Damsels in Distress
American director Whit Stillman has had a curious career since his dazzling 1990 debut Metropolitan, which focused on a group of privileged young fogeys in Manhattan, hovering on the borders of the debutante scene. Stillman made two more films in the 1990s, but it’s been 13 years since his last film.
Now Damsels in Distress (view the trailer, right) confirms him as a quirky, mischievous talent whose films can be delightful and exasperating in equal measure. Set in the grounds of leafy, stately east coast American college, this is a campus comedy, though not like one you’ve seen before.
It centres on a group of earnest, well-turned out girls led by Violet (Greta Gerwig) who want to save their school from the ‘male barbarism’ that prevails. Saving the doltish frat boys from their own slovenliness and worst instincts is something they regard as ‘social work’.
Violet and her fragrant friends run a suicide prevention centre on campus, where they dispense doughnuts to depressed students. Except the fastidious Violet dislikes the word ‘depressed’ – she prefers to say ‘in a tailspin.’ Her ambition is to start an international dance craze. She likes dance crazes, believing in their anti-depressant qualities. There are romances, deceptions, disappointments and moments of pure farce.
This is a curious, timeless world, where everyone speaks in complete grammatical sentences (without profanity). There are no mobile phones or other signifiers of modernity. Towards the end the film breaks into a musical routine of Things Are Looking Up, a 1930s song by the brothers Gershwin.
The humour is sly in the extreme; Stillman has a wit, but it’s strictly of the straight-faced variety and not to everyone’s taste. I laughed a few times and smiled to myself often. But I’d understand anyone who felt baffled by the whole, brightly coloured charade.
The Iron Lady
Such is the long shadow that Margaret Thatcher’s personality still casts over Britain, opinions about this film on its release tended to divide along the lines of how viewers felt about Thatcher herself.
Viewed dispassionately a few months later, it’s no great shakes strictly as a film, but it has a truly great central performance by Meryl Streep as the Baroness. Few complaints were heard when she won as Oscar for her astonishingly detailed portrayal. It goes beyond mere impersonation: she seems to dig deep into Thatcher’s very soul.
It’s a biography recounted mainly in flashback, from a present day that shows Margaret Thatcher in the grip of dementia. It’s a bold, provocative starting point, and it would serve as a dramatic entrée to an account of an extraordinary life, if only script writer Abi Morgan had left it there. But she repeatedly returns us to the present day, showing the ex-Prime Minister in her dotage. What gets sacrificed through this device is a coherent account of Thatcher in her prime.
Oh, all the big events are covered – the Falklands, the miners’ strike, her bullying of the Cabinet ‘wets’, her eventual downfall. But they’re rushed through, without much sense of context or detail.
The strangest device here is Jim Broadbent, playing Maggie’s husband Denis rather clownishly. Though he has died years before, he keeps appearing to her in her demented state. Forget issues of taste: it’s meaningless dramatically.
It’s not a film I can recommend highly, though there’s one very good reason to see it. And its name is Meryl Streep.
Read David Gritten every month in the the Out There section of Saga Magazine - full of unmissable events, book reviews, art, music, special offers and a whole lot more. Find out why we're the UK's best-selling magazine: Subscribe here now.