Film


Mrs Henderson (Judi Dench) is a recent, very rich and somewhat eccentric widow of 1937 who decides to take up theatre owning as a more interesting occupation than embroidery or po-faced charity work. When the initial success of the venture fades, she suggests female nudity as a way to revitalise ticket sales and manages to persuade the Lord Chamberlain to agree, as long as the nudes do not move. So far, so blah.

The good news is that the film could be worse. There are various layers of themes and sub-plots, which is just as well, since the main plot – the development of the relationship between Mrs Henderson and her theatre manager (Bob Hoskins) – is somewhat understated. The dancers and nudes are not stupidly thin. Better, there are no het coupling happy-ever-afters. And Judi Dench is so wonderfully good at playing stubborn batty old women. I want to be a stubborn batty old woman when I grow up.

But there are certainly things not to like.

First, there is Mrs Henderson’s grand speech near the end of the film, intended to save the theatre from closure under wartime regulations about too many people congregating together. She claims to be doing it all for The Soldiers, Our Boys. Because Heaven forfend that, like her own boy Alec, they should be sent to their deaths without having seen a real woman naked.

It isn’t clear whether we should believe her about this. The story to date suggests not, because she apparently bought the theatre on a whim and suggested taking the performers’ clothes off only as a way of boosting audience numbers. And Mrs Henderson is a great dissembler, to put it politely*. Yet somehow you do believe her. You believe that this is, if not the purpose with which she set out, at least a justification for her actions in which she sincerely believes and with which the audience is intended to sympathise. That the mere sight of female nakedness will bring joy of a kind that no soldier should be denied.

(* In one entertaining scene, she out and out lies to her friends in a speech inviting them to the opening night, explaining that her dead husband was very keen on supporting stage artists, that the whole thing is done to honour his memory.)

About that – doing it for the boys. It is the same ideal that motivates her in other things. There is a key sub-plot in which Mrs Henderson engineers a romance between one of the show’s stars, Maureen (Kelly Reilly), and a young soldier. Mrs Henderson is moved to pity by the sweet young boy on his way to the Front, and wants Maureen to show him a little compassion. She, despite her misgivings and wariness about any kind of falling in love, falls for him anyway, becomes pregnant and then gets a letter from him, saying that he is going back to his girlfriend… And so it goes. She rushes out of the building just before an air raid starts and is killed at once. All very tragic, but why is Mrs Henderson held to blame right until the end of the film? OK, so she rather naively fell for the boy’s sweet charms and urged Maureen to go out with him. She might possibly be accountable for the fact that Maureen got carried away and fell pregnant, given what she knew about Maureen’s tendency to go falling in love with people at the drop of a hat. But how on earth can she be blamed for Maureen’s death? It’s bizarre.

I’d heard some good things about this film, which is the only thing that would have induced me to watch a comedy about strippers in the first place. But ultimately it all came down to female bodies and male pleasure.

Entertaining – yes. Uplifting – decidedly not.

In theory, this could have been so great.

It is the story of Andy, an aspiring journalist who takes a job as a PA in a fashion magazine out of desperation, hates the whole idea and every second of her ultra-demeaning worklife, but decides to stick it out in the hope that it will lead to better things. Will she be seduced by the glamour and wealth of the fashion world, impressed by the dedication and hard work of her colleagues, will she come to appreciate the joy of fashion and shine in her new-found vocation, leaving behind her stolid, unfashionable friends? Or will she continue in her idealistic integrity, hating every second, but surviving with her soul intact?

This was an opportunity to show the shallow, self-obsessed, self-loathing, woman-loathing fashion and beauty industry in a true, cold light – it could have been a scathing attack, a ruthlessly honest exposé. Of course I didn’t seriously expect that the film would deliver on such promises, which is just as well.

Andy (Anne Hathaway) starts off as an ordinary college graduate with (if the newspaper clippings that she is shown fondly looking over in the opening scenes are anything to go by) feminist leanings. If anything, her clothes get frumpier as she spends time in the presence of fashion slaves until her magical teen-princess style fashion makeover slowly begins to earn her the grudging approval of evil boss from hell Miranda (Meryl Streep) and the resentment of chief PA Emily (Emily Blunt), who loves to be kicked about by Miranda, as long as there is Chanel.

At first Andy can hardly bear her humiliations, but at least she can see them. Slowly, like a good wife, she turns native and embraces her slavery. She becomes rather good at anticipating Miranda’s every need and whim and seems to get an actual kick out of her success at what is still a hideously degrading job. She even starts to get a kick out of her own degradation – as we see when, for example, near the end she is teased by a colleague about being OMG a size 6 fatso, and proudly and happily announces that she is now actually a size 4 and therefore human. Of course, she is not seen in any way dieting or exercising to achieve this amazing feat of self-improvement (indeed, poor old Emily who will do anything to disappear for the sake of fashion, is mocked for her refusal to eat properly) and so must have done it by sheer dint of wearing fashionable clothes and running about on Miranda’s errands.

