Review: ‘Wicked Little Letters,’ starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan, Gemma Jones, Joanna Scanlan, Malachi Kirby, Lolly Adefope, Eileen Atkins and Timothy Spall

April 6, 2024

by Carla Hay

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in “Wicked Little Letters” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Wicked Little Letters”

Directed by Thea Sharrock

Culture Representation: Taking place in the early 1920s, in Littlehampton, England, the comedy/drama film “Wicked Little Letters” (inspired by real events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two women, who have opposite personalities and who happen to live next door to each other, get into an escalating feud when one of the women is accused of anonymously sending hateful and obscene letters to the other woman and several other people they know in the area. 

Culture Audience: “Wicked Little Letters” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and well-acted satires about crime and discrimination.

Timothy Spall in “Wicked Little Letters” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Wicked Little Letters” not only has an accused libelous harasser on trial but this smart and funny satire also puts sexism, xenophobia and classism on trial. Top-notch performances give an incisive edge when the comedy gets too slapstick. The movie’s ending is a bit rushed, but the overall story should be enjoyable for viewers who like movies that poke fun at societal flaws and hypocrisies.

Directed by Thea Sharrock and written by Jonny Sweet, “Wicked Little Letters” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is inspired by real events that took place in early 1920s England, when people in the small coastal town of Littlehampton were receiving anonymous, handwritten letters that had obscene insults directed at the letter recipients. “Wicked Little Letters” is partly a mystery about who is sending the letters and partly a send-up of how people react to the letters.

“Wicked Little Letters” also takes place in Littlehampton but condenses the real timeline of events from about three years to about a little over one year. The movie begins by showing that religious and conservative Edith Swan (played by Olivia Colman) has received the 19th letter in a series of obscene hate letters sent to her anonymously. Edith is a middle-aged, never-married bachelorette with no children. She lives in a townhouse with her parents: domineering and gruff Edward Swan (played by Timothy Spall) and passive and devoted Victoria Swan (played by Gemma Jones), who are understandably upset about the letters.

Edith shows this offensive letter to her parents. An outraged Edward wants to file a police report about these letters, but a reluctant Edith says she wants to avoid the embarrassment of making these letters public. Edith also says that whoever sent the letters deserves forgiveness and compassion. Eventually, Edward convinces Edith that they should file a police report because the only way for the letters to stop is to catch the culprit, and they need the help of law enforcement. Edith reluctantly agrees to give a statement to police.

Edward storms off the local police deparment and tells the investigating officer on duty about the letters. Constable Papperwick (played by Hugh Skinner) listens to what an angry Edward has to say and replies by saying that Constable Papperwick will fill out a form that will be filed for the police report. That response isn’t good enough for Edward, who thinks that Constable Papperwick isn’t taking the matter seriously. Edward insists that there should be a formal investigation.

Constable Papperwick relents and goes to the Swan home to do an interview with the Swans. Edward is quick to name the only person whom he thinks is sending the letters: a single mother named Rose Gooding (played by Jessie Buckley), who recently moved to the area from Ireland and who lives next door to the Swan family. Rose, who says her husband died in World War I, lives with her tween daughter Nancy (played by Alisha Weir) and Rose’s boyfriend (played by Malachi Kirby), who treats Nancy (who’s about 10 or 11 years old) and Rose with kindness and respect.

Edith then backs up the theory that Rose is sending the letters by telling Constable Papperwick more about why Rose is the most likely suspect. Rose and Edith actually started out as friendly acquaintances after Rose moved in next door. But some conflicts began to arise between the two women, who have opposite personalities.

The Swan family and Rose share a bathroom, which Edith says Rose often leaves in messy conditions. Edith thinks that Rose is a foul-mouthed slob, while Rose thinks that Edith is an uptight prude. The Swan family also disapproves of Rose because she sometimes likes to have rowdy fun and get drunk at pubs, which the Swans think is a very unladylike lifestyle.

Edith, who is nosy and judgmental, thinks it’s horrible that Rose dated several men before she began dating Bill. The Swans also don’t really approve of Rose because she’s Irish and an unmarried woman who’s “living in sin” with a lover. And it’s not said out loud in the movie, but it’s implied that because Bill also happens to be black, the Swans dislike that Rose and Bill are in an interracial romance.

At one point, someone anonymously called Child Protective Services against Rose. Nothing came of the CPS investigation, but Rose suspects that Edith is the one who called CPS to get Rose in trouble. All of these circumstances have made Rose the subject of gossip in the community, even before the obscene letters started being sent.

The tensions between Edith and Rose got worse during a birthday party for Edward, when a man at the party insulted Rose, and she punched him. This altercation ruined the party, and Edith put all the blame on Rose. Shortly after this party, Edith began receiving the obscene letters, which crudely accuse Edith of being promiscuous and kinky. The Swans tell Constable Papperwick that Rose is the only obvious suspect because she’s the only person they know who frequently curses like the curse-filled rants that are in the letters.

Constable Papperwick believes the Swans and immediately arrests Rose, who is charged with libel. Rose vehemently denies anything to do with the letters. Constable Papperwick and his boss Chief Constable Spedding (played by Paul Chahidi) think they have an easy open-and-shut case in proving that Rose is guilty.

