Tag Archives: historical drama

King’s Ransom

The Promised Land

by George Wolf

Just going by its trailer, you might not expect The Promised Land to have much in common with Saltburn, but the similar themes are there. So while there’s no shocking bathwater here – or much bathing at all – there is a sweeping historical epic of one man’s quest for social climbing.

The man is Ludvig von Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), a longtime captain in the German army who returns home to Denmark in 1755. Desiring both wealth and honor, he visits the court of King Frederik V with a promise to bring the King what no one else has managed to deliver: settlements on the Danish heath.

Ludvig promises to tame the barren land in exchange for a noble title, a manor and some servants. And to seal the deal, Ludvig will finance the farming project with his own military pension.

Battling the elements and the roaming outlaws will be tough enough, but Ludvig also must face the wrath of sadistic county judge De Schinkel (Simon Beenebjerg), who wants to claim the land as his own and make good on his promise to Ludvig that “life is chaos.”

Director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel adapts Ida Jessen’s historical novel as a harrowing tale that consistently reveals new layers throughout its two compelling hours.

Mikkelsen – teaming again with Arcel after 2020’s terrific Riders of Justice – is perfection as the battle-tested soldier with steely-eyed dreams of nobility. Ludvig’s arc plays out patiently, but as the Captain takes in two runaway peasant farmers (Amanda Collin, Morten Hee Anderson), a well-meaning pastor (Gustav Lindh) and an unwanted child (Melina Hagberg), Mikkelsen ensures the awakened humanity feels well-earned and real.

And Arcel keeps the stakes rising to thrilling effect. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk’s majestic frames serve and volley with the twists of the screenplay to mine drama that can be as subtle as a framed patch of dirt or as overt as the triangle that springs from Schinkel’s intended fiancée Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) eyeing Ludvig as the man who can save her.

What price ambition? It remains an intriguing question, whether you’re surrounding it with delicious ultra-modern pulp or re-imagining true events from hundreds of years past. The Promised Land takes the road less adorned, forging a rousing tale of savagery, revenge and fulfillment that will not be denied.

Gonna Shout It Everyday

The Glorias

by Hope Madden

“The path up is always a jagged line.”

Gloria Steinem always could articulate the struggle toward progress. Filmmaker Julie Taymor certainly understands that sometimes the best way forward is not straight ahead. The daring filmmaker (Across the Universe, Frida, Titus) puts four Glorias on a bus heading nowhere and everywhere to help us see Gloria Steinem, backward and forward.

The Steinem we best recognize—trailblazing feminist and human rights advocate of the 60s, 70s and onward—is played by the always excellent Julianne Moore. Wise and just a little weary, Moore’s version brings Steinem’s warm soul to the screen.

She’s joined in the role by Alicia Vikander, who plays Steinem in her 20s and 30s; Lulu Wilson as teenaged Gloria; and Ryan Kiera Armstrong, portraying Steinem as a child. Though Vikander stumbles with the flat Ohio accent, each performance establishes something that grows from one era to the next: resolve, openness, vulnerability, courage.

Timothy Hutton shines as Steinem’s father, Leo, and Bette Midler commits outright larceny in her scenes as Bella Abzug. A host of minor roles—Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) and more—fill out a picture of early feminism far more vibrant than history sometimes remembers.

Taymor’s characteristic flourishes sometimes work well to enrich a tale fit for a legend. At other times, they seem like filler in a film that’s far broader than it is deep.

It is exhilarating to watch these pioneering advocates spar and support, dodge and demand, and most of all, speak up. It’s heartbreaking, too. There’s exhausting tragedy in all that promise left unfulfilled, and real terror in the face of what we now stand to actually lose.

But a cameo from the legend herself may be enough to reaffirm anyone’s resolve. As she says, “The constitution does not begin with ‘I the President.’ It begins with ‘We the people.’”

The Mancunian Candidates


by Matt Weiner

It should be a match made in heaven: British director Mike Leigh channeling an uprising that pitted reactionary government leaders against a working-class population with radical demands for reform.

And for a historical drama that revolves around grain tariffs as a pretty important plot point, Leigh succeeds on one key front: Peterloo abounds with righteous indignation, from start to finish. This comes at the cost of Leigh’s usual nuanced character sketches, though.

