Review: ‘The Pale Blue Eye,’ starring Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton and Robert Duvall

December 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Robert Duvall, Christian Bale and Harry Melling in “The Pale Blue Eye” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Netflix)

“The Pale Blue Eye”

Directed by Scott Cooper

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1830, in New York state’s Hudson Valley, the dramatic film “The Pale Blue Eye” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A widowed constable, who is grieving over the loss of wife and his teenage daughter, is hired to solve the grisly murder of a cadet at the United States Military Academy (also known as West Point Academy), where he teams up to solve the mystery with a cadet named Edgar Allan Poe. 

Culture Audience: “The Pale Blue Eye” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based; the stars of the movie; and well-acted and suspenseful thrillers.

Lucy Boynton, Fred Hechinger, Harry Melling, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey (pictured in the back) and Gillian Anderson in “The Pale Blue Eye” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Netflix)

“The Pale Blue Eye” is an engaging and stylish murder mystery with a talented cast that can keep people interested when the movie’s pacing sometimes drags. A “reveal” scene looks clumsy, but the movie is an overall worthy version of Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name that is the basis of the movie. Yes, it’s another Christian Bale movie where he plays a brooding loner, but the acting is done well enough that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of his other movie roles.

Written and directed by Scott Cooper, “The Pale Blue Eye” is Bale’s third movie collaboration with Cooper. Bale and Cooper previously worked together on 2013’s “Out of the Furnace” and 2017’s “Hostiles.” In “The Pale Blue Eye” (which takes place in 1830 in New York’s Hudson Valley), Bale is protagonist Augustus Landor, a retired constable/detective who is recruited to solve an unusual murder case and finds himself investigating a possible serial killer.

Augustus, who lives alone in a remote cottage, is a widower whose wife died in 1827. He is also grieving over the more recent loss of his teenage daughter Mathilda, also known as Mattie (played by Hadley Robinson), who is shown in brief flashbacks. Augustus tells people that he hasn’t seen Mattie since she ran away with a boyfriend whom August briefly met. To cope with his grief, August has become a habitual drinker of alcohol. It’s not very clear if he’s a full-blown alcoholic, but his drinking habits have negatively affected his career and his reputation.

It’s under these circumstances that Augustus is visited in the movie’s opening scene by Captain Ethan Hitchcock (played by Simon McBurney), a no-nonsense and stern official from the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point Academy, because of its location in West Point, New York. Captain Hitchcock doesn’t waste any time in saying why he is visiting Augustus: A second-year cadet at the academy has been murdered, his body was found on the school’s campus, and the academy wants Augustus to solve the crime before it becomes a major scandal.

The murder victim, whose name was Leroy Fry (played by Steven Maier), was found hanging from a tree, with his feet touching the ground, indicating that it wasn’t a suicide. His heart was removed with the precision of someone with surgical knowledge to make a straight and orderly incision. This gruesome mutilation is something that the academy’s officials don’t want to be widely known when people find out about the murder. They also want to work with Augustus to keep the investigation as private as possible, instead of going to the local police department. Despite his drinking problem, August is considered one of the best detectives in the area.

At first, August seems hesitant to take the case, but he soon agrees to investigate the crime. Captain Hitchcock gives Augustus a ride to the academy, where August meets Superintendent Thayer (played by Timothy Spall), who isn’t as emotionally aloof as Captain Hitchcock, but he conducts himself with an air of impatient authority. Superintendent Thayer tells Augustus soon after meeting him: “I’m asking you to save the honor of the United States Military Academy.”

Augustus immediately begins by interviewing possible witnesses, as well as the academy’s doctor performing the autopsy. Dr. Daniel Marquis (played by Toby Jones) is wealthy and very good at his job, but he has the type of arrogance where he lets people know that he thinks he’s the smartst person in the room. In the medical exam room, Dr. Marquis tells Augustus that the murderer isn’t necessarily someone who’s a doctor but someone who needed good light and knew where to cut, in order to remove the heart without cutting or damaging the lungs.

While examining the body, Augustus finds a very important clue: The murder victim had a torn piece of paper clutched inside one of his hands. The paper is a hand-written note with most of the words missing. Augustus eventually gets some help in deciphering what the note says.

During the early part of this investigation, meets an eccentric cadet named Edgar Allan Poe (played by Harry Melling), who cryptically tells Augustus that the murderer is probably a poet. Another cadet tells Augustus that he saw a suspicious-looking man lurking near the crime scene. But the only description that this witness can give is that the man looked like he was wearing an officer’s jacket with the bars removed from the jacket arm.

Augustus finds out that Leroy and his roommate Cadet Loughborough (played by Charlie Tahan) came to dislike each other. Cadet Loughborough says in his interview with Augustus: “I wouldn’t call it a ‘falling out.’ It’s a matter of diverging paths. He fell in with a bad bunch.” However, Cadet Loughborough says he doesn’t know any details about any of Leroy’s new friends.

Captain Hitchcock has been tasked with putting pressure on Augustus to solve the crime as soon as possible and overseeing Augustus’ investigation. And so, Captain Hitchcock does some hovering during the investigation and sometimes shows up unexpectedly in places, in order to catch Augustus and other people off guard. Augustus is more of a freewheeling individual who doesn’t see life in such a rigid way. And you can easily predict what that means: Captain Hitchcock and August are going to clash with each other.

Captain Hitchcock has a low tolerance for people who don’t take things as seriously has he does. He sets three ground rules for Augustus that he says can’t be broken: (1) Report all findings to Captain Hitchcock; (2) Don’t tell anyone outside the academy about the investigation; and (3) No drinking alcohol during the course of the investigation.