However, police officer Gladys Moss (played by Anjana Vasan), the only woman in the police department, is skeptical that Rose is guilty because there is no real evidence against Rose. Gladys thinks that the police were too hasty in arresting Rose and believes that a handwriting analysis should be done as part of the investigation. Constable Papperwick and Chief Constable Spedding both think that doing a handwriting analysis is a waste of time and doesn’t count as evidence.

When Gladys expresses her concerns to Constable Papperwick and Chief Constable Spedding, these higher-ranking male cops are dismissive and condescending to Gladys in repeatedly sexist ways. Gladys suggests they should investigate further, because she thinks that Rose could be the target of a setup. Constable Papperwick sneers at her: “Woman officers don’t sleuth.” Chief Constable Spedding orders Gladys to stay out of the case. After Rose gets bailed out of jail, the obscene letters are sent to many more people in the community. And the scandal becomes big news in the United Kingdom.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “Wicked Little Letters” shows the double standards that women face in society and how harsher judgments are placed on women if they do certain things that men are allowed to do without such judgment. Rose’s arrest is essentially because she does not conform to what this conservative community thinks a woman should be like: Rose sometimes gets drunk, she frequently swears, and she occasionally gets into fights to defend herself. A man doing the same things would not be condemned so severely.

Later in the movie, Rose finds out that Gladys is not allowed to marry and have children if she wants to keep her job as a police officer. It’s a sexist workplace rule that obviously doesn’t apply to men. When Rose asks Gladys why she wants to be a police officer, she says it’s because her father was a police officer, and she wants to do the work more than anything else. Gladys also has an adolescent niece named Winnie Moss (played by Krishni Patel), who also wants to become a police officer, and Gladys is mentoring Winnie.

The sexism doesn’t just come from men. An early scene in the move shows that Rose’s daughter Nancy likes to play acoustic guitar, but Rose tells Nancy, “Nice girls don’t play guitar.” (To her parental credit, Rose also tells Nancy to focus more on her academic studies.) On a more extreme level, Edith (who craves the approval of her strict and patriarchal father) has very bigoted ideas of what females should and should not do to be considered “respectable” and “feminine” in society.

“Wicked Little Letters” has some twists and turns in the story, which stays mostly faithful to the strange-but-true events that happened in real life. Although the names of the main characters have not been changed for the movie, some of the supporting characters were fabricated for the film. Rose finds some unlikely allies with three women who are Edith’s friends in a Christian women’s club that gets together to play cards: open-minded Mabel (played by Eileen Atkins), jolly Ann (played by Joanna Scanlan) and cautious postal worker Kate (played by Lolly Adefope), who is initially very suspicious of Rose.

“Wicked Little Letters” can get somewhat repetitive in showing how the odds are stacked against Rose. However, the investigation and the subsequent trial are intriguing and take comedic aim at the snobs in the community who are often hypocrites blinded by their own prejudices. The movie does not make adversaries Rose and Edith into caricatures. There are layers to Rose that show she’s a loving and responsible parent, not the unfit mother that she has been described as by her critics. Edith is also not quite as prim and proper as she appears to be.

Rose’s fiery personality and Edith’s reserved personality are seemingly at odds with each other. But Rose and Edith—just like Gladys—also share the common experience of being oppressed by sexism that wants to dictate or control how they should live their lives, simply because they are female. The heart of the film is in the admirable performances of Buckley, Colman and Vasan, who skillfully blend the film’s zippy comedy and the more serious drama. Amid the story about a criminal investigation and trial, “Wicked Little Letters” has poignant observations about female independence and female friendship—and what can be gained or lost under certain circumstances.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Wicked Little Letters” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Emily’ (2022), starring Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Adrian Dunbar, Amelia Gething and Gemma Jones

February 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Emma Mackey in “Emily” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Emily” (2022)

Directed by Frances O’Connor

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in England (and briefly in Belgium), from 1841 to 1848, the dramatic film “Emily” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Aspiring writer Emily Brontë, who is perceived as a reclusive weirdo in her community, experiences love and loss before writing her first and only novel, “Wuthering Heights.”

Culture Audience: “Emily” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Emily Brontë, British films that take place in the 1800s, and well-acted movies that have gothic tones and themes.

Fionn Whitehead and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in “Emily” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

Gorgeously filmed like an Emily Brontë novel come to life, “Emily” overcomes its occasionally dull moments with very good acting, led by a vibrant performance from Emma Mackey. This gothic drama perfectly captures the moody and eccentric personality of its author protagonist without turning her into a parody or caricature. It’s not a completely accurate biopic in the purist sense of the word, because much of the story is about a romance that was fabricated for the movie.

“Emily” is the first feature film from writer/director Frances O’Connor (also known for being an actress), who shows talent in casting choices, visual style and character development. However, “Emily” needed some improvement in the narrative structure: Some scenes look unnecessary because they don’t really go anywhere. Better choices could also have been made in the film editing for “Emily,” because the movie’s pacing sometimes drags. These are minor flaws that shouldn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the movie.

“Emily” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. For the 2023 British Independent Film Awards, the movie was nominated for four prizes: Best Lead Performance (for Mackey); Best Supporting Performance (for Fionn Whitehead); the Douglas Hickox Award, a prize given to a debut director (for O’Connor); and Best Ensemble. At the 2023 British Academy Film Awards, Mackey won the Rising Star Award.

