had acquired a great deal of acclaim came from Johnny Flynn, who portrayed Mr. Knightley. In fact, many are regarding him as the best Mr. Knightley ever seen in the movies or on television. I believe Flynn is a pretty competent actor who did an excellent job of conveying his character’s decency, maturity and burgeoning feelings for Emma. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Box Hill sequence in which Mr. Knightley chastised Emma for her rude comments at Miss Bates. But I do not regard him as the best screen Mr. Knightley I have seen. If I must be honest, I do not regard his interpretation of the character as even among the best. My problem with Flynn is that his Knightley struck me as a bit of a dull stick. And Knightley has always seemed like a man with a dry sense of humor, which is why I have always regarded him as one of my favorite Austen heroes. For me, Flynn’s Knightley simply came across as humorless to me. Perhaps “humorless” was the wrong word. There were scenes of Flynn’s Mr. Knightley reacting to the comedic actions of other characters and uttering the occasional witty phrase or two. But there was something about Flynn’s demeanor that made it seem he was trying too hard. I guess no amount of ass display, singing, laughing or writhing on the floor like a lovesick adolescent could make him more interesting to me.

Then we have the film’s leading lady, Anya Taylor-Joy. Unlike Flynn, the actress was given the opportunity to display her skills as a comic actress. And she more than lived up to the task. Honestly, I thought Taylor-Joy displayed excellent comic timing. Yet . . . I could never regard her as one of my favorite screen versions of Emma Woodhouse. She was too much of a bitch. Let me re-phrase that. I thought Taylor-Joy overdid it in her portrayal of Emma’s bitchiness and snobbery. To the point that her performance struck me as very brittle. Yes, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. But she could also be a warm and friendly young woman, capable of improving her character. I saw none of this in Taylor-Joy’s performance. If Catton’s screenplay demanded that Emma became aware of her flaws, the actress’ conveyance of those moments did not strike as a natural progression. Otherwise, she made a satisfying Emma Woodhouse. I also have one more criticism to add – Taylor-Joy did not have great screen chemistry with her leading man, Johnny Flynn. Their on-screen chemistry struck me as pedestrian at best, if I must be honest.

One would think that I disliked “EMMA”. Honestly, I did not. The movie managed to stick with Austen’s narrative. And although it did not change Austen’s story, it did feature some changes in some of the characteristics and character dynamics, thanks to director Autumn De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton. And some of these changes did not serve the movie well, thanks to De Wilde’s occasional bouts of ham-fisted direction. However, I still managed to enjoy the movie and the performances from a cast led by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. And if it had not been for the current health crisis that has struck the world, I probably would have seen it again in theaters.

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Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1810s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the 1810s:

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1810s

1. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) – Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth starred in this award winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton.

2. “Emma” (2009) – Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller and Michael Gambon starred in this excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel. The four-part miniseries was adapted by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon.

3. “Vanity Fair” (1987) – Eve Matheson starred in this superb adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel. The sixteen-part miniseries was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and Michael Owen Morris; and adapted by Alexander Baron.

4. “Pride and Prejudice” (1980) – Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul starred in this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The five-part miniseries was adapted by Fay Weldon and directed by Cyril Coke.

5. “War and Peace” (2016) – Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred in this excellent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Harper.

6. “Vanity Fair” (1998) – Natasha Little starred in this award winning adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel. The six-part miniseries was directed by Marc Munden and adapted by Andrew Davies.

7. “Emma” (1972) – Doran Godwin and John Carson starred in this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Denis Constanduros and directed by John Glenister.

8. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This sequel to the 1955 television movie, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”, conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Directed by Norman Foster, the TV movie starred Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York.

9. “War and Peace” (1972) – Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood and Alan Dobie starred in this superb adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel. The twenty-part miniseries was adapted by Jack Pulman and directed by John Davies.

