by Bill Hawk



Miramax, 2006, Color, 103 mins.- Miramax DVD



James Cromwell: "Apparently, Elton John is going to be singing. That will be a first for Westminster Abbey."


Well, change is in the British air in the summer of 1997. Labour Party head honcho Tony Blair sweeps into the Prime Minister's office, ending almost two decades of Conservative Party rule, and promising the usual overhauls to the ship of state. Meanwhile, the Royal figureheads of the ship continue on in their quaint, traditional ways. A clash of some sort- between new and old, elected and hereditary, middle and upper class- is inevitable. And after the ex-princess Diana's death under unpleasant circumstances, a very public outpouring of grief stands in stark contrast to the Royals' physical and emotional isolation. Despite prompting by Blair, who plays to the prevailing mood, the Queen and company continue with their summer vacation in Scotland. But the death of Diana carries too great of a symbolic weight to ignore, and dissatisfaction with the monarchy comes to a boil. Unless the Queen can manage to unbend that stiff upper lip of hers, she could find herself out of a job….

There's not much in the way of plot in this picture, a fictionalized account of some rough times for the House Of Windsor. But it's never dull, thanks to a witty, incisive script by Peter Morrigan, with perfectly matched direction by Stephen Frears. Not to mention some terrific acting. Helen Mirren, as the Queen, was awarded just about every shiny best actress trinket in sight for this one- and deserved it. Michael Sheen, as Blair, captures the dynamic optimism of the new sheriff in town, making an amusing contrast to the staid Royals. James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, and Sylvia Sims as the Queen Mum provide expert support, creating a not altogether flattering portrait of a familial institution that is ill-equipped to enter the looming 21st century. Blair is portrayed as having the best interests of the country in mind, even if it does lead him into bullying the monarch a little (or at least trying to). And both the film and Mirren's performance treat the titular character with respect, showing that she is not the stuffy ice cube that she appears to be.

Recommended for Anglophiles and anybody who likes to speculate on the lives of the rich and powerful. Extras on the disc include featurettes and audio commentaries.


Fox Searchlight, 2006, Color, 92 mins.- Fox DVD



Judy Dench: "People like Sheba think they know what it is to be lonely. But of the drip, drip of long-haul, no end in sight solitude, they know nothing."

With a seemingly pointless teaching job, no social life, and no expectation of spending the rest of her days with anything besides a pet cat, Dench is heading straight into the pitiable little old lady category. Her sole distraction comes from her compulsive journal-writing, which records an inner life full of disdain for those whom she considers beneath her, which is just about everybody. But when new teacher Cate Blanchett shows up, she catches every eye in the place, including Dench's. For while she looks down upon the newcomer's Bohemian, middle class background, Dench is drawn to Blanchett's attractiveness and vulnerability- and is soon capitalizing on the latter. Positioning herself as a confidante, Dench acquaints herself with Blanchett's family situation, meeting older hubby Bill Nighy and the couple's unhappy daughter and disabled son. It's all relatively harmless until Dench catches her new pal in a dangerous indiscretion- and sees a way to make the younger woman into the sort of special friend that she's always wanted.

This adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel features a pair of lead characters who could both benefit from some psychiatric help. Blanchett has been a good wife and mother, but doesn’t seem capable of much self-reflection or analysis- she gets into trouble by acting in a thoughtless way, and indications are that it's not the first time she's made that particular mistake. Dench is like a grenade waiting to go off- closeted, self-centered, obsessive, and simultaneously repelled by and envious of Blanchett's more privileged circumstances. But whatever nods the film might make towards any social issues, it all boils down to an excuse to turn acting powerhouses Dench, Blanchett and Nighy loose on material that is perhaps a little beneath them- but is good, trashy fun. Worth a look just to see Dench take a stab at being a Bad Girl. Disc extras include audio commentary with director Richard Eyre, featurettes, and webisodes.

Paramount, 1949, B&W, 115 mins.- Universal DVD



Ralph Richardson: "You mustn't be too much bent on a fortune."

The question is, is impoverished young dandy Montgomery Clift just after the inheritance money of Richardson's daughter Olivia deHavilland, or has he really fallen head-over-heels in love with her? Given that deHavilland is a plain, socially graceless creature well past the standard marrying age in 1880s New York City, and that Clift proposes within a week of meeting her, it's a fair query. For Richardson the answer is obvious- Clift is a spendthrift fortune hunter. Despite the entreaties of the wannabe newlyweds and deHavilland's sympathetic aunt, Miriam Hopkins, Richardson does his best to put the kibosh on the marriage. But he underestimates his daughter's yearning for the affection that he himself has denied her- and for the first time in her life, deHavilland is willing to butt heads with him. Is it better to make a quick grab for possible happiness, even when it may be based on false pretenses, or to follow a more deliberate path? Sometimes just asking the question can stir up a figurative beehive full of trouble.

This classic conflict between head and heart, adapted from a stage play based on the Henry James story "Washington Square," earned star deHavilland her second Academy Award. Even with a pass from the makeup department's spinster brush, she's a bit too good-looking for the role, but in every other way she nails it. Shy and withdrawn, this is a woman who has never been given what she needs to grow into a fully-formed individual. Her father maintains that he has tried to help her, but he can't stop comparing her to her idolized, long-dead mother, and his occasional supportive comments are offset by thoughtless putdowns- which deHavilland has grown sadly used to. Old pro Richardson is great as the father, whose acerbic wit also finds a target in the lady-charming Clift. Clift's role isn’t as flashy, but you can see why he was a fast-rising star at the time this was made. The conflict between the ensemble unleashes the aforementioned beehive, with results that are not happy but which do offer some gratification- particularly if you're a film buff. Noted producer/director William Wyler's presentation of this simple but engaging story takes advantage of the production gloss of a major studio- it's even got an Oscar-winning musical score by Aaron Copeland- while keeping the focus where it should be, on the characters and their unfortunate lives. All in all, it's worth a look if you're up for a finely-tuned period melodrama. There are no extras of note on the disc.



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© Melt Magazine 2007