I don’t usually provide extracurricular reading beyond a podcast because making time for the podcast episode itself can feel like a stretch. But in this interview Jemma references a lot of her own work, as well as lots of other people’s and considering the brilliance of that work, I wanted to collate it all in one place (along with some of my own reading recommendations) in case you felt inspired to do some homework.
Jemma is is a writer, researcher and curator based in London, currently completing a PhD on practices of freedom in the arts. Most recently she was Head of Programming at the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival and she has also held positions at the BFI London Film Festival, British Council and Independent Cinema Office. She is also the founder of a curatorial initiative called I Am Dora and is a fellow of the Clore Leadership programme.
We talk about a myriad of things including her role as programmer and her ambivalence around that label, community, colonialism, the need to redefine or abolish the idea of linear progression, what leadership means to her, and why she hopes it will be dismantled, the issues at the heart of campaigns like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, how to structurally enable care, out of office emails, embracing possibility and joy and much much more.
I also recommend this conversation on YouTube between Lola Olufemi – who is a member of bare minimum – and curatorial collective Languid Hands, as it touches upon some of themes / terms that Jemma references, including radical resistance, abolition and liberatory praxis.
Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online
Serial killers, a conman, a champion racing horse, a yacht race and Ken Loach. What unites them? Director Louise Osmond has made a documentary focusing on these subjects. Intrigued as to how she came to discover these fascinating, and sometimes lesser-known stories, we spoke to the Grierson award-winning filmmaker about the through lines and learning curves of her career.
Can you describe your path to directing?
I started in news as a trainee at ITN. It was a great way to learn, working with reporters, cameramen, soundmen and editors who’d covered some of the great events of the time. The lessons I learnt there have stayed with me ever since. As time went on, I found I wanted to stay behind after the news events we covered and find out what happened next.
That led me to documentaries and a mentor, Julian Ware, who worked for ITN’s documentary department. I turned up on my first day at work for him, dressed quite smart — people in news wore suits then — and he said if you want to be taken seriously in documentaries you’re going to have to dress scruffy. I took his words to heart.
How do you find stories that you want to tell, or do they find you?
I always think I’ll learn the answer to that and it will get easier but it hasn’t yet. It’s really about finding a subject or a character I feel an emotional connection to, in a story that feels relevant to the way we live today.
And how do you go about finding your subjects?
It’s a chaotic search, spanning many areas but gradually the same subjects keep cropping up on the many lists and piles of scrap paper, so I’ll keep digging deeper on those. When you find something special you know instantly, it’s an electric feeling. Sadly, that doesn’t always mean it will get made but it’s good to know you will find those passion projects if you keep looking.
Do you have an interview technique or style? How do you try to elicit the best results from subjects?
I really believe anyone can tell a story they care about. Our job is just to listen and draw them out as best we can. I worked with the producer, Judith Dawson, on many projects including Dark Horse and she was a wonderful journalist. She invested a lot of time and care in building trust with her characters and, by the time it came to film, you could feel that in the room.
Is your approach as a director the same as in journalism; to investigate and probe?
That’s an important part of it. That process helps you draw out the potential in the material and then it becomes about storytelling too: how to approach the subject in the richest way possible.
Do you have a sense of the film and how it’s going to play out as you’re shooting, or does it change in the edit?
You’ve made several documentaries that have gone on to become narrative films; Deep Water became The Mercy and Dark Horse is now Dream Horse, the latter two having been backed by Film4, are you involved in that process at all? And is it your preference that audiences see the documentaries first?
Not at all, the films are there to be found by anyone who’s interested and a new audience will come to the narrative films not having any idea about the true story behind them. It’s great that there’s an appetite out there for true stories; that seems like a very healthy thing in turbulent times.
There is a sense of greater opportunity for women documentarians; at this year’s Oscars 4/5 of the nominated films for Best Documentary were co-directed by women — have you found that to be the case in your career? And if so, why?
When I was starting out there’s no question it helped me to have a mentor in my corner, persuading people to take a chance on me. The ideal now, is that it’s just not an issue at all. All kinds of women can tell all kinds of stories and bring their history and imagination to the subject.
What’s been the biggest learning curve of your career?
Learning how to tell stories is a never-ending pleasure and challenge. Every project I start, I feel like I’m learning essential lessons all over again.
What do you love most about making documentaries?
Each film is a new journey. You’re setting out into a new world, trying to find the people and the story you want to share when you get back.