10. “Poldark” (1996) – John Bowe and Mel Martin starred in this television adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1981 novel from his Poldark series, “The Stranger From the Sea”. The television movie was directed by Richard Laxton and adapted by Robin Mukherjee.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the decade between 1800 and 1809:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (2013) – Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 mystery novel, set six years after the events of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, featuring the style and characters of the latter. Daniel Percival directed.

 

 

2. “Sense and Sensibility” (2008) – Andrew Davies wrote this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about the experiences of two well-born, yet impoverished sisters following the death of their father. Directed by John Alexander, the miniseries starred Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield.

 

 

3. “War and Peace” (2016) – Andrew Davies wrote this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about a group of noble families during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Tom Harper, the miniseries starred Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton.

 

 

4. “War and Peace” (1972) – David Conroy created this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about a group of noble families during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by John Davies, the miniseries starred Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood and Alan Dobie.

 

 

5. “Mansfield Park” (1983) – Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell starred in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young impoverished girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their elegant estate. The six-part miniseries was written by Kenneth Taylor and directed by David Giles.

 

 

6. “Jack of All Trades” (2000) – Bruce Campbell and Angela Dotchin starred in this syndicated comedy series about two spies – one American and one British – who operate on a French-controlled island in the East Indies.

 

 

7. “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015) – Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan starred in this adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel about the return of magic to Britain through two men during the early 19th century. The series was created by Peter Harness.

 

 

8. “Mansfield Park” (2007) – Billie Piper and Blake Ritson starred in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young impoverished girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their elegant estate. The television movie was written by Maggie Wadey and directed by Iain B. MacDonald.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

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“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

Following the success of the 2016 movie, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, Warner Brothers Studios and author J.K. Rowling continued the adventures of former Hogwarts student, Newt Scamander with the 2018 sequel called “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. Starring Eddie Redmayne, the movie was directed by David Yates. 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” began in 1927, less than a year after the events of the 2016 movie. In the film’s opening, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is transferring the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald from their maximum security prison in New York City to London. The latter is be tried for his crimes in Europe. But with the aide of Grindelwald’s follower, MACUSA agent Abernathy, the wizard manages to escapes during the transfer. Three months after Grindelwald’s escape, magizoologist Newt Scamander appeals to the Ministry of Magic in London to restore his revoked international travel rights following his previous adventures in New York City. While at the Ministry, Newt learns that his former Hogwarts classmate, Leta Lestrange, is engaged to his brother Theseus, an auror in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The Ministry offers to restore Newt’s travel rights if he assists Theseus in locating Credence Barebone, the American obscurial believed to have been killed in Paris. He has been detected in Paris.

Grindelwald is also searching for Credence. He believes that only the latter is powerful enough to kill his “equal”, Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore. Newt declines the Ministry’s offer, but is is secretly summoned by Dumbledore, who also tries to persuade Newt to locate Credence. Dumbledore under constant Ministry surveillance for refusing to confront Grindelwald, who was a former close friend from the past. Upon his return home, he discovers that his American friends, the non-magical Jacob Kowalski and witch Queenie Goldstein had left New York. Jacob has retained memories of his past adventures with Newt and the Goldstein sisters, despite MACUSA’s citywide Obliviation order. Queenie and Jacob had followed Queenie’s sister Tina to Europe, where the latter is searching for Credence. Newt also discovers that Queenie has enchanted Jacob into eloping to Europe with her to circumvent MACUSA’s marriage ban between wizards and Muggles. After Newt lifts the charm, Jacob and Queenie quarrel about the marriage law, and the upset witch leaves to find Tina. Newt ignores the Ministry’s travel ban and with Jacob, head for Paris in search for the Goldstein sisters and Credence.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be an unpopular entry in the HARRY POTTER movie franchise. Even a year before the film’s release, many had criticized the film’s producers, including J.K. Rowling, for allowing actor Johnny Depp to take over the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the wake of his controversial divorce. Ironically, once “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” hit the movie theaters, both the critics and many moviegoers expressed other reasons for their displeasure. Either these criticisms were merely used as shields to hide their displeasure at Depp’s presence in the movie, or they genuinely did not like it. Although “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”actually managed to make a profit, it did not make as much as its 2016 predecessor. Nor did it make as much as Warner Brothers Studios had anticipated. So . . . how did I feel about the movie?

