The Heroine’s Journey in Film Today: “Corsage”, “The Wonder”, “The Crown”, “Elona Holmes 2”, “The Woman King”

The Heroine’s Journey in “Corsage”

Royalty and the pedestal-prison of womanhood is the theme of this new film from Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, imagining the home life of the Hapsburg Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1877, the year of her 40th birthday. Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana, the kaiserin lives in a luxurious delirium of loneliness: notionally cherished, actually patronised.

The movie even shows the empress riding at the Northamptonshire estates of Diana’s ancestor, the fifth Earl Spencer – and enjoying there a capricious romantic flirtation with her riding instructor. It’s broadly historically accurate, though this doesn’t apply to the use of Help Me Make It Through the Night on the soundtrack or indeed Elizabeth’s encounter with later inventions such as cinema and heroin. But Kreutzer sees her political melancholy as part of the tension that led to the first world war.

Elizabeth is brilliantly played by Vicky Krieps as mysterious and sensual, imperious and severe: a woman of passions and discontents who faces icy distaste from the court and the family of her unfaithful husband Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) – this is because of her sympathies for the Hungarian part of the Habsburg empire and her intimacy with the worldly Hungarian Count Andrássy (Tamás Lengyel). Snickering Viennese attendants and officials impugn her Austrian loyalties as they body-shame Elizabeth – every day she faces the literal and figurative struggle to fit into her corsage and get down to a terrifying 18 inches around the waist.

Elizabeth wears violet gowns, violet parasols, smokes violet cigarettes and distributes violet-scented chocolates to the unfortunates in hospitals and asylums. She only really smiles at the sight of her dogs and is utterly devastated when the horse that threw her has to be shot. When travelling incognito in Vienna (to spy on her husband’s mistress) she wears a dark veil – and requires an attendant to pose as her in this veil for a formal event while she is indoors shooting up. Later, she suffers the indignity of being congratulated on her atypical poise on this occasion.

Elizabeth’s whole life is veiled, and Kreutzer sees her style of dress and existence almost as a variation of court mourning. The movie has her living in a series of huge, chilly salons and gloomy dining rooms from which she takes refuge in bathrooms, subjecting herself to various self-harming weight-loss regimes. She is a lonely figure, galloping unattended across various European estates. She remembers the alcoholism of her Bavarian father, who would put away seven tankards of beer of an evening and she confesses that she thought all grownups slurred their speech after dark.

In many ways this is a study in anger, and it is an austere and angular picture. Krieps gives an exhilaratingly fierce, uningratiating performance. Kreutzer’s last film, The Ground Beneath My Feet, from 2019, had just the same shrewd sense of how women are isolated and restricted by whatever status they have been able to cultivate. For Elizabeth, the personal is political.

The Heroine’s Journey in “The Wonder”

“We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.” Sebastian Lelio’s fascinating “The Wonder” opens with a prologue that includes this line, one that’s crucial to unpacking the film that follows. Lelio doesn’t just want you to passively watch the story of what’s to come. It’s not an invitation to hear or see this story, but to believe in this one. Lelio is less concerned about the practical truths and lies of “The Wonder” than he is what they mean, what they say about humanity, and how they interrogate what we believe.

Pugh plays Lib Wright, an English nurse in the year 1862, a year when the mass famine of the 1840s has left scars across the Irish landscape to which she travels. She has been summoned there by a committee looking for answers about a local girl who appears to be a miracle—one that includes arguably underwritten characters played by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Brian F. O’Byrne. Nine-year-old Anna O’Donnell (the excellent Kila Lord Cassidy) has not eaten in four months. She claims to subsist only on manna from heaven, and her survival has led to worshippers who want to confer with this potential saint. Her mother Rosaleen (Cassidy’s actual mother Elaine) insists that there is no trickery here, but Lib’s job will be to watch Anna to see if food is somehow being snuck into her bedroom. A journalist named William (Tom Burke) has also traveled there to fuel Lib’s skepticism, and it’s no coincidence that both the writer and the nurse have brought the grief of loss in their baggage.

Lib is constantly being told, “You are only here to watch.” She is the observer, just like us. There are fascinating bookends to this story that reach too far in terms of form but it’s interesting to see a piece that’s about faith and skepticism in equal measure be so directly confrontational with its audience. Naturally, Lib’s instinct begins where most viewers would—doubtful that Anna isn’t eating and then increasingly concerned about her declining physical state. Pugh takes us on the journey with her from skepticism to concern and “The Wonder” becomes a study in empathy and action. How long can we be expected to just “watch” when the life of a child is in danger? How long can we stay inactive when faith is destructive enough to tear communities and families apart?

