Around halfway through Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James’ youthful incarnation of Donna Sheridan, the character originally made famous by Meryl Streep ten years ago, states that there are only two types of people in the world. In reference to “seducers”, Donna argues that there are those that seduce women because they have a genuine contempt for them and would like to assert their dominance over them, and that the others simply fall in and out of love every evening. I would like to take Donna’s claim, that there are only two types of people, and rather than use it with regards to so-called seducers, I would like to suggest that the two kinds of people in the world are as follows: Those that love ABBA, and subsequently fun, and those that do not. If you are of the latter, then I would not recommend you read this review.
More often than not, the role of a villain in the espionage genre, who is as witty as they are terrifying, has been reserved for men. To find a spy thriller that includes not only a female hero but also a female villain that our protagonist must face off against is incredibly rare. It is typical for such features to centre around one man hunting down another – engaging in a game of cat-and-mouse until one finally surrenders to the other. It’s there in Skyfall, in which the plot revolves around James Bond pursuing the fascinating Raoul Silva, who repeatedly leaves the former looking like a fool, and it is present in almost every entry in the Mission Impossible and the Bourne franchises. We think nothing of two men working tirelessly to track the other down in such films, yet we constantly struggle to cast more than one woman in similar features. While there has indeed been a steady rise in the number of fictional female spies, from Lorraine Broughton in the recent, massively stylistic Atomic Blonde, to Dominika Egorova of Red Sparrow, there is still a significant lack of compelling female villains for such characters to stand off against. Granted, in Red Sparrow this is arguably because the film wants to tackle the issue of men in power and the way in which women are so often abused and tossed aside in the male pursuit of dominance within espionage; however, in Atomic Blonde, we easily could have had a female antagonist to serve as Broughton’s foil. Perhaps it is exactly this – the need for a captivating, villainous woman in stories of intelligence webs and assassinations – that has made BBC America’s Killing Eve such a runaway success.
I sat down recently with Jamie Jones and Sophie Kennedy Clark, the director and lead actress of what was undoubtedly one of the best films of the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year: the brilliant, brutal Obey. During our chat, we talked extensively about the hotly-debated topic of gentrification in London, in which Jones told me that he, himself, “saw the transition towards gentrification in Hackney” and laments on probably having “been a part of it himself”. As we talked, both he and Kennedy Clark lamented on the culture clash that is often found in London these days and the uniqueness of the city. “You have these huge high-rises, massive estates, right next to the most expensive houses! You get gang crime and you get people sitting drinking champagne and Peach Bellini’s in London fields.” Indeed, Jones even told me of a story of gentrification that he had once been involved in himself: “All these hipsters, I was amongst them, we were all just sat drinking champagne, the sun was shining and then we just heard a gunshot and a helicopter comes down and somebody was shot in the leg, and it just happened right next to us!” These sorts of opposing moments are found all throughout Obey, scattered across the film in various different manners, from individual scenes to the presentation of characters such as Kennedy Clark’s Twiggy and her band of bohemian friends squatting alongside Leon’s estate.
As of late, there has been a steady increase in the depiction of working-class life in British cinema – from Andrea Arnold’s stark, stunning Fish Tank to Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning critique of austerity in I, Daniel Blake. Both of these films have been excellent, and both have felt incredibly brave in their willingness to honestly portray life for Britain’s working-classes under a Conservative government – one which has repeatedly mistreated the most financially vulnerable in the wake of the recession that came in 2008. As fantastic as I, Daniel Blake and Fish Tank are, however, they primarily focus on examining the lives of white characters; few films have set out to explore the experiences of those that are both working-class and black. This particular demographic has largely been ignored in British cinema, despite the rise in the number of stories of the working-classes that have been told lately, so it gives me pleasure to be able to say that Obey, the feature-length debut of director Jamie Jones, is not afraid to tackle such a subject. Obey is an emotionally raw, accomplished piece that consistently succeeds in attempting to give an honest depiction of the reality that this specific community is faced with.
Of all the films that I expected to see at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year, a camp, historical re-telling of Emily Dickinson’s life as one that was dominated by a secretive lesbian affair was perhaps the one that surprised me the most. Wild Nights with Emily is directed by Madeleine Olnek – the woman that brought us the deliciously ridiculous Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same – and I’m pleased to say that this lovely challenge to the traditional misconceptions surrounding Dickinson’s personal life, which often paint her as a lonesome recluse, contains much of the same outlandish humour and eccentricity found in Olnek’s earlier work.
The use of horror as a metaphor for the impact of repressed female sexuality in cinema can be found in a range of films, from Julia Ducournau’s arresting debut feature, Raw, to Brian de Palma’s masterful tale of a girl’s unusual coming of age in Carrie. It’s not necessarily a new way of tackling the subject of teenage girls and their first ventures into sexual desire, but it is a deeply effective one and serves as the central theme of Thelma—Joachim Trier’s brilliant meditation on one young woman’s discovery of the wants she has stifled for so long.
The titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a quiet, thoughtful freshman who, when we first meet her, appears to be overwhelmed by shyness. As she attends university in Oslo, a sharp contrast to the notably eerie house that she lives in with her parents in the Norwegian countryside, she initially struggles to settle into the student lifestyle with her fellow classmates. Through brief glimpses into her relationship with her parents, often presented in the form of somewhat invasive phone-calls to Thelma after her classes, we learn that they are fundamentalist Christians to whom Thelma can barely admit that she drank a little wine without panic rising. Already, within the film’s first thirty minutes, the repression surrounding Thelma’s life has been established. Once we learn that she has spent the first eighteen years of her life under the thumb of her parents–akin to the way in which Sissy Spacek’s telekinetic lead of Carrie spent hers restrained by her mother–the visible concern that arises whenever she speaks to another person begins to make sense.
I was fifteen. Unsure of myself, unsure of the world around me and deeply uncertain of the feelings I was beginning to develop; I was lost. As my friends began to develop an interest in boys, as first dates began to occur, I found myself isolated; I simply could not relate to their conversations and felt that I had to feign excitement and agreement in order to fit in. Many a time, I felt alone. I knew, even if I had not truly accepted it yet, that I was not really attracted to boys. Although almost everyone and everything in my life said I should be, I was not. I knew that I was the odd one out amongst my schoolmates, whether they knew it then or not. Then, I stumbled upon a film that would change my teenaged life and introduce me to a whole new way of thinking about sexuality. Having been a fan of cinema for a while at this point, I read regularly about movies and I was always trying to keep myself up to date on the most widely acclaimed. When I was fifteen, it was 2013 and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour had just premiered at Cannes to widespread praise. Raw, teeming with passion, and heart-wrenching, this would be the film that my young self would cling to dearly and is one that I still turn to for comfort, despite its flaws, today.