“Emily” takes place mostly in England’s Yorkshire county, from 1841 to 1848. In 1841, Emily Brontë (played by Mackey) is a 23-year-old bachelorette who is shy, eccentric and reclusive. She has a vivid imagination and often seems to live in a fantasy world, but this personality trait also caused her to have a reputation in the community for being weird and an extreme daydreamer. Emily often talks out loud to the characters that she has created in her head.

She is also a poet who has been able to get her poems published under the alias Ellis Bell. It was very common for women writers at the time to send their work to publishers by using a man’s name as an alias, because they knew this gender switch would increase their chances of getting published. Unlike many women in her age group, Emily is not preoccupied with finding a husband, especially a man who has more money than her family does.

Emily lives in a rural parsonage in Haworth, England, with her widowed father Reverend Patrick Brontë (played by Adrian Dunbar), her younger sister Anne Brontë (played by Amelia Gething), her older brother Branwell Brontë (played by Whitehead) and her aunt Elizabeth Branwell (played by Gemma Jones), who is the sister of Emily’s deceased mother Maria. Emily has an older sister named Charlotte Brontë (played by Alexandra Dowling), who doesn’t live at home for most of the movie because Charlotte is away at college and then gets a teaching position at the school after she graduates.

All four of the Brontë siblings are aspiring writers, but the movie depicts Emily as the sibling who is the most consistently prolific. When Charlotte comes home for a visit from school, Charlotte mentions to Emily that she’s been too busy to write because of all of her schoolwork. Throughout the movie, there’s an unspoken rivalry between Emily and Charlotte—not just when it comes to any of their professional aspirations but also when it comes to their love lives. As the oldest of the four siblings, overachieving Charlotte expects to be the first of her siblings to accomplish great things and to be the sibling to get married first.

The Brontë family is grieving over the death of matriarch Maria, who died of cancer in 1821, when Emily was 3 years old. Maria’s absence has left a void that the siblings don’t really like to talk about with each other. What “Emily” doesn’t mention is that in real life, the family’s two eldest siblings (Maria and Elizabeth) died in 1824 from typhoid epidemic that plagued their school. Charlotte then became the eldest living sibling, which partially explains why she acts like both a sister and a mother to her younger siblings.

Emily is close to all of her living siblings, but she has a special bond with Branwell, who is only a year older than Emily. Branwell is fun-loving, rebellious and can usually make Emily laugh when she’s feeling depressed, which is apparently quite often. Unlike Charlotte, who is often judgmental of Emily and scolds Emily for being vulgar, Branwell accepts Emily for exactly who she is. He also has great admiration for her as a writer. And so does Anne, who is the kindest and friendliest of the four siblings.

Emily frequently joins Branwell for some of his mischief making, such as when they peek though neighbors’ windows unbeknownst to the neighbors, or when they indulge in taking drugs. Emily and Branwell secretly smoke marijuana together and take liquid opium stolen from their father, who keeps am opium stash for emergency medicinal purposes. This opium taking becomes a serious addiction for one of these siblings.

Whatever social life that Emily has is usually because of her more outgoing siblings. They sometimes frolic together in the nearby fields like giddy children. Things are much more serious at the church where their father is the chief clergyman.

However, the arrival of a curate named William Weightman (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), bachelor in his 30s, indicates that this church is about to undergo a transformation. William’s first sermon isn’t a typical stuffy lecture but is instead a personal tale with a rain theme. He talks about much he enjoys walking in the rain, and how rain is similar to a spiritual cleansing.

After the sermon, sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne are gathered in the kitchen, where they are helping prepare meals for the visiting congregation. Charlotte and Anne are immensely charmed by handsome newcomer William, while Emily is not as impressed. And it’s at that moment that you know what Emily is going to fall in love with William.

Anne gushes, “He speaks with such poetry.” Emily replies, “Any man can speak, but what can he actually do?” Emily then says sarcastically, “I do wonder though: How does God squeeze Himself into all that rain. Does he get wet?”

At that moment, William walks in the kitchen to formally introduce himself. He knows that the sisters were talking about him, and there’s some awkwardness that he quickly diffuses with self-deprecating charisma. Emily doesn’t say much to William in this conversation, but her staring eyes show that she’s intrigued by him but doesn’t want to admit it to anyone just yet.

Over time, Charlotte and Anne openly express that they have a crush on William, as they giggle in his presence and seem awed by everything he says and does. For Valentine’s Day, William gives all three sisters friendly Valentine’s Day notes, but Emily is the only one of the sisters who reacts with seeming indifference. However, through a series of circumstances, (including William becoming Emily’s French tutor), Emily and William get to know each other better. And an attraction grows between them.

Up until this point, Branwell is the man who is closest to Emily. Branwell is aware of a growing attraction between Emily and William. Branwell seems jealous or threatened that another person could mean more to Emily than Branwell. And so, Branwell tells Emily that he doesn’t think William is the right person for her. William is cautious about having a love affair with Emily because it’s ethically questionable and because he doesn’t want to lose the trust of Emily’s father, who is William’s mentor.

