Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

The Ea­gle Hun­tress (G) Lim­ited re­lease Beauty and the Beast (PG) Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

Two films about girl power this week, and what’s sur­pris­ing about this mixand-match is that the more evoca­tive, ex­cit­ing and mov­ing one is not the glam­orous Disney retelling of a fairy­tale but a Kazakh-lan­guage doc­u­men­tary set on Mon­go­lia’s mi­nus 50C frozen steppes.

Disney’s $US160 mil­lion live-ac­tion re­make of Beauty and the Beast has its thrills and charms but The Ea­gle Hun­tress is some­thing else al­to­gether, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, some of which have been crit­i­cised. I’ll come to the crit­i­cisms later. You can read about them be­fore see­ing the film, or af­ter­wards, and make up your own mind. But don’t de­cide not to go. You would be miss­ing some­thing that soars in more ways that one. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy, some of it us­ing cam­eras on drones, is awe-in­spir­ing, es­pe­cially when it fol­lows an ea­gle in flight.

The main char­ac­ter is Aishol­pan, a “child of the no­mads” who has just turned 13. She has a younger brother and a younger sister. The fam­ily lives in a pleas­ant, skin-cov­ered yurt in Mon­go­lia, near the Al­tai Moun­tains. That’s in sum­mer, of course, when you need only one coat. In win­ter the yurt is dis­as­sem­bled and the fam­ily moves into a “reg­u­lar house”, as the fa­ther, Nur­gaiv, de­scribes the mod­est shack.

Aishol­pan comes across as calm, thought­ful, lov­ing and re­spect­ful — there’s a beau­ti­ful still­ness to her, and no iPhone in sight — but also as a girl who likes chat­ting with her school­friends. She at­tends a board­ing school five days a week. When at home, she helps with the live­stock.

She does well at school and hopes to be­come a doc­tor. But her teen dream is to fol­low in the foot­steps of her fa­ther and be­come an ea­gle hunter. Her liv­ing pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was one, too: in­deed it goes back 12 gen­er­a­tions in her fam­ily. All of them, how­ever, were men.

“It is not a choice,’’ Nur­gaiv says. “It is a call­ing that has to be in our blood.’’ He backs his daugh­ter with love, ten­der­ness and con­fi­dence in her abil­i­ties, de­spite some lo­cal un­hap­pi­ness about her plans. That is one of the won­ders of the film: it is a fa­ther-daugh­ter story that touches the heart. Her mother backs her, too. “It’s a woman’s right to choose,’’ she says.

It’s im­por­tant to read the phrase ea­gle hunter the right way. They don’t hunt ea­gles. They train golden ea­gles — mas­sive birds with a wing­span of up to 2m — to hunt for them, mainly foxes for their fur and meat.

First, though, they have to catch an ea­gle, and this is where there’s a nice story be­hind the film. Young New York-based Bri­tish di­rec­tor Otto Bell ar­rived in Mon­go­lia with a cam­era­man friend and tracked down Aishol­pan and her fa­ther just as they were pre­par­ing to abduct an ea­glet from its nest. They agreed to be filmed, and the re­sult is spec­tac­u­lar.

Bell was in­spired to make the film by a pho­to­graph of Aishol­pan he spot­ted on a BBC web­site. He started the project with his own money. He soon ran out and was able to fin­ish the film due only, once again, to good luck.

He emailed Amer­i­can film­maker Mor­gan Spur­lock, of Su­per Size Me fame, at­tach­ing a 10minute clip of what he had filmed. “And thank god, he opened it,’’ Bell said in one in­ter­view, “and wrote back that af­ter­noon and said, ‘I’ve never seen any­thing like this, come to my of­fice, ex­plain to me how I can help you fin­ish this.’ ”

Spur­lock is a pro­ducer, as is English ac­tress Daisy Ridley (Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens), who also was also won over by the footage. She also does the English nar­ra­tion that in­tro­duces and then in­ter­links the story.

Simon Ni­blett’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy brings to­gether the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween the peo­ple and their beloved ea­gles (by cus­tom the birds are re­turned to the wild af­ter seven years). Shots of fa­ther and daugh­ter on horse­back, rid­ing through deep snow, each with an im­pe­ri­ous ea­gle on their right arm, are gor­geous. They re­mind us that there are other worlds within our own. The shots of ea­gles sweep­ing through the sky re­mind us there are worlds be­yond ours.

Once she has her ea­gle trained, Aishol­pan de­cides to en­ter the cel­e­brated Golden Ea­gle Fes­ti­val in the provin­cial cap­i­tal of Ol­gii. She is laughed at and stared at by the men there, but not in a nasty way. They just think it’s silly. Her real chal­lenge comes next: to go out into the snow and hunt a fox. This can take weeks.

