Cattaneo returns with Military Wives, the story of a group of WAGS who find strength and solace in singing, while their men (and some women) serve in Afghanistan. A title at the beginning says “inspired by real events” but the final credits offer a more accurate disclaimer, admitting the situations and characters are almost entirely fictional. The factual bit is that choirs have become popular on British military bases, since two women started the first one at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire in 2010. There are now 75 military wives’ choirs, with more than 2300 members, on British bases around the world.
This one takes place at the fictional Flitcroft Garrison, as men of the “Queen’s Lancers” prepare to leave for Afghanistan. Kristin Scott Thomas, as Kate, farewells her husband, the colonel (Greg Wise), through gritted teeth. The couple have lost their son in Afghanistan a year earlier. Kate responds to grief with militant stoicism, ruthlessly suppressing her anger behind a dazzlingly false smile.
The wife of the regimental sergeant major traditionally takes on the job of welfare officer for the wives and partners while the soldiers are away. Kate storms into this realm, wresting control from the younger, less stuck-up Lisa (Sharon Horgan), who’s new to the position. Their clashes drive the comedy. That’s predictable but both women give it their best. There’s a natural and useful contrast between Scott Thomas, so patrician and brittle, and Horgan, with her unforced comic timing and her Irish vowels. Their performances are the film’s best asset.
The script is by clockwork. You just know at some point these women will end up on a bus to London to sing and Kate and Lisa will fight tooth and nail before realising they’re on the same side. The possibility of death on the field of battle hangs over their practice sessions like a sword, waiting to strike someone mid-song. Cattaneo is relentless in his pursuit of tears, but he doesn’t really need to be. We all know there are women going through this agony, not just in Britain, but in Afghanistan, Australia, the US. The music just makes the tears inevitable.
QUEEN & SLIM ★★★★
The advance word on Melina Matsoukas’s film about the highly combustible question of police killings of black Americans has promised much. We’ve been primed to expect it to pack a strong political punch wrapped in a romantic fable up there with Thelma and Louise, writes reviewer Sandra Hall.
First, the good news. That’s not all hype. It is a provocative and unorthodox piece of work. But it also takes time to win you over, looking initially as if the plot is going to be tailored to fit the message.
Queen (British actress Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out) have hooked up online and their first date is not going well. He comes from a close and loving family who have done nothing to improve his wardrobe, while she’s stylishly dressed for her job as a criminal defence attorney. What’s more, her mood is bleak. Her latest client has just been sentenced to death.
This is why, she tells him, she has sought company instead of going home to an evening alone with a glass of wine. And so, you turn to Tinder, he replies with a flash of humour that’s enough to make you warm to him.
It’s a welcome touch because she’s sounding more like a construct than a character – a highly educated black woman with a well-founded grudge against the justice system which is already being flagged as a key plot point.
It doesn’t take long to play out. He offers to drive her home, she accepts and he’s still hoping for the best – despite her disdain for his taste in music – when a patrol car pulls them over.
The policeman is aggressive and Slim is trying to stay calm when Queen starts stridently demanding the officer’s badge number. He becomes enraged and shoots her in the leg. In the scuffle that follows, Slim, in fear for his life, disarms him and shoots him dead.
When he tries to turn himself in, she won’t hear of it. Displaying unbelievable aplomb in dealing with her bullet wound, she insists that their only choice is to go on the run.
It doesn’t quite convince. Apolitical with much to lose, he gives in to her too easily. But after they take off, their flight turns into a surprisingly persuasive odyssey. Matsoukas, and screenwriter Lena Waithe, take care to retain the intimacy of the opening. The couple’s first stop, at the home of Queen’s flamboyant Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), is an example, doing more than simply supply a few essential clues to her background. It climaxes in a transformative moment which crystallises their predicament in an unexpectedly poignant way.
In the end, the trip becomes both exploration and interrogation. All sides of the argument are canvassed and although no conclusion is reached beyond the basic one – that violence is always futile – they shape the narrative into a thoroughly moral tale told with great flair.
In Fabric ★★½
British director Peter Strickland’s new film In Fabric appears to be set in the early 1980s, but some aspects of the style hark back more to the 1970s, writes reviewer Jake Wilson. Middle-aged and newly divorced bank-teller Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is ready to start looking for a new man, much to the dismay of her adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) – an art student still living at home and whose snooty girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) is resented by Sheila in turn.