Like any compelling gothic movie that mixes horror and romance, “Emily” has a few scenes that are literally haunting. One evening, the Brontë family is hosting a dinner, with William and a family friend in her 20s named Ellen Nussey (played by Sacha Parkinson) as the guests. Patrick brings out a white theater mask that he says was a wedding gift to him and Maria, but this gift was not accompanied by a card, so they never found out who gave them this mask. Patrick explains that his children would play with the mask when they were growing up, by someone putting on the mask and playing a character, while other people would have to guess the identity of the character.

After dinner, Emily, Charlotte, Anne, Branwell, William and Ellen gather in a room to play this game from the Brontë siblings’ childhood. At first, the game is lighthearted. But then, Emily puts on the mask and starts talking. To her siblings’ horror, they figure out that Emily is impersonating their dead mother. Suddenly, strong wind gusts whip through the room, as if an unseen ghostly spirit has appeared. People in the room have various reactions, but it unnerves most of the people who witnessed this spectacle.

“Emily” doesn’t turn into a ghost story, but the mask is a symbol for how much of the past the siblings want to hold on to, when it comes to their childhoods and how the death of their mother has affected them. At one point, one of the siblings buries the mask in the backyard, as if the mask also represents painful memories. The mask is later dug up and retrieved, as if to reclaim those memories to being positive and something that shouldn’t be feared.

The romance between Emily and William plays out exactly like it usually does in movies like “Emily,” with Mackey and Jackson-Cohen showing the typical combination of repressed lust and unleashed passion, depending on the scene. Mackey does a lot of terrific acting with her expressive eyes, so that observant viewers can deduce what Emily is thinking, even when Emily isn’t saying a word. The movie shows that, far from being bashful about expressing love, Emily is the one who initiates many of the overtures in this romance.

Whitehead also stands out in his role of complicated Branwell, who seems to be carefree on the outside, but Branwell is actually deeply insecure and troubled about himself and his place in the family. Whereas Emily has Charlotte as Emily’s biggest critic, Branwell has his father Patrick has Branwell’s biggest critic. Branwell can’t seem to change Patrick’s perception that Branwell is a “disappointment” to the family.

Because very little is known about the real Emily Brontë’s love life, the romance in the movie was created to spice up the story. Although the character of William is a composite of real people, according to the production notes for “Emily,” there is no evidence that Emily fell in love with someone who worked for her father. However, the movie correctly depicts that Emily briefly gave up writing when she decided to become a teacher.

The sibling rivalry between Emily and Charlotte is much more plausible. In real life, Charlotte Brontë also became a famous author because of her novel “Jane Eyre,” which was published in 1847, the same year that Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” was published. Both novels are centered on romance, but each book has a very different tone. “Wuthering Heights” has a darker tone that was considered more risqué at the time.

Because “Emily” is told from Emily’s perspective, very little is shown about Charlotte’s writing process. “Emily” speculates what could have motivated Emily to write her greatest and best-known work (“Wuthering Heights”) in her short life. The movie is both a fitting tribute and an imaginative portait of an enigmatic author whose work has stood the test of time.

Bleecker Street released “Emily” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 24, 2023. The movie was released in the United Kindgom on October 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Benediction’ (2021), starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones and Ben Daniels

July 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in “Benediction” (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions)

“Benediction” (2021)

Directed by Terence Davies

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1910s to 1950s, primarily in England, the dramatic film “Benediction” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During World War I, British soldier Siegfried Sassoon becomes an anti-war objector and a poet, and for years he hides his homosexuality, including by getting married to a woman. 

Culture Audience: “Benediction” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true stories of British gay men in the 20th century.

Kate Phillips and Jack Lowden in “Benediction” (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions)

Well-acted but slightly long-winded, the British drama “Benediction” is a compelling biopic that shows how poet Siegfried Sassoon was not only bold and outspoken about his anti-war views, but he was also insecure and secretive about his homosexuality. The movie gives emotionally complex depictions of how fame cannot shield LGBTQ people from the bigotry that pressures LGBTQ people to sometimes lead double lives. “Benediction” is a 20th century period drama, but many of the movie’s issues about homophobia can still apply to many people today. Written and directed by Terence Davies, “Benediction” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

In real life, Siegfried Sassoon had turmoil not just about his sexuality but also about his religious faith and coming from a broken home. Born in Matfield, England, in 1886, Siegfried died in Heytsebury, England, at age 80 in 1967, just one week before he would have turned 81. His father Alfred was Jewish, and his mother Theresa was Catholic. Alfred was disowned from his family for marrying a non-Jewish woman.

When Siegfried was 4 years old, his parents separated. Siegfried (who was the middle of three sons) and his older brother Michael and younger brother Hamo were then raised by their mother, while their father would see them for visits. And then, Alfred died of tuberculosis in 1895, when Siegfried was 7 or 8 years old. Years later, tuberculosis would nearly kill the man who was considered to be the greatest love of Siegfried’s life.