I will admit that I have some problems with “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. I never admitted this in my review of “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, but I had noticed Rowling’s habit of creating two or more disjointed story lines and allowing them to connect near the end of the film. As much as I admired her use of this narrative structure, I must admit that there were times when I found it frustrating. To be honest, I found it more frustrating in “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, especially Newt Scamander’s search for his missing animals. But in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, there were times when I found myself wondering why Rowling had focused so heavily on Leta Lestrange’s character arc/backstory and Queenie Goldstein’s problems with her non-magical love, Jacob Kowalski. I also had a problem with Colleen Atwood’s costumes. On one level, I found her costumes very attractive, as shown in the images below:

And yet . . . aside from the costumes and hairstyle worn by actress Katherine Waterston, I found the other costumes and hairstyles reminiscent of the early 1930s, instead of 1927, the film’s actual setting. Speaking of the timeline, could someone explain why Minerva McGonagall was a teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when either the Harry Potter novels or the franchise’s official website made it clear that she was born in 1935, eight years after this movie’s setting. And since Dumbledore was the Transfiguration professor at Hogwarts in 1927, what was the young Professor McGonagall teaching?

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” had its flaws, like any other movie. But I enjoyed it very much. Actually . . . I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the 2016 movie. The reason why I enjoyed it more than the first film is probably the reason why many others liked it less. J.K. Rowling had written an emotionally complicated tale that reminded me that humans beings are a lot more ambiguous than many are STILL unwilling to admit. They might pay lip service to the ambiguity of humans, but I have encountered too much hostility directed at movies willing to explore the complex nature of humans and society in general . . . especially in pop culture films. Some might claim that such ambiguity has no place in pop culture films and franchises. My response to that claim is . . . why not? I see no reason why humanity’s ambiguity should only be tolerated in films being considered for the film industry’s award season.

I noticed in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” that the majority of Gellert Grindelwald’s followers were not “dark wizards” or superficially evil. I must admit that the Vinda Rosier, Grindelwald’s loyal right-hand follower, seemed to be the film’s closest example of the future Deatheaters that followed Lord Voldemort aka Tom Riddle Jr. Most of Grindelwald’s other followers seemed to be typical human being who has allowed his or her emotions to indulge in the usual prejudices or make bad choices. One example is the MACUSA agent Abernathy, who had earlier supported President Seraphina Picquery in the 2016 film. But the prime example in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be Queenie Goldstein, the New York-born Legilimens (telepath), who out of her desperation to be with the non-magical Jacob Kowalski, turned to Grindelwald to help her achieve her desire. Many fans had condemned the movie for this portrayal of Queenie. And I do not understand why.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” had already hinted Queenie’s desperation to be with Jacob, when she conveyed reluctance to follow MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery’s orders to ensure the erasure of his recent memories. She broke the rules even further by paying a visit to Jacob’s new bakery in one of the film’s final scenes.More importantly, Queenie had discovered that Jacob had retained some memories of his adventures with her, Tina and Newt. This is why I am not surprised that Queenie had resorted to desperate measures in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” to make Jacob her husband. Love might lead a person to do wonderful things. But it can also lead someone to make questionable or terrible decisions. J.K. Rowling understood this. I never understood why so many people were incapable of doing so.

