Tag: Mia Wasikowska

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Questions of family, up-bringing and sexuality are explored with tenderness and a great deal of wit in this thought-provoking family drama

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Cast: Annette Bening (Nic Allgood), Julianne Moore (Jules Allgood), Mark Ruffalo (Paul Hatfield), Mia Wasikowska (Joni Algood), Josh Hutcherson (Laser Allgood), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are just like any other married couple after years of living together and raising two children: seemingly contented, settled in their ways and routines, missing some of the passion they had in the beginning, locked into their designated roles in the marriage. Nic is the dedicated doctor (with a slight drink problem) whose alpha personality dictates much of how the household is run; Jules is the more relaxed, more bohemian figure, who has rotated through several possible careers while raising their children.

Those children are inadvertently about to shake things up. Both mothers have each given birth to one of the children, using sperm from the same anonymous donor. Older daughter – straight A high-school graduating Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – is Nic’s child; slightly slacker, sports-fixated son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is Jules’. But both children are curious about who their father is: and, with Joni now old enough to request the information, they discover him to be local bohemian restauranteur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Meeting Paul – and bringing him into their family life – opens up cracks in their parents’ marriage which will have far-reaching consequences.

Some from the LGBTQ community criticised Lisa Cholodenko’ film on its release for presenting a lesbian marriage in such a largely conventional way. In many ways though that is in fact its strength. This engaging dramady doesn’t see anything unusual or unworldly about a lesbian marriage: in fact it shows that the problems that can beset long-term heterosexual marriages are just as likely to happen in homosexual ones. Nic and Jules are essentially – even if they don’t realise it at first – stuck in a rut. The passion has largely gone after years, the knowledge that you need to make an effort has evaporated, too many conversations are about household and parental duties. Jules quietly, almost unknowingly, resents what she sees as Nic’s dominance in their lives, while Nic privately feels she pulls much more weight in keeping things running. Not that they consciously realise this at first, in conversations that drip with in-jokes and a very casual familiarity (both Bening and Moore are superb at embodying a relationship that has become so long-term it has developed its own language).

But into this drops a bombshell in Paul. Wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, Paul is relaxed, playful, optimistic and upbeat. To some in the family – in particular Jules and Joni – he is everything that the more uptight and regimented Nic is not. No wonder these two both find themselves drawn to him. Unfortunately, nice guy that he is, Paul is also superbly unruffled by consequences. Events roll off his back. At first this seems like a great thing. He’s patient, understanding and thoughtful when talking to the kids. He helps the uptight Joni to relax. He gives helpful advice to Laser about his unpleasant friend Clay. But his lack of thought about his actions is there from the start (Laser, astutely, is disappointed in his first impression of Paul as self-obsessed). His advice for Joni openly encourages her to defy Nic’s boundaries. He accompanies Laser to watch Clay attempt a dangerous skating stunt like he’s a bro not a dad. And then there is Jules.

The film also drew fire from the LGBTQ community for presenting one half of its normalised lesbian couple entering into an affair with a man. But for Jules, it’s clear, the relationship is really about getting the sort of attention, focus and (to be honest) sexual interest that Nic seemed to stop giving her a long time ago (at one point, Nic prepares a luxurious bath for Jules – but then takes a phone call from work and abandons the promised massage for work). Paul is flirty, sensual and horny: sure he’s a man, but he can give her the sort of sexual pleasure that absent-minded fondlings with Nic late at night no longer even begin to give.

But that’s all it really is to Jules – a sudden, unexpected craving. There is no doubt that her heart belongs to Nic – just as there is no doubt that both she and Nic will be devastated when the affair comes out. (Cholodenko shoots Nic’s realisation beautifully. During a “family dinner” with Paul, the sound drains out during a fixed shot on Bening’s face which pained, heartbroken realisation and anger crosses across. It’s a tour-de-force for Bening that probably went a long way to securing her Oscar nomination). Paul, conversely, seems supremely unaware of the likely impact of his actions – during that family dinner he shows no compunction about bonding for the first time with Nic (who relaxes as we have never seen before until the truth is revealed) over a mutual love for Joni Mitchell.

Paul is, unknowingly, the serpent in the garden that will unbalance the careful equilibrium in the family. Nic is hostile to him from the start, his presence seeming to play into deep rooted insecurities and a fear of being supplanted. For Jules he presents an exotic alternative chance – a relationship with someone who feels accommodating and deferential to her. It blows open the comfortable but familiar rut the two of them are in. In the cracks, Jules becomes distracted and selfish, Nic doubles down on drinking and demands for obedience to her family rules.

