4 posts categorized "Period Drama"

January 16, 2018



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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Phantom_threadPaul Thomas Anderson’s prestige period piece is a toxic vision of a dysfunctional marriage. It is a film that self-destructs.

What starts out as a ‘50s era English love story gradually tears into a tattered tale of two incompatible people whose only connection lies in the alternating currents of sadism and masochism the two can withstand. For so much ornate beauty, “Phantom Thread” is a truly ugly movie that reneges on its promise of romantic sincerity. There is nothing heartfelt here for any audience member to sew a button on. Apropos to its title there is no thematic thread to hold the film together.  

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Considering that Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed this overwrought feel-bad-for-no-good-reason filmic atrocity, there is no one else to blame. The once-promising filmmaker responsible for “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” peaked in 2007 with “There Will Be Blood” (also starring Daniel Day-Lewis), but has been in free fall ever since. “The Master” (2012), “Inherent Vice” (2014) and “Phantom Thread” present a triad of undeniable failures. Perhaps it is time for Paul Thomas Anderson to take a cue from Daniel Day-Lewis, and throw in the towel once and for all.

Daniel Day-Lewis

It was tragic enough that Robert Altman’s last movie was “A Prairie Home Companion,” but for “Phantom Thread” to the cap off Daniel Day Lewis’s illustrious acting career is a pill that refuses to go down. Bummer. 

Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a mercurial fashion designer who runs his own dressmaking shop, known as The House of Woodcock. If you sense a wry dash of humor in the name Woodcock, any such lilt is snuffed out in a narrative as bereft of romance as it is of humanity. Reynolds holds so many fussy affectations that he could easily pass as gay if not altogether asexual. However, Reynolds reveals himself to be that special queer bird who exploits women for their seamstress skills and for the precise measurements of their bodies.  

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Reynolds makes a dire mistake when he courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), a dining room waitress of Central European descent. What appears to be a charming meet-cute devolves into a seething hatred fueled by Alma’s incessant neediness and Reynolds’s prickly nature that he uses to protect his demanding working methods. Alma wants to be Reynolds' center of attention, he wants to work. Guess who wins.  


Reynolds’s sister Cyril (brilliantly played by the incomparable Lesley Manville), whom he refers to as his “little sew-and-sew,” is the designer’s constant companion and protector. Nonetheless, not even Cyril can buffer Reynolds from Alma’s little miss Lady Macbeth act once she gets rolling. I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Alma has more in common with Kath Bates’s character in “Misery” than she does with Kate Winslet’s in “Titanic.”

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“Phantom Thread” is nothing that it pretends. It is considered a cardinal sin for an actor to break character, and yet that is exactly what Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Vicky Krieps’s personas do. It’s not often that you come away truly hating a movie, but I suggest that if you find yourself loving “Phantom Thread,” you have issues with self-loathing that should be addressed tout suite. Color me disgusted.    

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Rated R. 130 mins.

1 Star

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

July 02, 2017


The-Beguiled-PosterSofia Coppola’s thoughtful reworking of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil” is a provocative study in feminine mores of the Civil War era. That catty jealousies between women, and pubescent girls, vying for the romantic attention of a fetishized male figure doesn’t mesh with the current overstated trend discounting anything that doesn’t meet the Bechdel test is beside the point.

Jessica Chastain took it upon herself to backhandedly insult Coppola’s film during the closing press conference at Cannes last month, but the millionaire actress doth protest too much. I dare say that none of Chastain’s performances in films such as “The Help” or “The Martian” compare favorably against those of Nicole Kidman or Kirsten Dunst in “The Beguiled.” Sour grapes.

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Where Don Siegel’s 1971 film version (starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page) came off as a clunky sexploitation popcorn movie, with some slave exploitation thrown in for good measure, Coppola’s artfully nuanced picture delights in seductive patience. Coppola lets the haunting wartime atmosphere of a rural girls’ boarding school in southern Virginia speak volumes. This is the doomed South after all. Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies is a Southern mansion lacking in slave labor. Homespun music and bible readings fill the empty hours. Boredom abounds.


Coppola holds back her use of light to generate an unsettling sense of claustrophobic suspense so that when the narrative moves beyond the school’s candle-lit interior walls, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Nature brims with dangers real and unseen.

While not a minimalist film, “The Beguiled” turns on subtle twists of emotion and things left unspoken.    


The story ignites from the discovery of Colin Farrell’s wounded corporal John McBurney, a deserter whose dabbling in mercenary work has proved less profitable or satisfying than he imagined. The Dublin-born McBurney sports a politeness and polished sense of humor that he uses to protect his status as a less than welcome guest in a house kept under strict order by Nicole Kidman’s haughty Martha Farnsworth. McBurney senses that Miss Farnsworth is a rival not to be taken for granted. He adopts a submissive approach. She masks her seething romantic attraction with a stoic hostility that plays into the film’s tragic escalations.

