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“The Bookshop” Is So British It Politely Swallows Back Its Own Conflicts

My deepest pleasure when watching The Great British Baking Show is trying to spot the nearly imperceptible sneer, or the eye roll tamed at the last second, or any case of contestants fighting to hide their actual emotions. To an American like me, the essence of Britishness isn’t what’s said but rather what’s not. Because of those unspoken, zipped-lip rules, some of the stories that float over from the U.K. seem almost incomprehensible to Americans. Watching, we have to wonder: Why don’t these people just fight it out and get on with it?

Writer-director Isabel Coixet’s period drama The Bookshop, for instance, is so bloody British that the story’s central concern is that an aristocratic heiress is quietly making it difficult for a young widow to run a bookshop in a small fishing town. This is a story of stifling manners and oppressive codes of conduct, where the wealthy “villains” wear a strained smile and an icky sheen of privilege. Social mores dictate that all others must simply fall in line. Though nearly nothing happens in this movie besides a woman opening a shop and beginning a standoffish friendship with a reclusive man, I still found myself drawn in, just as I was drawn to Iain’s discreet disaster of a baked Alaska (please check it out if you haven’t seen this TGBBS episode); sometimes the quiet is enticing.

Emily Mortimer plays Florence Green, whose dream is to honor her dead husband with a bookshop that would memorialize the importance of reading in their relationship. But most people in her rural town aren’t readers. The local heiress, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), would rather the location Florence has selected become a small arts center. Honestly, Violet could choose a number of vacant storefronts, but because she’s rich, it seems, she essentially wants what she can’t have and orchestrates little inconveniences designed to push Florence elsewhere — as politely as possible. So politely, in fact, that I often forgot that was the actual plot line, until it snuck up on occasion.

This is the kind of film where a character (Florence) worries endlessly over the color of her dress and what that color conveys to the people who see it. Seriously, Florence is fitted for a red garment in the first act, and she’s still debating it with herself well into the third. It is as though anxiety is the oxygen these people breathe, and without it and their little tiffs and fantasy dramas, they would suffocate in boredom. There are some red herrings of conflict, like when Florence contemplates whether Lolita would be appropriate to display in the shop, which suggests the possibility of seeing a town uprising against a sensationalist piece of literature, i.e. some action. But everything resolves itself quite easily.

In American films, if a protagonist is racked with grief and financial pressures, they’re often depicted thrashing in a violent rage, desperate to feel something. Think Manchester by the Sea, and its protagonist’s penchant for picking bar fights. Neither the British nor American cinematic way is necessarily superior to the other, but it’s sometimes nice to be reminded of violence of the papercut variety, that some troubles can be worked through without an ass-kicking.

The Bookshop
Written and directed by Isabel Coixet  
Greenwich Entertainment
Opens August 24, Angelika Film Center and Landmark 57 West

 

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Sally Potter’s “The Party” Is a Dinner Farce for the Ages

When Sally Potter’s 1983 sophomore feature, Gold Diggers, finally came to the States in 1988, Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, called the experimental, Julie Christie–starring film “torture.” Maslin was especially turned off by the 15-minute play-within-a-film sequence featuring a tap-dancing mime. British critics hailed Gold Diggers as “visually entrancing” and, for some, including myself, it solidified Potter’s status as a wry, feminist satirist of the highest order, one whose adoration of theater and of classic silent cinema — and abhorrence of how women were treated in those films — had manifested in avant-garde riddles and one very jarring anti-musical.

Potter’s newest, The Party, could be the opposite of avant-garde. The film is a slim 75 minutes of dinner-party farce, like Buñuel meets Molière, grounded in Chekhov — there’s literally a gun introduced in the first act. Upon the occasion of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) ascending to the head of the British National Health Service, her small group of friends and colleagues join her for dinner. The guests are all embroiled in their own dramas, which all reach their own boiling points as the party implodes in rage, tears, and declarations that democracy is dead. Potter isn’t what you’d call subtle, but she also knows not to overstay her welcome, and this pithy comedy is a masterclass in all that a filmmaker can squeeze from the most basic theatrical concept: Put a bunch of characters with opposing motivations in a room and see what happens.

Janet’s husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), is the first act’s silent powder keg. While Janet is in the kitchen making her own victory dinner, Bill is sipping wine, staring out the sliding glass doors to his patio. He’s nearly entranced, and when the couple’s friends April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) arrive, Bill is so distracted he can barely remember his own name and declares it doesn’t matter anyway. He’s cryptic in his dialogue, hinting he holds a secret. Actually, he’s got a few.