If it sounds heavy going, it surprisingly isn’t. Cholodenko (sharing script writing with Stuart Blomberg) throws in plenty of jokes and moments of sweetness. Bening and Moore are both incredibly good in the lead roles: Moore is bubbly, relaxed, sexy but sad deep down dissatisfied and surprisingly selfish. Bening seems at first merely a domineering control freak with a drink problem, but she is revealed as deeply fragile, loving and devoted, a woman whose love is expressed in ways the objects can find overbearing, however well meaning they are. (Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both also great as their kids.)

The Kids Are All Right bubbles with some well judged moments of comedy, drama and tragedy. This is a film, eventually, about the strength of family. Paul may tempt with his care-free optimism and consequence-free thinking. But this film sides, overwhelmingly, with people like Nic who may sometimes make you want to tear your hair out, but will be there time and again, day-after-day, offering love in a way people like Paul never can. Laser and Joni may tease her, may bridle at her rules – but they love her unconditionally, in a way the film shows us with gestures small and large time and again. So, for that matter, does Jules: her actions grow from wanting a more overt return on the affection she more naturally gives.

It’s a film that wears its heart firmly and shamelessly on its sleeve, as it urges us to both recognise and empathise with this fundamentally loving marriage going through a rough patch. And by normalising families like this, it sends a strong message of inclusivity: after all, if we all share the same problems, doesn’t that all help us realise we are the same?

Albert Nobbs (2011)

Glenn Close plays a woman pretending to be a man in the curiously empty Albert Nobbs

Director: Rodrigo Garcia

Cast: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Mia Wasikowska (Helen Dawes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Joe Mackins), Janet McTeer (Hubert Page), Pauline Collins (Mrs Baker), Brenda Fricker (Polly), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Viscount Yarrell), Brendan Gleeson (Dr Holloran), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Mary), Mark Williams (Sean), Bronagh Gallagher (Cathleen Page)

Passion projects are funny things. Everyone has them. And sometimes, when you put them together, other people struggle to see what all the fuss was about. Few films fit that bill more readily than Albert Nobbs. This cross-dressing, Victorian gender curio was something Glenn Close spent decades trying to bring to the screen, after starring in the original play off-Broadway.

Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) works as a butler at a middling hotel in late 19th-century Dublin. Nobbs keeps himself to himself and saves his tips and wages with the dream of buying his own tobacco shop. Nobbs also has another reason to cling to privacy: Nobbs is actually a woman, masquerading as a man in order to find work. Everyone at the hotel is totally fooled – but his world slowly begins to shift when he meets decorator Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who similarly is a woman living as man, but who has her own business and a wife and family home. Page’s experiences make Nobbs begin to question this life of isolation – with disastrous consequences.

Albert Nobbs is a carefully filmed, respectful, dry and dull film. It’s nominally a film you might expect to have something to say about gender and sexuality – but its shyness around such matters, its lack of insight, its bashful awkwardness means it already looks like a museum piece. On top of which, most of the characters and situations it covers are frankly not particularly inspiring, dynamic or engaging. There isn’t actually much there to spark your attention.

Which it makes it even more surprising that Close was so drawn to this material. Why? It’s hard to say, as even her performance seems as buttoned up, oblique and distanced as the character she is playing (it doesn’t help that Nobbs is neither an interesting or engaging character, coming across like a person with an ill-formed personality, whom the viewer struggles to understand). You would expect her to have some sort of deep emotional bond with this character – but I’m not sure that really comes across.

The film fundamentally lacks the courage it needs to tackle issues of gender complexity. Nobbs has a troubled background of abuse and rape – but the story never really tackles this, instead using it as a lazy attempt to explain a confused sexuality. The film never really engages with the issue of whether Nobbs likes being a man or feels forced to do to make ends meet. It throws in a curveball scene where Nobbs relaxes on a beach walk wearing women’s clothes. But it never takes any step – even the most tentative ones – of Nobbs laying claim to relating more to being one gender or another. 

Nobbs doesn’t seem to identify as a trans man, a cis-gender woman disguising herself as a man for practical reasons in a patriarchal world, or as someone trying to live outside traditional gender constructs all together. It feels pretty uncomfortable with virtually any formulation along these lines, so avoids exploring any of them. It wants Nobbs to feel comfortable in women’s clothes, but also wants to admire Nobbs for living as a man, while also suggesting Nobbs is trapped by society. It’s a confused film.