“Benediction” would have benefited from some exploration of Siegfried’s childhood and family background, which undoubtedly shaped the person he became. It would certainly explain why Siegfried wasn’t afraid to go against society’s expectations as a military man who became an outspoken objector against war and against the British government. Siegfried lived during a time in the United Kingdom when it was very taboo for people to be in mixed-religion marriages and for married people to separate. Being treated like an “outsider” simply because of his parents’ marital situation no doubt affected Siegfried in ways that carried into his adulthood.

Instead of giving this backstory, “Benediction” shows Siegfried in two different phases of his life: when Siegfried was his 30s and 40s (played by Jack Lowden) and when Siegfried was in his 70s (played by Peter Capaldi), with the younger phase of Sisgfried’s life getting most of the screen time. This uneven timeline doesn’t ruin “Benediction,” but it does make it more obvious to viewers how the movie under-uses the talent of Capaldi.

“Benediction” opens in London in 1914. Siegfried and his younger brother Hamo (played by Thom Ashley) are visiting a tailor shop together. In 1914, Siegfried was an aspiring poet and a British Army soldier who would later become a second lieutenant and a decorated war hero for saving soldiers’ lives during combat. When Hamo goes off to serve in the British Army during World War I, Siegfried expresses regret at not saying goodbye to his brother. Hamo was tragically killed in the line of duty during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

By 1917, Siegfried became disillusioned about World War I and war in general. The movie shows him writing letters of protest to the United Kingdom government. A scene in “Benediction” shows him reading one of the letters, which says in part: “I believe that war upon which I entered in defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

As an example of Siegfried’s willingness to sacrifice his military career for his anti-war beliefs, he meets with an openly gay journalist/mentor named Robbie Ross (played by Simon Russell Beale), who comes from an influential political family, to find out what punishment Siegfried will be getting from the British government. In this meeting, Siegfried is fully expecting to hear that the British military is going to court martial Siegfried because of Siegfried’s public criticism of the British government’s stance on World War I. But to Siegfried’s dismay, Robbie tells Siegfried that Robbie enlisted the help of Edward Marsh, the principal private secretary of then-U.K. minister of munitions Winston Churchill, to get Siegfried honorably discharged from the military for medical reasons.

“You robbed me of my dignity!” Siegfried angrily says to Robbie about not getting court martialed. Robbie says, “Don’t be angry with me, Siegfried. My intentions were honorable.” Despite this argument, Robbie (who is 18 years older than Siegfried) and Siegfried remain friends. Robbie became a trusted advisor in Siegfried’s personal and professional lives. “Benediction” briefly mentions later in the movie that Robbie was also known for his close relationship with gay poet/writer Oscar Wilde, whom Robbie remained loyal to during Wilde’s imprisonment for being gay.

At the time, homosexuality was banned in the British military, and homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. “Benediction” makes it look like although Siegfried might have been suspected of being gay in the military, he was punished more for speaking out against the British government. His military discharge included being sent to a psychiatric hospital for having “psychiatric problems.”

In a dramatic show of his disgust with the British military, Siegfried throws away his military card. At the hospital, he has therapy sessions with a sympathetic psychiatrist named Dr. Rivers (played by Ben Daniels), who says things to Siegfried such as: “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you think you need.” It’s not said out loud, but it’s implied that Dr. Rivers is a closeted gay man too.

Over time, Siegfried begins to trust Dr. Rivers because he and the doctor are kindred spirits who both have a lot of mistrust of the British government. Siegfried witnesses some disturbing things in the hospital, such as a man screaming out on agony during a meltdown, but Dr. Rivers is able to calm Siegfried’s fears. During his stay in the psychiatric hospital, Siegfried befriends a fellow patient named Wilfred Owen (played by Matthew Tennyson), who is the editor of a poetry newsletter called The Hydra.

Siegfried and Wilfred become great admirers of each other’s poetry. Siegfried is particularly impressed with Wilfred’s poem “Disabled.” It looks like Siegfried and Wilfred are headed toward a romance. But that possibility is interrupted when a chief medical officer (played by Julian Sands) has an angry reaction to seeing Siegfried and Wilfred doing a tango dance together. What happens to Wilfred is shown in the movie.

“Benediction” spends a lot of time depicting the ups and downs of Siegfried’s love life. People closest to Siegfried knew he was gay, but he was still “in the closet” about his true sexuality to most people. “Benediction” implies that Siegfried probably would’ve been more open about his sexuality if there weren’t severe punishments for being gay in the United Kingdom at the time.

Despite hiding his sexual identity from many people, Siegfried had an active social life. The movie shows Siegfried, Robbie and their mutual friend Dorothy Brett (played by Georgina Rylance) being invited to a party by Lady Edith Oliver (played by Olivia Darnley), one of the high-society people who became acquainted with Siegfried because of his poetry. It’s at this party that Siegfried meets celebrated actor/composer Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Irvine), who is an openly gay playboy.

Siegfried falls for Ivor’s charms but quickly finds out that he’s one of many of Ivor’s lovers who get tossed aside and picked up again, according to Ivor’s whims. In fact, when Ivor and Siegfried hook up for the first time, Ivor’s actor boyfriend Glen Byam Shaw (played by Tom Blyth) walks in on them. Ivor cruelly tells Glen to leave the house keys as a way to break up with Glen in that moment

“Benediction” portrays Siegfried’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ivor as not so much of a romance but more like an addiction that Siegfried finds hard to quit. Ivor is up front with his lovers in telling them that he doesn’t believe in monogamy. And this is how Ivor describes his views about love: “The main drawback about love is that it descends all too quickly into possessiveness. It really is a bore.”