The ironic thing about “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” is that the movie not only featured former protagonists like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, who had decided to follow Grindelwald, it also featured . . . Leta Lestrange. Any fan of Potterverse will remember another character with the Lestrange name – Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Although Bellatrix had married into the Lestrange family, fans learned that her husband was another one of Voldemort’s highly murderous and faithful followers. I do recall that the 2016 film may have hinted that Leta was briefly as someone from Newt’s past who may or may not have deliberately led him into trouble and expelled from Hogwarts. Thanks to “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, audiences learned that Leta was NOT someone who lived up to her pure-blood family’s name and who proved to be a different kettle of fish. She was not perfect. Her one crime . . . which led to years of guilt . . . stemmed from resentment toward her father’s sexist desire for a male heir. As a young girl aboard a sinking ocean liner headed for the United States, she made an ugly decision that affected both her family and Credence Barebone.

The characterizations of both Queenie Goldstein and Leta Lestrange, along with Gellert Grindelwald’s followers made J.K. Rowling’s intent to continue her ambiguous portrayal of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But instead of viewing this ambiguity from a growing child, audiences get to witness this ambiguity through the eyes of an adult. Instead of realizing that individuals we might perceive as “bad” can also possess decency within, Rowling seemed to be hinting that those whom we might originally perceive as “good or decent” can allow their emotions to make terrible choices or embrace evil. Granted, fans learned in the previous series that Albus Dumbledore had once skated on the edge of giving into some parts of his baser nature. But through characters like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, agents get to see how originally perceived “decent” characters can allow their emotions and desires to embrace evil . . . not for any moral good, but due to their own selfishness or prejudices. It is a pity that so many are unwilling to explore this journey with Rowling.

Although I had criticized the film’s costumes for resembling the fashions of the early 1930s, instead of the late 1920s, I must admit that I found Colleen Atwood’s designs very attractive and very original. I rarely comment on a film’s editing, but I found Film Editor Mark Day’s work in the movie first-rate. I was especially impressed by his work in two particular sequences – Grindelwald’s escape in the film’s first action sequence and another one featuring a wizarding freak show in Paris. I was also impressed by Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography . . . to a certain extent. Rousselot’s photography struck me as beautiful and memorable – especially in the Parisian scenes and one particular flashback scene in the Atlantic Ocean. But I really disliked the monochromatic tones (blue, yellow or green) that seemed to dominate the movie’s photography . . . as much as I disliked the brown tones that dominated “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”. Also, production designer Stuart Craig, set designer Anna Pinnock, the art direction team led by Martin Foley and the special effects team all did an exceptional job to re-create the wizarding worlds of New York, London, Scotland and Paris.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” featured some first-rate performances. Lead actor Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Carmen Ejogo, Claudia Kim and Ezra Miller all gave excellent performances. But there were performances that I found more than first-rate. Jude Law was superb as the enigmatic and younger Professor Albus Dumbore, who seemed warm and manipulative as ever. William Nadylam gave a very complex and passionate performance as Yusuf Kama: A French-Senegalese wizard who has spent many years obsessively searching for Credence, whom he believed was responsible for the death of a family member. Callum Turner’s portrayal of Theseus Scamander, Newt’s brother, first seemed pretty solid. But his performance became more complex and interesting, thanks to Turner’s skillful acting. Alison Sudol gave an outstanding performance as the increasingly desperate Queenie Goldstein, who allowed her love for Jacob and emotions to lead to a morally questionable decision. Zoë Kravitz was equally outstanding as Newt’s former love, Leta Lestrange, who became emotionally troubled and confused over a morally questionable decision from the past. But the best performance, in my opinion, came from Johnny Depp, who portrayed the film’s main villain, Gellert Grindelwald. Depp’s Grindelwald seemed like a completely different kettle of fish from the more obvious villains of the Harry Potter novel. More subtle, subversive and manipulative. Insidious. The franchise’s Palpatine perhaps? Honestly, Depp’s Grindelwald made Tom Riddle Jr. aka Lord Voldemort seem like a rank amateur as far as villains go.

