Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

mary queen of scots poster

At 18 years old, Mary Stuart’s marriage to the Dauphin of France ends with his death. Returning to Scotland to reclaim her throne, she has to cope with political machinations both at home and from neighbouring England. England has been in religious turmoil following the changes wrought by Henry VIII and his succession by his two daughters in turn, one fervently Catholic and the other Protestant. With Elizabeth on the throne, her courtiers are not best pleased to find a Catholic not only on the throne of Scotland, but with a valid claim on England’s, too.

But neither religion nor auld enmities can hold a candle to the outrage of 16th Century men being forced to obey a woman… o_O

I went into this movie with very low expectations, which worked in my favour: it wasn’t that bad at all. It also wasn’t great, but that was – in my view – more to do with the storytelling and odd editing choices, and nothing against any of the performances.

Accents first. Elizabeth is played by an Aussie (Margot Robbie), and Mary by an Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan). Thankfully, both seem to manage very well, even if Saoirse does sound as putting-it-on as I do when I try to ape my Irish relatives ūüėČ It’s nicely not distracting, though, which is a relief.

Even with such momentous events across the two countries, the filmmakers have taken the understandable approach of making the story about the two women on a more personal level. They even fabricate a meeting between the two, which never happened.

However, I felt that somewhere in the quick-cuts between Mary standing down a belligerent Robert Knox (an almost unrecognisable David Tennant) and 30 seconds of Elizabeth throwing a strop over her paper quilling project, I somehow felt the film got a little lost between historical-ness and trying to make a point, and fell a bit short on both.

Overall: not awful, but not surprised it’s not up for Oscars. It was, in some ways, the opposite of¬†The Favourite (2018): that was a Very Good film but hard to watch; MQos was much easier to watch but overall close to just being popcorn fluff – and not on purpose, I imagine!

Released: 18th January 2019
Viewed: 23rd January 2019
Running time: 124 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10

Advertisements

The Favourite (2018)

favourite poster

It’s the early 18th Century, and Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) deals with poor health and amuses herself as best she can, while close friend, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weiss), dictates governing policy on her behalf. The relationship between the two is more than friendship, but not always kind. When Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), comes to court begging for a job, there’s a space for her to show kindness to the poor Queen, and gain affection – to the detriment of Sarah’s position.

Thus we have a movie about rivalries and politics, wars of many kinds, double dealing and back stabbing – and, of course, rabbits. Wait, what?!

To say this is a strange movie is understating things. It’s purposefully a mix of period and modern anachronisms – some subtle, such as costuming, and others just downright bizarre, like a dance scene that looks like a spoof of Strictly Come Dancing, regency style. What?!

Undeniably, the performances are excellent. Olivia Coleman in particular is just fantastic. However, it’s not an easy film to watch. The music only adds to this: often discordant to the point of painful, doing a great job of setting an uncomfortable tone, but not particularly pleasant to sit through.

And so, while I’d be very happy to see this win a ton of awards, I can’t offer it a higher rating. While ‘good’, it wasn’t exactly enjoyable and not something I really want to see again – especially with such a ‘wait, what?!’ ending.

Released: 1st January 2019
Viewed: 11th January 2019
Running time: 119 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Outlaw King (2018)

Outlaw King poster

Cinema and history do not always go well together, and if¬†Braveheart is your reference for Scottish history – oy! Let’s not start there. Going in to the story of Scotland’s other big historical hero, Robert the Bruce, I was then facing some trepidation.

From and Aussie William Wallace (was I the only one chuckling at the film’s passing reference to him being dead already? Maybe it wasn’t meant as a movie swipe, hmm!) to an American Bruce, let me first say that Chris Pine does surprisingly well on the accent (actually, Glaswegian Tony Curran’s attempt at an island dialect is far more distracting).

As for the rest of the movie… well, it’s no Braveheart (ironically, that title was more Robert’s than William’s) and I mean that in a good way – mostly. It’s still not 100% historically accurate (and as another aside, I’d suggest children in Scotland are shamefully not being taught most of this – our own history – out of, what? Anti-nationalism?), but it doesn’t take half as many liberties in the name of telling a more rousing story.

