The Honorable Woman (2014) Review

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Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honourable Woman (2014)

Three years after The Shadow Line (2011), Hugo Blick returns to television with a remarkably timely, gripping new miniseries that, in just eight episodes, delivers one of this year’s most dynamic stories.

The emotionally taut political thriller takes a stark, but not entirely hopeless look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely through the eyes of Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, magnetic as ever), an Anglo-Israeli baroness and perhaps the most superbly written female character to grace the big or small screen in a long while. Superficially she meets all the expectations of a female public figure: elegant, poised, stylish, articulate. But inside she’s crumbling, torn apart by a secret some would kill to protect.

For all their wealth and distance, even in England Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) cannot escape the warfare: As children they witness their father’s ruthless assassination and as adults, public emblems of Israel, they often become the target of the enmity directed at the country. What’s more, Nessa, determined to forge a path of peace where her father’s name once reigned synonymous with Israeli aggression, frequently finds herself the object of criticism, scrutiny, surveillance and more than occasionally, grave danger. She and her brother’s Palestinian translator Atika (Lubna Azabal) barely survived a kidnapping almost a decade before, and now Nessa cannot leave her house unaccompanied without risking a bit of guile on her part. So it is not entirely unexpected when Atika’s son, during an outing with Ephra and his children, is taken. The event yields more questions than answers and draws the attention of MI6, namely its head Dame Julia Walsh (a commanding Janet MacTeer) and head of the Middle East desk Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (the always brilliant Stephen Rea). Together the pair unravel a path of lies, secrets, and betrayals, all leading up to a satisfying if somewhat heavy-handed conclusion.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein

One must first commend Blick for placing his spy thriller – that traditionally male-dominated sphere – in the hands of some very capable women. Nessa, Julia, Atika, all of them fiercely intelligent, wield power without apology, but they are not without their flaws. Atika and Julia both carry on affairs with married men, while Nessa seeks intimacy indiscriminately, engaging in risky trysts with both intimates and strangers. Apropos, the heart and soul of Honorable Woman is without a doubt the mesmerizing Gyllenhaal, who gives an effortless performance here, full of grace and poise, measured strength and poignant sadness simmering behind her eyes. She exudes a quiet power in every scene, even when at her most vulnerable, and if she doesn’t get some Emmy love it will be nothing short of disgraceful. That said, while certainly well-written, and its characters carefully drawn, the series is perhaps wisely vague on the political front. The Honorable Woman delivers exactly what it promises: the portrait of a woman reaching for hope amid the darkness. The title most likely refers to Nessa, but it’s just as true of Atika and Julia. These women may not be perfect – they deceive and manipulate selfishly as often as they do generously – but each manages to navigate the sea of corruption and violence surrounding them with an unshakable sense of justice and this sets them apart.

Laden with powerful imagery (the falling queen chess piece is a thing of simple, unexpectedly powerful beauty) and solid performances, The Honorable Woman is easily one of the most engaging, relevant dramas to be released this year. Storytelling rarely gets any better.

4 1/2 out of 5*

‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014) review

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The latest effort from The Aviator (2004) writer John Logan, Penny Dreadful, made a solid arrival last month, unsurprisingly, with the likes of J. A. Bayona directing and Sam Mendes producing. Showtime’s deliciously creepy new series (already picked up  for a ten-episode second season) takes its name from cheap 19th century British serials,  a tad ironic, given that it boasts appearances from the stars of Victorian classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. 

Timothy-still-could-get-it-Dalton stars as the formidable Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray (whom you may recognize from Brahm Stoker’s Dracula) searching for his daughter in London, circa 1891. He is led by Mina’s former best friend Vanessa Ives (a simmering Eva Green) whose talents as a medium (and perhaps a little something more) help them navigate that treacherous demimonde, where “science and superstition walk hand-in-hand,” and where Malcolm believes his daughter has been lost. Ives enlists the help of mysterious American showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) as the muscle of their operation, while  ambitious young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (a massively entertaining Harry Treadaway) brings his scientific merits to the table to examine the blood-drinking creatures they discover. On the periphery we have the restless Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Chandler’s dying lover Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Frankenstein’s menacing creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), and  Sembene (a sadly underused Danny Sapani), Murray’s manservant.

The cast is largely solid, with only a few missteps. Billie Piper’s attempt at an Irish accent is distracting at best and downright grating at worst. Reeve Carney pales alongside his co-stars but gives a generally passable performance, hindered only by an anachronistic look and a less grating, but still questionable accent, placing him at stark odds among a convincingly Victorian set. Dalton, who strikes one as a man who could and would take on an adversary such as Dracula, vacillates believably between  dangerous and desperate, guilt-ridden father. He and Eva Green have an amazing chemistry, all at once uncomfortably filial and palpably sexual; and Green, for her part, remains intensely magnetic every time she’s on the screen.

