HARRIET – movie review

HARRIET
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriter: Gregory Ellen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters
Screened at: Bryant Park, NYC, 9/11/19
Opens: November 1, 2019

Harriet Movie Poster (2019)

You’ve got to hand it to Canada. They have nationwide government health coverage just like the countries of Western Europe. They welcomed Americans who did not want to serve in the immoral war with Vietnam. They welcome immigrants even now! Even Ivanka has been seen checking out their Prime Minister. And they provided a safe haven for enslaved people in the U.S. who were able to travel, say, the 600 miles from Maryland to the Canadian border, some by boat from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario where many settled and found jobs. O Canada: can you take us in today when we need you so badly?

Hundreds of thousands of people in the early 19th century would have flocked to you, O Canada, to escape their status as property, where some of the opposition refused even to consider each to be 3/5 of a person. Otherwise a slave was considered property, and Harriet Tubman wanted none of that for herself, her family, her friends, and provided the energy and spark for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. After seeing “Harriet,” you will not wonder why President Obama proposed her image on the $20 bill. You can probably forget that for now, since Trump is a big admirer of Old Hickory, even visiting his grave. But he would “love” to see Tubman’s face on another denomination, like the $2 bill. Yes, he really said that, which is to his credit. After all, he could have suggested the $3 bill. Which gets us back to Araminta Ross, called “Minty” by the slave owners in Dorchester County, Maryland. She had been thrashed by some of the farm owners under the direction of the handsome but villainous Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who took over the family estate after the death of his mean father, and may have been responsible for particular thrashings that injured Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) in the head, causing pain and dizziness and a series of seizures that caused her to dream, to hallucinate, and as an already devout Christian to hear messages from God. Cultural appropriation of Joan of Arc?

When she is not acting, Director Kasi Lemmons has a long c.v. of TV serials, her film direction including “Eve’s Bayou,” which relates just what happens when a woman witnesses her father’s having an affair. The “Harriet” screenplay, which she co-wrote with Gregory Ellen Howard (“Remember the Titans” about a newly assigned African-American coach), plays out events in chronological order, with some hallucinations and dreams serving as an intermittent backdrop to a colorful biopic.

Determined to breathe free, she runs away from the farm that owns her chased by three bloodhounds, depending on her two legs to carry her but getting the help of a sympathetic white man in his covered wagon. She reaches Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania where she connects with an anti-slavery society under the direction of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and is eventually given room and board in a hotel owned by Marie (Janelle Monáe), a sophisticated African-American who not only accepts Harriet but also takes in several members of her family whom she picked when Harriet—get this—returned from freedom, going back to the slave state of Maryland several times to pick up others.

“Harriet” is peppered with monologues form the title character, who invokes God’s communications with her, with dialogues among farmers who want Gideon’s family to pay them since Gideon’s slave has been taking them away to freedom, with tete-a-tetes especially between Harriet and Marie. But also there is considerable melodrama each time the dogs are sent to sniff out her path and one climactic face-off between good and evil: between Harriet and Gideon. Limiting herself to 125 minutes, Lemmons does not continue with Tubman’s working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse and later—as if she needs to do another miracle to attain an informal sainthood—with guiding a raid at Combahee Ferry which liberated 700 enslaved people. And she became the first woman to lead an armed expedition of men in the Civil War. She found time later in life to lobby for women suffrage.

Harriet Tubman must be grinning widely in her grave at Auburn, New York where she died in 1913, as this is a handsome movie that shows her in such a positive light that she appears to have not a single human flaw. For her part, look for Cynthia Erivo’s nominations by a host of awards groups including the Academy and even New York Film Critics Online.

125 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

RED JOAN – movie review

RED JOAN
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with a Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Trevor Nunn
Screenwriter: Lindsay Shapero based on Jennie Rooney’s novel
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbrova
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 3/13/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Red Joan Movie Poster

Tom Lehrer sang this ironic song in 1965 which goes in part…

First we got the bomb and that was good,
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s O.K.,
‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way!

The idea that it’s fine with us in the West that Russia got the bomb becomes literally true in Trevor Nunn’s film “Red Joan.” The title character, Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), who is the fictional stand-in for the actual civil servant Melita Norwood, confesses after her arrest in 2000 that she was always a good British citizen though she handed nuclear secrets to Stalin. How so? Disgusted that the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she believed that the best way to avoid future nuclear holocausts is to make sure that the two super powers would live together in relative peace. And they would live together in relative peace knowing that it would be self-destructive to drop atomic weapons on each other. And maybe she had a point since, mirabile dictu, throughout the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union dared to attack each other head-on.

Most of “Red Joan” finds the great Judi Dench in the background, brought back to the limelight now and then but spending most of the story illustrating the way that her youthful self (Sophie Cookson) is recruited by the KGB to transmit nuclear secrets from the labs of Great Britain into the hands of the Soviets. The story involves considerable romantic interludes, first between Joan and Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), a communist firebrand who in a rousing speech notes that as a Jew, he made the mistake of leaving the Soviet Union and going to Germany. Aware of Hitler’s atrocities, he is orating full speed in favor of the Russians. During his affair with Joan Stanley, the latter awed of her new boyfriend’s ability to agitate a crowd, we in the movie audience wonder to what extent he is really in love with Joan and to what extent he is simply using her to transmit documents from her job in a physics lab to Britain’s ally, the Soviet Union.

Still a virgin in 1938, Joan is befriended by Sonia (Tereza Srbova), like Leo a KGB agent, who encourages Joan to pursue her romance with Sonia’s cousin Leo. In that lab, she is an assistant to professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) and becomes his lover though he is married to a woman who refuses to give him a divorce. The movie’s opening in the year 2000 finds Joan arrested by MI5, Britain’s CIA equivalent, defended by her lawyer son Nick (Ben Miles). Though a lawyer’s job is to defend clients, Joan’s own son is furious: “How could you do this?” he insists, while reluctantly taking on her case.

“Red Joan” as a spy story is more in line with the brainy types of heroes and villains you’d find in John Le Carre’s novels, books like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “A Legacy of Spies,” and “The Guardian,” weaving past and present. An example involves Peter Guillam, a disciple of George Smiley, now living out his retirement on the south coast of Brittany, then called to account by the British Secret Service about his role in the Cold War. There is nothing James Bond-ish in this film, much as we might secretly wish for explosions more damaging than those between Joan and her attorney son Nick. There is no need even to wonder about Judi Dench’s performance. She is perhaps among greatest actress of her generation, and surprisingly, young Sophie Cookson rises to the occasion with a stunning, understated role as the idealistic 20-year-old who may not have thought of giving secrets to Stalin to provide a balance of power, but because she had become a dedicated communist under Leo’s vivid encouragement.

The king’s English is spoken throughout, so no subtitles are needed for us Americans. Charlotte Walker’s costumes are spot on as is Cristina Crisali’s set design, both eliciting the vibes of the two time periods. Zac Nicholson films all in Cambridgeshire, England. This is a well-cast story, unshowy, that will lead to consider Joan’s quote “I was fighting for the living, I loved my country!” and making up your mind about whether she believed this in spite of being a spy for the Soviet Union for some fifty years. Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same name is available at Amazon for $14.38.

101 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B