A drama this ambitious demands a fearless performer like Pugh, who knows exactly the tightrope to walk when it comes to the story’s delicate balance between realism and melodrama. Pugh can’t lean too far into the emotional or risk turning “The Wonder” into a more traditional melodrama, the kind of thing that’s easier to place in a box and walk away from. Lelio doesn’t want that. He wants viewers to feel as unsettled as Lib, who becomes increasingly unmoored as she realizes she has either been asked to bear witness to a miracle or the death of a child. Lib’s uncertainty is enhanced by an excellent score by Lelio’s regular composer Matthew Herbert that avoids the lilt common to period pieces in favor of something more uncomfortable.

Lelio has proven himself to be a consistently phenomenal director of actresses, drawing great work from Daniela Vega (“A Fantastic Woman”), Julianne Moore (“Gloria Bell”), and Rachel McAdams (“Disobedience”). We can now add Pugh (and Cassidy really) to that list as another woman who is consistently asked by the men of this film to step aside and merely observe. She starts off merely watching, but she ends the movie with a different kind of resolve, one that comes from her unshakeable belief.

The Heroine’s Journey in “The Crown”

“The Crown” is a near-flawless prestige drama series. Part of the series’ magic is its ability to craft a sense of urgency; it was the first time the audience visualized intense crises—like the aftermath of King Edward VIII’s abdication, the relationship between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend, the discovery of the Marburg Files—from the perspective of the institution threatened by those emergencies.

Season Five begins with Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) struggling to maintain a facade of normalcy. Whether they succeed in pulling this off is something their family constantly monitors via checking a half dozen newspapers, every day, rain or shine. In addition to fretting about their son and future king, Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce, quite good) struggle to keep a grip on their other children’s lives as well. The 1990s must have been a whale of a time for posh divorce lawyers in England: Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) comes to her mother seeking permission for a divorce, as does Prince Andrew (James Murray, vastly underrated). After a taped conversation of dull dirty talk between Charles and his mistress Camilla Parker Bowles (the ever-wonderful Olivia Williams) is leaked to the press, he and Diana separate. Charles bares all in a 1994 televised interview, admitting to adultery. A satellite to this endless parade of dysfunction is Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller), a Conservative trying to prevent the Crown from spending large sums of taxpayer money, while also trying to preserve the Windsors’ existence as a core part of British life.

During Seasons Three and Four, Josh O’Connor brought extraordinary vulnerability and nuance, far beyond his years, to playing the young Charles. His accent was flawless; in interviews, O’Connor has mentioned using Charles’ tic (of, when getting out of a car, checking each cufflink, his pocket square, then waving to the crowd) as a way to get into character. Such background work is absent in West’s performance. His accent and general affect feel like a rehashing of Hector Madden, the matinee idol news anchor West played on BBC’s “The Hour.” It’s a shame, because as characterized by Morgan, Charles’ heart is in the right place. His life cannot begin until his mother’s ends; his ideas to modernize the monarchy make sense; had the real Charles been able to implement them while his mother was alive, it might have helped the institution seem like something more than a tourist trap. 

After “The Night Manager” and “Tenet,” this is the third, and hopefully final, time Elizabeth Debicki plays a fragile, glamorous woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Not because she can’t do the job. On the contrary, Debicki’s Diana picks up exactly where Emma Corrin’s left off. The latter perfected that bashful chin-tuck, doe-eyed upward glance known the world over, but Debicki wisely builds upon that foundation. She packs over 15 years of agony and loneliness into the graceful, swanlike bend of her neck and back; misery has caked under her eyes like the kohl she uses on both lashlines. During Season Five, Diana is often alone at home, putting on a disguise to sneak into the movies with a boyfriend, or taking clandestine meetings with dishonorable BBC journalists. Debicki truly soars when she distinguishes the public-facing Diana—posing in photo calls with her adulterous husband as his future queen, smiling, waving—from the one abandoned by all who knew her. 

The emotional devastation Debicki conveys intensifies when there is neither dialogue nor a scene partner. Like Matt Smith (Prince Philip in Seasons One and Two) and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret, Seasons One and Two), Debicki knows she’s playing a mercurial figure with a lot of personality. All three use their characters’ individual experiences of physical and psychological torment to create a wall between their true selves and everyone else. But only Philip and Margaret are safe, having long given up fighting the system. Diana, as she puts it in an interview with Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah, walking a fine line between dishonest and sincere), battled to the end.

