Here’s one way to sum up November’s cinematic delights: four films about fascinating, real women, and two films about equally fascinating, fictional women. Tellingly, the latter were far more interesting than the former, with one important exception, as I’ll describe in a moment.
But first, let’s get three of the reportedly true stories out of the way. Lady Diana is front and centre in Pablo Larrain’s much-hyped Spencer, an inconsequential, unfocussed affair, with brush strokes that are much too broad to create any meaningful impact. It’s difficult to know precisely what drove Larrain to make this, other than a desire to focus on a haunted face and, by extension, to emote. Sadly, emoting seems to be considered reason enough to create anything these days.
A touch of emoting would have been welcome in Ridley Scott’s breathtakingly lacklustre House Of Gucci. Watching it you can’t help but feel the director was trying to tell what is doubtless an astonishing story in the most uninvolving way possible, determined to drain any trace of flair out of every single scene. As for Lady Gaga’s lauded performance – yes, she’s more than passable. But she never reveals anything beneath the surface of someone who must have been concealing a great deal. And who approved all the dodgy accents? And how on earth does Jared Leto continue to get any work?
At least the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect (dir. Liesl Tommy), ticks all the right boxes and proceeds at an engaging pace. But it also fails to avoid the usual genre traps, presenting little more than a series of set pieces, the combined effects of which fail to culminate in a memorable effect. The over-reliance on extended musical sequences is also a problem, as it serves to highlight the many narrative lulls.
On to fiction. In Ayten Amin’s Souad – an Egypt-set story about a young woman navigating her way along the boundary between ‘real’ life and the version experienced on social media – the many observations about modern existence are sharp and striking. But unlike many other critics, I’m not sure they result in a satisfying filmic experience. Then again, perhaps the dangling of loose threads was part of the point Amin was attempting to make.
To some extent, reality and fantasy also blur in Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, based on the Graham Swift book. It’s the pace and performances that lift this doomed-love tale out of the ordinary, particularly in the sequences where Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Colin Firth and Olivia Colman battle with emotions which they are only occasionally permitted to express. The outbursts, when they occur, are heartbreaking.
And finally, back to truth, with 25 Years Of Innocence, Jan Holoubek’s account of the life of Tomasz Komenda, the Pole who spent years in prison following a wrongful conviction for murder. Unremittingly harrowing bleakness is something of a specialism for Polish cinema (a dry, Slavic reaction to decades of authoritarian rule?) and there are moments when this particular story screams for a few contrasting bursts of light. But in the final reckoning, it is solid, shocking, laudable fare, featuring an intelligent central performance from Piotr Trojan. as well as from Agata Kulesza portraying the last of this month’s intriguing women: Komenda’s mother, who never stopped fighting for her son, despite the immensity of the obstacles that were placed in her way.