The moral of the tale? The insightful conclusion?

Andy packs in her job, goes back to the boyfriend who dumped her when she became one of them, and gets a job on a real paper. Good call. Except maybe the part about going back to the boyfriend, who seemed pretty dull. And the part where she stays thin and carries on wearing clothes that she cannot afford because hey at least that job taught her how to look good. And the part where you wonder whether Andy will ever stand up for herself again.

But what really irks is the treatment of Miranda. The very end of the film shows her resplendent, unmoved, unchanged. Why are we left with this wistful, admiring vision of Miranda? It is with Miranda that we are expected to leave our hearts, because it is Miranda who has touched our lives – and Andy’s.

Demanding she may be, impossible to work for it’s true – but still she is, if the producers have their way, to be admired. The film does not just show us Miranda’s human side as a counterpoint to redeem her inhuman coldness and ruthlessness in pursuit of the top of an ignoble profession: it expects us to appreciate and admire her, to see her coldness and ruthlessness as necessary tools for an end worth reaching. It does not condemn the fashion industry. It practically ennobles it by showing its worst excesses in a sympathetic light, by portraying fashion as important, by repeatedly asserting that what these people are working so hard to achieve actually matters.

People? Fashion isn’t important. It’s a cruel fantasy, perpetuated by propaganda like this – a film that purports to be incisive and ends by giving Big Fashion a big love.

Shirley Valentine - Pauline Collins

Pauline Collins is fantastic in the title role, playing a beaten down housewife who used to be joyful and spontaneous and sparky, full of life and plans – wondering now how she came to be a lonely middle-aged woman going nowhere, talking to the wall as she makes her husband’s dinner. When her friend wins a holiday competition and they both take off for a fortnight in Greece (unimaginably exotic then if not now), she finds herself rediscovering the Shirley Valentine she used to be.

I do like this film. What I like best is the ending, a happy question mark, full of possibilities – because you know that whatever happens next, it will be better than what came before.

It isn’t only Collins who is excellent. Joanna Lumley is bang-on as a grown-up version of Shirley’s childhood rival from school. Alison Steadman is perfect as the strawfeminist friend (and even the inclusion of a strawfeminist doesn’t detract from this film, I promise). Tom Conti is hilarious as the Greek hunk. The cast is all round wonderful, in fact.

Did I mention that I like this film?

Flushed Away - Rita (Kate Winslet)This is a CG animation by Aardman, which consequently has an actual story as well as some great lines, and plenty of toilet humour. <grin>

Roddy is a spoiled only-rat who lives as a pampered pet in a gilt cage (literally) in Kensington. When his family go away on holiday, an invading rat takes over the house and Roddy gets flushed down the toilet…

In the sewers, he discovers a rat city, complete with an evil toad supervillain. He meets resourceful, kick-ass rat pirate Rita (who has Kate Winslet’s voice), the only rat in the sewer who might be able to get him back home. She however has other concerns, as she has stolen a ruby from The Toad, needing the money to help support her parents, her uncountable siblings and assorted other family members – and the henchrats are in hot pursuit.

Feminist analysis: it was of course really great to see a strong, female lead. It was also nice that Rita and Roddy didn’t end up as boy- and girl-friend – it was hinted at the end that this might happen later, but there was mercifully no actual kissing, sighing, mooning, falling into each other’s arms or other annoying romantics.

You can hear the “but” coming, right?

Rita was certainly, as mentioned, resourceful and kick-ass, but she never actually saved or rescued Roddy. He was wimpy and clumsy and totally out of his depth, but he “saved himself” by clinging onto Rita, mainly against her will, and therefore imposing himself upon her rather than actually being rescued by her. He needed her, but he got her help by using or manipulating her, rather than having to wait for her to rescue him. On the other hand, Rita does find herself in need of rescuing and doesn’t have a lot of choice other than to wait for him to come to her aid – she is, of course, tied up by the Toad so she can’t escape. Roddy duly rescues her, in a heroic manly stunt that beats any of the grudging (or downright non-consensual) assistance that he ever weaselled out of her.

This may seem like nitpicking, but it bugged me that the way the female character helped the male character out was by being his chump; whereas the male character helped her in return by an act of dashing noble chivalry.

It also bugged me that at the end of the film Roddy had become Rita’s first (only) mate i.e. her assistant – yet as they shot away from the harbour together, it was her that asked him “Where are we going?” If she was really in charge, wouldn’t she already know that?