The radical reformers, journalists and magistrates inhabiting 1819 Manchester still benefit from Leigh’s verbal fireworks. On one side, there are the aristocrats and rulers living in real fear that even the British triumph at Waterloo might not be enough to quell the spirit of the French Revolution. And then there is the unruly mob: disparate factory workers, reformers and women’s groups seeking a number of Parliamentary reforms and representation.

Agitators are literally read the Riot Act. Harrumphs and harangues come in equal measure. There’s even an impassioned debate about the merits of centrism vs. proto-Antifa at political rallies. Peterloo isn’t wanting for passion, but where the whole thing falls short isn’t that it’s a polemic—Leigh is still a formidable talent when it comes to making a period piece feel relevant, even urgent.

Which makes it all the more frustrating to see the film so weighed down by its singular, bluntly fired message that much of the cast doesn’t get a chance to inhabit their roles as much as they mostly bluster through them. Real-life figures Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) are among the more memorable orators, but it is Karl Johnson who looks like he’s having the most fun as the cruelly indifferent Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary.

The cast of characters to keep straight is large but they’re drawn in absurdly broad strokes so you can easily track who’s under the boot and who’s wearing it. For all the impassioned speeches, it’s ironic that Peterloo winds up feeling far less humane than Leigh’s other historical masterpieces, especially 2014’s Mr. Turner. (That film owes much to Timothy Spahl’s tour de force lead, but Leigh’s generous script also balanced grace with uncompromising characters in a way that’s sorely missed in Peterloo.)

Long-time Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope comes back along for the ride, but his presence is also missed for much of the 150-minute runtime. I assume the working-class Manchester milieus are sufficiently gritty, but it doesn’t really matter. Most of the (copious) meeting scenes feel as perfunctory as the characters themselves.

Thankfully, the film at least delivers on the rage that has been set to a nonstop boil for so long. Leigh captures the confusion and senselessness of the tragedy. It’s just a shame that the massacre itself is the only thing in the film that ever really takes on any dimension.

Deja Vu

Mark Felt: The Man Who Took Down the White House

by Hope Madden

Imagine what could go wrong if one group of power hungry thugs could subvert any investigative body, discredit the press and cover their corrupt, nation-degrading tracks.

Yes, in light of pussy grabbing, Nazi accepting, wall building, election tampering, hurricane victim abandoning and countless other inconceivable abominations, Watergate seems quaint.

But maybe that’s where Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House could find its power. It could not only underscore the nearly incomprehensible severity of our current climate but also remind us that change is possible.

Liam Neeson plays Felt, the Associate Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover who found himself so aggrieved by the corruption overtaking the bureau after Hoover’s passing that he leaked confidential information to the press, earning himself the affectionate nickname Deep Throat.

Writer/director Peter Landesman takes on nearly 45-year-old history perhaps to draw comparisons between then and now. For the former New York Times investigative journalist, the material may have been too tempting.

Since his leap to filmmaking, Landesman’s been concerned with true-life tales, but he’s been stronger as a writer (Kill the Messenger) than a writer/director (Concussion). Here, he stumbles with both.

The script wedges in too many clunky connectors to help the audience figure out who each participant is rather than creating a set of characters. Ensemble dramas have loads of characters. Watergate has loads of characters and drama. Let it breathe.

Worse still are the soliloquies Landesman saddles onto poor Diane Lane as Felt’s wife Audrey. Lane does what she can but her overwritten monologues beg the question: why is she telling him these things? Surely her husband already knows. The answer, of course, is that she’s telling us, which is just weak writing.

On paper, Felt’s a fascinating character, as any lifer in the bureau must be. And Liam Neeson’s a fine actor. So why is it the film never plumbs any deeper than a distant stare, a grimace, an errant curse word?

Mark Felt is onscreen for maybe 4 minutes in All The President’s Men and I understood him as a character more fully than in his full 2-hours here.

What may be the most interesting idea Landesman shares is that Felt was less interested in criminal activity at the highest level than he was in the idea that the FBI would become beholden to the White House. He was busy looking beyond a single presidency to the power and necessity of an independent investigative body when everybody else was too stunned by the felon in the White House to notice.

You know what, though? I bet Nixon knew he was president of the US Virgin Islands.