With Pablo Larraín’s meticulous and melancholy portrait of Jackie Kennedy currently available to stream on All4, we spoke to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim about researching and writing the private moments of one of America’s most revered public figures…
Jackie is a re-lensing or re-framing of the Jackie Kennedy as we might already know her, how much research did you do and how did you balance that with a sense of humanism and a sense that this is a character study more than a history lesson?
There are few modern figures more closely scrutinized than Jackie Kennedy and few historical episodes more closely studied than the Kennedy Assassination. I had no interest in revisiting any of the familiar tropes, but I did immerse myself in the tremendous body of work around both. I read everything I could about both Jackie and the few days the movie covers, relying especially on the primary sources available through the Kennedy Presidential Library.
I strongly believe that the public narrative around any person or event is almost always wrong in fundamental ways, so that presumption was my starting point. I relied on the research to establish the chronology of events, the people that were present, and other concrete facts that could be reliably established. And then I tried to imagine the human dynamics and personalities at play to tell the story of a woman grieving the murder of her husband.
Director Pablo Larraín was quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that “the more [he] dives into them (in reference to Jackie, and also Pablo Neruda), the more mysterious they are.” Is that something you relate to? Is writing a biopic sometimes about leaning into the subject’s inherent unknowability?
It’s hard to truly know the people in our own lives, let alone historical figures we’ve never met. I’ve never personally known a public figure who wasn’t dramatically different from their public persona. I think the best biopics not only upend our preconceptions but also embrace the ultimate inscrutability of every human being.
Did it bother you at all that there might’ve been biopic fatigue among film-going audiences? And were you looking to revitalise the genre in any way? And if so, how did you go about doing that?
I wrote Jackie many, many years before it was produced and released so I wasn’t really making a calculation about audience taste at that moment. As for the genre, I thought about the story less as a “biopic” in the traditional sense, and more as a character study at an especially intense moment in time. I do think audiences are always interested in the human experience, especially in its extremes. Jackie Kennedy’s husband was shot dead, right next to her. How does someone confront a horror like that, with two kids to raise, and the entire world watching? That just felt like an interesting story to explore.
Rather than taking the cradle-to-grave approach to telling this story, why did you think a more concentrated or expressionistic approach might actually better serve both Jackie herself and the biopic as a genre?
Cradle-to-grave films can be wonderful in capturing the scope of a person’s life, the major pivots in their journeys, giving the audience a sense of historical sweep. But in this case, I was just less interested in sweep and more interested in depth and intimacy. Hopefully the more focused approach yields insight into the entirety of the person’s life, but if nothing else, the goal was to capture the emotional reality of this one moment.
Were there any rules or cliches you deliberately avoided?
Not so much about the biopic genre, but we certainly wanted to confront the Kennedy cliches. We really wanted to cut through them by depicting the moment when Jackie very consciously constructed that Camelot mythology most Americans are familiar with. It’s an extraordinary historical fact that she did so during this period of mourning.
Were there any other films that had managed to reassess their subjects or capture their spirit that you looked to for guidance?
The Queen is the most obvious inspiration. Peter Morgan is a genius.
So for this week’s episode, I did my first out of office recording and went to the lovely Film London offices in Finsbury Park for a causerie with Jordan McGarry. I have to say all my guests so far have been big wins for me, and Jordan continues that trend. I think she’s a force in the industry and to have lured her away from a very important job for an hour to talk about mentors, music videos and making short films was sheer heaven.
Jordan is responsible for Film London’s production and talent development strategy, as well its range of training initiatives.Before Film London, she spent five years as Director of Curation at Vimeo, leading the team that programmed the site’s illustrious Staff Picks channel for a monthly audience of 200m visitors. Jordan had also paid her dues as a journalist, in festival programming, video commissioning and as an executive producer at Partizan London.
Spoiler alert my favourite part of the chat is when we talk about cultivating relationships as the key to achieving a fulfilling career and just getting out in the world and being interested.
This was a supremely brilliant chat. Do forgive the occasional kitchen sink clinking and background chatter. Frankly I included it on purpose to convey the vibrant ambience of Film London’s office.
Starting her career assisting directors and producing shorts in Australia, Emma returned to London where she worked for the BFI and Film London, as well as producing commercials, music videos and shorts, including Oysters which was commissioned as part of London Calling Plus in 2016.