Judi Dench, Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in LoveThis is the (fictional, obviously) story of how Shakespeare came to write Romeo and Juliet. His writer’s block, his doomed and impossible love affair for Lady Viola, his rivalry with Christopher Marlowe, the jostling for position between theatre companies, the precarious business of putting on plays in the sixteenth century – a colourful mix, in which Shakespearean lines and fragments abound. The inspriation for “A plague on both your houses!” comes from a street preacher, for example. And the nightingale/lark scene is played out in Lady Viola’s bedroom with an owl and a rooster. 

There is also quite a lot in the way of boys dressing up as girls dressed up as boys dresing up as girls (confused yet? I think I might be.) In those days, of course, it was unseemly for a woman to be a player and so all the female parts were taken by men and boys. Thus, Shakespeare often has his female characters dressing up as men: dramatic irony and all that. It was kind of fun to see them play with gender this way: Shakespeare’s face immediately after kissing Thomas Kent – just before finding out that “he” was really Lady Viola – lovely.

Highly amusing. Not even very annoying. And Judi Dench was, of course, excellent as the aging Elizabeth One.

Happy FeetAn animated cute-penguin-flick about an Emperor Penguin who just doesn’t fit in – he likes to dance, but cannot sing a note, while Emperor Penguins are supposed to keep still and sing their (most un-penguiny) heartsongs – it may well be that this one was inspired by the March of the Penguins. It should have been just a sweet little break from the nitty-gritty, right?

Well, apart from the whole “women penguins flit off to fish while man penguins take on the childraising responsibility” issue, and apart from the silly sterotypes of Mexican-accented little silly penguins and Auusie elephant seals, and apart from the way the male and female penguins were differentiated by swollen female chests with strategically positioned yellow markings, and apart from the rampantly patriarchal anthropomorphised penguin culture on display… Apart from all that, was it a sweet little film with cutie-pie dancing penguin antics?

Well, there was always the overall message of the film to complain about. (Warning, spoiler!) The protagonist, Mumble, is eventually cast out of the clan for a freak who is blamed for bringing a fish shortage onto his fellow-penguins. He leaves, vowing to return when he has found out what is really causing the fish crisis and discovers that the culprit is – Man. Mumble is captured and ends up in a zoo where he finds that he can get Man’s attention by his infernal dancing. Thus he brings men back to the penguin-grounds, persuades all the penguins to dance too, and thereby capitavates the people with the result that they decide to do something about the overfishing.

Films that speak out against overfishing are, of course, welcome. But do they have to come with the subtext that if penguins want to draw attention to their plight they should jolly well start acting cute? That if they don’t act cute, then they’ve nobody to blame (certainly not Men) for their boring, miserable, uncute plight? It stinks.

Courting penguinsThis documentary film follows the breeding cycle of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic.

Around March of each year, all the penguins head for the ancient breeding grounds, safely inshore where the ice will not melt even in summer. Some of them trek for 70 miles to get there, walking in great caravans, single file, day and night for up to a week. They all arrive just about simultaneously – those who don’t get lost and “simply fade away” as the narrator Morgan Freeman coyly puts it. The path is never the same because the ice and snow shifts each year yet somehow, mysteriously, they find the way.

Once there, the penguins go about selecting a breeding partner. This again is a mysterious process as nobody knows what they are looking for. There are more female than male penguins, so not everybody gets to pair off. Once they have found a partner, they mate and await the egg – just one egg.

There is no food at the breeding ground, and no water other than the snow that gets blown there in harsh freezing winds and icy storms. Thus, once the egg is laid, the mother passes it to the father for safekeeping while she treks back to the sea to refuel. If the egg leaves the protection of that warm space on the parental feet and under the parental snuggleflap for more than even a few moments, it will freeze and the chick will never hatch. It is a tricky business swapping it over and the parents take great care, rehearsing many times before the egg is actually transferred.

By now, the mother penguin has lost up to a third of her bodyweight in the two months since she left the sea, in the trek and the starvation and the production of the all-important egg. She treks back to the shore, much further away now that the antarctic winter has frozen the sea over, and feeds until she has regained as much weight as she can and stored a bellyful for her chick. Meanwhile, the father penguins have been huddling together, taking care of the egg, fending off unbelievably harsh weather, and eating nothing but snow. If the mother penguin does not return before the chick is hatched, he has a little milky something saved up to cough up for the chick, but that’s all.