This 2018 sequel to “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” proved to be a disappointment at the box office. Between the controversy over Depp’s casting and the hostile reaction to the Queenie Goldstein character, I guess I should not be surprised. But I am disappointed that the majority of moviegoers had failed to appreciate Rowling’s story, because I thought it was first-rate, thanks to her screenplay, David Yates’ direction and the excellent cast led by Eddie Redmayne. To be honest, I personally feel that it was slightly better than its 2016 predecessor. Perhaps one day, more filmgoers will be able to appreciate it.

 

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

I have a confession to make. I have never seen a movie or television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, “War and Peace”. Never. Well . . . I once made an attempt to watch the 1956 movie adaptation directed by King Vidor. Unfortunately, I could never go the distance. In fact, I have never read the novel. 

However, many years passed. When I heard about the BBC’s latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give “WAR AND PEACE” a chance. The six-part miniseries is simply about the experiences of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Those families include the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and theDrubetskoys. The miniseries seemed to be divided into three segments during a period between 1805 and 1812-13. The first segment featured the introduction of the main characters and Russia’s preparation of a war against Napoleon’s France. This culminates into the Battle of Austerlitz in which two major characters – Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov – participate.

The second segment featured the characters’ personal experiences at home. During this period, the miniseries explored Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov’s failed marriage with the beautiful, but vapid and unfaithful Princess Yelena “Hélène” Vasilyevna Kuragina; the Rostov family’s financial woes and how it affected Nikolai Rostov; the emotional strains within the Bolkonsky family; Prince Boris Drubetskoy’s efforts to advance his military career; and especially Countess Natalya “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova’s love life, which included both Andrei Bolkonsky and Prince Anatole Vasilyevich Kuragin. This segment also included news of Treaties of Tilsit of 1807, which ended hostilities between Imperial France and Imperial Russia and Prussia. The miniseries’ final segment focused on France’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and the characters’ efforts to survive it.

I could compare director Tom Harper and screenwriter Andrew Davies’ adaptation with Tolstoy’s novel, but it would be a useless effort. As I had earlier pointed out, I have never read the novel. But I do have at least two complaints about the productions. One of them revolved around the relationship between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky. I realize that the publicity machine on both sides of the Atlantic had undergone a great effort to build up the relationship between the pair. Frankly, I found the publicity campaign rather wasted. The Natasha/Andrei romance struck me as a disappointing and wasted effort. The majority of their story arc – which began with their meeting at a ball near the end of Episode Three, continued with Natasha’s brief romance with the slimy Anatole Kuragin, and ended with Natasha’s romances with both men crashing around her by the end of Episode Four; had moved . . . so damn fast that it left my head spinning. I cannot help but wonder if the entire arc could have been portrayed with more detail if the series had stretched a bit longer.

I also had a problem with Edward K. Gibbon’s costume designs. I found most of them very colorful, especially for the aristocratic characters. But I also found most of them rather troublesome. Well . . . to be honest, I found them either mediocre or historically questionable. One of them left me gritting my teeth:

But my jaw had literally dropped at the sight of a few costumes worn by actresses Tuppence Middleton and Gillian Anderson – including those shown in the images below:

 

WHAT IN THE HELL??? Their costumes looked more appropriate for present-day evening wear than the early 19th century. What was Mr. Gibbons thinking?

Despite the rushed Natasha Rostova/Andrei Bolkonsky romance and despite the rather questionable costumes, I managed to enjoy “WAR AND PEACE” very much. I am a sucker for family sagas, especially when they are seeped in a historical background. And “WAR AND PEACE” nearly pushed every one of my buttons when it comes to a well made saga. It had everything – romance, family struggles, historical events and personages. When I realized that Tolstoy had originally focused his tale on five families, I did not think Andrew Davies would be able to translate the author’s novel in a tight story without losing its epic quality.