Emma has previously taken part in the Edinburgh International Film Festival Talent Lab and the Mini Meet Market at DocFest, and was selected for this year’s Birds Eye View Filmonomics scheme. As well as producing her own projects she also works on film and drama projects for the Wellcome Trust, bringing writers, researchers and ideas together.
In this episode, we talk about producing her first feature, Mari, which premiered at the 2018 London Film Festival, the mantra she uses to keep things in perspective, how she overcame on-set obstacles, the differences between a producer and an exec producer credit and why you should send difficult emails before lunch!
I have decided to republish this interview, done in April 2013 for Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar after the success of Sarah’s latest novel The Tidal Zone and her nomination for the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize.
Sarah Moss, author of Names for the Sea, a lecturer in the Creative Writing Department here at the University of Warwick and a nominee for the RSL’s Ondaatje Prize 2013 talks ‘pissing’, place and the pleasures of living in Iceland.
I meet Sarah in her office here at the University of Warwick. Softly spoken and articulate, she greets me warmly and we waste no time in getting down to the questions.
Having just had friends that came back from Iceland, I was eager to get Sarah’s opinions on their exclamations that it’s an undeniably ‘foreign’ country, whereby winter is devoid of light and the landscape is breathtakingly different. Whereas “here we tend to think of it in binary terms, either it’s light or its dark, in Iceland in winter there’s this incredible slow sunrise that lasts 3, even 4 hours”. Already it’s clear to me that a profound sense of fondness for this environment resides in Sarah, who has proclaimed to “like the far North” and whose description of a “pink and westerly sunset and the graduations of light and dark” immediately evoke a stark beauty that no doubt draws visitors in to Iceland.
“The big question”, of course, is what prompted the move to Iceland, the premise and experience of which forms the content of Sarah’s latest novel, Names for the Sea. She recounts a “summer spent there when 19, with a friend”. Devoid of money and food, they set off around “one road that goes all the way around the edge of Iceland [with just] a tent and two sleeping bags”. This was after all “the late 90s” and not a ‘gap-yah’. “No mobile phones, no twitter”, there’s a sense of abandonment, but also of complete freedom. Sarah affirms that they “had an amazing time, particularly for young women to be completely free and completely safe…was an astonishing experience” that prompted her desire to one day return.
After marriage and two children, the circumstances to return and perhaps relive the adventures of young adulthood fell into place. “I was just kind of messing around on the internet and saw a job as a lecturer of English at the University of Iceland… My husband and I agreed I’d go for the interview and just see what it’s like and I went and I loved it again. So we all went for a week, so everyone else could see if they loved it. And in the end we thought ‘let’s just do this’. You don’t get these opportunities very often”. It’s the sort of courage of conviction that many of us lack and which proves very inspiring.
I ask whether the sense of freedom felt so potently the first time around was replicated. Of course “with a husband and two children” in tow, there’s now a responsibility that perhaps wasn’t present at 19. However, “there were different kinds of freedom, not all of which I recognised at the time, just being outside my own culture for a year – anywhere – gave me a kind of freedom and a kind of distance. Being able to walk around the city by myself in the early hours of the morning, even in yours 30s, that’s something you don’t get to do very often”.
A “beautiful” country, but one also recently wreaked by disaster – both of a natural and a financial kind. In fact, Sarah and her family were living in Rekyjavik when the Icelandic volcano, that became a stalwart feature of British news, erupted. Sarah recalls this “bizarre experience”, but that there was no real sense of crisis on those living in Rekyjavik.
Settling in to a new school or University can be difficult, let alone a new country, where language barriers, different outlooks and a new way of life present a whole host of challenges. Sarah admits that it was “harder than expected” and that learning Icelandic was “really difficult”. Working in the English department at the University of Iceland and “of course speaking English at home” no doubt compounded the problem. “My only opportunities to speak Icelandic were in shops and buses”. Much the same to learning GCSE French and realising you can tell someone the contents of your pencil case, but not engage in a colloquial conversation. A case of lost in translation in some respects. Perhaps exacerbating the difficult of learning another language, was that her 2-year old son was picking up words at lightning speech, a process which Sarah describes as “fascinating”. Within 6 weeks, his nursery claiming that he “sounded like an Iceland 3-year old”.
Teaching in Iceland, was no doubt, a very different experience from that of teaching at Warwick. “In Iceland, there are no tuition fees and there are no entry requirements. It is an absolutely fundamental principle of Iceland that the University is supported by the state and anybody can go. But because of that there’s no control over group sizes, so I had groups of 40ish. And I was supposed to be teaching Creative Writing, so I had to change how I did it…It was a bit of a shock for them and for me I enjoyed it very much”.