And that in itself is a bit of a problem. Bruce was not an immediate hero, but the film has to err on the side of likeability. To be honest, he’s not entirely charismatic, either: whether by design or not, there’s an attempt at a lot of ‘acting via long moody looks’ that has mixed success. Also, the story sort of muddies an attempt at an ending – which, historically, is sort of fair, but… hmm.

Best bit of the whole movie – no, not the blink and you’ll miss ‘full frontal’ that got so much press, for goodness sake! – is the absolutely stunning Scottish scenery. The movie set in it is decent if not as awe-inspiring. Take that as you will!

Released: 9th November 2018
Viewed: 11th November 2018
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 7/10

First Man (2018)

first man poster

First Man is a biopic of astronaut, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), detailing his time with NASA and becoming the first human to walk on another planetary body. It’s at once a deeply personal story, and yet captures one of the most monumental human achievements of all time.

There was nothing easy about the ‘space race’. Hurling oneself out of Earth’s atmosphere, at the speeds required to escape gravity, would be terrifying enough at any time, but limited to¬†1950s/60s technology it becomes an exercise in ambition over common sense, it seems! Certainly, the American programme is fraught with accidents, often deadly, and the movie uses those to ramp up the tension levels and really pull on the audience’s emotions.

If anything, that need to constantly try to pull on the heartstrings is my only complaint about the movie. We’re shown a lot of Armstrong’s personal life, and in doing so it slants the whole achievement to being connected to the death of his daughter. Wouldn’t it be enough just for its own sake?

That said, the story is incredible and the performances are amazing. One complaint I heard was a dislike of how cold and distant Armstrong is portrayed – although, his living children have reportedly said this is the best representation they’ve seen on screen of their father. Personally, I found the personality very relatable: I do think men of that era would be cold rather than show emotions, and Neil was very much an engineer and physicist, given to logic thought.

I do with the climatic events were allowed to be a little more wow. The film makers have gone for downplaying this absolutely remarkable thing, and given how in awe I am of the reality, the movie didn’t quite capture that for me.

Still. Wow. And the film’s not half bad either ūüėČ

Released: 12th October 2018
Viewed: 9th November 2018
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 9/10

A Column of Fire – Ken Follett

a column of fire cover

“We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral.”

Who would have thought an almost-1000 page tome about the building of a cathedral would capture the imagination of so many readers (and viewers, with the subsequent TV adaptation)? And yet, 1989’s The¬†Pillars of the Earth did just that, and spawned a sequel, 2007’s¬†World Without End.

For the third part in the trilogy, author Ken Follett jumps forward half a century or so. We’re still in Kingsbridge, but now in a time of religious upheaval. The Protestant faith has grown, unhappy with the hypocrisy often seen in the Catholic leadership. Henry VIII’s announcement of himself, not the Pope, as head of the church leaves England divided. His successors are his two daughters: first the Catholic Mary Tudor – known as Bloody Mary for the number of Protestants she has executed – and then Protestant Elizabeth, who’d much rather rule over a kingdom of tolerance.

Against this background, we follow Ned Willard and a cast of characters, from Kingsbridge to France, the Netherland, and even the Caribbean. Religious upheaval throughout Europe is the cause of dramas huge and small, and this book doesn’t shy away from the gory details.

Perhaps because of the change in time period, or an over-familiarity with the era in popular culture these days, I didn’t find this book as enthralling as the first or even second in the series. In fact, the opening chapter was enough to almost have me hand the book back to the library without reading any more: “Oh great,” I thought, “another ‘woman married against her will’ history. Urgh!”

I decided to give it one more go, and slowly picked my way through the rest. The writing remains strong, the dramas told well – let’s face it, holding attention for 750 (or over 900, depending on binding!) pages is no mean feat! – but¬†still, hmm. While it didn’t work quite as well for me as the first book, but it was a nice change of pace from my more usual sci-fi and fantasy reads.