What does Augustus do in reaction to these rules? He goes to a local pub to get drunk. As he says in a toast to the bartender, “Here’s to rules.” The pub is also where Augustus meets a bar maid named Pasty (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), a friendly and soft-spoken employee who observes a great deal of what goes on in the pub. Quicker than you can say “lonely widower,” Augustus and Charlotte end up in bed together for a casual fling.

The pub is also where many of the cadets hang out in their free time. It’s here that Augustus sees Edgar, a highly intelligent oddball who is a social misfit at the academy. Augustus and Edgar strike up a conversation, where Augustus asks Edgar what he meant by the murderer being a poet.

Edgar explains that the heart is more than a body organ: It’s a symbol. Edgar says, “To remove a man’s heart is to traffic in symbol.” “The Pale Blue Eye” has several references to hearts removed from bodies. Of course, it’s a nod to the real Edgar Allan Poe, who became a famous horror/mystery novelist, with one of his most well-known works being the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” about a killer haunted by the sound of a murder victim’s beating heart.

“The Pale Blue Eye” is a fictional story, but it cleverly implies that if the real Edgar Allan Poe actually existed in this story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” would have been influenced by his experience working on this murder case. Later in the movie, Edgar recites a line from the real “Tell-Tale Heart,” which includes a description about the murderer being annoyed by his victim having an eye cataract: a “pale blue eye.”

Augustus is impressed enough by Edgar to secretly hire Edgar to assist Augustus in the investigation. Augustus tells Edgar that it’s a non-paying job, but Edgar doesn’t seem to mind, because he’s eager to be involved in helping solve a mystery. One of the first things that Augustus asks Edgar to do is help decipher the torn note that was found in Leroy’s hand. Augustus says he doesn’t like to read many books and isn’t as well-read as Edgar. But at the same time, Augustus doesn’t want Edgar to completely upstage him in this investigation.

It should come as no surprise that Leroy isn’t the only one who ends up dead in this story. Another cadet is killed in a similar manner. And it sends the academy officials into a panic that the killer is specifically targeting cadets at the academy. If so, why? It leads to even more pressure on Augustus to find the murderer.

Along the way, other people are introduced who might or might not have clues that could help solve this mystery. There is suspicion that the murderer is cutting out hearts as part of an occult ritual. And so, Augustus and Edgar meet with Professor Jean Pepe (played by Robert Duvall), an expert in symbols, rituals and the occult. Duvall’s screen time in the movie is less than 15 minutes, but his wise and jaded Jean Pepe character plays a pivotal role in the movie.

During the investigation, Augustus and Edgar also meet Dr. Marquis’ wife Julia Marquis (played by Gillian Anderson), who is very sensitive and high-strung. Dr. and Mrs. Marquis have two children: Artemus Marquis (played by Harry Lawtey), who is a popular cadet at the academy, and Lea Marquis (played by Lucy Boynton), who is a sought-after bachelorette with a talent for playing the piano. Artemus and Lea both sometimes act a little spoiled and entitled, but they look out for each other and have a strong family bond.

Edgar becomes smitten with Lea, and they start casually dating. Lea wants Edgar to be her platonic friend, but he is hoping that their relationship will develop into a romance. On one of their dates, Edgar is alarmed when Lea goes into a seizure but just as quickly recovers. Meanwhile, a cadet named Randolph “Randy” Ballinger (played by Fred Hechinger) also has a romantic interest in Lea, and he gets jealous of Edgar. Of course this would-be love triangle leads to problems.

“The Pale Blue Eye” has many of its best moments in showing the rapport between Augustus and Edgar, who are from different generations and have different personalities, but both characters have moments of emotional vulnerability. Their relationship is sometimes compatible and sometimes uneasy while working together in this very stressful murder investigation. Bale and Melling adeptly handle their respective roles, with Melling tending to be a little more melodramatic in portraying socially awkward Edgar. Augustus and Edgar (who became an orphan in his childhood) don’t have much in common, but they both sense that they are alone in the world and have an unspoken camaraderie of feeling like maverick outsiders.

“The Pale Blue Eye” takes place in an unnamed winter month with snow outside, so the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is a gorgeous palette of icy blue in exterior scenes and gold/brown for interior scenes. The movie’s production design and costume design are also well-done. And the musical score by Howard Shore is very effective in how it builds the story’s tension.

Where “The Pale Blue Eye” falters is in how the movie’s tone and pacing can occasionally get a little dull. There’s also a crucial scene involving a blazing fire that doesn’t look completely genuine. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that in real life, people would be running away from this fire a lot quicker than what’s shown in the movie. However, “The Pale Blue Eye” does not disappoint when it comes to the acting performances. Viewers who might be the most disappointed in the movie will be those expecting “The Pale Blue Eye” to be more of an action film.

For people who don’t know how the story is going to end, “The Pale Blue Eye” is a somber and thoughtful mystery that will keep viewers guessing about what will happen next. Just when it looks like the movie can end one way, there are more revelations. Because of a surprise twist which is handled a lot better than an earlier plot twist, “The Pale Blue” does not go down a predictable path and should satisfy fans of murder mysteries that don’t completely follow the usual formulas.

Netflix will release “The Pale Blue Eye” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on January 6, 2023.

