The music is by Isobel Waller-Bridge, who also scored her sister Phoebe’s hit series Fleabag, an equally satirical tilt at romance, and her score sets the rhythm for the action. Austen’s comedy of manners becomes a sort of baroque dance played out between the social classes in the tiny Home Counties village of Highbury, where 21-year-old Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) presides as a precocious lady of the manor.
De Wilde has looked to screwball comedy in punching up the humour in Austen’s ironies. Comedian Miranda Hart’s wide-eyed, headlong style adapts perfectly to the part of the chatterbox, Miss Bates, whose guileless good-heartedness provokes Emma’s unthinking arrogance with dramatic results. And fresh from his performance as Prince Charles in The Crown, Josh O’Connor strikes the right note of pomposity as Mr Elton, Highbury’s insufferably self-aggrandising vicar.
De Wilde makes a couple of slips. She’s put one of the characters, Harriet, and her fellow school pupils in red capes and the sight of them in procession brings up unfortunate reminders of The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s also a bit too much music – especially at the beginning. You feel as if you’re being nudged into viewing the characters as figures of fun before you’ve even met them. Then things calm down and the performances take over. Each one sheds a different light on the workings of Regency society and the constrictions imposed by its hierarchies. As always with Austen, it’s a portrait in microcosm of England as it was. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever.
The Leunig Fragments ★★★
The cartoonist Michael Leunig is a hard man to pin down: geniuses often are, writes reviewer Paul Byrnes. He emerges from Kasimir Burgess’ film, more than five years in the making, as an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
The much younger Burgess comes at him with purposeful naivete, and a desire to innovate. He offers Leunig – now 74 – the chance to explain himself on camera, to influence in his own depiction, thinking perhaps that will put him at ease. It doesn’t. Leunig’s response to the camera is mild paranoia, or as he calls it, “a desire to not be found”. At one point, he retires from filming for 10 months to “recover my equilibrium”. Having a camera on him makes “bits of the jigsaw go missing”.
Leunig appears to be trying to defend the castle – his deeply personal private world in which all lines are curved, all stars are twinkling, and all humans beset by the cruelties of modern life. Burgess is forced to plunder the earlier films and interviews, with Andrew Denton and others, in which a younger Leunig was sometimes prepared to open up, at least more than now. It’s still like sailing into the wind; perhaps the risk here was to share the tiller.
Since he was declared a living national treasure 20 years ago, he has upset quite a few fans by attacking some of their ideals – particularly working mothers and supporters of the state of Israel. His whimsy comes with a punch, notes his friend Richard Tognetti. And he has always been a political artist, says Bob Brown, statesman of the Greens. He has upset many who think of him simply as a rueful comedian, the gentle interpreter of modern life through Mr Curly and his friend the duck. Leunig here does not try to hide his sharp edges: as a newspaper cartoonist, it’s his job to be “the outsider voice that says the improbable thing”.
Leunig has had two marriages and fathered four children – only one of whom agreed to appear in the film. Leunig senior is estranged from his siblings, for reasons he can’t or won’t go into. It’s clear that aspects of his personal life distress him, but he doesn’t have the words. Fair enough: an artist’s personal life is his own to divulge or not.
I wondered why he said yes to the filming, which has interrupted his life and work for so long. The answer might lie in the film’s final chapter, when he talks about his own mortality, having recently survived brain surgery. Maybe he wanted to leave us a first draft of a legacy, for when the times comes? In that sense it’s both an engaging and frustrating film. Leunig wants to draw us near the flame, but not too near.
Richard Jewell ★★★½
The security guard Richard Jewell has gone down in history for an incident that resembles the premise of a classic “wrong man” thriller, says reviewer Jake Wilson. In 1996, he was hailed as a hero when he discovered a pipe bomb at an outdoor concert during the Atlanta Olympics. Later, he was suspected of planting the bomb himself; while he was never formally charged, the story was leaked to the media, forcing him to fight to clear his name.
Plans to turn Jewell’s life story into a movie have been afoot for a while. As luck would have it, the project has fallen into the hands of Clint Eastwood, now pushing 90, but still one of the hardest-working directors in Hollywood — and one of the craftiest, behind his straightforward mask.