Once the mother arrives, and once the chick has hatched so that it can bond with the father and they can learn one another’s calls, the father leaves to find the sea. He has been without food for up to four months now, and has lost up to half of his bodyweight. The mother penguins leave to re-stock with food even before the fathers return, which is why it is so important that the father and the chick should learn one another’s calls – they must be able to find each other when the father comes back. From now, until the summer comes, mother and father take it in turns – one tending the chick whlie the other treks to the sea for fish. As the weather warms, the sea gets closer and the trek shorter. Finally, the sea is close enough for the adult penguins to leave, and the young penguins are left behind. After a few weeks growing stronger, they too take to the sea and live there until, in their fifth year, instinct calls them somehow, mysteriously, to return.

It’s an amazing story. Many penguins and many chicks don’t make it. Both the mother and the father are needed to raise the chick, and if either one of them falters in the treks back and forth from the sea – particularly those first journeys after months of starvation – the chick too will die. If either one of them is taken by a predator, the chick too will die. If either of them fails in its duty while tending the chick, it will die. Predators even come to the breeding ground to prey on the chicks.

I loved the story, I loved the penguins, I loved the camerawork and I loved the scenery. The narration, however, was disappointing.

Firstly, it was a shame that the darker aspects of penguin life were so glossed over. The death of many penguins and chicks was played down as “disappearing”, “fading away”, “not making it”. There is minimal predator action – one scene of a predator leopard seal where all you see is the seal snapping about under the water, some penguins jumping out of the water, and one penguin that gets half way out of the water and slides back in; and one scene where an unidentified (!) bird of prey probably takes a chick, although again this is all implied rather than shown. Even the sex is a romanticised slow-motion affair, in which the male appears (because of the slow speed) to caress the female with his beak when in reality he is more likely to be holding her in place so that he can line himself up. The narrator does not even advert to the fact that they are having sex, you just get the pictures. No doubt all this was designed to avoid offence to parents of young children, but frankly as a parent of a young child I would rather she should experience truth than some Disneyfied version of real life in which death and sex are never seen.

Secondly, there was an awful lot of anthropomorphism. (Perhaps this is a British / US thing, and the original French version, La Marche de l’Empereur is less annoying.) You just longed for David Attenborough to be doing it. There was a lot of sentimental claptrap about how the penguins were doing all this “for love” and interpretation of their activities that was so human-centred it was unreal, such as when the courting rituals were underway and the “ladies” were fighing over who got a man and who was left out.

Finally, it really bugged me that the female penguins did not get their due. The male penguins were described as incredible, and amazing, and committed, and enduring and all the rest of it as they clung onto the eggs while the females went for food, with the implication that the female penguins were just copping out, with the men having to take the slack and starve themselves while the females filled their bellies. There was barely a word about the epic strength of the female penguins as they too underwent remarkable privations for the sake of their eggs. Even in penguin documentaries it is all about da menz!

(If you don’t believe me, here is one review I found which describes the story straight: “Once the egg is laid, the female penguins nick off back to the sea where they swim around, eating and having a great time, whilst the males are left to hatch the eggs. After two months, the eggs hatch and the females return with food, at which point the males begin a constant trek to the sea and back in order to gather enough food to keep the penguin chicks in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.” Where do they get off, those lazy high-maintenance penguin laydees?!)

One line in the narration was telling – the male penguin’s egg duties were described as “one of nature’s most endearing and amazing role reversals” (or words to that effect).

What exactly does that mean? Nature has reversed roles? What is the role that is being reversed? If it is the male penguin’s role to sit on eggs while the mother gets the fish, then that is the male penguin’s role. It is not a role reversal to fulfill one’s role. The only “reversal” here is of the roles that we, as humans used to living in patriarchy, expect male and female to play. We expect male animals to sow their seeds and then clear off, just as we expect females to do all the nurturing and self-sacrifice to raise her young. What is challenged by the penguin’s breeding patterns is not the male penguin’s natural role, but the male human’s social expectation.

Otherwise, we have to imagine, perhaps, the female penguin nagging at her partner – “Look, Percy, I know it’s my job to look after the egg, but y’know, I want to go out and find myself and there are all these fish I just want to go and eat. You always get the fish and I don’t see why we female penguins should have to stay at home all the damned time in these icy storms. So I’ll tell you what – you stay here and do my job and I’ll see what it’s like to be a liberated feminist hairy-legged penguin laddette for a bit. And if you think I’m going to bring you any fish back then you’ve got another think coming. Down with patriarchy!”

Hmm, that would be quite cool, too. [wink]

In this regard, it is worth noting that many other species also have much more male involvement in chlidrearing than this male-centred narration would have us believe is the norm. Seahorses for example.

So, yes, the narration and interpretation was annoyingly human-centred and specifically it was annoyingly male-centred. But the film, utterly beautiful. And those penguin chicks are cu-u-ute.

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