Hardback: 751 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Kingsbridge book 3
Read from 6th April – 5th May 2018

My rating: 7/10

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society poster

Surely a contender for the most awkward title of the year award (I asked for tickets for the “Guernsey film”; a friend refers to it as the “Tatty pie film”), this adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer’s book (which I haven’t read) is rather sweeter than the titular baked goods.

That the Channel Island of Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during World War II is sometimes a forgotten part of the conflict’s history. As one character puts it, they didn’t just have to survive the war like the rest of Britain, they had to do so while living with the enemy. And a dark and terrifying time it was too, which we see in flashbacks as writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) delves into the locals’ experiences.

Although I’m not really a fan of the kind of sweet romance that this film ultimately is, that element was very well balanced with the darkness of the war and occupation themes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I really liked the bits about the main character’s writing career – I was reminded a little of a quieter version of Aunt Izzy in¬†Life After Life. There were also similarities to¬†Their Finest,¬†although Juliet doesn’t seem to have many issues that you might expect for a woman in that time period.

The rest of the cast is all excellent, from Michiel Huisman (almost unrecognisable from his¬†Game of Thrones look!) to Penelope Wilton. The aftermath of the occupation is really well explored in their different characters, from regrets to anger and fear to hope. Mainly, though, it’s about the necessity of friendships, as well as the wonder of books and words.

Not for everyone, but if it’s even half your cup of tea then this is a lovely little movie.

Released: 20th April 2018
Viewed: 24th April 2018
Running time: 124 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Egyptian Enigma – LJM Owen

egyptian enigma cover

“Sipping a glass of hot apple tea, Dr Elizabeth Pimms watched dawn flow over the desert, blushing shades and grey shadows shifting and merging until they coalesced into the vast Pyramids of Giza.”

Tomb robbers and over-enthusiastic early archaeologists weren’t the only dangers to Egypt’s ancient mummies. Pharaohs rewrote history to remove their predecessors, and then stories of female pharaohs were discounted when it didn’t suit the prevailing social norms. Which only makes the mysteries that much harder to decipher.

I’ve missed a couple of books introducing Dr Elizabeth Pimms, the young Australian Egyptologist. That didn’t seem to matter too much – although I could tell when references to previous events were being made, without it impacting too much on the plot here – as it was easy enough to pick up with the story. Past events have led Elizabeth to a quieter-than-planned career as a librarian and tutor, so when she spots some strange markings on a papyrus during a trip to her beloved Egypt, she jumps at the chance to begin an investigation into the ‘Golden Tomb’ and the unidentified mummies that were discovered there.

Interspersed with Elizabeth’s modern archaeology – 3D printers are fabulous! – we get chapters told from the point of view of Tausret, the last pharaoh of the 19th dynasty – and a woman!

I do have a bit of a liking for ancient cultures such as Egypt, and a growing fondness for ‘cosy mysteries’, so I thought I’d give this NetGalley opportunity a go – and ended up gulping it down! The mix of real history – Tausret is real, the Golden Tomb is fictional – and a little insight into amateur archaeology in the technology age was a great mix.

The story is rounded out by various threads about Elizabeth’s friends and family – this is probably the bit most impacted by not reading the first two books, and indeed I’ve probably spoiled the plot to one of those by starting here. Still, the multicultural grandparentage was rather interesting, and I’m also a huge foodie so the descriptions of Chinese, French, and Welsh feasts was rather mouth watering!

Despite those bits, I would offer a warning over some of the ‘cosy’ status: I really shouldn’t have looked up ‘scaphism’ aka death by milk and honey before trying to sleep o_O

Overall: a fairly light yet involving read that moved at a good pace. I am deducting a mark, however, as the biggest non-Mummy mystery is left as a huge cliff-hanger – this isn’t¬† a stand-alone read, alas!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth book 3
Read from 9th-13th March 2018

My rating: 7/10