L - R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

L – R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

In just eight episodes, each installment of Penny Dreadful delivered. There’s a lot to cover, but aside from a rushed and arguably unnecessary romance between Ethan and Brona, the shakes, the chills, and the plot have all been paced rather nicely. The episode “Closer Than Sisters” is pure background, yet doesn’t halt the drama at all. In fact, it is in this episode, the gem of an already impressive season, that the emotional stakes in all their complexity are revealed. Thematically the series explores the boundaries of forgiveness, guilt, salvation, all with a decidedly cynical look at redemption, which Vanessa seems to crave. It’s no accident then that Miss Ives–at odds with her country and most importantly Sir Malcolm–is Catholic, for whom redemption and death are perfectly compatible. “Your father loves you very much, and would do anything to save you,” Vanessa writes to Mina, “But I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.” In the next episode, “What Death Can Join Together” Sir Malcolm is forced to face the very real possibility that he might not be able to save his daughter in the way that he hopes. Sembene, veering dangerously toward Ominous Magical Negro territory, tells him as much, and Van Helsing’s personal connection to vampires, which mirrors Sir Malcolm’s, contains tragic implications. Without giving too much away, the season finale sets up an interesting question for next year: With all this talk of salvation, do we even really want to be saved?

In short, Penny Dreadful the series can be summed up in much the same way as Abel Korzeniowski’s delightfully haunting score (and if he is not recognized come award season next year, it’ll be an injustice): Nothing short of pitch perfect.

 

 

The Fall of Eve: Female Sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

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Yes, I know; I have exhausted the topic of Eve’s Bayou beyond repair, but allow me to add another element to the conversation, one that makes this film extremely relevant in a way I’d never considered before.

My initial reaction to Kasi Lemmons’s stellar directorial debut was something like gratitude. Here was a story about a little black girl, told by a little black girl, that had nothing to do with her blackness. Representation in film is no small thing, especially when almost twenty years later, films from the perspective of African-American girls remain a novelty. Much later I discovered The Color Purple (1985) and Crooklyn (1994), but it wasn’t until 2012 with the arrival of Beasts of the Southern Wild that a film even remotely rivaled the affect Eve Batiste’s story had on me.  That’s largely due to the bottomless implications of the tale Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) spins for us.

“The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old,” she says in voice-over narration, and we witness how, deep in small town-Louisiana, circa 1963, Eve’s innocence is lost. It all starts when she wakes in the carriage house one night to find her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) having sex with a woman (Lisa Nicole Carson) not her mother (Lynn Whitfield). This event precipitates not just Eve’s “fall” but that of her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good).  

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve's Bayou

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

I often came close, but one thing I’ve never deeply examined is how closely the film mimics the Fall of Man, framed in a distinctly feminist context. Our main character isn’t called Eve for nothing. Technically, her namesake is a slave ancestor who healed a cholera-stricken general and then proceeded to bear him sixteen children. But the film’s many Biblical references connect our Eve more strongly to her Biblical counterpart. Of course, we all know the original: God made Adam and Eve, and they lived together in innocent bliss til a serpent tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve took a bite before offering it to Adam, and thus was born Original Sin, culminating in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the film, there’s a recurring snake motif. Eve and her brother play down by the bayou and stumble across a snake they believe is dead. Eve–and it’s important that it’s Eve–picks it up only to discover that it’s very much alive. In another scene, in order to abate her boredom, Eve places a toy snake on her brother’s pillow beside his head to scare him when he wakes up. Finally, at Eve’s behest, voodoo woman Elzora feeds Louis’s hair to a snake in order to bring about his death.  Eve does her part, too, by hinting heavily to family friend Mr. Meraux that his wife and Louis are having an affair, in a shot set up so that behind Smollett, all that can be seen is a stand stacked with bright red apples.

Historically, culturally, women are regularly portrayed as “seducers” who wield their sexuality like a weapon against men, helpless to resist.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason we as a society can’t seem to wrap our heads around the concept that when a woman’s body is violated it is never, not ever, her fault. In the female-dominated Eve’s Bayou the women are sexually autonomous, not only welcoming but often initiating acts of passion. But considering this is a film placed firmly in the hands of children, a Gothic coming-of-age tale what’s more,  this theme takes on an altogether different, grotesque tone.

The incident that becomes the catalyst for Louis’s death as caused by Eve, is a not very filial kiss between him and Cisely, his clear favorite among his children. The film never gives us a precise answer as to who initiates the kiss, but no matter; it still suggests that black girls are not allowed to explore their sexuality in  a healthy, safe way. Eve, too, certainly suffers a massive blow to her development by witnessing her father with another woman, in what is likely to be her first encounter with sex. I’ve mentioned before in this post the parallels between Eve’s Bayou and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Most importantly both works, astounding debuts from African-American women writers, feature the victimization of young black American girls, whose innocence, traditionally, has neither been protected nor valued in a way that other cultures protect the girlhood of their children. Feminist scholar bell hooks has spoken at length over the years about the fetishization of the abused black female body, especially as it relates to big screen imagery, and this was one of her chief complaints about Beasts and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

This element of the film is not unimportant given recent cases like Amber Cole and Dylan Farrow, and the way girls (women, of course, but most importantly even girls) are still viewed as somehow responsible for being taken advantage of.