Tragically underused is the magnificent Lesley Manville. Very few actors take pleasure in their craft the way she does. Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Princess Margaret was terrific, but sometimes felt brittle and one-note. There is a deep, abiding brokenness in Manville’s Margaret—after divorcing Count Snowdon the Princess never remarried and smoked herself into oblivion—but there is also wry self-awareness and dignity. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the Princess reunites, at a party, with an elderly Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton, doing more acting here than in the rest of his career). That the episode dovetails between the fleeting joy Margaret feels, dancing in the arms of the man she’d promised herself to, drinking and laughing with him, and the 1992 fire that damaged Windsor Castle, could easily turn into lazy symbolism. Margaret, however, treats her sister to a blistering monologue, weaving somewhat tipsily around a room, drink firmly in hand, admonishing Elizabeth’s self-pity and asking whether she can even bring herself to admit that she destroyed her only sister’s dreams. Manville and Staunton are frequent Mike Leigh collaborators, so I was hopeful some of that intense chemistry would have a chance to take root and flourish. Alas, as I’m sure Margaret herself would agree, there’s not nearly enough Margaret in “The Crown.”

There is one standout episode, which benefits from mostly not featuring the bickering Windsors. “Mou Mou,” directed superbly by Alex Gabassi, explores the life and motivations of multimillionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed. Amir El-Masry plays the young Al-Fayed, and I could’ve easily sat through an entire season exploring the life of the scrappy Egyptian businessman. El-Masry’s performance is joyous but controlled, and my heart just about sank when he holds aloft his newborn son, promises to protect him, and names him Dodi. Salim Daw plays an older Mohamed, now the owner of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, whose adult son is off producing films (including the Oscar winner for Best Picture “Chariots of Fire”). The day he buys the Ritz, Mohamed fires a black waiter, whom Dodi later tells him is Sidney Johnson (an excellent Jude Akuwudike), former valet to King Edward VIII. Al-Fayed promptly hires him back and asks to be tutored in all things British. Daw’s onscreen partnership with Akuwudike is sensational. The latter brings a dignity and emotional depth to his role that even some of the Windsors can’t drum up. As for Daw, it’s a genuine treat to watch all his efforts to be ratified by the British royal family—including buying Harrod’s!—get rejected at every turn, until he invites Diana, whom he knows socially, to holiday with him, his wife, and his son Dodi, in July 1997. A month later, the Windsors, and the world, would never be the same.

The Heroine’s Journey in Elona Holmes 2

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill), returns in this cheeky, breezy sequel that’s better than the original. The character has a better sense of who she is, and the movie spends less time on explaining, more time on action. The mystery at its center is inspired by a real-life event that is genuinely inspiring.

Enola is not a younger female version of her older brother, who, in this version, has the deductive ability of the Arthur Conan Doyle books but is younger and not as well established as in the books. She is her own person, less analytical than he is and much more empathetic. She is observant and determined, and she has great fighting skills and a good command of mechanical physics. She also has enormous courage, both physical and moral. The first we see in this film is her back and then her feet and the hems of her skirt and petticoat as she is racing through the London streets, being chased by two Bobbies. She stops to address us, as she does with great charm and wit throughout. “Perhaps I should explain.”

And then we rewind to go back a bit, with Enola trying to establish her own detective agency in London. “I was going to join the pantheon of great Victorian detectives. I would be his equal, worthy of the Holmes name, or so I thought.”

It does not go well. Potential clients say she is too young or mistake her for the receptionist. Some just get to the point: “Might your brother be free?” And then a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) comes into the office looking for her sister Sarah. There are advantages to Enola’s youth and gender. She can go undercover with Bessie as a new employee in the match factory where Sarah worked before she disappeared. Potential clients may underestimate Enola, but so do the people she is investigating. 

The direction and editing match the lively personality of the heroine, and the mystery has several delightful twists. Enola is determined to be independent and has a hard time admitting she needs help. But it turns out that her case may be connected to the one her brother is working on. Her eccentric mother (Helena Bonham Carter) turns up to provide some assistance, some explosives, and some revision of her earlier advice to Enola to rely only on herself. She says Enola has become “strong, individual, but perhaps a little lonely. With others you could be magnificent. Find your allies, work with them, and you will become more who you are.” And when she needs an emergency ballroom dance lesson, the handsome Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) is willing to oblige.

Brown, also a producer of the film, is ideal for Enola. Her asides to the audience are delightful, especially when she unsuccessfully tries to reassure us, with a slight blush, that she just happens to be in the park Tewkesbury walks through on his way to the House of Lords. Animated inserts show us some of what she is thinking and some flashbacks to her mother’s lessons tell us more of what has—and has not—prepared her for these challenges. She shows us Enola’s curiosity, frustration, determination, and vulnerability. We see her make mistakes and we see her learn to get help from others, and sometimes make mistakes in getting help from the wrong people.

The supporting cast is especially strong, with David Thewlis and Adeel Akhtar as police detectives tracking the same case and usually considering Enola either an obstruction or a suspect. I do not want to spoil any of the twists and surprises in the film by pointing to any of the other performers except to say that like Enola, the supporting characters can be overlooked or underestimated because of who they are.    