Sarah recalls one anecdote involving the word ‘piss’: “One of things that was quite funny was there was only one Icelandic word for ‘peeing’, which is ‘pissa’, so Icelanders will translate it as ‘piss’. So you’re sitting in a seminar and somebody will raise their hand and say ‘I’m just going to piss’ and you just think ‘Oh, right’. (Laughs) But they don’t have that sense of ‘excuse me a moment’, all of that sort of euphemism and because it doesn’t exist in Icelandic, they assume it doesn’t exist in English”.
As aforementioned Names for the Sea recounts the disruption, delight and difference of moving to another country and I wonder whether this book was planned before the venture, or whether it took shape whilst out there. “I knew it was likely I would end up writing about Iceland, but I didn’t do it in order to write about it. I think it would’ve been a very different experience if I had. Towards the end the project was taking shape and I had a sense of the themes I might write about, but I didn’t have a clear structural plan in mind”. This novel also charts Sarah’s transfer from the mode of fiction to non-fiction: “it was extremely good for me to turn away from fiction. Change of perspective, change of technique, it was also the coming together of my academic and my writerly interests. My academic background is in travel writing and nature and place writing, so it was really nice to be doing the form that I’d been studying for ten years. And I’m now more confident about using them in my teaching”.
The teaching Sarah refers to include a module in the Warwick Writing Programme on experiencing place and belonging. I wonder whether Sarah ever felt she could belong in Iceland. “Belonging is one of the things that really interests me academically and creatively. I’ve moved around a lot, I was born in Scotland, grew up in Manchester, spent 10 years in Oxford, 4 years in Canterbury, 1 in Iceland, 3 in West Cornwall. I’m half American. The American half is Jewish Diaspora. Lots of different places and lots of different ways in which I might claim belonging. All of these different ways of claiming place. I certainly want to go back to Iceland. I miss it. I feel connected to it in ways I don’t feel connected to other places, but whether that counts as belonging I couldn’t say”.
Any advice for students at Warwick seeking publication? “Give it all you’ve got – but for a set period. Focus completely and decide how long you’re going to do it for. The great thing about your early 20s is that you can try things with very low risk. There’s no reason why at 22 or 23 you shouldn’t devote yourself to your writing and see where it goes”.
And of course, Sarah is amongst the nominees for this year’s Ondaatje Prize, with the winner to be announced in late May. An “encouraging, exciting, gratifying” honour indeed.
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland was published by Granta at the beginning of July 2012.
In their oversized t-shirts, smudged eye-liner and beers-in-hand, the sleeve art of Leave Me Alone might as well be a photo of your best girl mates outside that sticky uni club on a Wednesday night. But this sort of dirty dilettante vibe is exactly what fuels Hinds’ appeal. They are the sort of girls you could get along really well with, whipping your hair back and forth or going vintage shopping, as well as being a grungy, Madrid-based quartet that also make really cool music. They’re not preened pop princesses. They’re girls you know. And like all the more for it. Their debut album is just as unfocused as the album cover; playful, haphazard, home-video-style, with sleepy, beach-y melodies (homage to Mac DeMarco) and whimsical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The raucous, strident percussion and occasional chorus-chanting is often chaotic, with sounds and voices competing to be heard, but the album holds together so well because it’s undeniably theirs. It’s their heart, soul, sweat and saliva that’s gone into the production of it. Call them dishevelled. Call it careless. But whatever insouciant brand of garage these girls are operating under, they’re owning it. And whatever they’re selling, I’m buying.