Spall may play the powder keg, but Clarkson’s April holds the honor of lighting the fire, with theatrical dialogue, decrying the inefficiency of parliamentary politics and accusing her own faith-healer boyfriend of being a secret fascist. When another friend, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), announces she’s “with children,” pregnant with triplets, April responds with a toast about overpopulation and the demise of our planet.

Potter seems to divide the cast into the “calm” and the “unhinged,” with Thomas’s Janet as the medium center, which tempers the nearly unmanageable frenetic energy in the room. If Jinny is yelling about her hormones, her wife, Martha (Cherry Jones), is musing poetically about the nature of love. Potter is leaning into her archetypes here. If Gottfried is going to be woo-woo, then, by God, Potter is going to make every single line of his dialogue pertain to his Eastern-medicine-and-meditation belief system, spelling it out every chance she gets. At first, this practice can be annoying; we’re trained to want subtle character sketches in contemporary cinema, not caricatures. But Potter’s whole point is to examine these classic structures that have been ingrained in theater and now film for centuries — and she often swaps the genders. She’s hitting us over the head with her tap shoes again with The Party, but it’s altogether dizzying fun.

The Party
Written and directed by Sally Potter
Roadside Attractions
Opens February 16, Landmark at 57 West and Angelika Film Center

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HBO’s Doll & Em Takes on Women’s Spontaneous Friendship Combustion

Why can’t women stay friends?

That’s a trick question, of course, but also one that British actresses Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells — lifelong pals in real life — attempt to answer earnestly and honestly in their new HBO cringe comedy Doll & Em. In the six-episode series, Mortimer and Wells play sitcom versions of themselves as a thriving Hollywood thespian and her best-friend-turned-personal assistant, respectively. One has reached just about the highest level of success a middle-aged film actress not named Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett can; the other is so lost any opportunity looks like a step up. They reside in the same rented house, but live in entirely different worlds.

As the series’ creators and writers (the latter with Azazel Jacobs, who directs every episode), Mortimer and Wells blame the mildly acidic but frighteningly fast corrosion of their characters’ decades-long friendship on a familiar culprit: female competition. Dolly and Emily’s passive-aggressive conflicts — about men, career opportunities, and money — are framed as an acknowledgment of a bitter truth: Close friends often make rivals of each other. Where this moderately ambitious show best succeeds is in justifying the competition between the two friends in the show’s particular context. Their rivalry is dirty and ugly, but also makes emotional sense.

Set largely on a film set in Los Angeles, where attention, kindness, and dignity are scarce, Doll & Em frequently resembles a struggle between two fundamentally affable dogs over a bone. Whether that bone’s just made of hard-packed dirt or something truly meaty is anybody’s guess. Dolly and Emily are self-aware enough to know they shouldn’t be bitches to one another, but they’re both afraid that that bone might be the last one they ever lay eyes on.

By necessity, Doll & Em takes the outsider-looking-in perspective of Dolly, who moves from London to Los Angeles after a bad break-up, hoping to find solace in her best friend’s arms. For the few months that Emily is filming a movie away from her family in New York, Dolly agrees to help her out. “What does an assistant do? Do I make you breakfast?” she asks on her first night. “Do I wash your clothes?” Both are too sleepy from their bonding wine to figure out the basics.

Dolly, then, is set up to fail. She’s also not the hyper-competent type — she has trouble adjusting to the left-side driver’s seat and accidentally gives the small boy she’s babysitting (Susan Sarandon’s toddler son, in a joke that doesn’t quite work about the sixtysomething actress’s eternal youthfulness) a minor injury at a cast-and-crew party. When Dolly’s impatience gets the better of her, she takes it out on her friend — she’s no picnic or pushover. Emily is sweet but obliviously spoiled and quietly needy in her own way, especially when other women in the industry knowingly wag their brows at her age.

The friends’ mutual insecurities build to a hilariously awful bout of one-upmanship in the second episode, when they compete for the affections of a skeezy player in his hot tub. They recount how they met as kids — their dads were friends — and then transform their compellingly heartbreaking relationships with their deceased fathers into a game for sympathy-sex points. “My dad died last year,” volunteers the married Emily. Dolly, not to be outdone, says of her own father, “I didn’t realize he was my dad until I was about 11. I thought it was someone else entirely.” The tragic details pile up to an absurd denouement in which Emily declaims a poem in Russian in memoriam of her father. When the guy is suitably impressed, Dolly storms out of the hot tub. Whether she’s jealous of her friend’s education, worldliness, or artsiness, it’s clear that the roots of their currently rivalry were sown long ago. No crop grows faster in Southern California than envy.