Review: ‘Empire of Light,’ starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones and Colin Firth

December 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in “Empire of Light” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Empire of Light”

Directed by Sam Mendes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on the southeast coast of England, from December 1980 to August or September 1981, the dramatic film “Empire of Light” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A white woman in her late 40s and a black man in his early 20s, who work together at a movie theater, become intimate friends as she deals with mental illness and he deals with racism. 

Culture Audience: “Empire of Light” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Sam Mendes, star Olivia Colman and movies about misunderstood misfits that overload on melodrama that doesn’t always look authentic.

Pictured from left to right: Micheal Ward, Roman Hayeck-Green, Olivia Colman and Toby Jones in “Empire of Light” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Considering that so many Oscar winners were involved in making the disappointing drama “Empire of Light,” it’s unfortunate that the movie’s story devolves into an overwrought mess and then rushes to clean everything up in the last 10 minutes of the movie. Too late. The cast members, led by Olivia Colman (who won a Best Actress Academy Award for 2018’s “The Favourite”), give impressive performances. However, “Empire of Light” becomes too bloated with heavy concepts and preachy messages that often look forced and clumsy in the screenplay and direction.

The “Empire of Light” team also includes writer/director/producer Sam Mendes (Oscar-winning director of 1999’s “American Beauty”); cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won Oscars for the 2017 sci-fi sequel “Blade Runner 2049” and Mendes’ 2019 World War I drama “1917”); and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (who won an Oscar for 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”). Their talents and the admirable skills of the production design team (led by Mark Tildesley) make “Empire of Light” look visually striking. But visuals alone don’t make a great movie.

Unfortunately, “Empire of Light” tries to cram in too many storylines of complicated real-life issues—mental illness, racism, workplace sexual misconduct—that eventually get the “soap opera” treatment in “Empire of Light,” when these issues deserved so much better care in a movie with filmmakers and cast members of this high quality. “Empire of Light” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival, followed by screenings at several other major festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

“Empire of Light” is not unwatchable. However, there are quite a few moments that are unintentionally cringeworthy—particularly when “Empire of Light” tries to make appreciation of movies and ska/rock music as some sort of “one size fits all” panacea for some of the characters’ major problems. The movie’s central relationship takes an “opposites attract” approach that doesn’t ring completely true, mainly because it’s intended to look like true love between friends, but it actually looks more like dysfunctional co-dependency.

“Empire of Light” takes place mostly in an unnamed city on the southeast coast of England. (The movie was actually filmed in Margate, England.) The story’s timeline spans from December 1980 to August or September 1981. Therefore, expect several references to the United Kingdom’s sociopolitical issues under prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s rule, such as the rise of racist skinhead culture; economic instability (often blamed on immigrants) stemming from the U.K.’s recovery from the 1970s recession; and fears about nuclear war.

It’s in this environment that Hilary Small (played by Colman) lives a very emotionally disconnected and lonely life in the beginning of the movie. Hilary is a never-married bachelorette in her late 40s. She has no children, no family members she’s in contact with, and no friends.

Hilary lives alone in a small apartment and spends her free time not doing much but staying in her apartment and occasionally going to a senior center, where she’s one of the youngest people there. An early scene in the movie shows Hilary being sociable enough that she participates in the senior center’s dances. However, she doesn’t make any meaningful emotional connections with anyone at this senior center.

Viewers soon find out that Hilary has been prescribed lithium by a public health professional named Dr. Laird (played by William Chubb), who encourages her to get psychiatric therapy counseling. (Lithium is commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder.) Hilary takes the lithium, but she doesn’t take the doctor’s advice to talk to a therapist. About halfway through the movie, more details emerge about Hilary’s mental state.

Hilary works as a duty manager/concessions supervisor at a movie multiplex called the Empire Theatre, located in an Art Deco-styled, seaside building that also used to have a combination ballroom/restaurant. As of now, the Empire just has three movie screens, but they are in large rooms decked out in red and gold Art Deco finery that has seen better days.

The unused parts of the building have gone into a state of disrepair and are off-limits to the public. Because the Empire has a limited number of screens, and the dilapidated ballroom is inoperable, the Empire doesn’t get rented out for a lot of events. However, England’s South Coast premiere of “Chariots of Fire” will soon be held at the theater. This premiere gala is the focus one of the most dramatic scenes in “Empire of Light.”

The Empire has a small staff of people. In addition to Hilary, these staffers include:

  • Donald Ellis (played by Colin Firth), the Empire’s general manager, who is Hilary’s lecherous boss and who’s about 15 years older than Hilary.
  • Norman (played by Toby Jones), the theater projectionist, who is in his 50s and who takes his job very seriously.
  • Stephen Murray (played by Micheal Ward), a ticket taker/usher in his early 20s, who is the newest member of the staff, charming when he wants to be, and the only employee who isn’t white.
  • Neil (played by Tom Brooke), a box-office worker in his 40s, who is compassionate, witty and wryly observant of many things going on in this workplace.
  • Janine (played by Hannah Onslow), an 18-year-old ticket taker, who is a Mohawk-wearing party girl.
  • Frankie (played by Roman Hayeck-Green), Brian (played by Brian Fletcher) and Finn (played by Dougie Boyall), who are all ushers in their 20s, and who don’t say or do much in the story.

It’s shown early in the movie that Donald and Hilary are having a secret sexual relationship, with their trysts taking place in Donald’s office. Donald is married, and Hilary knows it, but Donald tells her that he and his wife Brenda (played by Sara Stewart) are in a passionless marriage where they no longer have sex. Donald expects Hilary to always say yes to him whenever he calls her into his office for their private “meetings.”