9. Rihanna – ANTI
R.Kelly once sang that “after the show its the after party, And after the party its the hotel lobby, Around about 4 you gotta clear the lobby, Then head take it to your room and freak somebody”. To me, ANTI is Rihanna soundtracking that hook-up. She’s not written this album for the sell-out stadium shows, or for Grammy nominations, or for the millions of devotees that like to slut-drop to Rude Boy. This is purely for herself, and whoever has the good fortune to be invited back to her and Mary Jane’s lair. In Rihanna’s post-pop, post-language rebirth she’s created something subdued, introspective and soulful. There’s none of the flashy, chart-topping anthems that we’ve come to expect from her, mechanically engineered, year after year since 2005. Instead, rejecting the mould of badass pop star that has been built for her, and which she’s so magnificently inhabited, Rihanna has made an anti-commercial, anti-mainstream, anti-Taylor-Swift’s-cutesy-girl-gang album. And if it’s not the triumphant, catchy, provocative music you’re used to, well that’s exactly the point. That doesn’t mean the songs are bad. Consideration, Kiss It Better and Work simmer and throb with the kind of woozy sensuality that Rihanna is so brilliant at. But if ANTI does anything brilliantly, it’s give space to allow Rihanna’s voice to shine (bright like a diamond). My favourite song of hers by far is “FourFiveSeconds” in which she belted with raw, unabashed feeling, only serving to amplify the level of vulnerability and soul in her voice. Here, she builds on that foundation, revealing a side of her – though don’t be fooled, this is just how she wants you to currently see her – we’ve rarely had the joy to behold. ANTI is a brazen, bold statement of intent, and an ANTIdote to the manufactured pop of Rihanna’s yesteryears.
8. Eliot Sumner – Information
Sting’s prodigal daughter burst onto the music scene as I Blame Coco. But in shedding the cutesy moniker and opting to work under her given name, she returns with a moody, melodramatic and ambitious sophomore album that plays like a coruscating fever dream. Having honed in on and toned down her ‘sound’, Sumner produces an album of astonishing singularity, pulsating with vulnerability and searing synth-hooks that play to the strengths of her distinctive, husky vocals.
7. Banks – The Altar
Brooding, menacing, searing synths and infectious pop hooks only serve to showcase Bank’s vocal talent, as she dishes up a platter of deliveries, cadences, and range over dissonant strings and thumping bass. But for all its experimental production and deeply-honest lyrics, this is an album to make you feel empowered.
6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Bon Iver, a.k.a Justin Vernon’s latest musical offering sounds like it was born out of Netflix’s Stranger Things sinister parallel universe, The Upside Down. This isn’t the Bon Iver we know and love – impressionistic, mournful, spiritual, trading in acoustic hums and strums – and it’s taken a bit of getting used. But if you can overcome your purist reservations there’s a lot to love here. Despite the glitchy, dissonant and electronic surface, the architecture of Bon Iver’s music remains visible; pastoral themes explored with a penetrating uncertainty. It clocks in at a mere 35 minutes long, but in spite of its brevity, Iver never loses the meditative quality that permeates his previous albums. Synth-heavy and processed it might be, but in pushing beyond the borders of the genre to which we’ve acclimatised ourselves to in relation to Iver, he creates something revelatory, surprising and adventurous. Which surely is what the best music should be?
5. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
Existing on the periphery of cool, you don’t lose all manner of dignity admitting you like The 1975, as you would with, say, One Direction, but certainly a big chunk of it would disappear. They’re like an edgier version of The Vamps or a grittier version of 5 Seconds of Summer, except that I like their music. And as much as I could’ve earned more regard among peers by putting Kendrick or Chance or Kanye in the number 5 spot, I’ve given it to these weed-smoking, skinny-jean wearing lads because they’re a huge amount of fun. This is music I’d dance to. And lord knows I like to do that. And with their skittish, aspirational sophomore album (see above) they might just have crawled their way into the realms of reverence.
ILIWYSFYASBYSUOT (more effort than typing the actual title) is self-indulgent, sprawling, self-proclaimed ‘art’. It’s obscenely pretentious and it’s not hiding the fact. It riffs of the effervescent sounds of the 80s; all neon-drenched rhythms and resounding hooks, the gleaming glossiness of which is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s 1989, just less neatly packaged and besieged by introspection, digression and experimentation. The ‘hits’ (The Sound, UGH) are interspersed with 6-minute spasms of instrumentals. It tackles BIG SERIOUS TOPICS like fame, faith, loss, love and sex with a trademark bluntness and wit and whilst the profundity the band might be aiming for doesn’t always come of, the playful wackiness certainly does. It’s hard to not to admire the sheer appetite for genre that The 1975 display and how earnest and eager they are to be irreverent. And for that reason they earn this (much coveted) spot.