In any case, the more time you spend with Nobbs the creepier Nobbs seems. It’s unfortunate that a large chunk of the film is given over to Nobbs’ confusingly motivated courtship of Mia Wasikowska’s maid. Throughout, Nobbs is strangely incapable of understanding any sort of emotional link between two people, and here seems unable to comprehend that Helen may have her own emotions and desires that don’t marry with Nobbs’ functional desire for a wife. This pursuit (seemingly to complete the picture of a desired future) creates an image of a stalker rather than someone really seeking a romantic connection. The fact that Helen and her rakish beau plan to swindle Nobbs hardly helps to make these characters likeable either.

Close’s performance doesn’t help with its locked in reverence. So it’s just as well that Janet McTeer bursts into the film with energy, (literally) baring all in seconds and bringing more vibrancy, dynamism and engagement in her scenes than the rest of the film put together. While Nobbs is a rather dull, empty vessel of a person, Page is a lesbian in a loving relationship, escaping marriage by pretending to be a man. That is a story I can get interested in, that can have relevance today: Nobbs’ isn’t. McTeer is excellent, and I wish the film her been about her.

Albert Nobbs is a worthy, but flat film shot with a slow reverence and delivering a story that promises much but completely fails to deliver. Aside from Janet McTeer’s wonderful performance there is very little reason to visit this film. In fact today its avoidance of even engaging with questions of gender and identity actually make it look rather gutless and pointless. A passion project that really makes no real sense.

Lawless (2012)

Brothers in crime. You can get a taste of the performances just from this still image.

Director: John Hillcoat

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant), Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant), Jason Clarke (Howard Bondurant), Guy Pearce (Marshal Charley Rakes), Jessica Chastain (Maggie Beauford), Mia Wasikowska (Bertha Minnix), Dane DeHaan (Cricket Pate), Gary Oldman (Floyd Banner)

Bootlegging, the Deep South, corrupt cops and the honourable code of criminals. It’s the sort of cocktail that’s made up dozens of films, some good, some bad, some ugly. This one definitely falls into one of the latter two camps.

It’s 1931, and the Bondurant brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) run a moonshine business out of their Virginian countryside garage. One day the cops come a-calling, led by a corrupt US Marshall (Guy Pearce). They want a piece of the action. The brothers say no. So war breaks out…

Truth be told, this is actually quite a boring film – a pointless, clumsily constructed shaggy dog story that neither makes a point about the shabbiness of a bootlegging life of crime, nor challenges romantic assumptions about the small time crook challenging the system. There are a couple of random flashy scenes thrown in to allow the film-makers to demonstrate their technical expertise, but it’s all as weightless as a braggart regaling their guests at a dinner table. Hot air masquerading as a lungful of fresh stuff.

The performances dance between underpowered, over stretched and over indulged. Shia LaBouef doesn’t make his nominal lead a fully formed character. Jason Clarke makes no real impact in an underwritten role. Tom Hardy is the best of the bunch, but barely stretches himself as a bearlike family leader. Of the other major parts, Guy Pearce gives the kind of twitchy, pyrotechnical performance that is often mistaken for brilliant acting, all highblown showing off and no depth. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are wasted playing contrasting love interests. Gary Oldman pops up for one scene as an overblown crime lord.

These performances drift along in the formless plot. There are nasty moments of violence that serve no purpose and don’t seem to tie into established characters personalities.  There are also poorly judged plot developments: at one point Jessica Chastain’s character is raped – mercifully off screen – an event never mentioned again. Characters are brutally dispatched; one has his manhood removed and posted to another character, others are strangled, shot or battered to death with spades. The violence continues on and off until the film ends with a confrontation scene between goodies and baddies. Nothing original or unique happens in this film – we’ve all seen it time and time again. There is no thrust to the story, no feeling that it is building towards a point or that a thematic point is being built. It’s just events happening for the sake of it.

Despite its flash and bravura crashes and bangs this is an empty, tedious movie that goes nowhere, says nothing and has no point. Nearly all the events of the film are predictable, from the fate of the villain to the crippled best friend (Dane DeHaan) who has victim written all over him from the first frame. Its surface sheen (it looks great, has a decent score etc.) and the look-at-me acting is enough to fool you for a moment into thinking “this must be a good film”. But it ain’t.