At first, Hilary seems to like the attention from Donald. But one evening, she’s alone at a restaurant and sees Donald and Brenda walk in and get seated at a table near hers. Seeing these two spouses together seems to trigger something in Hilary, and she quickly leaves the restaurant before ordering anything on the menu. Over time, Hilary starts to resent Donald for treating her like a meaningless fling. Her anger and resentment come out in different ways.

Meanwhile, Stephen has caught the attention of Janine, who tells Hilary and some other employees during Stephen’s first day on the job that she thinks Stephen is a hunk. Janine doesn’t notice that Hilary seems attracted to Stephen too. Hilary is very insecure about her physical appearance, so she thinks Stephen wouldn’t be attracted to Hilary. Whenever Hilary sees Stephen giving attention to or thinking about other women, Hilary pouts like spoiled schoolgirl.

Hilary gives Stephen a tour of the building on his first day as an Empire employee. He’s curious to see the top floor, which used to be a ballroom and restaurant. The top floor is roped-off with restricted access only meant for the theater’s management, but Hilary takes Stephen to the top floor anyway because he’s eager to see it. Even though this section of the building is run-down, Stephen is in awe of what used to be the grand architecture for this ballroom.

The top floor, whose windows have broken or missing glass, has become a home for several pigeons. Stephen notices that one of the pigeons has a broken wing. He rips his socks and uses them to construct a makeshift sling for the pigeon and asks Hilary to hold the pigeon while he wraps the sling around the bird. Hilary says she doesn’t really like pigeons, but she holds it, beause she wants to impress Stephen. Her spark of attraction to Stephen grows when she sees that he can be kind and gentle. She’s also surprised at how she likes holding this pigeon after all.

Later in the movie, another scene with this pigeon becomes another turning point in Stephen and Hilary’s relationship. These pigeon scenes are used as an obvious metaphor: Stephen helping the physically wounded pigeon is just like how Stephen helps an emotionally wounded Hilary. This metaphor is the movie’s obvious ploy at sentimentality, but it’s too “on the nose.” And to make things look even phonier, other things in “Empire of Light” present Stephen as almost saintly in the way he puts up with Hilary’s moodiness and nasty temper tantrums that she often inflicts on him.

New Year’s Eve is coming up, and Janine has invited Stephen to hang out with her and some of her friends at a nightclub to ring in the New Year. Stephen and Janine ask Hilary if she wants to join them, but Hilary politely declines by saying that going to nightclubs isn’t her thing. Hilary says her New Year’s Eve plans will be to watch annual New Year’s fireworks alone on the theater’s roof. Observant viewers will notice from Hilary’s facial expressions that she’s jealous that Stephen and Janine are going on a date for New Year’s Eve.

Later, Hilary takes her anger out on Stephen, when she notices Stephen and Janine mocking an elderly customer behind the customer’s back because the customer is hunched-over and walks slowly. Hilary shouts at Stephen in private for being unprofessional, and she tells him that being rude to customers is unacceptable. She also gives him a loud scolding for forgetting to give her the day’s ticket stubs at the end of his work shift.

On the night of New Year’s Eve, Hilary is on the roof, when she gets an unexpected visitor: Stephen. He tells Hilary that he left the nightclub where he and Janine had been partying because he doesn’t know Janine’s friends, and he felt uncomfortable that some people at the club were staring at him. (It’s Stephen’s way of saying that he felt that some people were being racist without coming out and saying it.)

Hilary is touched that Stephen would want to ring in the New Year with her. And this New Year’s Eve meet-up is the turning point in their relationship. Stephen says he’s sorry for being unprofessional on the job, while Hilary says she’s sorry that she yelled at him. And with that mutual apology, the ice is broken, and the beginning of a relationship starts to take shape.

During this conversation while they watch the New Year’s fireworks (it’s one of the movie’s highlights), Hilary and Stephen talk a little bit more about their lives. And they discover that they are two lonely and restless people who want more from their lives than what they are currently doing. Stephen is an aspiring architect who has been rejected by all the universities where he’s applied. Hilary tells him not to give up his dream and to keep trying to get into a university of his choice.

Hilary is feeling an emotional connection to Stephen, so after the New Year’s fireworks begin, she gives him a quick romantic kiss on the lips. He looks startled by this display of affection. An embarrassed Hilary makes a profuse, stammering apology, and quickly leaves, even though Stephen tells her that she doesn’t need to make an apology. The movie shows what Hilary and Stephen do about this mutual attraction that is both confusing and exciting for them.

Here’s where the movie has a big disconnect and failing: Viewers never find out anything meaningful about Hilary that’s not related to her job, her mental illness and her “daddy issues.” Hilary is unhappy with her life, but she never really articulates how she wants to change her life.

She hints that she didn’t expect to be working in a movie theater at her age. Hilary doesn’t even show an interest in the movies that are at the theater. What did she want to do her life then? Don’t expect “Empire of Light” to answer that question.

There are multiple scenes in the movie where Hilary goes on a rant about not wanting men to control her. As she blurts out in a manic confession to Stephen, it has a lot to do with her being a “daddy’s girl,” but her father cheated on Hilary’s abusive mother, and he asked Hilary to lie and cover up this infidelity. During another rant, she lists the names of random men whom she says have wronged her. But these are the only clues into what Hilary’s life was like when she was a girl or a young woman.