Bell has been ac­cused of fudg­ing the story. Women in Mon­go­lia have hunted with ea­gles for a long time, ex­perts say. This seems to be true. I also think Bell over-eggs the idea that the lo­cal men were dis­grun­tled by this fem­i­nist up­ris­ing. The edited shots of men in their yurts say­ing “No!” feel con­structed. In­deed, Mon­go­lia is known for its gen­der equal­ity.

So per­haps the di­rec­tor has fudged it a bit, but his in­ten­tion was to make a beau­ti­ful film about one girl from a place and a cul­ture we know lit­tle about. That he has done. Aishol­pan is real. Her per­sonal story is true and I think any­one who sees it will leave the cin­ema feel­ing bet­ter about the world. Beauty and the Beast is an acted re­make of Disney’s 1991 an­i­mated clas­sic. Just do­ing this is a bold move, as the pre­de­ces­sor made his­tory: it was the first an­i­mated film to be nom­i­nated for a best pic­ture Os­car (the stat­uette went to an­other film about a brave woman and a beast, The Ea­gle Hun­tress, Jonathan Demme’s Si­lence of the Lambs). But Howard Ash­man and Alan Menken did win Os­cars for orig­i­nal score and orig­i­nal song.

Disney put a lot of money be­hind the new one, and hired a tal­ented di­rec­tor in Bill Con­don, who wrote and di­rected Dream­girls (2006) and was Os­car-nom­i­nated for the script of Chicago (2002). My favourite Con­don film is Gods and Mon­sters (1998), about the 1930s hor­ror film master James Whale, which he wrote and di­rected, with Ian McK­ellen in the lead role.

I wish Con­don had writ­ten this one too. The script is by Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Stephen Ch­bosky and screen­writer Evan Spil­iotopou­los. The di­a­logue is good at times, quite witty and even a bit sala­cious for a Disney film (more on that soon), but there are flat spots.

The best char­ac­ters are, like the orig­i­nal, not ac­tors on screen. They are the staff at the prince’s cas­tle who are trans­formed into house­hold ob­jects: the dash­ing but­ler who be­comes a cool can­de­labra (Ewan Mc­Gre­gor), the unc­tu­ous ste­ward turned into an over­wound clock (McK­ellen), the com­poser who is now a harp­si­chord (Stan­ley Tucci) and the maid mu­tated into a pink feath­er­duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). And then there’s the hard­est role of all, be­cause she’s fol­low­ing An­gela Lans­bury: Emma Thompson as the cook who be­comes a teapot.

The civilised argy-bargy be­tween them is fun. When the beauty, Belle (English ac­tress Emma Wat­son), re­alises they have iden­ti­ties, she asks who the hair­brush used to be. “That’s just a hair­brush,’’ the can­de­labra Lu­miere says with a laugh.

Belle is in the prince’s cas­tle be­cause her fa­ther Mau­rice (a fine Kevin Kline) is im­pris­oned there. The prince, who we meet at the start as an ar­ro­gant young man, has been turned into a “hideous beast” by an en­chantress he mocked. The same spell also led to the staff changes. In one room there is a red rose un­der glass. If the Beast (English ac­tor Dan Stevens) does not win some­one’s love be­fore the fi­nal petal falls, he will be a mon­ster for­ever.

Stevens, known from Down­town Abbey, is com­mand­ing as the hairy, horned, cranky recluse who likes to read Shake­speare. It’s the Shake­speare and other books in the cas­tle li­brary that ap­peal to Belle, whom one vil­lager de­scribes neg­a­tively as “beau­ti­ful but so well­read”. Here we have the girl-power el­e­ment: can she over­come all the en­trenched gen­der prej­u­dices, and some of her own, to live freely?

She is pur­sued by hand­some lothario Gas­ton (Welsh ac­tor Luke Evans), who has an ad­mir­ing side­kick, LeFou (Josh Gad). Too ad­mir­ing for some. He clearly fan­cies Gas­ton, mak­ing him Disney's first gay char­ac­ter, which has seen the film banned in places such as Malaysia and Alabama. The back-and-forth be­tween the two men, with a few dou­ble en­ten­dres, is a high­light. Both Gas­ton and LeFou are in­tro­duced char­ac­ters, by the way, ab­sent from the 18th-cen­tury French ver­sions of the story.

There are some up­lift­ing mo­ments be­tween Belle and the Beast, such as a snow­ball fight and a mu­tual flout­ing of soup-eat­ing eti­quette. The songs are splen­did and the cam­er­a­work is at­trac­tive but over­all there’s a lack of the ten­sion that im­pels au­di­ences to won­der what will hap­pen next. That’s partly be­cause we know. And per­son­ally I don’t think the Beast is any­where near beastly enough.


Aishol­pan in

above, and Dan Stevens with Emma Wat­son in Beauty and the Beast

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