The story pays tribute to a real-life historical moment that gets well-deserved recognition in a closing title card.

The Heroine’s Journey in “Woman King”

From the moment Gina Prince-Bythewood became a director, her strength has always resided in her commitment to love stories. In her films, sumptuous twilight passions happen on a basketball court, they occur between generations, on the ladder rungs of show business, and between immortals. They center Black women carrying power and interiority, while finding strength within themselves, and often, other Black women. With her Netflix produced film, “The Old Guard,” she continued those themes on a grander scale. But nothing in her filmography can wholly prepare you for the lushness of her latest work. 

In going into “The Woman King,” a big-hearted action-epic whose major challenge is being sincere and historical while fulfilling its blockbuster requirements, you might feel some hesitation. Especially in a cinematic landscape that prizes broad statements on race over sturdy storytelling. You might wonder how Prince-Bythewood can shape a tale centering the Agojie warriors—an all-woman group of soldiers sworn to honor and sisterhood—hailing from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, when one considers their hand in perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade. It’s a towering task approached by Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens with gentle sensitivity, and a fierce desire to show Black women as the charters of their own destiny. 

The film begins with flair: A group of men lounge at the center of a field by a campfire. They hear rustling in the tallgrass; they see a flock of birds fly away on a breeze. Suddenly a menacing Viola Davis playing Nanisca, the world-weary Agojie general, emerges from the grass armed with a machete. An entire platoon then appears behind her. The ensuing slaughter of the men (the women in the village are left unharmed), is soaked in delirious gore, and is part of this warrior ensemble’s mission to free their imprisoned kin. Nanisca, however, loses so many comrades in the process that she decides to train a new batch of recruits. 

A defiant teenager, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), is offered up as a gift to the young King Ghezo (John Boyega) by her domineering father, who is frustrated with his obstinate daughter’s refusal to marry her many suitors. Nawi, however, never makes it to the King, as the unflinching yet fun warrior Izogie (a phenomenal Lashana Lynch), sees Nawi’s resistance as a strength, and enlists her in Nanisca’s training. Being part of the Agojie promises freedom to all involved, but not to those they conquer. The defeated are offered as tribute to the draconian Oyo Empire, who then deal their fellow Africans as slaves to Europeans in exchange for guns. It’s a circle of oppression that the guilt-ridden Nanisca wants the King to break. In the meantime, a dream has haunted Nanisca, and the disobedient Nawa, who struggles with upholding some of Agojie clan’s strict requirements, particularly the “No Men” part. It might be the key to what ails her.       

The sheer pleasure of “The Woman King” resides in the bond shared by these Black women. They are the film’s love story as they commit to each other as much as they do to their grueling training. Vast compositions of Black women caring and nurturing each other proliferate “The Woman King,” and the rituals and songs they share adds further layers to their deep devotion. 

Prince-Bythewood isn’t afraid to rely on emotional heft in an action movie. Every actor in this deep ensemble is granted their own space; they’re organically challenged but never artificially wielded as a teaching tool for white audiences. Sheila Atim, who along with Mbedu turned in a stellar performance in Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” is measured, aware, and giving as Nanisca’s trusted second-in-command Amenza. Boyega is commanding yet beguiling as a king projecting confidence while still learning what it means to lead (many of his line readers are instantly quotable). 

When “The Woman King” works, it’s majestic. The tactile costumes by Gersha Phillips (“Star Trek Discovery”) and the detailed production design by Akin McKenzie (“Wild Life” and “When They See Us”) feel lived in and vibrant, especially in the vital rendering of the Dahomey Kingdom, which is teeming with scenes of color and community. Terilyn A. Shropshire’s slick, intelligent editing allows this grand epic to breathe. And the evocative score by Terence Blanchard and Lebo M. gives voice to the Agojie’s fighting spirit. 

Though Davis is the movie’s obvious star, turning in an aching and psychically demanding performance that’s matched pound for pound with her interiority, Mbedu reaffirms herself as a star too. She gives herself over to the tale of a woman who so desires to be heard that she never backs down to anyone. A glimmer follows Mbedu in her every line read, and gloom follows her in devastation. There’s one scene where she cries over the body of a fallen warrior and lets out a wail with an impact that travels from your toes to your spleen. 

The magnitude and the awe this movie inspires are what epics like “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” are all about. They’re meant for your heart to override your brain, to pull you toward a rousing splendor, to put a lump in your throat. In between the large, sprawling battles of “The Woman King,” and in between the desire to not yield to white outside forces and the urge to topple oppressive and racist systems, the guide is sisterly love, Black love. Thrilling and enrapturing, emotionally beautiful and spiritually buoyant, “The Woman King” isn’t just an uplifting battle cry. It’s the movie Prince-Bythewood has been building toward throughout her entire career. And she doesn’t miss.  

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