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Still, McBurney can’t resist falling for Kirsten Dunst’s hidden charms as Edwina, the school’s second in charge. He is a spy in a hot house of simmering lust. While it’s reasonable to suppose that Farrell’s character is nothing more than an opportunist attempting to seal safe passage into the next chapter of his life, he is also a man unable to defend against sexual overtures presented to him. Elle Fanning's bedtime kisses prove especially problematic. As for Colin Farrell’s understated performance; it rates as one of the most finely restrained portrayals by a male actor in recent memory, and matches beat for beat the fine work that Dunst and Kidman perform alongside an estimable ensemble that includes Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice.


“The Beguiled” is problematic inasmuch as it plays against clichés as much as it embraces the necessary lusts of its horny female characters. Finger-wagging feminists such as Jessica Chastain will dismiss the film as playing into Virginia Woolf’s 1926 complaint, which cartoonist Alison Bechdel reframed in 1985 with the help of her friend Liz Wallace; call it the Bechdel-Wallace test.

For the record, the test simply states that a given work of fiction must “have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.” Shocking, I know. I suppose Upper East Side ladies who chat primarily about shopping would make for better, or more politically correct, entertainment fare by such a standard. Absurd, I know.

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If that narrative shorthand denies Sofia Coppola’s film, then I suppose I don’t care. “The Beguiled” is a beautifully executed picture full of erotic tension amid historic context, made by one of America’s more gifted female filmmakers.

Some male audiences will likely find the film emasculating if not threatening. So what. 


I think it’s a mug’s game for any critic to judge a film or any work of art for that matter on a premise as flimsy as what characters discuss. American media still chooses to cover Donald Trump when they should ignore him with a vengeance.

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I wish cats didn’t always sharpen their claws on furniture, but they do. If they scratch you, it can leave a scar or get infected; amputation may be necessary. I’m still always happy to see a cat in a movie, regardless of whether or not the film is any good. And I'm glad they have claws to sharpen; it's part of what makes them cats.    

Rated R. 93 mins. 

4 Stars


Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal! Your generosity helps keep the reviews coming!

Cole Smithey on Patreon

May 05, 2014


Merchant Ivory Present
Amma Asante Breaks Through

BelleFated to be inexorably linked to “12 Years a Slave” by virtue of its slave-related subplot — “Belle” is an accomplished period drama firmly in line with the top-drawer production values and exquisite performances found in Merchant Ivory’s films. “Belle” follows Ralph Fiennes’s recent Charles Dickens biographical drama (“The Invisible Woman”), reviving the elevated period style and gravitas that producer Ismail Merchant and director Ivory delivered with so much consistency over 45 years that their films were too often taken for granted.

A 1779 painting of the mixed-race Dido Elizabeth “Belle” with her white cousin Elizabeth hangs in Scotland’s majestic Scone Palace. This formal work inspired screenwriter Misan Sagay to take dramatic liberties in crafting Belle’s story into a satisfying, historically relevant narrative dipped in romance. If Sagay has tampered with history, she has done so in the service of uniting emotional, social, and political elements toward a film of dramatic weight.


With her second feature film, director Amma Asante far outclasses Steve McQueen’s exploitation trip (“12 Years”) in her brightly embellished telling of Dido Belle’s unique circumstances after being placed in the seat of 18th century English aristocracy — as occupied by Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of England’s highest court. Belle’s presence at Mansfield’s Kenwood House estate comes to influence the chief justice’s ruling on a high-profile slavery case — known as the “Somerset” case — involving a slave-ship captain’s decision to throw 142 “diseased” slaves (“cargo”) overboard to cash in on the insurance.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s expressive portrayal of the poised Belle is certain to draw shallow comparison in some circles with Lupita Nyong'o’s supporting effort in “12 Years,” even though Mbaha-Raw’s Belle is a far more ambitious role. Much of the film’s success relies on Mbaha-Raw’s composed but fiery performance as a woman whose very existence is at odds with every aspect of her gilded surroundings.

Upon the death of Belle’s mother, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), an admiral in the Royal Navy, rescues the illegitimate mixed-race girl from a life of poverty. Without warning Sir Lindsay deposits Belle in the care of his uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) are initially taken aback by the mulatto girl but agree to care for her as their own, even if their definition of such privilege means that Belle be excluded from dining with the family.


The arrival of John Davinier (Sam Reid) as a legal apprentice to Lord Mansfield ignites a romantic spark between Belle and Davinier. Belle’s simultaneous initiation into the courtship rituals of British high society coincides with that of her beloved half-cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), whose apparent racial advantage proves no contest for Belle’s stronger financial standing, thanks to her generous father’s bequeathed fortune.

“Belle” is a quiet triumph of women’s filmmaking. There’s no ignoring the fact that its female screenwriter, director, and leading actress exert a powerfully focused editorial voice that harmonizes perfectly. Significant too are the film’s women in supporting parts. Miranda Richardson is gleefully cunning as Lady Ashford. The movie synthesizes a wealth of historic elements with wit, romance, and scathing social commentary. A better “family” film, you are not likely to find this season.

Rated PG. 88 mins.

4 Stars

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