From the third episode on, Doll & Em digs its heels into showbiz satire by taking on an All About Eve-esque storyline. Dolly impresses the director and other cast members with her free-flowing tears when Emily can’t produce them on cue. Dolly tells Emily she just thinks of her dead father, natch. (The real-life Wells has three dozen screen credits to her name, but her fictional counterpart isn’t at all interested in acting until she’s “discovered” on set.) It’s not long before Emily is threatened by her friend’s new aspirations, though her substantial anger and feelings of betrayal are tempered by her loyalties.

Doll & Em arrives amid an epidemic of sororal dissolutions onscreen. Over on Girls, Lena Dunham is distinguishing her more naked, less erotic show from older sister Sex and the City by incrementally — and painfully — separating its central quartet. But Dolly & Em is more comparable to last year’s Blue Jasmine and Enough Said, two films that exploit post-recession blues to explore how adult women compare themselves to their sisters or female friends and find either themselves or others lacking. (Why this theme comes up so much more regularly in stories about women than men remains a mystery.)

All three works share a common yardstick: money. In Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett’s Ruth Madoff–like protagonist expresses her class anxiety by mercilessly haranguing her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins) to date better, i.e., richer, men. Nicole Holofcener tackles the same premise from a different perspective and genre in Enough Said. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s masseuse character begins to question her perfectly pleasant relationship with her new schlub boyfriend (James Gandolfini) when she discovers that he’s the cast-off spouse of a wealthy, chic client (Catherine Keener).

Dolly and Emily compete professionally and sexually, but of course there’s no competition, really. That tragic undercurrent gives the series its slightly sorrowful air. Emily may have a lot to lose, but that already means that she has a lot. She never has to give money a second thought, while in the fourth episode Dolly has to ask her friend for enough cash to buy the coffee it’s her job to fetch. “I keep forgetting to pay you,” Em confesses. She gives the classic Mortimer sad eyes — her sincerity is never in doubt — but it’s hard not to be enraged by her apology when it’s the kind of declaration only a person truly unaware of her privilege is in the position to make.

Doll & Em is an oblique take on that old truism that every successful star pays their friends to hang out with them. But it’s also an incisive look at how differences in money and power will inevitably poison the closest of relationships, especially in a pyramidal society like Hollywood’s, where a servant class carries top talent on an organic cotton pillow. Hollywood isn’t the real world, but the distance between the two gets smaller every day.

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Emily Mortimer’s Leonie Is Stifled by Mortifying ‘Poetry’

Something all-too rare is squandered in Leonie: an ambitious lead performance by the stellar Emily Mortimer, that fiery swan so often cast as a gawky duckling (as in the ridiculous Match Point, which posited that Mortimer—the most beautiful woman 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon had ever seen—would only be married by a Woody Allen stand-in for the money). In Leonie, she’s excellent as Leonie Gilmour, the American journalist who, circa 1900, fell for the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, bore his child, and eventually tried to carve out a life for herself on his Imperial island—all before fleeing back to the Empire State. Well-shot and sometimes briefly affecting, especially when Mortimer is given a scene that lasts longer then thirty seconds, the film moves too quickly for its many incidents to have much impact, and what limited power it builds is dissipated by mortifying narration: “Love is one of life’s most spiritual and beautiful chapters,” Mortimer is forced to purr. Later: “It seems I am fated to move wherever it is I seek to build my dream.” Worst of all is “My mother, the woman who taught me to chart my own course, even through territory seldom charted by others”—an utterance no less dumb than saying “I took the road less traveled, even when it had no people on it.” These are meant to be the words of a woman who loved poetry, remember. A more fascinating film would be some doc comprised of footage of the producers insisting yes, Emily, you really have to say this stuff.

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Chaos Theory: Go, Van Wilder, Go

Who could lift the American screen comedy from a vast muck of sniggery boner gags and crap-pop bricolage? I’m pulling for Ryan Reynolds, the stud comic whose gouging inflection and tenuous arrogance have piloted such disarming fare as Just Friends and Definitely, Maybe. Chaos Theory finds our man playing an uptight lecture-circuit efficiency expert, reasonably happily married (to Emily Mortimer) with a kid, when one blip in his immaculate schedule upends him down a steep tumble of coincidence and into the undiscovered world beyond his daily planner. From over-familiar beginnings—a wry bad-boy bachelor best friend whose idea of a good time is (head-slap) to “go to Rascals and play some blackjack”—the plot off-roads into almost free-associative happenstance. Reynolds, called to 180 from anal nebbish to feral beast, is beautifully committed, but he gets no help on the other side of the camera. The actors have to vie for attention with a bum-rushing soundtrack of emotionally instructive, anemic mope music and a director-cinematographer duo that seems more invested in creating outstandingly pretty set-ups that seem like a pitch for commercial work (the lighting is plush, the stained-teak Crate & Barrel interiors just so) rather than serving the scene or condescending to anything so basic as hustling for laffs.