4. Solange Knowles – A Seat at the Table
Solange (a.k.a. sister of Beyoncé) comes into her own with this Motown-esque, but thoroughly current album packed to the rafters with dreamy melodies and soulful laments. Not dissimilar from The 1975’s interlude-heavy artistic endeavour, almost every full length song is sandwiched between spoken word vignettes, memoirs depicting the reality of black lives and fragments of intensely personal experiences that often serve as context for the subsequent songs. I wanted to resist comparing it to Lemonade (more of which later), but its difficult when both albums are so determined to push the boundaries of what an ‘album’ is or can be. They subvert and remould and transform expectations. Both are bold statements of intent. Despite the soft, whispery vocals throughout, Solange’s statement is loud and clear. There’s a seething and simmering, but equally gentle and languid undercurrent as she traverses topics from gentrification, heritage, drugs and cultural appropriation. Yet A Seat at the Table never relinquishes its irresistibility in favour of politics, but rather becomes a pitch-perfect integration of the two. In “Don’t Touch My Hair”, the sparse production, drowsy rhythms and barely-there falsetto gives birth to a song of poignant protest. Indeed the tenderness with which Solange performs the entire album makes it that much more resonant. A Seat at the Table occasionally suffers at the hand of its plaintive textures, but keep listening, keep revisiting and you’ll unearth a lavish feast of intricate harmonies, intimate interlocutions and elegiac lyricism. Pull up a chair.
3. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Girl crush alert. Angel Olsen is amazing and this album is spectacular. I’m tempted to publish a litany of adjectives which reiterate as much. But I’ll try my hand at eloquence first.
Not dissimilar from the transformation undergone by Bon Iver in 22, A Million, Angel Olsen has emerged from her folk-rock makings and gone electric, a la Dylan circa 1965. From the brooding intensity of Intern onwards, Olsen doesn’t let up and track after track delivers something fitful, fevered and fierce. It might be heart-break fuelled, but it fizzes and flares with attitude, spunk and the conviction of an artist who is fully realising or harnessing her talent. Olsen has frequently explored the wrenching, conflicting nature of love, but never in such a way that displays all the sullen colours of her voice. Her vocals are at once soul-crushing and electrifying, and despite all the twinkly synths and burnished bass-lines, the staggering thing about the album is the rage Olsen unleashes. The line “hurts to be around you” in Give It Up is a perfect example of where upbeat guitars and riffs almost disguise the anguish this album deals with. It plunges you into the depths of Olsen’s emotions in all their raw, chaotic splendour and never loosens its grip. Which oddly becomes an exhilarating, rather than wearying experience. Amid murmurs, wails and swelling guitar solos, Olsen gifts us an intoxicating, bittersweet record. Fearless.
An anthemic manifesto. A film. A piece of concept art. A staggering achievement that cements Beyoncé as an artist at the height of her powers and influence. Who knows how the hell to define Lemonade. But lord am I glad life gave Bey some lemons. It’s punchier and more potent that anything she’s hitherto delivered; a visceral and profound insight into the speculated infidelities between her and Jay-Z and her subsequent journey through anger, revenge, jealously, acceptance, forgiveness, redemption and so much more. The whole album is a force to be reckoned with, but particularly tracks 2 – 6 are the best we’ve ever heard from Beyoncé (despite the shade it’s received, I’m a big fan of Daddy Lessons). Her vocal prowess is unprecedented. The sheer range when combined with her distinctive patois, individualistic inflections and overall poise confirm her as artist of singular talent. There is no-one like her. But equally Lemonade isn’t afraid to mix things up and incorporate artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and James Blake, which never once dilutes this being completely Beyoncé’s album, but rather augments it. She emerges from the swirling flavours and samples a post-genre pop star, as comfortable singing country as hip-hop or soul. As sonically audacious as it is emotionally excavating, Beyoncé is at once the most human we’ve ever seen her and the most divine. An utterly transcendent experience.
1. Christine & The Queens – Chaleur Humaine
Swooping down and nabbing the No. 1 spot? Of course it’s something you can dance to.
Christine & The Queens, the adventurous, androgynous outfit of French songstress Héloïse Letissier, has been performing for a while in her native France. Reminiscent of St. Vincent’s self-titled album in its slick execution and infectious tapestry of beats, but equally inventive, Chaleur Humaine confirms Letissier as an artist deserving of mainstream attention. In exploring the liminal spaces and contours of one’s identity and sexuality, Letissier produces something quick-witted, subversive, joyous, colourful and empowering. Segueing from mesmeric ballads to jaunty pop anthems (try getting Titled or iT out of your head), don’t be fooled by the slinky exterior of these sparkling synth-pop productions, this is a formidable album from an enigmatic personality. Surrender yourself to the Queen.