There were certain sequences that really blew my mind, thanks to Davies’ writing and especially, Tom Harper’s direction. I thought Harper did an outstanding job of re-creating battles like Austerlitz and Borodino, along with the French Army’s retreat from Moscow. Harper also did a great job in directing large parties and ball scenes. My two favorites are the party held at St. Petersburg socialite Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s salon in Episode 1 and the ball where Natasha and Andrei met in Episode 3.

But it was not just the battle and crowd scenes that impressed me. “WAR AND PEACE” is – after all – a melodrama, even if many literary critics are inclined not to admit it. I never thought I would find myself getting caught up in the lives of the saga’s main characters. But I did. I must admit that I admire how Tolstoy . . . and Davies managed to allow the three main characters – Pierre, Natasha and Andrei – to interact with the five families, regardless of blood connection or marriage. I especially enjoyed the explorations into the lives of Pierre, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. At first glance, some might regard the miniseries’ ending that featured a picnic with the families of the three leads as a bit on the saccharine. It did have a “happily ever after” tinge about it. But I read in a newspaper article that complained about Tolstoy’s “realistic” ending – one that featured a less-than-happy view of the protagonists’ lives and a critique from Tolstoy on all forms of mainstream history. Thanks to Davies’ screenplay, audiences were spared of this.

“WAR AND PEACE” featured a good number of first-rate performances from a supporting cast that included Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jessie Buckley, Adrian Edmondson, Aisling Loftus, Rebecca Front and Aneurin Barnard. However, I was especially impressed by certain supporting performances. One came from Greta Scacchi, who portrayed the Rostov family’s practical and sometimes ruthless matriarch Countess Natalya Rostova. I also enjoyed Brian Cox’s portrayal of the world weary General Mikhail Kutuzov, who has to contend with not only Napolean’s army, but also the amateurish interference of the Czar. Tom Burke did a great job in portraying the wolfish and ambitious army officer, Fedor Dolokhov, who eventually becomes a better man following Napoleon’s invasion. Jack Lowden’s portrayal of the young Count Nikolai Rostov really impressed me, especially when his character found himself torn between following his heart and marrying a wealthy woman to restore his family’s fortunes. And Jim Broadbent gave a very colorful performance as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, the mercurial and controlling patriarch of the Bolkonsky family.

And what about the production’s three leads? Lily James gave a very charming performance as Countess Natasha Rostova. Well . . . I take that back. Describing James’ performance as simply “charming” seemed to hint that I found it rather shallow. Yes, James handled Natasha’s “light” moments with her usual competence. More importantly, she did an excellent job in conveying Natasha’s personal struggles – especially during the series’ second half. There were times when I did not know what to make of the Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. He struck me as a very unusual protagonist. Although I found him rather honorable and filled with valor, Andrei did not always struck me as likable – especially in his relationship with adoring, yet ignored wife Lise. And Norton superbly captured the many nuances of Andrei’s character. If Andrei Bolkonsky struck me as an unusual protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov struck me as one of a kind. Well . . . one of a kind for a literary piece written in the 19th century. Sometimes, I get the feeling that someone like Pierre could easily translate into a late 20th century or early 21st century geek. Or perhaps not. I think Pierre is too kind and open-minded to be considered a geek. But he is very unusual for a leading man. And thanks to Paul Dano’s superb portrayal, Pierre has become one of my favorite fictional characters. He did a stupendous job in conveying Pierre’s character from this insecure and rather naive man to a man who learned to find wisdom and inner peace through his struggles. Dano was so good that I had assumed that his performance would garner him a major acting nomination. It did not and I am still flabbergasted by this travesty.

My taste in period dramas usually focused on stories set in the United States or Great Britain . . . with the occasional foray into France. I was very reluctant to tackle this latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel. But I was in the mood for something new and decided to watch the six-part miniseries. I am happy to say that despite some flaws, I ended up enjoying “WAR AND PEACE” very much, thanks to Andrew Davies’ screenplay, Tom Harper’s direction and an excellent cast led by Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James.