Nuns face extreme penance in Novitiate; Killing of a sacred deer is oddly bloodless; technique turns to tedium in Wonderstruck; Una challenges with timely subject matter.
NOVITIATE Starring Margaret Qualley. Rated PG
2Religious impulses are hard to
capture in movies, so kudos to Novitiate for attempting to impart some of the interior motives driving the spiritually minded to be, well, not so driven by society.
Despite having been raised with no particular religion in the 1950s, one rural youngster is drawn ever closer to the church. Young Cathleen is played initially by Sasha Mason and then by Margaret Qualley—andie Mcdowell’s model-turned-actor daughter, who has expressive eyes but not a lot to say. Her scholarship to the local Catholic school leads her to a nearby convent, where she eventually signs on to be a novice, or nun-in-training.
Cathleen gets some guidance from a benevolent nun ( Glee’s Dianna Agron). But she starts butting up against the order’s tough Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who has a serious sadistic streak; she encourages the newcomers to confess salacious sins, and keeps a braided whip handy, for “extreme penance”.
This is all reasonably engaging. First-time feature director Margaret Betts has a strong feel for her protagonist’s moral dilemmas. But the largely pedestrian dialogue is packed with TV modernisms, like “What’s with these habits?” And there’s little sense of the Cold War environment these novice are escaping.
When the subject of Vatican II finally comes up, the Reverend Mother tries to suppress it, but we don’t necessarily get what the big deal is.
It’s a meaty role for Leo, who imbues the number one nun with a modicum of sympathy, but it’s not clear why we’re supposed to care. In the end, you simply have to wonder if Cathleen’s ultimate decision to stay or go isn’t really religious, but simply a question of management styles.
> KEN EISNER WONDERSTRUCK Starring Julianne Moore. Rated G
2Superstylish director Todd
Haynes is better known recently for highfalutin, if camp-tinged, fare like Carol. But his first feature, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, was told entirely with Barbie dolls, and there’s a strong element of play to his work. So it didn’t seem too unlikely for him to take on a youthaimed story like Wonderstruck.
More worrisome was the fact that screenwriter Brian Selznick also penned the story that turned into Martin Scorsese’s insufferably sticky Hugo, and, in fact, many of that period piece’s gooiest features are repeated here, albeit with more variation of tone and mood—even if everyone keeps ending up at various museums, cinemas, and curio shops presented as repositories of all worthy human endeavour.
The new film operates on two time tracks, one set in the summer of 1977 and the other exactly 50 years earlier. The dominant part centres on Ben (Oakes Fegley), a rural Minnesota boy who has grown up fatherless and then loses his librarian mother (Michelle Williams, in flashbacks) just after his 12th birthday.
The other, set at the end of the silent-movie era, involves a sameaged Hoboken, New Jersey, girl who happens to be deaf. She’s played by Millicent Simmonds—who in real life is hearing-impaired—in a subplot told in black and white with no dialogue. The seemingly motherless girl is stuck on a famous actor ( Julianne Moore) glimpsed in magazines and on marquees. In fact, she finds her when she runs away to nearby New York City.
Ben, too, heads to then-grungy Manhattan in search of that absent daddy but not before suffering a freak accident that likewise leaves him deaf—one of numerous coincidences, most of which are unnecessary and require laborious voiceover explanations at the end.
The kids are all right, and it’s obvious that Haynes enjoys the juxtaposition of radically different film styles, with the 1920s material supported by Carter Burwell’s purposefully melodramatic music and the faded-kodachrome sections beefed up by David Bowie songs.
The final act includes a massive diorama and small, antique-style puppets as a bonus. But the constant cutting back and forth for two hours grows tiresome, and there’s nothing in the script to match the wonder of what’s on-screen.
At least when Ben Stiller’s around, museums come to life. Here, they just sit there and look important.
> KEN EISNER
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Starring Colin Farrell. Rated 14A
The Killing of a 2Partway into
Sacred Deer, someone mirthlessly watches a scene from Groundhog Day. No one can say Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos—writer-director of thorny art-house fare like Dogtooth— isn’t well versed in mythology or western tropes, since the scene is one in which Bill Murray asks Andie Mcdowell if she can be sure he isn’t god.
A god complex meets Sisyphean punishment as a skilled heart surgeon sees his life suddenly unravel. Returning from Lanthimos’s English-language debut, The Lobster, a bush-bearded Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy. In an unnamed city, he shares a superdeluxe suburban dwelling with his glamorous ophthalmologist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman). Teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) has musical talent and longhaired preteen son Bob (Sunny Suljic) is a bit of a scamp.
For reasons initially hard to grasp, the good doctor spends an inordinate amount of time with a strange 16-year-old named Martin (Barry Keoghan). Sometimes the kid appears to be an idiot savant, other times just an idiot. Again, difficult to know for sure, since everyone speaks in polite commonplaces shot through with occasional bouts of TMI, as when, on their first meeting, Kim tells Martin she just had her first period.
In Lanthimos’s world, everyone seems to be imitating normal human behaviour, from the bloodless speech patterns to the Murphys’ sex life. Long, Kubrick-ian tracking shots take us down spotless hospital corridors as first Bob and then Kim collapse from mysterious maladies that only Martin seems to comprehend.
There’s something here about divine retribution, and this takes the movie into violent genre territory. But viewers are unlikely to feel fear or empathy in a tale so drained of sense and sensibility. The sacrificial references to Iphigenia and Isaac elevate the tone but don’t really bring extra meaning to a tale that is cruel and vaguely satirical without really being about anything at all.
> KEN EISNER
Margaret Qualley plays Cathleen, a young woman in 1960s America who signs up for life in a convent for reasons not made entirely clear in Novitiate.