I Will Choose Free Will


by Hope Madden

Painting in his room, the artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda) suddenly loses his light as an enormous red banner of Stalin is dropped in front of his building. He opens the window, reaches out with his crutch and tears a hole big enough to let in natural light.

It’s a scene heavy with symbolism as well as dread, and one of many that filmmaker Andrzej Wajda uses to evoke a sense of time, place and struggle. It is not how Afterimage opens, though.

In a painterly scene brimming with life and beauty, Strzeminski meets in a meadow with a group of students from his Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz. The WWI veteran missing one arm and leg tucks his crutches and rolls on his side down the hill, followed merrily by his students. A sunny, living painting – the bright spot is meant to give you a comparison as totalitarian post-war Poland crushes every glint of light in the artist’s life.

Wajda’s lean, focused film limits its scope to the days leading up to Strzeninski’s conflict with Poland’s Ministry of Culture and the deterioration of the artist after. His abstract work and outspoken views on “Socialist Realism” – propaganda disguised as art – are deemed counter to public interest.

What to do with an artist?

Linda’s understated performance grieves for hope – a pervasive feeling throughout the film.

Sharply written, lean and efficient, Afterimage engages with an unadorned vision. What emerges is the picture of systematic bullying aimed at breaking a man’s will.

Strzeminski’s story is not so atypical, and as angry a film as Wajda creates, there is no glory in the artist’s martyrdom. There is simply choice. Afterimge doesn’t deify the man. What it does is more honest.

It not only asks after the imperative of personal and artistic choice. It muddies that conversation intentionally with an accusation about the separation of art and commerce.

And it’s not difficult to find modern echoes in totalitarian catch phrases like, “Unfortunately, we have to educate,” and “Those who don’t work won’t eat.”

That’s a lot to cover in a brief run time, but Afterimage is not just an excellent picture of an artist Poland wanted us to forget. It’s a directorial feat to remind us that Wajda, making his last film before his death at 90, was a storyteller of the highest caliber until the end.


Young Turks

The Ottoman Lieutenant

by Hope Madden

With an almost offensively naïve – or more likely, revisionist – sense of history surrounding an entirely anachronistic amount of gumption, The Ottoman Lieutenant is the third historical romance to hit theaters in as many weeks.

And the weakest.

The lovely A United Kingdom struggled to find an authentic voice for the true story of Seretse and Ruth Khama’s love. Bitter Harvest, on the other hand, lacked the focus to use its love story to articulate the horrors of war.

Both films made a valiant effort to shine a light on a historical period. The Ottoman Lieutenant separates itself from the pack primarily with its open attempt to rewrite history, to make it more noble, palatable and romantic.

Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar) is a young woman of privilege. She’s also an American with a thick Icelandic accent, but no matter. Lillie spurns her stuffy 1914 Philadelphian upbringing in in favor of mission work in Anatolia, thanks to a cardboard-stiff speech given by mission doctor Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett).

Once there, as Dr. Gresham falls in love with Lillie, she’s busy falling for Lieutenant Ismael Veli (Michiel Huisman) who, luckily, speaks English – as do all Turks in the film, even when they’re talking amongst themselves. How convenient!

Armenians – a population all but wiped from existence one year later – figure minutely in this soft focus clash between Muslims and Christians. But why tell their story just because your film is set in their backyard on the eve of their genocide? The important thing to understand is that, in war, everyone is wrong and only love is right.

That’s the gallingly simple outlook of the nurse with the tousled hair whose cloying voiceover tells us everything and nothing, simultaneously.

Though Joseph Ruben’s direction can never transcend Jeff Stockwell’s historically vacuous screenplay, the film often looks quite lovely. As does Hilmar, which is great as she is never called upon to act. She poses really well, though, and never laughs no matter how precious the dialog. Plus, Lillie has so many great hats!

It’s almost a shame Ben Kingsley shows up when he does because, even saddled as he is with this one-dimensional stereotype of a character, Ben Kingsley can act. His talent only exposes the balance of the cast for the posers (and poseurs) they are.

The Ottoman Lieutenant offers a lot of easily won wisdom and quick solutions – and hats. None of these strike me as items abounding during a time of war, but stark reality is not the goal of the film.

What the point is, I couldn’t tell you.