Film Review: Small Axe: Mangrove (dir by Steve McQueen)


Say whatever else you might want to say about 2020 as a cinematic year, at least it’s giving us five new films from Steve McQueen.

This British director is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today and anytime we get new work for him, it’s a cause for celebration.  His latest project is Small Axe, an anthology of five feature-length films that examines the real-life history of London’s West Indian community.  In the UK, the film are premiering on the BBC while, here in the States, they’ll be premiering on Prime.  Through mid-December, we’ll be getting a new Steve McQueen film every week.

The first of these films is Mangrove.  The film opens in the late 60s, with activist Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opening a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood.  The restaurant is called The Mangrove and it quickly becomes a base for the community.  It also becomes a target for the Metropolitan Police.  PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) claims that the Frank has a history of tolerating petty crime and that the Mangrove is probably just a front for some nefarious operation.  Of course, what quickly becomes obvious is that Pulley’s main problem with the Mangrove is that its owner is black and so are the majority of its customers.  Pulley is an unrepentant racist, the type of man who sits in his patrol car and complains that the military hasn’t been called in to enforce the law in the neighborhood.  (As obsessed as he is with the military, Pulley also says, with some pride, that he’s never actually served in the army.)  When a new rookie shows up, Pulley informs him that his priority for the night is to arrest the first black person that he sees.

Every chance that he gets, Pulley raids the Mangrove.  When Frank complains, he loses his liquor license.  When the members of the community stage a peaceful protest (“Hands Off The Mangrove!” goes one chant), Frank and eight others are arrested and charged with inciting a riot and affray, charges that could lead to all of them spending several years in prison.  (Affray is the legal term for “disturbing the peace.”)  Among those arrested, along with Frank, are activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitita Wright).  Both Darcus and Altheia insist on acting as their own counsel during the trial, giving them the chance to cross-examine the police and to also take their case directly to the jury.

Though Mangrove is a courtroom drama, the trial doesn’t being until almost an hour into the film’s running time.  Wisely, McQueen instead spends the first sixty minutes of the film introducing us to the neighborhood surrounding the Mangrove and also allowing us to get to know the people who not only work there but also the ones who eat there.  The film shows how, for a community of outsiders, the Mangrove became more than just a restaurant.  It became a center for the entire neighborhood, a place where the members of the London’s West Indian community could safely gather.  For someone like Pulley, the Mangrove was a symbol of everything that he couldn’t control and therefore, it had to be destroyed and its owners had to be humiliated.  As well-handled as the courtroom scenes are, they would be considerably less effective if the film hadn’t shown us why it was felt that the Mangrove was something worth fighting for.  When the Mangrove Nine go on trail, they’re not just nine people who have been unjustly accused.  Instead, they represent an entire community that refuses to continue to bow down to their oppressors.

It’s an often effective film, one that is all the more powerful for being based on a true story.  Much as he did with Shame, Steve McQueen makes effective use of the harsh and rather cold urban landscape that his characters inhabit. One needs only watch Frank walk down a dreary London street to understand why the Mangrove was so important to the community.  As presented by McQueen, the Mangrove provides not only an escape from the harshness of the world but also a safe place to discuss how to make that world maybe a little bit less harsh for future generations.  McQueen is brave enough to allow his camera to keep running, even beyond the point that most directors would have said “Cut.”  McQueen shows us Frank yelling after being brutally pushed into a prison cell, as any director would.  However, McQueen doesn’t cut away once Frank falls silent.  Instead, his camera remains on Frank, making us feel his isolation and his feeling of hopelessness.  It takes just a minute to go from the exhilaration of hearing Frank curse out his jailers to the horror of realizing that Frank is basically at their mercy.

For the most part, the actors make a strong impression, with the only false note coming from Rochenda Sandall, who plays Darcus’s partner and often seems to be performing in a different movie from everyone else.  Malachi Kirby and Shaun Parkes have several strong moments as Darcus and Frank while Sam Spruell plays Pulley as being an all-too familiar monster.  That said, the film is pretty much stolen by Letitia Wright, who brings both fury and wit to the role of Altheia.  Whether she’s exposing the Crown’s medical examiner as a fraud or angrily reprimanding a defendant who is considering pleading guilty, Letitia Wright dominates every scene in which she appears.

Is Mangrove eligible for the Oscars?  Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be.  But, with the rule changes and the fact that Mangrove was not only selected to compete at Cannes (before Cannes was cancelled, of course) but that it also opened the BFI London Film Festival, I think a case can be made for considering Mangrove to be a feature film as opposed to being a television movie.  This is a strange year so who knows?  Personally, I think Mangrove deserves to be considered.  If it’s not nominated for any Oscars, it’ll definitely be nominated for the Emmys.  That’ll be determined in the future.  For now, it can be viewed on Prime.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #106: The Queen (dir by Stephen Frears)


The_Queen_movieIt recently occurred to me that, if you were so inclined, you could reconstruct the entire history of the British royal family by watching movies that have been nominated for best picture.