With a big date on the horizon, Sheila wants to look her best and so fate brings her to the department store of Dentley and Soper, where she encounters exotically accented shop assistant Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed), apparently a member of some kind of Satanic cabal.
Enticed by Miss Luckmore’s largely incomprehensible sales pitch, Sheila buys a slinky red dress that proves to have magical properties, sadly not the kind that are advantageous to the wearer. Inexplicable rashes are only the beginning. But once acquired, it turns out, the item is not so easily disposed of.
All this is as absurd as sounds, and a good portion of In Fabric is openly played for laughs, notably the scenes in which Sheila is harangued by her employers (Steve Oram and Julian Barrett), sinister pedants with a fixation on toilet breaks.
The silliness factor is upped still further with a second plotline, involving a washing machine repairman named Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) whose grasp of technical minutiae has the power to put those around him in a trance of boredom.
In Fabric has something in common with the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, or Luca Guadagnino’s grimly tedious remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria: not so much genre movies as glosses on genre movies, where notions of fetishism and perversity are contemplated from afar.
In other words, this is not the film to see if you’re after a sleazy good time. It’s more like a game of hunt the symbol, with possible interpretations scattered so thickly it is hard to pick just one.
Anxiety about sex is one recurring motif, both in the somewhat Oedipal relationship between Sheila and Vince and in the seemingly passivity of Reg, who finds himself wearing the red dress on his bucks night.
Race, an equally charged subject, is touched on in only a glancing way. But in a film so concerned with colour, it doesn’t seem accidental that Sheila is black, especially given the exaggerated white make-up of Miss Luckmore and her cabal.
Less cagily handled is the issue of class: the contrast between the glamour that is the product of the fashion industry and the drab lives of the workers behind the scenes.
Any way you look at it, this is a film with a split personality: the notion of beauty as evil is partly tongue-in-cheek and partly not, as if Strickland were asking himself, guiltily, “Ought I to be an artist?” The question, however, may be premature depending on whether you think he is one.
The Legend Of Baron To’a ★★★
Kiwis have a knack for cutting heroes down to size, says reviewer Jake Wilson. Self-deprecation of this kind is a trademark of New Zealand comedy to the point where it suggests a degree of neurosis about the nation’s place in the world. The positive flip side is an acceptance of the fact New Zealand culture is a patchwork stitched together from diverse sources – and of the incongruities that arise as a result.
This understanding is the basis for The Legend of Baron To’a, a strange but enjoyable hybrid of martial arts movie and folksy comedy from first-time New Zealand director Kiel McNaughton. The plot has the shape of a classic Western: the son of a departed hero returns to the hometown he left long ago, to find that the bad guys are now in charge. To set things right, he must summon his resources and find the courage to take up where his father left off.
So far so solemn. The humour stems from the setting where the showdown is destined to take place: a steep cul-de-sac in suburban Auckland – known to some locals as “The Sac” – where palm trees tower over weatherboard houses, groups of kids tear around on bikes and a typical drama involves a dispute over someone’s lawnmower.
The stranger who shows up unexpectedly in this Arcadia is Fritz (Uli Latukefu), the well-spoken son of the celebrated wrestler Baron To’a (John Tui). Having made good overseas, he now plans to sell the house where his uncle Otto (Nathaniel Lee) is still living. Complications arise when a “wrestling belt” won by the late Baron disappears and Otto refuses to move on until it is recovered.
Fritz, who apparently played rugby at one point, has inherited some of his father’s physical abilities, but he’s conflict-averse, priding himself on his psychological insights and negotiating skills. He also boasts an unusually fancy vocabulary, insisting he doesn’t want to be “antagonistic” and referring to a potential bout of mayhem as a “colourful commotion”.
Perhaps, as Otto surmises, he’s spent too long in Australia, although part of the charm of John Argall’s script is that every character can be counted on for a memorable turn of phrase. Reliant on stuntwork rather than digital effects, the hand-to-hand brawls are a winning mix of the stylised and the semi-plausible, with homely items such as paint tins and pool cues used as weapons in a manner that harks back to the heyday of Jackie Chan.
There are points when The Legend of Baron To’a feels like one big in-joke, designed mainly to entertain the filmmakers, along with viewers who know the setting well enough to get an automatic kick out of seeing extravagant action sequences staged in their own backyard.
But even to outsiders the film has the charm of a homemade object, not quite like anything else. Something which may strike Australians especially is the gentleness that persists under the most unlikely circumstances: even the most hectic action sequences have little of the hard-sell spirit of our own Fat Pizza.
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.