A film ‘inspired by’ the notorious Josef Fritzl case and warning of a ‘strong abduction theme’ could easily be dismissed as harrowing awards fodder, replete with tearful reunions and traumatic flashbacks.
But Lenny Abrahamson (last seen unleashing quirk in full throttle with Frank) is a smarter director than that, and screenwriter Emma Donoghue knows the source material better than that (she did after all pen the novel it’s based upon). Together, they’ve stripped the story back to its most gripping core and Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) story is ultimately one of survival.
Despite assumptions, it’s not all desperately sad. At its heart, Room is about a mother and son, and if nothing more, it tingles with the triumph of the human spirit.
Room immediately depicts a sense of claustrophobia, using tight close-ups to showcase the sparsely-furnished prison – objects all personified by 5 year old Jack – and to illustrate the startling intimacy of a mother and her child, obligated to breathe the same squalid air day in and day out. However, by envisioning the space from a child’s perspective it becomes a canvas for his imagination, as yet unburdened by the agonising circumstances of his existence.
As a result, their relationship is both fraught with the frustrations of their limitations (Jack is mad at Ma for forgetting the candles on his birthday cake, not awed by her ability to whip one up at all), and the site of overwhelming tenderness. Ma has lovingly created a routine (involving ‘track’, reading, play, tea and bath-time) and a sense of normality for her son. In some regards she has sacrificed her own sanity to enable her son to live freely and contently, for Room is all he has ever known.
When their captor ‘Old Nick’ – a man only ever glimpsed by Jack through wardrobe slats, as he pay regular visits to restock their cupboards and rape Ma – reveals his on-going struggle to provide for them, Ma knows his ‘kindness’ wouldn’t extend to keeping them alive. It’s at this point Room becomes a story of gripping intensity, as Ma hatches a plan to escape, reliant on Jack’s ability to both understand and operate in a world he has never been a part of, let alone knew existed.
Despite assumptions, it’s not all desperately sad. At its heart, Room is about a mother and son, and if nothing more, it tingles with the triumph of the human spirit.
Brie Larson avoided the sun and lived on a protein-rich diet to gain the pallid complexion and sinewy limbs of a young woman forced to spent 7 years of her life in an 100 square foot room. But her transformation runs deeper than the appearance of obvious deprivation. For an actress predominantly seen in comedic supporting roles (21 Jump Street, Trainwreck), you could be forgiven for describing her performance as revelatory. More than that, it’s astonishingly layered. In Ma’s eyes, we witness every strain and every patience tested. We feel the urgency of her revealing the truth to Jack and we glimpse her remembrance of a life outside of Room, of a childhood innocence brutally snatched away. Even in acts of seeming cruelty – wrapping her son up in a rug as he plays dead and willing him to repeatedly roll himself free – we sense nothing but unconditional love. Ma is a woman on the brink and Larson imbues her with a tenacity and shrewdness, conveying both her devastating vulnerability and bristling with a maternal fierceness.
Of course the very nature of the plot requires a young actor able to hold his own against Larson’s powerhouse performance. And Jacob Tremblay does just that. It’s not surprising he calls Larson his ‘best friend’, for the closeness they exude is remarkable. At every turn Tremblay manages to express Jack’s innocence, petulance, curiosity and finally, his wide-eyed wonder in experiencing a series of firsts.
Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide reliable, understated support as the parents having to adjust to their daughter’s return and taking small steps to introduce their grandson to the realities of the world. The clever design of their home and the suffocating presence of the media also hint at whether Ma and Jack are just as much captives outside of Room.
We’ve seen Abrahamson achieve a balance between absurdity and hilarity with the wondrous Frank and with Room he proves himself adept at crafting an intelligent and intense drama from a child’s perspective without succumbing to mawkishness. He never milks Jack’s naiveté, but rather carefully harnesses it to create moments of severe poignancy and potency. Tremblay’s scenes with the underrated Allen (who isn’t seen in enough movies) are particularly wrenching, as Jack innocently reveals details of the torment he and Ma endured.
As agonizing as the transition process is for all involved – the audience especially – it’s a testament to all involved that you can never tear yourself away. In a malevolent and unpredictable world, where Ma’s kindness was met with an act of unimaginable cruelty, Abrahamson finds a beauty and solace.
Verdict:Disturbing and absorbing in equal measure. Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture Oscar, Room is a real win for independent cinema, and a brilliant showcase for how a film – small in scope and budget – can have a big impact.