Ivor doesn’t like Siegfried’s friend/mentor Robbie. Siegfried’s mother Theresa (played by Geraldine James) doesn’t like Ivor. Theresa has this to say about Ivor: “He’s amusing but unpleasant.” Is it any wonder that Siegfried’s relationship with Ivor is doomed to fail?

In a scene that looks fabricated for a movie, Ivor’s ex-lover Glen happens to see Siegfried and Ivor break up at a restaurant. It should not come as a big surprise that after seeing this breakup, Glen immediately wants to get close to Siegfried. Glen offers to drive Siegfried to Kent so that Siegfried can visit his grandmother. During this trip, the two men get to know each other better in more ways than one. However, Glen eventually decides he’s going to marry an actress.

“Benediction” portrays aristocrat Stephen Tennant (played by Calam Lynch) as the biggest love of Siegfried’s life. However, Stephen and Siegfried’s love affair is plagued by mutual jealousy. Even when Ivor was no longer dating Siegfried, Ivor seems to still have some kind of hold over Siegfried. And it bothers Stephen immensely. Siegfried also gets jealous of the attention that Stephen gets from other men. This love affair also ends in heartbreak.

In his 40s, Siegfried strikes up a close friendship with a lively and outgoing socialite named Hester Gatty (played by Kate Phillips), despite Hester being 20 years younger than he is. Hester knows that Siegfried is gay. Siegfried also confides in Hester about problems in his love life.

And eventually, Hester proposes marriage to Siegfried, knowing that she will be his “beard,” to cover up the fact that he is gay. Siegfried and Hester get married in 1933, mainly because they want to start a family together. Their son (and only child) George was born in 1936.

Where does the story of older Siegfried fit into the movie? It’s told in the context of an emotionally unsettled Siegfried fighting depression and looking back on his life while deciding that he’s going to convert to Catholicism. Siegfried’s adult son George (played by Richard Goulding) is very skeptical about Siegfried being committed and sincere about being a Catholic. It leads to some father/son conflicts that aren’t very interesting, mainly because viewers never get to see what kind of father Siegfried was to George for most of George’s life.

As for older Hester (played by Gemma Jones), living in a fake marriage has taken a toll on her. The young Hester was hopefully optimistic that being married to her gay best friend would have a happy ending. The older Hester is somewhat bitter because she sees the reality that although she is happy with being a mother, she and Siegfried deprived themselves of living authentically and possibly being in a true romance with someone else. Hester also knows that this arranged marriage benefited Siegfried more than it benefited her.

However, that doesn’t mean Siegfried feels any more satisfied than Hester in how this marriage turned out to be a stagnant relationship. Siegfried and Hester just barely tolerate each other but feel obligated to stay together to keep up appearances during a time when divorce was still a big stigma for many people. Siegfried wanting to convert to Catholicism is an obvious indication that he doesn’t consider divorce to be an option for this unhappy marriage.

There’s not a bad performance in “Benediction,” with Lowden being an obvious standout for his portrayal of the complicated and somewhat unpredictable Siegfried. Irvine also gives a memorable supporting performance as heartbreaker Ivor, who seems to have love/hate relationships with most people in his life. Jones and Capaldi also give admirable and nuanced performances as the older Siegfried and older Hester in the limited screen time that they have.

In a movie about a famous poet, the writing should also be commendable. “Benediction” has snippets of Siegfried’s poetry, of course, but the movie delivers a lot of above-average and snappy dialogue from Davies’ original screenplay. In a scene where Siegfried finds out that Ivor is dating actor Bobby Andrews (played by Harry Lawtey) at the same time that Ivor has been dating Siegfried, Bobby quips: “If you want fidelity, Siegfried, buy a pet.” (In real life, this actor spelled his name as Bobbie Andrews.) Later, when Glen tells Siegfried that he’s marrying a woman, Glen cynically says: “Purity is like virginity. As soon as you touch it, it becomes corrupt.”

“Benediction” unquestionably has high-quality filmmaking, when it comes to the movie’s acting, production design and costume design. However, “Benediction” doesn’t quite have what it takes to win major awards for any aspects of its filmmaking. The biggest issue is that parts of the film tend to lumber and could have used better editing.

There’s also the problem of introducing Siegfried at a later stage of his life and yet not giving that period of his life enough screen time. The movie leaves out huge parts of Siegfried’s life after he married Hester. These omissions just bring up many questions that “Benediction” never answers.

“Benediction” also doesn’t adequately explain what motivated Siegfried to convert to Catholicism at this stage in his life. There are hints that he was ashamed of his sexuality and wanted to atone for it in a religion that condemns homosexuality, but that interior reasoning is never fully explored in the movie. And for a very manipulative reason (which won’t be revealed in this review), “Benediction” fabricates a story arc near the end of the film about Siegfried becoming a widower. In real life, Hester Sassoon died in 1973—six years after Siegfried’s death.

