The Promised Land Film Review

The Promised Land

The Promised Land Rating

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The inimitable Mads Mikkelsen heads the cast of this epic drama, set in 18th Century Jutland, Denmark. The main narrative revolves around one Captain Ludvig von Kahlen (Mikkelsen,) a long-time soldier, and his attempts to cultivate a seemingly uninhabitable heath as a new settlement. His nemesis, a local landowner and all-round villain, Frederik De Schinkel is played with utmost, epicene gusto by Simon Benebjerg.

Director and co-writer, Nikolaj Arcel, (Riders of Justice, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,)has been painstaking in his attention to historical authenticity and it is something to appreciate. Tricorn-hats-off to the costume, art and lighting crew – the result is exquisite. The mist o’er the heath, the frosts, the driving rain, the howling wind and the bleak, unforgiving darkness, contrasted with the luminous firelight, candle-light, lamp-light and ever-living sunshine. Pick out the mise en scene from any one particular shot and you have a classic study in chiaroscuro – cinematography by Rasmus Videbæk.

Based on a loose adaptation of the book, from a tenuous story about the real Kahlen, the plot gets off to a gripping start, when the loathsome Schinkel realises that the Captain presents a threat to his own ambitions and authority. Local pastor, Anton Eklund, who is sympathetic to the Captain’s cause, introduces him to tenant farmers and labourers, Johannes and Ann Barbara – both fugitives from their cruel master, Schinkel. (All three actors, Gustav Lindh, Morten Hee Andersen and Amanda Collin turn in faultless performances.) Throw in the complication of a love-triangle, the aristocratic Lady Edele Helene, (Kristine Kujath Thorp), and the stage is set for a classic tale of good v evil, justice v injustice, plebs v aristocracy…

The Promised Land

It’s impossible not to be drawn in to the growing relationship between Ann Barbara and the Captain – especially after her husband is captured, tortured and literally boiled to death by Schinkel. An outcast, Romany-child, Anmai Mus, is befriended by the duo – and the trio become an unlikely family group. Happiness subtly creeps up on all three of them – unfortunately, the Captain’s overwhelming ambition is their undoing…

A word has to be said on Mikkelsen’s performance which is generally, brilliantly nuanced – a warmth in the eyes, a curl of the mouth, a smile. He certainly has cornered the market in strong, silent and minimalist. Romany-child, (Melina Hagburg,) is so utterly beguiling that even Mikkelsen stands a good chance of being upstaged.

What is truly disappointing, is that the last act of the film devolves into sentimentality that has the audience question all that we’ve learnt about that world, the main character, his hardness and obsession. Unfortunately, the ending lacks credibility and even borders on the ludicrous, especially given the time period that had supposedly elapsed. A realistic ending, true to the time would have been more powerful, and may have said more about ambition and the ‘hollow crown’ – than the presented fairy-story ending.

Despite some flaws, to misrelate the words of the Desiderata – “it is still a beautiful film”.

My Rating: Four glasses of champagne.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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Highway of Lost Hearts: Heart, Soul, and the Open Road.

Highway of Lost Hearts

Highway of Lost Hearts Rating

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‘Highway of Lost Hearts’. What a beautiful title for a beautiful play. A captivating blend of gritty road trip realism and magical storytelling that explores an individual’s search for a soul and need for redemption. Mary Anne Butler’s superbly adapted novel is a True Blue, One Woman, Aussie travelling tale, where red earth meets fire, flood and drought, and ancient mountains loom over spirit-stirring waters. Our paths are both uniquely our own and universally relatable. Wherever the open road takes you, your own thoughts, dreams, and demons will be right there in the passenger seat, refusing to be left behind.

Mot is a remarkable woman whose once-unbreakable spirit is now weathered and worn. Detached from her sense of purpose, identity, and relationships, she is lost in a sea of meaninglessness, longing for peace while hungering for connection. At this crossroads in life, she’s grappling with the questions all women of a certain age face when they finally shed society’s expectations. But the spark that once drove her has flickered out.

This is a uniquely female pilgrimage and point of view. Mot is not afraid to entrust us with insights into the delicate balance between desire and defence. She is resilient in the face of uncertainty as she propels down a long and lonely 1000km stretch of relentless highway.