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, is a sensual and occasionally moving film, but one that altogether lacks gumption or dynamism.
Telling the story of Lili Elbe, an artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Hooper employs a sedate and sumptuous approach that may have suited his Oscar-winning biopic The King’s Speech, but feels somewhat inappropriate here.
We first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as the picture of marital bliss. Flirtatious, loving and both artistically-inclined, theirs is a relationship of complete affinity, so much so that Gerda describes her first kiss with Einar as though it was like ‘kissing myself’.
It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.
The couple are bohemian royalty, with Einar enjoying relative fame and success as a landscape painter and Gerda – though slighted by her own lack of recognition as a portraitist – content to frolic at society parties and lavish amid the dreamy surroundings of Copenhagen circa 1926.
However that happiness is no sooner established than quickly punctured by Einar’s apparent fetish for femininity and all that comes with it. Asked to sit in for their ballet dancer friend (a playful Amber Heard), whom Gerda is painting, Einar – feigning reluctance, though visibly animated – dons stockings, shoes and a dress and adopts an elegant pose. The picture is all too funny for Gerda, but for Einar it stirs a feeling of deep-seated dissatisfaction with his masculine identity. Touching the silk fabrics, there are already glimmers that he might feel more complete, more himself, were he to embrace a different persona altogether.
It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.
Gerda, still caught up in the heady hilarity of her husband’s pantomime, encourages Einar to attend a party with her dressed as a woman. Together they conjure up Lili, a bashful cousin of Einar’s, whom bears a striking resemblance to him. As Lili gradually begins to manifest full time, the film become more parodic.
Redmayne does a marvellous job of conveying Einar’s inner turmoil, and certainly as he gazes at himself in the mirror, distorting his own body to adopt a womanly form, one can’t fail to be convinced of the transformative talents of the very actor that became Stephen Hawking for last year’s The Theory Of Everything. But here the very casting a cisgender man lends falseness to the entire film, for Redmayne cannot very well become a woman. Despite his earnest attempts at delicacy and elegance, he is ultimately playing dress-up and his performance often consists more of certain poses, movements or facial expressions than it does of an underlying sense of womanhood. Redmayne captures the subtleties of body language, but all too often it feels affected and superficial.
As Einar begins to consider the possibility of becoming Lili full-time, and consulting doctors that could grant his wish, Gerda’s career begins to soar. Her portraits of Lili find an audience in Paris and as she becomes increasingly visible to society, her husband slowly disappears.
Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film. Where Redmayne is all poise and grace, hers is a performance that feels spontaneous and raw, every emotion possible flickering across her face as Gerda grapples with Einar’s new identity. The scene where Gerda begs Lili to give her her husband back is perhaps the most gut wrenching.
It’s hard to fault the filmmaking. Hooper is a director obsessed with perfection and wherever you look there is more exquisite scenery and furniture and fabric to absorb. The protagonist’s lives might be falling apart, but dammit their sofas can be flawlessly upholstered. It’s this tendency to prettify that becomes the film’s and ironically, Lili’s, undoing.
Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film.
The precise, calculated style feels too measured and not messy enough for the subject matter at hand. The painterly aesthetic might reflect its protagonist’s craft, however it doesn’t do justice to the challenge and trauma of Lili’s transition. Even when threat looms in the form of prejudiced assailants or dangerously conventional doctors, it feels tentative and performative rather than real and frightening.
Hooper and co-writer Lucinda Coxon have not only neatened Lili’s story and presumably made it more palatable for mainstream cinema-going audiences (and no doubt Oscar voters), but rather worse cut it short. Lili died at the age of 49 from a fatal womb transplant after enduring a series of operations, and therefore it seems unlikely she had a moment of epiphanic self-acceptance before conceding to death in Gerda’s arms, shortly followed by an overwhelmingly saccharine scene – that practically yells SYMBOLISM – where Lili’s scarf drifts across the Danish landscapes she hitherto committed to canvas.
Indeed Gerda’s own life took a sour turn. She did not get swept off her feet by the dashing Matthias Schoenaarts (as Hooper would have you believe), but married an Italian officer who drained her of all her financial resources. (Read more about the true story here).
The Danish Girl, for all its good intentions, is a contrived vanity project that sadly diminishes the struggle of Lili’s transformation. I walked away from the cinema thinking it was all very lovely, which I fear, was hardly the point.