Viewers might also question if “Benediction” glosses over or ignores a lot of the abusive homophobia that Siegfried might have experienced in his personal life. Except for being put in a psychiatric institution (where “Benediction” shows he was treated pretty well and was lucky enough to have an understanding doctor), Siegfried was never imprisoned, tortured, bullied or fired for his sexuality, if you believe everything in this movie. It might be a testament to Siegfried having certain privileges (fame and high-society friends) that lesser-known and less-privileged gay men didn’t have as protection against homophobic cruelties.

Despite these narrative flaws, “Benediction” is worth seeing for a fascinating portrait of a highly talented artist, what he went through in leading a double life, and the price he and his loved ones had to pay as a result. Viewers who are inclined to think arthouse British period dramas can be too stuffy probably won’t like “Benediction” too much. But for people who enjoy or who are open to this type of entertainment, then “Benediction” is a biopic that will satisfy those cinematic tastes.

Roadside Attractions released “Benediction” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 20, 2022, and in Australia in 2021.

Review: ‘Ammonite,’ starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan

November 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in “Ammonite” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Ammonite”

Directed by Francis Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in 1840s England, the drama “Ammonite” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and the upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two women—one who’s a working-class fossil hunter and one who’s a pampered socialite—have a secret love affair, even though one of them is married to a man.

Culture Audience: “Ammonite” will appeal primarily to people who like period dramas that place more emphasis on mood and atmosphere than on wordy dialogues and fast-paced action.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in “Ammonite” (Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka/RÅN Studio/Neon)

The British film “Ammonite” (written and directed by Francis Lee) is going to get inevitable comparisons to writer/director Céline Sciamma’s 2019 French film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Released just one year apart, both are period European films that are about two women from different classes (one upper-class, the other working-class) in a secret and passionate love affair. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” takes place in 1790s France, while “Ammonite” takes place in 1840s England.

In each movie’s secret romance, one woman is a never-married bachelorette who is strongly implied to be a lesbian. The other woman is in a very public, committed relationship with a man. (The man in this love triangle is a fiancé in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and a husband in “Ammonite.”) The lesbian bachelorette likes to make sketches and drawings of her lover. Both movies have a beach as a backdrop for the secret affair. And both movies were released in the U.S. by independent film company Neon.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an overall better film if people want to see a sensual European movie about two women from a past century who fall in love with each other. But that doesn’t mean that “Ammonite” isn’t worth watching, because the acting performances in both films have their unique merits. The sumptuous “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (with its stunning cinematography and brightly lit hues) is the equivalent of a macaron, while the much grayer and blander “Ammonite” is the equivalent of plain English muffin.

The unfussiness of “Ammonite” is a reflection of the story’s no-nonsense but emotionally repressed protagonist: Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet), a fossil hunter who lives with her ailing mother Molly Anning (played by Gemma Jones) in a modest home on the coastline of Lyme Regis in southern England. (Jones and Winslet also played mother and daughter in the 1995 film “Sense and Sensibility.”) “Ammonite” is a biographical interpretation of the real-life paleontologist Anning.

Mary and Molly’s home also doubles as a shop where Mary can sell these artifacts. Mary’s work is rough (digging in hardened terrain) and dangerous (climbing treacherous cliffs), but her work is the only thing that brings her the closest thing to joy in her life. Her outdoor work also makes her vulnerable to getting weather-related illnesses, since it’s often cold and rainy in Lyme Regis.

Mary was once a promising and well-respected paleontologist, but sexism and other society restrictions prevented her from getting the type of recognition and career that she would have gotten if she were a man. Mary is now middle-aged, bitter, and trying to earn enough money to support herself and her mother, who seems to be showing early signs of dementia. Mary still has some fame with fossil aficionados, but she’s been living in relative obscurity. The title of the movie comes from an ammonite that Mary has found that ends up in the British Museum.

One day, a society gentleman named Roderick Murchison (played by James McArdle) shows up at Mary’s place and explains that he’s visiting from London and he’s been a longtime admirer of her work. Roderick practically begs Mary to give him a private tour of her job that day, and he offers to pay her well for it. Mary says no at first, and then reluctantly agrees because she and her mother need the money.

On this trip, Roderick is accompanied by his wife Charlotte Murchison (played by Saoirse Ronan) for this visit. Charlotte gives the impression that she is quiet and withdrawn. She shows no interest in Mary’s work and stays behind while Mary takes Roderick on the private tour so he can see how she works.

When Roderick and Charlotte are back in their home, it’s shown that their marriage is strained. Roderick resists Charlotte’s advances to have sex, and he tells her: “Now’s not the time to make a baby.” It’s later revealed that Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn child and is very depressed about it. It’s unknown if Charlotte and Roderick were having problems in their marriage before this tragedy, but the death of their child and their inability to communicate with each other about it have caused the couple to be emotionally distant from each other.

Charlotte is so depressed that she finds it hard to get out of bed. Roderick grows impatient with her sadness and decides that while he goes away on another trip, Charlotte should spend time with Mary. Roderick thinks that Mary might be able to cheer up Charlotte and he thinks a change of scenery would do Charlotte some good. He tells Mary that he’ll be away for about four to six weeks.