Hilary is irrationally jealous and insecure. She will have temper tantrums out of the blue, usually triggered when it looks like Stephen is thinking about other women. It happens in a scene where Hilary and Stephen take a trip to a deserted beach, go skinny dipping, and then make sand castles together. While making sand castles, Stephen mentions an ex-girlfriend who broke his heart, and he admits that he still thinks about this ex-love. When Stephen asks Hilary if she’s ever been in love, she avoids answering the question. And then almost immediately, Hilary verbally lashes out at Stephen with a man-hating tirade.

But the movie then abruptly cuts to Stephen and Hilary leaving on a bus, with both of them being pleasant with each other and acting like this awful argument didn’t even happen. It looks like bad film editing, but it’s really the movie’s awkward way of trying to show viewers that both Stephen and Hilary have serious issues with denial about Hilary being a loose cannon. Stephen will show time and time again that he’s a better friend to Hilary than she is to him.

Hilary’s jealousy of Janine, as well as Janine’s attraction to Stephen, are inexplicably dropped as a subplot when the movie later shows a montage of Hilary, Stephen and Janine hanging out with each other like they’re best friends forever. These three pals do things like go to a carnival and a roller skating rink together. Janine then gets sidelined in the movie for no reason at all. It’s an example of how “Empire of Light” has an erratic portrayal of these characters’ relationships.

That’s not the movie’s only problem. “Empire of Light” tries to make a big statement about the racism that Stephen experiences. But it’s with the tone that it matters more how Hilary is affected by having her eyes opened to racism, rather than placing more importance on how Stephen (who actually experiences racism in many painful ways) is affected by racism. The racism issues begin in the movie when Hilary, unbeknownst to Stephen, sees Stephen getting racially harassed by some white skinheads when Stephen is walking outside and minding his own business.

Later, Hilary witnesses Stephen encountering a racist customer named Mr. Cooper (played by Ron Cook), who lets it be known that he doesn’t want someone who looks like Stephen telling him the Empire’s rules of no outside food and drinks being allowed inside the theater. During a tension-filled exchange where Stephen maintains his composure and Mr. Cooper loses his temper and holds up the line of people behind him, Hilary tries to smooth things over and placate Mr. Cooper by telling him he can finish his outside food and drinks in the lobby.

Stephen nearly walks off the job in that incident, because he thinks that Hilary didn’t stand up for an employee being mistreated by a rude and racist customer, and instead Hilary was trying too hard to accommodate this toxic person. Hilary tries to make an excuse that what Mr. Cooper did wasn’t bad enough for Stephen to quit, but Hilary is missing the point: Stephen, who did nothing wrong and was following the rules, shouldn’t have to be the one to feel like he was guilty of doing something wrong, while the guilty person is being coddled by a manager who’s in charge of handling the situation. When Stephen points out this disparity to Hilary, she admits that he’s right, makes an apology, and begs Stephen not to quit.

Even though this scene accurately portrays how white people and black people can sometimes look at racist incidents differently, “Empire of Light” goes right back to treating Stephen as the character who’s supposed to make a very messed-up Hilary into a happy person. Hilary has some deep-seated issues that come to the surface and existed long before she met Stephen. It’s also no surprise when in the last third of the movie, “Empire of Light” uses racism as a way to contrive a melodramatic plot development that viewers can see coming as soon as this scene begins.

In addition, “Empire of Light” has a double standard in the problematic issue of a supervisor getting sexually involved with a subordinate. The movie makes Donald the “villain” because he abuses his power to have consensual sex with Hilary whenever he feels like it. Even though the sex between Donald and Hilary is consensual, it’s always at the demand of Donald.

However, when it looks like Hilary and Stephen are headed for a consensual sexual relationship, the movie doesn’t question the ethics of Hilary getting sexually involved with one of her subordinates. Stephen’s employment status at the Empire Theatre is also vulnerable because he’s a new employee. Hilary knows she’s got the upper hand and more power as Stephen’s boss, but the movie excuses Hilary for taking advantage of this imbalance of power when it comes to Stephen.

And frankly, based on the way Hilary sometimes treats Stephen like a doormat for her selfish purposes, it’s questionable how great this relationship is, even though “Empire of Light” desperately tries to put a “female empowerment” spin on it. Stephen does a lot for Hilary emotionally, but he doesn’t get much from her in return except companionship and some generic words of encouragement. None of this imbalance is given much scrutiny in the movie, because Stephen’s thoughts and feelings are treated as secondary to Hilary’s thoughts and feelings.

Stephen is never shown doing anything that proves he’s passionate about architecture, except mention that he wants to get a college degree in architecture. The last third of the movie makes a half-hearted attempt to show that Stephen has a life outside of his job. He gets re-acquainted with his ex-girlfriend Ruby (played by Crystal Clarke)—the ex who broke his heart—after she goes to the Empire to see a movie and unexpectedly finds out that Stephen works there. Stephen’s single mother Delia (played by Tanya Moodie), who’s an immigrant nurse from Trinidad, eventually meets Hilary under some stressful circumstances. But it’s forced into the movie as part of a subplot where it all comes back to putting an emphasis on how Hilary is affected.

“Empire of Light” shows Stephen being a dutiful and awestruck student of Norman, who teaches him how to operate the theater’s projector. The magic of the movies is a recurring theme in “Empire of Light,” which simplistically has Stephen encouraging Hilary to watch movies at the theater as a way to have some escape from her problems. Likewise, when Stephen (who’s a fan of interracial ska/rock bands like The Beat and The Specials) gets Hilary to listen to music from interracial ska/rock bands, the movie tritely shows Hilary telling Stephen that she now understands his culture after listening to some of these albums.

