New year, new cinema, and this year kicks off with an absolute embarrassment of biopics that more or less faithfully reflect the lives and times of their heroes.
Queen Anne: my favourite Stuart
Straight off the starting blocks, the film to watch in New Year week is The Favourite which – how could I resist – is already well on its way to achieving favourite (!) status with the critics. And OK: I may have suggested, last time I wrote, that you need to take everything critics write with a pinch of salt.
But, honestly: I'm a critic and you need to take everything I say with a pinch of salt.
The Favourite is unusual: a historical comedy-drama, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos – previously known for quirky, absurdist, The Lobster - and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The unusualness lies not just in the fact that it employs a trio of strong women to play out the ups and downs of a courtly lust triangle, twixt Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), court favourite, friend and lover, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and would-be favourite Abigail (Emma Stone). No: it lies, too in the fact that it turns spotlight on a period of British history that rarely if ever gets the movie treatment.
(I mean, when last did you see a film that foregrounded sad Queen Anne – unless she just happened to be on the throne while some swashbuckling adventure took place centre stage).
Anyway, the film is funny, sharp and bawdy and has so far been positively received by critics and audiences alike. So worth a punt!
Gender Roles Challenged
Next out, on 9 January, is Colette, a gender-challenging tale about young Parisian author, Colette (Keira Knightley) who ghosts a novel about brazen country girl Claudine, for her husband Willy (Dominic West). The book is instant bestseller and a sensation. More Claudine follows: but the focus of the film is on Colette's subsequent fight to establish creative ownership of the work in the face of disapproval from both her partner and wider society. Because her success does not fit the gender role set down for her
Light, funny, and by all accounts a sterling performance from Keira Knightley. Based loosely on the life of French author Colette, this film is a biopic whose time has finally arrived, after several unsuccessful attempts to get it made in the last couple of decades.
Another fine mess
A third biopic follows on 11 January. Stan & Ollie provides a bittersweet look at “what comes after”. When you no longer find yourself top of the bill: when your place as world's funniest is being usurped by younger, different comics, what is left?
Based on the true story of the duo's final farewell – a tour of the variety halls of Britain and Ireland - the film stars Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly in the role of Hardy.
Expect highs and lows: the film is already being described as “heart-warming”, which nowadays doubles as reviewer code for “pack an extra hankie”. If you like comedy and like a positive story to brighten dark January, do visit.
Two Queens: not quite history
Then, on 18 January it is back to high intrigue with Mary, Queen of Scots. The basic narrative is well-trod: two queens – Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) - one country and, in the end, one throne.. It was inevitable that such conflict would end badly for at least one of the women involved (minor spoiler: Mary never gets to be Queen of England!).
At the same time, and given the nature of this rivalry – between two strong women at a time when affairs of state were dominated by men – the story has been a source of much continuing interest.
This film, again well-received critically, focuses on events that took place in 1569 at the height of conflict between the two countries. Mary and Elizabeth are centre stage for a deep dive into just why their feuding was so intense, so deadly.
As such, there have been some noises off, mostly from purists complaining that historical accuracy has been sacrificed in favour of dramatic intensity. Tis a habit that has plagued British drama since at least Shakespeare and unlikely to go away any time soon. So if you are a historian and hate history-mangling, stay away. Otherwise, another plus for January.
A Vicious Veep
Last up for January, on the 25th is...yet another biopic! Vice - and Vice is all about Dick.
No! Wait! I mean: Vice is a comedy drama that focuses on Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), an unassuming bureaucrat and Washington insider, who rose to a position of significant power as Vice President to George W. Bush. Absolutely not smutty at all!
The danger with such a film – as indeed with any contemporary satire – is that while Cheney may no longer be active in politics, he cast a long and, for many, baleful shadow over world events. Descriptions like “dark” and “saturnine” are still commonplace – at least amongst critics of Cheney who are mostly to be found on the political left.
The consensus is that he played a major role in reshaping both the US and the world order in which it operated: and his influence on the world stage is still being processed today.
For which reason, the film has divided critics. One half – I am guessing the left side – have praised the film as clever satire. T'other side, though, have denounced it as "a clumsy display of political hatred". If you think that's bad, just wait til the Trump biopics start to appear!
Directorial credits include an unlikely pairing of Brad Pitt and Will Ferrell, amongst others, which may go way to explaining some aspects of the film's unevenness.
That said, whether you enjoy it or not may owe less to the film than where you sit on the political spectrum. If you feel at all inclined to vote Republican any time soon, check your blood pressure before attempting Vice.