Tag Archives: Lesley Manville

Maleficent (2014)

maleficant

If I ruled a kingdom neighboring this femme fatale, I’d make sure to be on very, very good terms.

As far as I’m concerned, the majority of classic Disney princess movies are sacred cows- shallow, one-sided, and featuring fair maidens too stupid to tie their own shoes, let alone entice a handsome prince of any substance. I can’t even recall if I’ve even seen the original “Sleeping Beauty,” which makes me, I think, the perfect audience for this unfairly maligned movie. “Maleficent” is certainly not a perfect movie. It’s over dependent on CGI, firstly, and Maleficent’s transformation from villain to sympathetic character can be uneven and rocky.

Unspectacular as it was, I ask myself, was I entertained? I answer this question with an emphatic yes. I had been depressed the day I watched this movie, and it took my mind off my problems for an hour and a half. I didn’t find myself fidgeting in my seat, or checking the time, or rolling my eyes at improbabilities. It was fun, pure and simple, and what’s wrong with that? And Angelina Jolie is surprisingly good in the lead.

According to this story, Maleficent, the evil fairy who cursed the princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” did not start out as a villainess. She began, as many troubled and evil people do, as an innocent child. But she was no ordinary child by any means, being born to the fairy folk, orphaned, and left to traverse her magical kingdom and birthright. Maleficent is gifted (cursed?) with a pair of horns and wings, which make her look uncanny if not downright monstrous to the ignorant folk of the neighboring kingdom.

When young Maleficent meets Stefan, she falls in love with the curious and initially accepting boy, never guessing that her love for him will become the singular most destructive force in her life. Maleficent, unsurprisingly, becomes leader of her realm, whereas Stefan (Sharlto Copley) seeks power in unexpected places. When Stefan commits the ultimate betrayal, Maleficent curses his newborn daughter and closes off her heart to all. But she never counted on Aurora (Elle Fanning) coming back into her life again slowly bringing her cold heart to a simmer.

The concept of the fractured fairy tale is not original, but “Maleficent” brings warmth and humor to a tired premise. The original idea is twisted by making Maleficent not a soulless she-devil, but a rightfully indignant and complex antihero. In fact, Aurora’s fairy ‘protectors’ (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville) are so in need of a prompt fairyland CPS visit that Maleficent is forced to aid the very child she swore to hate and malign forever.

There’s more focus on these characters than you might expect considering the film is shot on a blue screen with extravagant special effects. Both the protagonist (anti-hero) and the antagonist are surprisingly consistent, facing their own demons in their individual broken ways. Nobody gives a weak performance in a visually beautiful (if aesthetically self-indulgent) twist on a classic fairy tale which was, let’s face it, pretty weak and creepy originally (of course there’s nothing weird about princes going around kissing apparently dead maidens, rrriiight?) 😛

Jolie, who I’ve never been the most avid fan of, actually surprised me in this. She juggles bile and vulnerability, the result of a love affair gone tragically sour effectively, especially with this kind of movie, which let’s face it, doesn’t focus on acting as much as special effects and self-aware humor. “Maleficent” isn’t a masterpiece (but what do you expect, “The Godfather?”) but it achieves it’s goal of being a fun, cute and charming tale with effective humor and thrills incorporated throughout.

maleficantjolie

Vera Drake (2004)

Mike Leigh’s 2004 effort, Vera Drake, is sure to be controversial, but not for the reasons you might expect. Instead of providing shock value (and the blood and guts of franchises such as Saw and Hostel,) Vera Drake takes a hot-button topic and views it from a much-maligned perspective. It may make you uncomfortable or angry, but the well made status of the film is hard to deny. The eponymous Vera is a jolly 1950’s housewife who lives in post-war Britain and works cleaning other people’s homes. She is the proud mother of two adult children, sarcastic Sid (Daniel Mays) and excruciatingly shy Ethel (Alex Kelly) and wants to find a eligible bachelor for her isolated daughter. She is happily married to mustached mechanic George (Richard Graham).

In secret, Vera is an abortionist, terminating women’s pregnancies for no pay. She uses the same soothing rhetoric for every incident and is never caught. The procedure is relatively clean and safe, and as far as she is concerned she does no wrong. I didn’t always like Vera. She was blind to the implications of her acts and cheery to a fault. Yet she always tried to do the right thing. I think something horrible happened in her past, but it was never fully explained. Yet, life goes on. Vera and George find a possible “eligible bachelor,” Reg (Eddie Marsan), an introvert highly affected by the war. Vera continues her operations with women who have been  put into contact with her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who has untrustworthy motives. But when a near tragedy occurs, Vera is put out in the open and ages ten years in a strenuous couple of days.

Possibly more interesting than Vera are her kids Ethel and Sid. Ethel holds herself hunched and quiet, with zero self-esteem. She meets her match with Reg, who seems as unsure of the courtship as she is. I wasn’t quite sure where their relationship would go. Sid and his friend Ronny (Leo Bill) discuss post war issues and try to score a dance at a party, and Sid is the one to reasonably question his mother when the doody hits the fan.

The film has a strong sense of place. A rape scene occurs, and it is handled tastefully (as tastefully as a rape can be). Imelda Staunton gives a great performance, going from a cheery, confident woman to a slumped person who can barely drag her feet across the floor.

Vera is not a liberal Wonder Woman, a superhero who keeps her powers of cheerful strength no matter what. She is vulnerable and fallible, and she can be and will be broken.  But somehow, I wasn’t as involved the second time I watched it as I could have been. I think the director was pushing me too hard with the tragedy of it all and what a great person Vera is. That never helps. You’ve got to hand it to Sid though. With everyone else referring to  the center of the operations as “trouble” and “problems,” Sid is the first to offer the humanizing word “babies.” (Rated R.)