“Empire of Light” wants to be filled with important messages about life. And certainly, the cast members deliver adept performances when called to do their parts in scenes that look good on a technical level but fall short on an emotionally authentic level. No matter how much “Empire of Light” wants to portray it, you can’t truly understand a culture just by listening to a few albums. And you can’t force viewers with enough life experience to believe that Hilary and Stephen’s lopsided relationship is one where she ever really thought of him as an equal.

Searchlight Pictures released “Empire of Light” in select U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘The Wonder’ (2022), starring Florence Pugh

November 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Burke, Florence Pugh and Kíla Lord Cassidy in “The Wonder” (Photo by Christopher Barr/Netflix)

“The Wonder” (2022)

Directed by Sebastián Lelio

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1862 in the Midlands of Ireland, the dramatic film “The Wonder” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Nightingale nurse from England is hired to go to Ireland to find out the reason why an 11-year-old girl has reportedly been able to survive for four months without eating and without any signs of starvation.

Culture Audience: “The Wonder” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Florence Pugh and movies that make pointed observations about how religion can control and influence people’s lives.

Josie Walker, Toby Jones, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar and Florence Pugh in “The Wonder” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

“The Wonder” will test the patience of viewers with short attention spans, but the movie’s subtlety, nuances and Florence Pugh’s standout performance are great rewards for people who want to see a drama about religion and moral hypocrisy. This is the type of movie where some of the biggest revelations don’t happen in loud, bombastic moments but occur in hushed tones and whispers that are sometimes engulfed in shame.

Directed by Sebastián Lelio, “The Wonder” is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name. Lelio, Donoghue and Alice Birch co-wrote the adapted screenplay for “The Wonder.” Although the movie is set in a rural Irish community in 1862, many of the themes in “The Wonder” transcend time and location and can apply to the past, present and future of any community where religion is the driving force of how people live. “The Wonder” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival, and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The beginning of “The Wonder” has an unusual location of a movie set of props where no one is present, but viewers can hear this voiceover saying: “This is the beginning of a film called ‘The Wonder.’ The people you are about to meet, the characters believe in their stories with complete devotion.” The camera then moves from the prop-filled set to a movie-set replication of the inside of train, as the story begins and transports viewers back to the year 1862.

On the train is the central protagonist of “The Wonder”: Lib Wright (played by Pugh), a Nightingale nurse from England, who is traveling by herself to the Midlands of Ireland. A devoutly Catholic community (which is unnamed in the movie) has hired Lib to watch over an 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (played by Kíla Lord Cassidy), who has been in the news for being a “miracle girl.” Anna has reportedly not eaten for the past four months and has no signs of starvation or any weight loss.

Lib is a compassionate and strong-willed nurse who is very skeptical that Anna hasn’t eaten any food for the past four months. When she arrives at the boarding house where she’ll be staying, she finds out that she has to share a room with a nun named Sister Michael (played by Josie Walker), who will be sharing the work shift duties of watching over Anna. When Lib expresses some disappointment that she will have to share a room with a nun, instead of having her own room, the boarding house’s matriarch Mrs. Maggie Ryan (played by Ruth Bradley) quips, “Welcome to Ireland.”

In her first meal at the Ryan family home, Lib is polite, observant and somewhat guarded about herself. The Ryan family consists of Maggie; her husband, Sean Ryan (played by David Wilmot), who works as a publican; and their five daughters (played by Darcey Campion, Abigail Coburn, Carla Hurley O’Dwyer, Juliette Hurley O’Dwyer and Carly Kane). Maggie tells Anna that the eldest four daughters are Sean’s daughters from his marriage to his first wife, who is now deceased. The youngest daughter is the biological child of Sean and Maggie.

Sean is on a five-man committee overseeing Lib and Sister Michael in the women’s job of observing Anna. The other men on the committee are Dr. McBrearty (played by Toby Jones), Father Thaddeus (played by Ciarán Hinds), landowner John Flynn (played by Brian F. O’Byrne), and Baronet Sir Ottway (played by Dermot Crowley). Dr. McBrearty is the most outspoken of the five men and is the one who’s most likely to give orders. It should come as no surprise that independent-minded Lib will clash with Dr. McBrearty the most.

In Lib’s first meeting in front of the committee, she is adamantly told that her job is to observe and talk to Anna and do nothing else. Lib is not allowed to give Anna any food, water or medical attention. Lib is concerned and uncomfortable with this command, but Dr. McBrearty reminds Lib that she’s being paid a considerable amount of money to do whatever the committee tells her to do. Lib is told that after 15 days, Lib and Sister Michael will be required to give separate testimonial reports about what they each believe is the cause of Anna’s seemingly miraculous condition.

When Lib meets the O’Donnell family, she finds a deeply religious clan who’s emotionally haunted by the death of Anna’s older brother Pat, who passed away nine months earlier. A recent photo of Pat in the family home shows that he was about 15 years old. Pat’s cause of death is never fully explained, but it’s described in the movie as being a sudden death.

Anna’s parents Rosaleen O’Donnell (played by Elaine Cassidy) and Malachy O’Donnell (played by Caolán Byrne) appear to be humble and unassuming. Rosaleen is very devoted and nurturing to Anna, whom Rosaleen calls “a jewel, a wonder.” However, Lib can’t help but notice that Anna’s parents accept money from people who want to see this “miracle girl” up close. Lib thinks this practice is distasteful, and she sometimes sends these visitors away because Lib is more concerened about Anna’s health.