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Painful to Watch Ryan Gosling in this Smarmy Little Number

How painful to watch Ryan Gosling, one of the most elastic actors of his generation, smirk and gawp and grimace his way through Craig Gillespie’s smarmy little number about a pudgy Midwestern office drudge so terrified of human contact that the only, um, person he can bond with is a mail-order Brazilian sex doll. Lurking within the high concept is a Triggering Trauma so wasting (and banal) that it takes not only loving relatives (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) but a whole village of empathic Scandinavian stoics to sort him out, steered by a therapist played by Patricia Clarkson, giving her dry best shot to hoary old bromides like “It’s not a mental illness, it’s a form of communication.” In fact, as Six Feet Under writer Nancy Oliver ought to know, barking mad might have made a movie. Instead, Lars and the Real Girl wobbles in a slow, toneless no-man’s-land between mawkish and schmaltzy while trafficking shamelessly in heartland stereotypy.

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Film

Mike Leigh spins silk out of shoestrings and Terence Davies can’t even get a foot in the financiers’ door, but somehow the U.K. film industry can always scrounge enough loose change from the cushions to foot the bill for a pre-chewed lump of sickly saltwater taffy like the mawkish Scottish-seaside postcard Dear Frankie. Emily Mortimer (last seen getting a big banging from Ewan McGregor while covered in custard and ketchup in Young Adam) plays single mother Lizzie, who’s been on the run from her violent husband for years; her deaf nine-year-old, Frankie (Jack McElhone), has no memory of his thuggish father, and Lizzie eagerly fills in this lacuna with tales of a fantasy sailor Dad on the high seas. When his supposed ship comes to dock at Frankie and Lizzie’s latest hometown, quick-thinking Mum recruits the Phantom of the Opera (stone-faced Gerard Butler, credited as simply The Stranger) to play Daddy, provoking many slushy soundtrack cues. The pat emotions contradict the lazily inconclusive life-goes-on ending, and the moral seems to be that kids just want to be lied to.

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Mild Things: A Brighter Look at Waugh’s Celebrity Culture

Evelyn Waugh closed Vile Bodies, his tart look at the not unrelated subjects of journalism, partygoing, and war, with a section entitled “Happy Ending.” The slug is a ruse; the book’s chilling last sentence suggests eternal recurrence: “And presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return.” Stephen Fry has shrewdly adapted Waugh’s 1930 novel into Bright Young Things, and the difference in titular adjectives is telling. Though Fry retains a healthy dose of Waugh’s cynicism, his happy ending stands.

Fry has chosen to land on a love story, and though he changes the originals’ fates considerably, it’s a respectful, even adoring deviation. He finds more to like in Waugh’s characters than Waugh ever did. Writer Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) and flapperish Nina (Emily Mortimer) are engaged; but when an overzealous customs official impounds the MS of his next book, Bright Young Things (by “Sue de Nimes”), Adam loses his advance, and the marriage is off. Then it’s on again (he wins a thousand pounds in an idiotic coin-manipulation challenge). Then it’s off again (he gives it to a drunken major to place on a horse reputed to be n.g.). He becomes a gossip columnist, inventing not only boldface names but fads (green bowler hats). And of course there are always parties to go to—at mansions, racetracks, even an asylum.

The problem isn’t so much the revamped plot, or the comic set pieces necessarily left out (at one point in the novel, characters watch a molasses-slow film based on the life of John Wesley, with the deadly title card “Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire (Eng.)”). Bright Young Thingsplus ça change critique of society scuttlebutt and celebrity culture is heavy-handed, on a level with, say, Chicago. And aside from cameos by Jim Broadbent (as the drunken major) and Peter O’Toole (as Nina’s reclusive, eccentric father), much of the acting strains for a sophistication that quickly becomes annoying. Moore (a dead ringer for Hugh Laurie, the TV Wooster to Fry’s Jeeves) elicits some sympathy as the cash-poor cipher, and Mortimer has a curious-making rasp to her voice. If only they would just stay at home with an improving book.