Director Adam Deusien optimises a pared-down and intuitive approach to these epic themes. He uses a luminous lighting design (Becky Russell), and simplistic, streamlined set (Annemaree Dalziel) which utilises forced perspective with long drops of sheer drapes. This evokes a never-ending thoroughfare where horizons expand, hopes arise, and possibilities are boundless.

Smith tackles the role of Mot, a formidable challenge of what is effectively a 70-minute monologue and (fittingly) solo performance. It’s a feat of focused endurance. Accompanied by her faithful imaginary canine companion, she matter-of-factly envisions a kaleidoscope of encounters with new people and old memories, blurring the lines between reality and reflection. With just a few basic props, a ‘she’ll be right’ laconic tone and her physicality, Smith slowly weaves a winding narrative tapestry. It’s a deeply intimate story experience shared through mind, body and immense heart.

Sophie Jones and Abby Smith imbue the beats of Mot’s story with an original and hauntingly beautiful vocal and instrumental soundscape of guitar, keyboard, harmonica and percussion. They could have sung acapella because both were strong singers who created a rich and full sound. At times the mike amplification level was a little overpowering. When it was more subdued, their lovely harmonies resonated with a melancholic depth and sacredness that echoed the emotional terrain of Mot’s odyssey of grief and growth.

Only 10 years old and on the HSC drama list, ‘Highway of Lost Hearts’ is already a distinctly Australian classic for a reason. It’s a reminder that the roads we travel are not just physical, but also emotional and spiritual. Anyone who roams solo will innately understand Mot, the fragility of her heart and the transformative power of travel. After all, the true purpose of a road trip is to connect with something greater. The rest may ponder the challenge of self-discovery and how we are all called to take this journey.

Like Mot, Arts on Tour and ‘Highway of Lost Hearts’ has ventured far and wide, concluding its performances in the Land of the Dharug People at the Riverside Theatre. The next time it revives and swings by this part of town, make sure you join the road to inner wisdom and delight in discovering more about yourself along the way. The trip will not always be what you expect, but you’ll leave more enlightened.

For future Arts On Tour performances, see: https://artsontour.com.au/what-we-do-and-why/

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

Photography by Hannah Groggan

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Sydney Film Festival – The Outrun

The Outrun - Sydney Film Festival

The Outrun – Sydney Film Festival Rating

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According to Orkney Island folklore, when people drown in the sea they get turned into seals. These creatures, called Selkies, secretly come back to land at night to dance in human form, before heading back into the sea. But, if someone sees them while on land, they get stuck in human form, to live their lives unhappily on land and longing to return to the sea.

I recently saw The Outrun, a new Scottish film by German director Nora Fingscheidt, at the Sydney Film Festival. It tells the story of Rona, a young woman who returns to the windswept Orkney islands of Scotland to recover from a troubled past while studying in London. The film is fragmented and non-linear, jumping back and forth in time between her childhood, wild nights out in London, the rise and fall of a relationship, and her journey of recovery on the Islands of Orkney.

The cinematography is solid and often beautiful, showcasing not only the wild, natural beauty of the Orkneys, but also letting us dive into the colour and vibrancy of London and the sensory confusion of intoxication. Rona is an alcoholic, and her journey deep into the abyss of her addiction and then trying to climb back out is the core of the film.

The cast are incredibly engaging. Saoirse Ronan, who plays Rona, also produced the film and leads an outstanding cast including Stephen Dillane, Saskia Reeves, and Paapa Essiedu. They all deliver solid, believable performances that feel true to their characters.

What I noticed most about the film was how well sound was being used to create atmosphere. The constant howling wind on the islands gave a real sense of an unforgiving and cold environment. I felt like I was there. It was often subtle but almost always there, and when they faded out the wind for a poignant moment of reflection it worked beautifully.

In London, the sounds of traffic and people and music was an effective contrast to the desolate wind. Sound was also important to Rona. She listens to dance music as she works on her father’s farm or walks along the shore, a connection to her distant life in London. For months she listens out for the elusive call of a rare migratory bird.

