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You know the drill.  Oscar nominations out on the 10th, I’m taking a look at the big eight categories.  This time: Actress.

VIRTUAL LOCK

  • Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t out here yet, and while I can totally appreciate the strategy, it still cheeses me off that Oscar nominations for 2012 movies will be out before the vast majority of people had a chance to see the movie.  I like playing along, you know?  Anyway, Jessica Chastain has a nomination for The Help and seems like a sure bet in this presumably two women race, assuming enough people saw the film.  I thought Lawrence was absolutely fantastic in Silver Linings Playbook and she absolutely deserves to be a front-runner.  She, of course, has a prior nomination for Winter’s Bone and that red dress.

GOOD BET

LIKELY IN

ON THE BUBBLE

  • Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
  • Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
  • Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
  • Naomi Watts, The Impossible
  • Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea

If you have any confidence in predicting this category, you are a braver person than I.  Riva is supposed to be fantastic, and director Haneke is essentially an arthouse cult figure at this point.  The question that everyone is asking is whether enough people managed to see the film in time.  Also, is there enough room in the category for two ladies speaking French?  Marion Cotillard sure hopes so.  I still maintain it is a supporting role.  As Adam surely remembers, Cotillard has an Oscar win for La Vie en Rose.  Having seen Hitchcock, I want to say Helen Mirren is in the weakest position of the lot.  Except, you know, it is Helen freakin’ Mirren, who has nominations for The Madness of King GeorgeGosford Park, and The Last Station, and a win for The Queen.  I haven’t gotten to The Impossible, partially because ugh.  But Naomi Watts is hitting her precursors and had a well-publicized endorsement from Reese Witherspoon.  She has an Oscar nomination for 21 Grams.  I’ve got Beasts of the Southern Wild at home from Netflix.  Wallis is supposed to be quite memorable, but the indie film has had a little bit of trouble navigating the Oscar race, and some people will have trouble voting for a nine year old who, apparently, doesn’t seem like she’s Acting.  The Deep Blue Sea came out months ago, was little seen, and is kind of not good, none of which bodes well for Rachel Weisz.  She did get the Globes nom, but the movie is in the Globes’s wheelhouse.  She’s pretty great in the film, though, which might be the most important factor of all.  Weisz has an Oscar for The Constant Gardener.

DARK HORSES

  • Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina

Count Judi Dench or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel out at your own peril.  I think the Grouches have had like six different email threads about going to see Anna Karenina, but it just hasn’t happened yet.  The film seems likely to get some technical nominations, so maybe Knightley can squeak through, even without any major precursors.  She has a nomination for Pride and Prejudice.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED

  • Carla Gugino, A Girl Walks Into a Bar
  • Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz

The Grouches got a sneak peek at Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek’s first effort since One Hour Photo. The film did the festival circuit and opened last weekend in New York and LA to very good business. It will expand throughout the country in coming weeks.

Never Let Me Go
stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as friends who grew up together at an English boarding school. But this school has a sinister purpose. How will that affect the three companions as they move into adulthood?

John

I accidentally stumbled upon the film’s secret before seeing it. That made me quite mad as I thought it ruined the film for me. But the secret turned out not to be a big revelation. In fact, it’s essentially the premise of the film and explained rather early. We won’t spoil it for you here, but I imagine the secret of the school will appear in plenty of reviews as simply a plot point. Don’t be too concerned about getting spoiled.

I really like the idea of a twisty film laying out its big secret at the beginning and letting the film be about the characters living through the secret instead of building up to a shock revelation at the end. For instance, what if there was a sequel to The Sixth Sense? What would Bruce Willis do with his time now that he knows he is dead? It could be interesting.

But Never Let Me Go isn’t. It wastes its premise by not doing anything with it. I could see it moving in several directions. It could have become a plot-driven thriller, like how Children of Men took its premise of a world without childen and spun it into an action film. It could have used its premise to explore deeper themes, like examining what it means to be human or drawing a corollary to real world issues. Instead, Never Let Me Go gives us a tepid love triangle and an understated plot that’s hard to care about because the characters are under-developed. We barely even learn what the characters think about their predicament.

I’ll address too responses to this film that I’ve heard frequently. One is, why didn’t they just run away? This actually didn’t bother me as there must be some pretty intense psychological factors at play when one knows one’s fate from an early age. But I’m only surmising because the film doesn’t explain. It probably should have because it could have been a fascinating topic to explore. Two is that the film left viewer cold and I’d have to agree. I didn’t really care what happened to the characters, especially in their love lives.

