FilmSpace: Their Finest; Rules Don’t Apply; The Zookeeper’s Wife – reviews


CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment

A GOOD WEEK for WWII pictures, those taking part in #52FilmsByWomen, and historical dramas.

Their Finest – ★★★★☆

Keep calm and make a propaganda film.

While the boys are off fighting, morale at home is low. Women and the elderly are picking up the slack, and the entertainment industry is intent on harnessing that blitz spirit.

It isn’t working. Stories about masculine heroes aren’t connecting with audiences. As Rachael Stirling’s Phyl Moore says, the men will be shocked to come home and find women won’t go back into their boxes quietly.

Gemma Arterton’s Catrin Cole is employed to write “the slop” – women’s dialogue – in a new film she has sourced about twin sisters who sail off to help at Dunkirk. It’s a story that could rejuvenate blitz spirit in those suffering from the bombings in the first place.

She is pummelled with overt sexism. Paid less, ignored, dismissed, given poorer working conditions – and that’s just at her job. At home her husband is so fragile he barely sees her.

It’s about remaining positive when the odds are stacked against you – nationally and personally.

She isn’t submissive as much as she’s used to it. It’s shocking in its relentlessness more than any one instance. Cole understands the task at hand better than anyone, but Sam Claflin’s Tom Buckley is domineering. He thinks he knows best, and only begrudgingly gives her praise. He believes women don’t want to be the hero, they want to be with the hero.

The backdrop is a ravaged London, bombed to bits without discrimination. The propaganda war is for the people, but led by a government constantly tweaking and interfering so as to win allies and keep the nation putting one foot in front of the other.

Within this London are those still dreaming. Bill Nighy is great at being himself, but this iteration of the character is more sincere than usual. His Ambrose Hilliard is a washed-up actor living on his legacy, waiting for that next stellar role. Youngsters take the leads in Cole’s film, showing a youthful passion undamaged by war.

Any attempt at labelling Their Finest a feel-good story must be focusing on the constant presence of resilience, because there is heartache in love and war, and in Lone Scherfig’s film. It’s about remaining positive when the odds are stacked against you – nationally and personally.

Rules Don’t Apply – ★★★★☆

“The rules don’t apply to you” sings Lily Collins’ Marla Mabrey, nor do they apply here. Cut, cut, cut goes the first act, as two young hopefuls make it to Hollywood. One is an aspiring actress; the other’s equipped with a business scheme that Howard Hughes just has to hear. He drives her, they hit it off, and the rules don’t apply.

Anything based in truth is often worth researching, but this legend champions not letting facts get in the way of a good story. Was Howard Hughes this eccentric? Does it matter?

The whole thing is a symbol for an industry: Hughes is untouchable and powerful, yet hunted. Marla is scooped up by bright lights, riches, and deceit. Alden Ehrenreich’s Frank Forbes believes in an influence borne out of networking.

It’s a romanticised notion of what it means to make it, and where you have to go so you can be made.

These stories interweave for a mishmash of what Hollywood is. For a film about the film industry, there’s very little about film in it. It’s a romanticised notion of what it means to make it, and where you have to go so you can be made.

Except, personas can slip into personalities, and maybe those personalities were never all that nice in the first place. Is it worth stomaching a place when everyone is so deeply unhappy, overworked, and underappreciated?

Director, writer, producer, and actor Warren Beatty has a respect for Hughes, but Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t let him off the hook. He’s endearingly assertive and assured, every bizarre phonecall and repeated expression totally believable.

He’s also a sleazy manchild who refuses to take responsibility, while buying into his own hype. This Hughes is what we imagine Hollywood’s gatekeepers to be like, but the film has a starry-eyed and impressionistic view of what that means. There’s a nostalgia that longs for a better time, without photoshopping out the parts best left behind.

The Zookeeper’s Wife – ★★★☆☆

The world isn’t short on WWII films (this is the second in this article) so The Zookeeper’s Wife, both in title and intent, does its best to focus on Jessica Chastain’s Antonina Żabińska, one of the keepers of a Warsaw zoo. She and her husband Jan sheltered 300 Jews during the occupation of Poland, hiding them on the premises they still owned, but felt owned by.

As a war film, it’s timely in its portrayal of euphemisms. The Holocaust didn’t just happen: ghettos pop up, Jewish people are branded, and a brutal dominance is exerted by German forces before any kind of genocide begins. We see this slippery slope from the family’s perspective, but only hear of the horrors further down the slide because the Żabińskas weren’t targeted.

As a biography, it’s workman-like in showing Antonina and Jan as a loving couple who cherished every living creature. Violence towards animals on screen is particularly horrifying, either due to its rarity, or our own exposure, and thus a numbing, to human violence in entertainment.

It’s empathetic in saying the Żabińskas could be anyone, and anyone can do their part against hate.

Some have suggested the film sympathises more with the animals than those fleeing death, but I think the connection between the two is deliberate. The animals running scared and confused are no different from the millions being hunted for who they are – it’s all outwith their control. There are scenes of animals being shot and scenes of humans being shot: all of them show destruction at the hands of humanity rather than suggest one is more upsetting than the other.

There’s even a modesty to the heroism of the Żabińska family. Niki Caro’s direction celebrates bravery, love, and unity above all else. It’s empathetic in saying the Żabińskas could be anyone, and anyone can do their part against hate.

It’s emotional, inspiring, scary, and continues a recent run of adaptions telling stories the public may never have heard of. If it honours the Żabińska name over seventy years later for a wide audience, then there’s something to that.

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