We are told this bird, the Corncrake, has a low chance of surviving its journey to Africa and back. That was an allegory I felt laid on with a heavy hand, especially when Rona is told similar statistics to the success of recovering alcoholics before embarking on her journey back to the Orkneys.

Another problem was the cliché use of hair colour to denote different periods on Rona’s life. Hair-colour is a well-used visual cue for the audience to keep track of constant shifts in narrative time, but they could have come up with something more creative, such as hairstyle or even tattoos. It seemed easy, and lazy. And worse, it was used to manage an editing choice that was itself problematic.

The narrative has several layers of extra complexity and detail that could have been dropped from the film without doing any damage to the core emotional story. This seems to be a hangover from its source; the bestselling memoir by Amy Liptrot, who also helped write the screenplay. It felt as if the production team was so enamoured by elements from the novel, they were determined to put them in the film even though they’re different mediums. Random voiceovers came in that don’t help build the world or drive the narrative forward in a satisfying way. It was obvious these were simply bits from the book they wanted in the film but didn’t have time to explore properly. The Outrun is littered with these half-formed ideas or half-developed themes.

Paradoxically, while it’s littered with detail, the narrative runs out of steam. By mid-way, the film settles into a constant repetition of events and doesn’t really go anywhere, only adding small details or extra information that could have been told earlier and more efficiently, or not at all.

The second act is often dangerous territory for film-makers and The Outrun suffers from a lack of discipline. The constant jumping in time and place may represent Rona’s state of mind, and reflect the source material, but it doesn’t allow the audience to settle down and get drawn into the story. Instead, I was getting bored.

And then came the ending, which I felt was somewhat derivative, predictable, and a little unsatisfying. The Outrun is a well shot, superbly acted film that suffers from an undisciplined script and a chaotic structure that takes the wind out of its sails.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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Spanish Film Festival: Un Amor

Spanish Film Festival: Un Amor

Spanish Film Festival: Un Amor Rating

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Un Amor is a delirious dive into the torment experienced by a young woman who walked away from the stress of her work interpreting the tragic stories of refugees and moved to La Escapa, a small village deep in the Spanish countryside, only to be thrust into a story almost as horrible as the ones she was running away from.

Multi-award-winning and multi-lingual Spanish director Isabel Coixet co-wrote and directed this searing drama, told with interspersed flashbacks to the horrors of her previous work, paralleling her descent into indecency.

The cinematography is often breathtaking, showing the scope and beauty of the region and vividly bringing life to Nat’s mixed emotions. The villagers’ characterisations, foibles, intrigues, and veiled love triangles are all treated with gusto. There’s a delightful smorgasbord of humanity on display.

In a dilapidated house with an abused dog thrust into her care, thirty-year-old Natalia, or Nat (Laia Costa), faces overt hostility and sexist micro-aggressions from her landlord and covert hostility from nearly all her neighbours. Initially wooed by a slightly older man who demonstrates an artistic sensitivity with stained glass, she demurely dismisses his overtures.

Spanish Film Festival: Un Amor

Then after an extraordinary encounter, Natalia reluctantly gives in to an awkward illicit proposal from her brutish neighbour Andreas (Hovik Keuchkerian) so as to have her dwelling refurbished somewhat and made into a more liveable space. In so doing, she succumbs to a passion that punishes her and causes her to see who she really is.

The film is based on Sara Mesa’s bestselling novel of the same name. The Spanish newspaper El País named it Spain’s 2020 book of the year. Un Amor has been described as a bittersweet and striking exploration of gender roles, love, obsession, and desire.

It deftly deals with some eternally fundamental and gripping questions that have plagued humanity. What is love? Are we sexual in nature? It’s a disturbingly frank look at the dynamics of gender politics and sex as a commodity.

John Holland of Screen Daily, a website providing a real-time view of the film industry, said the film was sometimes “redolent of Coixet’s very best work.” Guy Lodge of Variety, a website featuring entertainment news and reviews, considered the film to be a return to form for Coixet.

In two top ten lists of Spanish films, it ranked 2nd (El Español) and 10th (Mondosonoro).

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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