The O’Donnells have a housekeeper named Kitty (played by Niamh Algar), who is in her 20s, and who has recently started learning how to read. Kitty might not have a lot of formal education, but she is very knowledgeable about her surroundings and the people in the community. Kitty is usually the one to tell Lib some of the personal backgrounds of the people in the community. In other words, Kitty knows a lot more than people think she does.

As for Anna, she’s a mostly quiet child who will answer any questions about her condition by saying that it’s all coming from God. When Lib asks Anna how she’s been able to not have any physical effects of not eating, Anna insists that she’s getting “manna from heaven.” Lib asks, “How does it feel?” Anna replies, “Full.” That’s not a good-enough answer for Lib, who is very doubtful that Anna has not eaten anything for the past four months. Lib is determined to find out why.

Someone else who wants to get to the bottom of this mystery is Will Byrne (played by Tom Burke), a reporter for the Daily Telegraph in England. Will is visiting this community to investigate, so it’s inevitable that Lib meets Will. Kitty tells Lib that Will grew up in the community but moved to England for his university education and to pursue a career in journalism. According to Kitty, Will’s parents were so heartbroken that he left Ireland and didn’t keep in touch with them, so his parents locked themselves in their home and starved themselves to death during the Great Famine.

The Great Famine, which devastated Ireland from 1845 to 1849, resulted in about 100,000 people dying from starvation and disease, stemming from blighted potato crops that also caused an economic crisis. The village where the O’Donnells live was hit hard by the Great Famine, which is why Anna’s seemingly miraculous starvation survival has a particularly emotional resonance in this religious community. The voiceover in the beginning of the movie comments: “The Great Famine casts a long shadow, and the Irish hold the English responsible for all that devastation.”

It doesn’t take long for Lib to become frustrated by her employers’ orders not to help Anna in any way. One night, when she’s off-duty and hanging out at Sean’s pub, she angrily asks him: “What kind of backwards village imports a professional nurse for something like this?” Sean responds with equal ire and says to Lib, “Prove it’s nonsense, and then fuck off [and go] home.”

There’s some underlying tension between the Irish villagers and anyone they consider to be an “outsider,” especially those from England. Will, who has now made England his home, experiences a certain amount of mistrust from the villagers too, because Will is considered somewhat of a “traitor” to abandon his Irish home to move to England. At first, Will and Lib seem to be in hostile competition to find out what’s going on with Anna, but Lib and Will eventually discover that they actually like each other, and they bond over their “outsider” status in this village.

And who exactly is Lib? She slowly reveals information about herself to certain people. Viewers find out that she served in the Crimean War. After the war, she was married to a man who disappeared and is presumed dead. And she is in deep emotional pain over the death of her baby daughter, who passed away at three weeks old. Lib later confides in Anna that Lib’s husband left Lib shortly after the death of their child.

When Lib is alone in her room, she takes out a towel that has a pair of baby booties and some liquid opium. She has a secret self-harming ritual of getting high by drinking the opium and pricking an index finger until she sees blood. She then sucks the blood so that no stains appear anywhere. When Anna shows Lib a bloody tooth that has fallen out of Anna’s mouth, Lib wonders if Anna is also engaging in self-harm.

Observant viewers will notice that it’s mentioned early on in the movie that Anna has stopped eating since her 11th birthday. “The Wonder” has recurring themes and references to being reborn and people going through different transitions of life and death. Certain people in the story are obsessed with who is going to heaven or hell and who might be stuck in purgatory.

Lib, whose birth name is Elizabeth, is asked by Anna if she likes to call herself by any other names, such as Elizabeth, Beth or Liz. Later, after Lib reveals something about herself, Lib will ask Anna if she could be another person, what her name would be. Anna says she would choose the name Nan.

“The Wonder” often reflects the slow pace of a rural village, so this movie might be too sluggish for some viewers. However, the performances of the cast members are admirable, while the mystery of Anna’s condition can keep viewers curious enough to find out what will happen next and how the movie will end. Pugh is a solid anchor for “The Wonder,” which is not a movie that has her flashiest, awards-bait role, but it’s testament to how talented she is that her portrayals of various characters seem so natural.

Even though Pugh performs the role of Lib in an authentic way, others part of the “The Wonder” have a few authenticity flaws and disappointments. For example, this community is ruled by the teachings of the Catholic Church, but “The Wonder” inexplicably does not show enough of Father Thaddeus’ influence on this community. Father Thaddeus is a mostly silent member of the committee that is supervising Lib and Sister Michael. It’s an unfortunate waste of the talent of Oscar-nominated actor Hinds.

Lib also does something very dangerous toward the end of “The Wonder.” And how it’s staged in the movie looks rushed and somewhat hard to believe. The movie doesn’t deviate from the book in what happens, but the cinematic version of this conclusion seems crammed quickly into a movie that took its time to linger on other less meaningful parts of the story. These flaws are minor and don’t ruin “The Wonder,” which is a distinctive psychological drama that effectively portrays the conflicts that can occur between comforts of religious faith and the discomforts of harsh reality.

Netflix released “The Wonder” in select U.S. cinemas on November 2, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 16, 2022.

Review: ‘First Cow,’ starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Magaro in “First Cow” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“First Cow”

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Culture Representation: Set in early 19th century Oregon, the drama “First Cow” is about an unexpected friendship between a white cook and a Chinese immigrant in a community of white fur trappers, Native Americans and a few white noblemen.