Mary, who likes her quiet and isolated life, is once again resistant to having her work interrupted so that she can be a diversion for a stranger. But the payment that Roderick offers is too good for Mary to pass up, and she agrees to be Charlotte’s activity companion. However, Mary thinks Charlotte is a spoiled brat. (Mary doesn’t know at the time that Charlotte is depressed over the death of her child.) And once Roderick is gone, Mary is openly hostile to Charlotte.

The first time that Charlotte accompanies Mary to the beach, Charlotte is dressed in clothes that are too fancy and she wears makeup. It’s in stark contrast to Mary, who doesn’t wear makeup and is so unconcerned about appearing feminine and mannered that when she wants to urinate on the beach, Mary just lifts up her skirt and does so in plain view with no attempt to go somewhere discreet. Despite being opposite in many ways, Charlotte and Mary slowly become intrigued with each other.

Charlotte’s “hotel” living quarters in Lyme Regis are way outside of her comfort zone: She essentially lives in a tiny, unadorned shack on the beach. And one day, she gets caught in the wind and rain and comes down with a serious fever. She collapses at Mary’s door, and a doctor is called to attend to Charlotte.

The general practitioner who shows up is Dr. Lieberson (played by Alec Secareanu), a handsome bachelor in his 30s who advises Mary to take care of Charlotte in Mary’s home. Mary resents having to be a medical caretaker on top of everything else she has to do for Charlotte. But as Charlotte is bed-ridden, Mary sees Charlotte’s vulnerability, which starts to awaken feelings in Mary that she might not have known she had. And if Mary did know that she had these feelings before, she kept them buried underneath her gruff exterior.

One of the few other people whom Mary interacts with in this story is an older neighbor named Elizabeth Philpot (played by Fiona Shaw), who gives Mary some medicinal herbs for Charlotte when Mary goes over to Elizabeth’s house to get the herbs. Mary is very abrupt with Elizabeth, and it’s an obvious sign that something happened in their past to cause Mary to be angry and uncomfortable with Elizabeth. Whatever happened, Elizabeth seems to have moved on from it, but Mary hasn’t.

After Charlotte recovers from her fever, Charlotte senses that Mary’s untrusting attitude toward her is softening. Charlotte starts to make it clear to Mary that she might be interested in more than a platonic relationship with Mary. It’s an interesting power dynamic, because although Charlotte is about half the age of Mary and she’s a guest in Mary’s home, Charlotte (through her husband) has more money and a higher social ranking than Mary does. It’s also implied that Charlotte is more sexually experienced and more sexually adventurous than Mary is.

During this slowly simmering love affair between Mary and Charlotte, Dr. Lieberson shows a romantic interest in Mary, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Mary and Charlotte eventually become lovers and hide their affair from everyone else in their lives. When Dr. Lieberson asks Mary on a date to an evening recital, Mary insists that Charlotte accompany them, and he reluctantly agrees.

At the recital (which is a small gathering of about 30 people in someone’s home), Charlotte is immediately accepted and fawned over by the local neighbor ladies, including Elizabeth, and they invite Charlotte to sit in the front row with them. Meanwhile, Mary is seated near the back of the room. And the look on Mary’s face is clear: She’s very jealous of the attention that Charlotte is getting. Mary eventually can’t take it anymore and she leaves the recital early without saying goodbye to anyone.

This recital is somewhat of a turning point in the relationship because Mary sees for the first time how differently she’s treated in society, compared to how Charlotte is treated. As if the taboo nature of having a same-sex affair with a married woman weren’t enough, Mary gets a rude awakening that the class divide between herself and Charlotte is also one that might be too much to overcome.

“Ammonite” has many scenes with little to no dialogue, and the pace of the movie might be too slow for some people. The film puts a lot of emphasis on Mary’s tendencies to be a loner. Even when Charlotte is in the same house, Mary instinctively retreats in her work. There are numerous scenes of Mary by herself, working on her fossils or drawing sketches. Winslet gives a very restrained but still admirable performance in showing Mary’s resistance to and eventual acceptance of her romantic feelings for Charlotte.

Charlotte is the more complicated character, because she starts out one way in the movie and ends up another way. Whereas viewers can easily see that Mary has lived a routine and isolated life for many years, Charlotte’s previous life before her marriage remains a mystery. However, Ronan is able to strike an interesting balance between Charlotte having innocent girlish charm and calculating seduction techniques.

“Ammonite” writer/director Lee says in the movie’s production notes that although there is no historical information about the real-life Mary Anning’s sexual orientation, “it didn’t feel right to give her a relationship with a man” for this movie. It’s implied in the movie that Mary has never had a romance with a man. Because if she had, Mary’s mother Molly and some of their nosy neighbors are the type of people who would’ve mentioned it.

The movie doesn’t try to put a label on Charlotte’s sexuality, which can be left open to interpretation. Ronan gives an impressively nuanced and complex performance that might might result in people watching “Ammonite” having different answers to this question: Are Charlotte and Mary truly compatible and is their relationship meant to last?

Above all, “Ammonite” is about two people who are lonely in different ways and who find love with each other, but are in an unenviable situation of being forced to keep their romance a secret. How they deal with this issue can best be described this way: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” wants to break your heart. “Ammonite,” which might end too abruptly for some viewers, wants to give you a reality check.

Neon released “Ammonite” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is December 4, 2020.

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