Carey Mulligan is great, but I think its only Oscar hope is in Score. It’s beautifully shot but I think it either requires more flair or it needs to be a better movie to be recognized in visual categories.

Jared

I really want to compare Never Let Me Go to another film, but doing so would reveal the inner workings of this film’s plot, and as John mentions, we aren’t going there here. Even though I don’t entirely understand his reluctance, as I don’t really see any way to spoil this movie.

The lightly dips its toes into a number of genres while delicately avoiding any semblance of a coherent story. I could be wrong, but I believe I caught one of the characters reading a Virginia Woolf novel. I’ve done my best to put aside the painful memories I have of reading her work, but one thing I distinctly remember from To the Lighthouse was a particular insistence on focusing not on plot, where chapters are devoted to short periods of time and then years elapses in a throwaway chapter. I had a similar frustration here, where it seems that nearly every important moment in the story happened off-screen. Which helped make it difficult to be emotionally invested in anything that happened on-screen. As did the consistently drab, detached feeling generated by the cinematography.

The premise is certainly interesting. And the film does raise (or attempt to, at least) a number of fascinating questions. But the dogged determination to avoid delving into any moment, feeling, or relationship means the movie never really takes the time to adequately ponder any of them. So I’m not entirely sure what to recommend about the film. It does present an intriguing framework and series of ethical dilemmas, so perhaps if that’s all you need to get the mind racing, you’ll be happy. Well, not happy, because nothing could make this uber-serious film crack a smile.

I’ll be honest, I don’t see how the film could make a play for any major awards. I obviously had problems with the script and the movie as a whole. In Bend It Like Beckham, The Edge of Love, and this one, Knightley is mining a vein of bitchy best friend that continues to surprise me. I really like both her and Carey Mulligan, but I don’t think their characters here provided much of a canvas.

Brian

As the last one to do my not-so-quick thoughts, I’ll keep this short, but I just found Never Let Me Go so blah. Had I been drawn into the character’s lives– cared about their love triangle, tried to understand the psychological damage heaped upon them — I might have cared about the end result. And had the characters been developed at all, instead of trying to mirror the slow and minimalist tone of the book (or so I’ve heard), I might have stopped trying to figure out the macro-ramifications of the world in which they lived.

I thought the title screen could have been the biggest miscue of the entire film. Without that knowledge about cancer being eradicated, and the average life span extending to 100 years old, the mystery of Hailsham would have lingered much longer and been much more engaging. The dystopian elements were so obvious to me from the start (though the specifics remained murky) — that I kept trying to latch onto Carey Mulligan or Keira Knightley’s performances. Children of Men is one of my favorite films of all-time and hidden in its heart-stopping tracking shots and escapist futurism is a thought-provoking philosphy experiment: What WOULD happen if all the women of the world stopped having babies?

Never Let Me Go tries to pull a similar trick by offering similar ethical/philosophical quandaries hidden in a love story — one that never materializes amid the pretty cinematography.

Jared said it best, all the good stuff happened off screen. And I’d give him more credit, but he went ahead and referenced Virginia Woolf. What the hell, dude?

I don’t often get a chance to say it, but: John, you are absolutely right.  Don’t let it go to your head.  To briefly summarize, The Duchess is a conventional costume drama.  Read John’s post for further details on that front, there’s no point in me repeating what he said, but suffice it to say that if the spoof movies (e.g. Scary Movie, Meet the Spartans, Dance Flick) ever get around to doing these type of movies, they probably could just watch this one and do a pretty job on the genre.  I agree that The Duchess could have taken a number of potentially interesting different tacks, but instead decided to play the game as straight as possible.  Which I guess is good if you like your movies as low risk/low reward as possible.

I suppose I should come up with a few original points, huh?  Let’s see.  The movie co-stars Hayley Atwell, who took 2008 as the year to tackle the incredibly specific niche of “The Other Woman In Mostly Failed Oscarbaiting Costume Dramas” as she also fielded that role in Brideshead Revisited.  She’s rather fetching in both films, I thought.  But maybe more importantly, her characters generally added some flavor to the movies, no small feat given the general blandness of the two films.  Indeed, I could see the argument being made that The Duchess could have been more interesting had it focused on her character rather than Knightley’s.

