November tends to be a packed month for entertainment, especially when it comes to film. There is often a mix of big studio releases, such as a high-profile genre piece or an animated film from Disney, a string of efforts with vying for awards consideration, and small independent flicks receiving considerable acclaim from critics and audiences. While last year saw a break from that for obvious reasons, this November boasted multiple features carrying significant appeal, some of which were released theatrically and on streaming platforms. Thankfully, many of them delivered on their promise, and for this edition of ‘What I’ve Been Watching’ I have decided to pay tribute to these efforts, especially given that I have not covered too many 2021 releases on this blog. There were a few movies I saw that I hope to pay tribute to at the end of the year in another post, but here are my thoughts on three films, all very different tonally and thematically, that I would highly recommend checking out.
Having established herself as an extremely gifted actress (see this year’s horror flick The Night House as recent evidence), Rebecca Hall makes her first foray in directing with an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, which played at the Sundance Film Festival back in January where it was picked up by Netflix. It centres on a pair of friends – Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) – who reunite by chance in a Chicago hotel after many years apart. Clare is Black woman who “passes” as white and whose husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) is extremely bigoted. This adds a complicated element to the dynamic she shares with Irene, exacerbated by the latter’s discomfort with the warm interactions that develop between her own husband John (André Holland) and Clare.
Passing is a poignant exploration of grappling with one’s identity, with both Irene and Clare’s arcs handled with considerable complexity. Hall chooses to frame events from the former’s perspective, and it proves to be an astute move as not only does it more sharply illuminate issues like insecurity, but it creates a layer of tension to proceedings which pays off in the final ten minutes. The alternative directions Irene and Clare’s lives have gone in demonstrates the challenging position members of the African-American community have faced regarding their cultural heritage. Clare possesses a certain degree of privilege due to her decision to “pass”, while Irene prefers to remain embedded in the Black community of Harlem, and inevitably these different approaches lead to a number of engrossing discussions between the pair as they are forced to reconsider their choices.
Hall’s adaptation relies on actors who can convey so much without saying a lot, and the casting of Thompson and Negga is a masterstroke in this regard. Their characters have to rein in their emotions during various exchanges, especially those involving John, but viewers are still able to get a sense of their discomfort due to their skill at delivering subtle facial expressions and body language. As well as being a thematically rich feature, Passing also serves as an exhibition of exquisite technical craftsmanship, particularly the black-and-white cinematography which complements the central idea of obfuscated identities. Hall’s handling of both components bodes well for the rest of her filmmaking career, and ultimately this drama succeeds in highlighting how the subject matter of Larsen’s almost 100-year-old novel still carries significant resonance.
Ever since the news of her casting emerged, Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Diana, Princess of Wales was one of many cinephiles’ most anticipated performances of the year. The fact that she was collaborating with Pablo Larraín, whose 2016 effort Jackie featured an outstanding lead turn from Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, added to the excitement. However, one of the most intriguing elements of Jackie is the manner in which it veered away from the tropes of the biographical drama genre, instead choosing to use the former first lady of the United States as a figure from which to develop a compelling piece about grief. With Spencer, Larraín has adopted a similar approach, but on this occasion the central theme is loneliness.
From the outset, this movie does not claim to be a totally accurate account of Diana’s experiences as a member the British royal family, labelling itself ‘a fable from a true tragedy’. As it progresses, you begin to see why Spencer this subtitle was included, as certain exchanges the Princess of Wales has with numerous individuals leave a lot to be desired when it comes to historical validity, but starkly convey the sense of isolation the central figure was grappling with. The psychological torment caused by her dysfunctional marriage with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and intense media coverage are brought into sharp focus, not through a series of extensive dialogue-heavy sequences or montages, but through scenes that border on the surreal at times. From a book written about Anne Boleyn that brings about a spectral presence in Diana’s life to a Christmas dinner with the family that is framed as though it is a military exercise, Larraín’s piece feels like the first horror film set in Buckingham Palace.
Understandably, the Chilean director’s unconventional depiction of Diana’s ordeal will perplex some viewers, but to others, myself included, it serves as a refreshing look at a turbulent period in the Princess’s life, mainly due to how grounded it feels. Rather than focusing on the aspects of her career that helped shape her into a British icon, Larraín is more concerned with the facets of her personality that audiences are likely to relate to, which range from rebellious instincts to her maternal qualities, and even a knack for spouting rather explicit language. Any viewers sceptical of the casting of Stewart based solely on the type of character she played in Twilight films ought to be impressed with just how wonderful she is in the role. Just like Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Passing, Stewart is incredibly gifted at emitting an array of emotions in an understated manner, but this renders the moments where she is able to outwardly express her feelings all the more hard-hitting. Her interactions with William and Harry as well as Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) – her closest friend in the palace – are a showcase of Stewart’s ability to convey the warmth and wittiness of the Princess, while the tense conversations with Charles are remarkable in the way the actress excels in projecting her frustrations with royal life while still managing to hold certain frustrations back. It remains to be seen the extent to which Stewart’s critical acclaim for her performance translates to awards success, but this project certainly marks a peak for the actress in her career, and the film itself is bound to leave an impact on viewers, whether it be baffling or spellbinding.
Marking their second 2021 release as well as their 60th production overall, Encanto sees Walt Disney Animation Studios continuing to explore cultures that have been largely neglected in mainstream American cinema and building compelling stories around them. Just as Moana (2016) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) delved into Polynesian mythology and Southeast Asian traditions respectively, their latest picture is set in Colombia and tackles the dynamics of a Latino family, with some magical realism thrown in for good measure. The main protagonist is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who is the only member of Madrigal household not to have been blessed with a special gift. She discovers that the magic of “Casita”, which has protected the village the Madrigals live in for years, is waning, and sets about trying to discover the reasons why and ultimately ensure that her family’s security is maintained.
There are elements of Encanto’s story that closely resemble those of other recent efforts from Walt Disney Animation Studios; uncovering secrets about one’s ancestors, the lack of a traditional antagonist, the struggle with feeling like an outsider among your community, and the mending of fractious relationships. While it may seem as though their films are in danger of becoming too repetitive, Encanto thankfully manages to tweak enough of these narrative features to render it engaging. One of the potential issues is that the large number of members of the Madrigal family might lead to certain figures being underserved, but the writing team cleverly orchestrate events so that Mirabel is forced to interact with multiple relatives in order to acquire information that might be pivotal in preserving the Casita’s magic. Furthermore, the majority of musical numbers tend to revolve around one of the Madrigals, therefore these sequences, which could easily have halted the story’s momentum, serve to propel the narrative forward, add layers to the supporting players, and deliver dazzling spectacles for children and adults to enjoy.
Like Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, Encanto demonstrates the incredible amount of detail the team at Walt Disney Animation Studios are able to incorporate into a feature film that honours a specific community. The food, fashion, and music that influences Colombian culture is captured exquisitely, but what is more impressive is the movie’s courage to integrate darker aspects of the nation’s history into the storyline, with the origins of the magic protecting the Madrigals closely linked to an unspecified civil war. It bodes well for the quality of their future efforts that the studio is unafraid to tackle the more painful elements of a civilisation to give the narratives more dramatic weight, rather than being entirely focused on the characteristics that would appeal to a younger audience. Ultimately, Encanto underlines why it is imperative that Disney continue to offer original tales like this, not only for the sake of necessary representation for marginalised communities, but to keep the creative juices flowing which has facilitated the high level of quality of their recent animated features.