You would start, of course, by watching Becket.  Then you’d move on to The Lion In Winter.  After The Lion in Winter, you’ll enjoy a double feature of Ivanhoe and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  After that, it’s time to watch Henry V.   When it comes to Henry VIII, you’ve actually got three films to choose from: The Private Life of Henry VIII, A Man For All Seasons, or Anne of The Thousand Days.  I suggest that you go with the Private Life of Henry VIII and then follow it up with a double feature of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.  After that, you’ll jump forward in time a bit.  You’ll watch The Madness of King George and Mrs. Brown because, even though neither was nominated for best picture, they both feature Oscar-nominated royal performances.  Finally, you’ll watch Chariots of Fire and The King’s Speech.  And, after all of that, you’ll end things by watching the 2006 Best Picture nominee The Queen.

And what a way to end!  The Queen is perhaps the best of the many Oscar-nominated films to be made about British royalty.  While the Queen is rightly known for being the film that finally won the great Helen Mirren an Oscar, it’s also a witty and frequently poignant look at how a group of entrenched people are forced to adapt to a changing world.  It’s a film that works not just because Helen Mirren gives a good performance in the role of Queen Elizabeth II but also because she humanizes Elizabeth, turning her into a character to whom viewers can relate.

The film opens with the death of Princess Diana in Paris.  As the world mourns, the British royal family struggles with how to deal with the tragedy.  Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) worries about the well-being of his sons.  Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is rather haughtily unconcerned with how the general public feels about Diana or the rest of the royal family.  The Queen Mother (Syliva Syms) continues to insist that the Royal Family is just as important as it has always been.  Only Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) seems to truly understand that the Royal Family cannot continue to cut itself off from the rest of the world.  Even though Elizabeth understands that the world outside of Buckingham Palace has changed, she’s still unsure about what her place in this new world will be.

Of course, not only does Elizabeth have to adjust with the changing values of the British public but she also has to deal with a new prime minister.  Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has been swept into office, pledging that he’s going to “modernize” British society.  While the politically savvy Blair is determined to treat Elizabeth with respect, some of his closest advisers do little to disguise the contempt with which they view the royal family.  This include Tony’s own wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory).

And so, while self-styled reformer Blair finds himself in the strange position of defending tradition, Elizabeth tries to figure whether those traditions still matter in changing times.

The Queen is a film that demands an intelligent audience, one that is capable of enjoying a film based solely on the basis of good acting and intelligent dialogue.  The Queen‘s triumph is that it humanizes an iconic figure and reminds us that even the biggest events are both historical and personal.  I have no idea whether the real Elizabeth is anything like the character played by Helen Mirren but I certainly hope she is.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #94: The Wings of the Dove (dir by Ian Softley)


Wings_of_the_dove_ver1For nearly two months now, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 126 cinematic melodramas.  (I know that I originally said that I would be reviewing 126 films in 3 weeks but, even at the time I said that, I think a part of me knew that it would probably be more like 8 or 9 weeks.)  And, while it seems like forever since I started this series by reviewing the 1927 silent classic Sunrise, I’ve still been having fun discovering and rewatching some wonderful films.  It’s been a lot of work but if I’ve inspired anyone to see any of the 93 films that I’ve reviewed so far, then it’s all been worth it.

For our 94th entry, let’s take a quick look at the 1997 film The Wings of the Dove.

Based on a novel by Henry James, The Wings of the Dove open in London.  The year is 1910 and Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) has problems.  Her mother has recently died and her father (Michael Gamon) is a penniless opium addict.  Kate is taken in and supported by her wealthy Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling).  Maude has plans for Kate to marry the vapid Lord Mark (Alex Jennings) and demands that Kate have no contact with either her father or any of her old friends.

Among those that Kate is supposed to abandon is a journalist named Merton Densher (Linus Roache).  Kate and Merton are in love but there’s no way that Maude would ever allow them to get married.  Merton is not only poor but he’s a bit of a radical as well.

While visiting with Lord Mark, Kate meets an American heiress named Milly (Alison Elliott).  As open and kind as Kate is cynical and manipulate, Milly is touring Europe.  Milly and Kate quickly become friends and Milly goes as far as to invite Kate to go to Venice with her.  It’s also through her friendship with Kate that Milly first meets Merton.  Attracted to him and unaware of her relationship with Kate, Milly invites him to come to Venice as well.

Kate, meanwhile, has discovered that Milly is terminally ill.  She comes up with a scheme, in which Merton will romance Milly.  Kate is convinced that Milly will then change her will to include Merton.  Once Milly dies, Merton will be rich and then Maude will have no reason to object to him marrying Kate.

At first, Merton is repulsed by the scheme but he finally agrees, specifically so that he can go to Venice with Kate.  However, once they’re all actually in Venice, things start to get complicated.  Merton starts to fall in love with Milly and Kate discovers that she loves Merton more than she originally realized…

The Wing of the Dove is an effective literary adaptation, one that brings a contemporary spin to the material while still remaining truthful to the spirit of the source material.  The costumes and the sets are beautiful to look at and Venice is as wonderfully romantic and cinematic as always.  Linus Roache is a bit of a stiff as Merton (but then again, the same could be said for the character himself) but it doesn’t matter because the film is dominated by Helena Bonham Carter’s ferocious performance in the role of Kate.  She plays Kate as a bundle of nervous energy and barely repressed carnality, an Edwardian femme fatale.  She was rightfully nominated for best actress for her performance in this film.  The award, however, went to Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets.

(This, along with the complete snubbing of Boogie Nights, would seem to suggest that 1997 was not a banner year as far as the Academy Awards were concerned…)

The Wings of the Dove is currently available to be viewed on Netflix.  Don’t miss it.