Culture Clash: Conflicts arise between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when the movie’s main characters steal milk from a nobleman’s cow to start their own makeshift bakery business.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse Westerns that take their time to tell a story.

Orion Lee and John Magaro in “First Cow” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

Before seeing the Western drama “First Cow,” it helps to be familiar with the work of director Kelly Reichardt. Her previous credits as a movie writer/director include 2016’s “Certain Women,” 2013’s “Night Moves,” 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff” and 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy.” If you’ve seen any of these or her other movies, then you already know that she has a very deliberate pacing to her films, which take their time for people to get to know the main characters. Many of her movies utilize the power of silence to great effect, which is the opposite inclination of most of today’s films that try to fill up space with witty dialogue or high-octane action scenes.

In other words, if you think Westerns should be about gun battles and conquering frontiers, then “First Cow” is not the movie for you. Instead, the battles in this movie are more understated. They have to do with the everyday struggles that frontiersmen (this story is told entirely from the perspective of the male characters) experienced in the undeveloped territory of early 19th century Oregon. Even in the wild, wild West, they were still constrained by a social hierarchy.

The brief opening scene of the movie takes place in present-day Oregon, when a woman’s dog has dug up something unusual in a wooded area. The unnamed woman (played by Alia Shawkat) discovers that the dog has found two skeletons lying side by side, and one of them has its hand over the other’s hand. At the end of the movie, we find out how those people got there. There’s a quote from William Blake before the opening credits: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It’s something to keep in mind as the story unfolds.

For the rest of the movie, viewers are transported back in time to 19th century Oregon, where quiet loner Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is traveling as a cook with a group of fur trappers, who are dressed like they’re at a Daniel Boone fan convention. One of the trappers is a Scotsman named Lloyd (played by Ewen Bremner), who’s a pragmatist for the group. Not much happens at first, as Cookie does mundane things, such eat yellow mushrooms that he finds in the woods.

But one night, Cookie encounter a naked Chinese man who’s hiding in the woods. The man says his name is King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) and that he’s very hungry. Cookie gives King-Lu a blanket and something to eat and drink. King-Lu then opens up that Russian men are chasing after him because he might have killed one of their men because they accused one of King-Lu’s friends of being a thief. King-Lu says he’s naked because he stashed his clothes in some trees as he was running away. King-Lu thanks Cookie for his help, and the two men go their separate ways.

Meanwhile, there’s an intriguing new arrival in the area. A well-built female cow has been delivered to local nobleman Chief Factor (played by Toby Jones). The animal is the talk of the community because it’s the first cow to live in the area. The cow is truly considered a luxury, but Chief Factor just keeps the cow tied up to show it off rather than to use the milk to help feed anyone.

Not long after the cow arrives, Cookie and King-Lu run into each other again at a local saloon. King-Lu, who says that the Russians left the area without finding him, invites Cookie back to his place to drink some more. It’s a very modest home (nothing more than a shack), but Cookie (who’s an orphan from Maryland) feels more comfortable here than he does with the fur trappers he’s been living with during his travels in Oregon.

As the two men develop a friendship, they decide to trespass at night on  Chief Factor’s property, where the cow is held, and secretly milk the cow, who is gentle and friendly. It leads to them to come up with the idea to make biscuits (called oily cakes) from the cow’s milk and to sell the biscuits to the local trappers.

The biscuits are a delicious, instant hit and they always sell out. Thus starts a pattern: Cookie and King-Lu both sneak onto the property at night. Cookie milks the cow, while King-Lu acts as a lookout. Cookie is the creative cook for the business, while King-Lu is the more entrepreneurial- minded partner who shrewdly thinks up ways to expand their business. He even imagines that they could make enough money to someday buy their own cow. However, Cookie is more hesitant, because he worries about how much longer they can continue to steal the cow’s milk without getting caught.

Their biscuits become so in-demand that their customers sometimes push each other out of the way to buy the food. King-Lu takes advantage of this frenzy by auctioning off the last biscuit to the highest bidder. When people ask what the biscuit’s ingredients are, King-Lu says, “Ancient Chinese secret.” Cookie becomes so attached to the cow that he begins talking to her while he milks her.

Even when the cow’s owner, Chief Factor, shows up to buy some biscuits, he doesn’t detect the taste of milk, and therefore he has no idea that his cow’s milk is being used to make the biscuits. Chief Factor is so impressed with Cookie’s baking skills (Cookie has previous training as a baker) that he hires him to make blueberry claufotis for a dinner party that he’s having.

Chief Factor also invites the two men to his home to present the claufotis to his main dinner guest: an out-of-town visitor called Captain (played by Scott Shepherd), a colleague who thinks that this rough area can’t possibly have sophisticated meals. But when Chief Factor takes Captain, Cookie and King-Lu out to the back of his property to show off the cow, Captain notices that the cow is acting a little to friendly to Cookie.

Riechardt co-wrote the “First Cow” screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, the author of the novel of the same time. There’s a level of authenticity that the movie conveys, because it shows that life in this wild frontier could be filled with stretches of tedium for unmarried, childless men who are focused on trying to make a living and possibly get rich.

It’s that possibility to reinvent themselves as potential wealthy entrepreneurs that keeps them motivated in this harsh environment where they aren’t living a traditional and comfortable life. But just like Gold Rush hopefuls getting blinded by impatient greed, there’s the possibility that Cookie and King-Lu could succumb to the same vice. The heart of the story is the friendship between these two men and whether or not it can survive materialistic temptations.

A24 Films released “First Cow” in select U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.

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