The late, great Fire Joe Morgan blog had this thing about working food metaphors into their posts, so they could add the “food metaphor” tag.  I’m beginning to think I do the same with Starter For Ten.  But surely it is no coincidence that James McAvoy followed starring in that with having a doomed romance with Keira Knightley in Atonement and here Ms. Knightley has doomed romance with Dominic Cooper…who co-starred as McAvoy’s best friend in Starter For Ten.  Ha!  To me, Cooper’s facial features have a certain leonine quality which creep me out a bit, so maybe it isn’t surprising he keeps showing up in these third fiddle roles, but he sure seems to be getting some plum ones (see Mamma Mia!)

Otherwise, the film probably ended up with the Oscar nominations it deserved (Art Direction and Costume Design).  I’m a big Ralph Fiennes fan, and I did think he was pretty great here as the cold husband who just wants a male heir (and to be fair, he was promised Knightley would be good at pumping out a male baby, can you really blame the guy for wanting a contract honored?), but I don’t think he was snubbed, really.  I also like Keira Knightley, sure because she’s breathtakingly pretty, but also because she has actual range.  I’m not advocating Bend It Like Beckham 2, necessarily, but I hope she can add some more non-period films to her slate, maybe even something on the lighter side.

The thing about The Duchess is that it’s entirely conventional. It’s a genre pic that plays out exactly as you would expect, with the requisite lush art direction and costume porn. The heroine is trapped in a society that doesn’t permit her to marry the one she loves but her big personality allows her to make her mark on society. Normal stuff for bodice-rippers, but ultimately I think this conventional and competent film is pretty good for the genre.

The Duchess is significantly better than the dreadful Elizabeth series. It’s more engrossing and accessible than the usual Jane Austen adaptation. But I think there’s a limit to how much I can like this sort of movie without it taking some risks and trying something different and The Duchess does not. It’s solid and adequate but nothing new.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in the late 18th century. Her marriage to Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) is political with little personal connection between the two. William really just wants a male heir and generally ignores Georgiana otherwise. Her inability to produce an heir sours their relationship further, to the point of occasional physical and emotional brutality. Naturally there’s a strapping young man who captures Georgiana’s heart, Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey. And you already know where this is heading: forbidden love, betrayal, a young woman rebelling against an aristocratic society that prevents her from determining the path of her own life.

I found the public Georgiana more interesting than her private dramas. She was a fashion icon of her time and a very vocal supporter and campaigner for the Whig party, making her a larger public figure than her husband. She was an intelligent woman fairly in tune with her society despite her place in the aristocracy. Maybe I liked these parts because they were a little different. I liked the political scenes more in Elizabeth too, but maybe just as a respite from the mind-numbing personal drama.

Knightley is getting some Best Actress buzz, which I guess is at least better than last year’s buzz for her role in Atonement. She’s gotten quite good at these period pieces and she is good here, though not spectacularly so. If she were to get nominated I would be okay with it though I’d be surprised if there weren’t five performances I end up liking more. Fiennes got even more buzz for his role that mostly required quiet seething punctuated by impressive rage and again I just found him fine. It just wasn’t that interesting. But now he’s going for Supporting Actor for The Reader so his role here will likely move to the back burner. Technical nominations in categories like Costume and Art Direction are expected and deserved.

In movies like this, the heroine generally gets married off to some man who she has little in common with. She’s a romantic, however, and pines after a handsome gentleman who, through class differences, she cannot be with. But she’s a smart woman and despite personal drama she makes her mark on the world. Often her mother is an important supporting character, a realist and strong matriarch who tells the heroine to buck up and get her head out of the clouds because she has certain duties to perform for her husband, country, and/or family. I want to see a movie about that mother for once. Why can’t the heroine be like pretty much every other aristocratic woman of the time and accept her role? Why can’t she understand the politics of marriage and use them in her favor? Why must she spend so much time brooding about love? It’d be nice to have a historical film where the woman can do her thing (lead her country, influence policy, head the royal court/her family, etc…) without spending much of the movie bemoaning her broken heart because, let’s face it, she probably doesn’t know anyone in her social circle who married for love.

I guess when it comes down to it, The Duchess is good assuming the restraints of the genre, but it never challenges those restraints, which I think limits its potential. I can’t help but compare it to Sofia Coppola’s unfairly-derided Marie Anoinette, which tried something different in terms of style, character, and plot. Not everything works in that film, but it’s always interesting and refreshingly different. The Duchess is already solid, I just wish it had some more interesting touches.

July 2017
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