Scripted by Billy Ray (Breach), Richard Jewell is in the unfussy yet didactic mode of most of Eastwood’s recent work, including the underrated The 15:13 to Paris. No doubt, he makes films the way he might play golf, to keep himself busy, but as long as he’s on the course, he may as well teach us a lesson or two.
The nature of these lessons should not be taken for granted, any more than we should assume we know what the loaded word “hero” actually means. Richard, as convincingly played by the little-known Paul Walter Hauser, seems an unlikely candidate for the role: a husky, well-meaning, outwardly simple guy who lives in a modest apartment with his mother (an excellent Kathy Bates).
From one angle the movie is pure right-wing populism, standing up for white, working-class, salt-of-the-earth guys who simply want to serve and protect.
But another moral could be drawn: quite literally, Richard is a victim of racial profiling, no less than a Middle Eastern immigrant to the US might be. Moreover, his “hero’s journey” entails a gradual loss of illusions: while his core values never waver, the same can’t be said of his faith in the American justice system.
Writer-director Jeff Wadlow occupies one of the stranger niches in Hollywood, as an odd-job man available for unlikely assignments, says reviewer Jake Wilson. If you have a snappy title but no story, or a moribund franchise that needs rebooting, try giving Wadlow a call.
Pitching his wares mainly to the youth market, he’s dabbled in teen martial arts (Never Back Down), comic-book satire (Kick–Ass 2) and bloodless supernatural horror (Truth or Dare).
Logically enough, he’s now moved on to Fantasy Island, based on the vintage Aaron Spelling TV show of the same name, a fantastical variant on The Love Boat that’s surely little more than a rumour to most viewers now under 40. Set somewhere in the South Pacific, the island is the site of a tourist resort where the enigmatic Mr Roarke, originally played by Ricardo Montalban, makes wishes come true. As in a folk tale, however, there’s always a price.
Brought to us by Blumhouse Productions, known for low-budget horror films, including Paranormal Activity and Get Out, this Fantasy Island is significantly more macabre than the original. Roarke, now played by Michael Pena, is a genially satanic figure, especially when insisting “the fantasy must play out to its logical conclusion”.
Like the TV show, the film cuts between subplots that follow visitors to the island (played by stars including Maggie Q and Lucy Hale) through their customised experiences. Ingeniously, each plot evokes a different genre: glossy romance, war movie, “torture porn” a la Saw, and bromantic comedy in the vein of The Hangover. Are these “fantasies” high-tech simulations, as in, say, the film and TV versions of Westworld? Or are the characters’ wishes magically being granted for real?
The answer is delayed as long as possible, but whatever logic is operating is of a plainly surreal kind. Events bypass the usual laws of time and space, yet all the plots appear to play out in close physical proximity, bleeding into each other without warning. Doubts are raised about whose fantasy we’re watching at any moment: on this level, the film can be understood as commenting on itself, and on the movie industry in general.
The twists and fake-outs in the third act have a Choose Your Own Adventure quality, as if Wadlow had come up with half-a-dozen endings, thrown all the drafts in the air and shot pages at random. This is apt enough, or would be, if the dreamlike chaos were fully embraced.
A Guide to Second Date Sex ★★★
British filmmakers excel at rom-coms about awkward sex and failed romance, writes reviewer Sandra Hall. If love does triumph, it first has to mount an assault against acute embarrassment. A Guide to Second Date Sex by writer-director Rachel Hirons is a typical example. Hirons has adapted the script from her own play, which has been in seen in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which means she has had plenty of time to hone these characters and their many hang-ups.
George MacKay, star of Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, is cast here as Ryan, who’s just started to date again after a messy break-up. That’s difficult enough, but he shares a house with a couple of housemates who have been assigned just one role in the film. It’s their job to get in his way when he invites a new girlfriend around for the first time.
A lot of fumbling follows as the film threatens to die of boredom. It’s brought back to life just in time by the arrival of an unexpected but disruptive guest. But it’s all a little too half-hearted. By getting down to basics, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag has pushed the sexual comedy of bad manners to such hilarious extremes it’s hard to compete.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.