The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest
Time was, when the films that were made in expectation of their being possible awards contenders started to appear round about New Year. That hasn't been the case for a while now (though there is still usually a glut of serious and improving films starting in January), but it still feels a bit odd to come across a film quite as staunchly... what's the word? ...worthy as Kasi Lemmons' Harriet.
I know, I know, it's one of those odd things, isn't it? Call a film worthy and instantly you start thinking about making your excuses and finding something else to watch. It implies a sort of self-conscious seriousness, the cinematic equivalent of the kind of book you were forced to read at school, all the while having its importance and quality drummed into your head. Call something worthy and you're basically implying it's not going to be any fun.
It may be the case that I have just shot my bolt as far as this particular movie is concerned, for Harriet contains all the irreverent, high-spirited fun and subversiveness you would expect from a studio costume drama depicting the life of a revered black female folk hero of the Civil War period. I must confess that until the trailers for this film started rolling, I was vaguely aware of the name of Harriet Tubman (she's the sort of person Lisa used to name-check back when I still watched The Simpsons) but I could not have told you anything specific about her life. So I suppose the film is educational as well. Worthy and educational – that's not the kind of quote that ends up on a movie poster, more like the sort of thing that drives film producers to hire hitmen. Hey ho.
Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, who doesn't actually acquire that name until well into the movie. It opens in Maryland in 1849, where she – under her original name of Araminta Ross – is a slave owned by the Brodess family. It soon becomes apparent that she and her family should have been manumitted some years earlier, but her owner refuses to recognise the will stipulating this, and it seems she is unlikely to ever be granted her freedom. With the threat of being sold to a buyer somewhere in the Deep South looming – something no-one ever returns from – she decides to make a run for it, and with the assistance of a few sympathetic allies makes her way to the border with Pennsylvania, over a hundred miles away. The people she encounters there are, perhaps understandably, sceptical when they hear the tale of an illiterate woman making this journey without any supplies and very little guidance.
Nevertheless, she takes a new name to mark her freedom and initially settles down there, but finds she is unable to entirely put aside thoughts of friends and family who are still enslaved in Maryland. And so she embarks on a series of hazardous journeys back into the slave states, made all the more hazardous by the fact that her former owner's son (Joe Alwyn) has refused to relinquish his legal hold on her and is still looking to reclaim his property...
The last high-profile film to deal with this sort of material and milieu was Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave five or six years ago. I was quite lukewarm about that one, not least because its relentless, unallayed bleakness and horror eventually became desensitising and alienating rather than genuinely affecting. You need a bit of light and shade, or you just end up grinding an axe – even if that does happen to be a worthwhile axe that deserves to be ground. One of the achievements of Harriet, in the first act at least, is that it doesn't go pedal-to-the-metal on the grimness, while still managing to make plain the realities of life in slavery. As a result the film does produce a genuine sense of anger and outrage, at least as great as in the McQueen film (your mileage may differ, of course). The film's other strong point is its depiction of life in the slave states, which is slightly more nuanced and complex than you might expect from a studio movie: for instance, Tubman was born into slavery, but her first husband was a free man; while later in the film, one of the main antagonists is a black slave-catcher played by Omar Dorsey.
So far, so good, but the problem is that once Tubman completes her initial journey to freedom and re-invents herself as a staunch and fearless abolitionist, the film kind of loses the plot a bit. I mean this in a literal sense: the story becomes disjointed and rather repetitive as Tubman rattles up and down the Underground Railroad, eventually bringing dozens of others to freedom as well. You kind of start looking at your watch, waiting for the Civil War to start, but it really makes up only a small part of the film.
In the end it's not so much a story as much as a selection of scenes from the life of someone effectively regarded as a secular saint of American history – and indeed, Tubman is explicitly likened to Joan of Arc at one point (albeit by one of her enemies). As a result, the tone of the thing is about as dry and reverential as you might expect – Harriet Tubman emerges as an icon rather than anything approaching an actual human being, and the rest of the characters are equally sketchily drawn. I expect this won't trouble some viewers, for whom the mere existence of the film will be an unqualified positive, and things could possibly have been much worse (there was a possibly-apocryphal story floating around last week alleging that at one point in the early 90s a studio executive wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Tubman). The Progressive Agenda Committee should find little to gripe about here, and neither should viewers of a strongly religious disposition, either: the film takes the stories that Tubman was prone to receiving prophetic visions from God at face value (the closest it gets to scepticism on this topic is the suggestion these are the result of abuse by her master leaving her with possible brain damage).
Erivo's performance is good, though, even if it eventually just boils down to her making inspirational speeches while the music swells around her, and for those of us not especially well-versed in American history the film has some points of interest. However, the life of a great and important person doesn't automatically result in a great and important film – regardless of the subject matter, you don't get a pass when it comes to things like structure and script. This starts well but by the final act it has turned into a clumsy historical melodrama. Not unwatchable, by any means, and not without some successful moments and sequences, but it's often rather hard work.
Also This Week...
...Knives Out, a bravura Agatha Christie pastiche from Rian Johnson. When a wealthy crime writer dies in suspicious circumstances, renowned private detective Daniel Craig is retained to investigate. He uncovers a snake pit of a family, all of whom seem to have motives for wanting the old man dead, with nice young nurse Ana de Armas caught up in the middle of it all. Was the patriarch actually the victim of foul play? And if so, who (as they say) done it?
Another assured and very clever movie from Johnson, who made the equally clever Looper a few years ago (also a stellar conflict movie which critics adored but the hardcore fans were rather less keen on). The film is very modern in its outlook, perhaps self-consciously so, but also gets the feel and structure of this kind of story just right. Johnson orchestrates a devious, complex plot with impressive skill and also manages to maintain a sly, playful tone without tipping the movie over into self-parody. A terrific piece of entertainment.
I don't often comment on the passing of the great and the good any more, no matter how distinguished they are, and it feels especially odd to do so with regard to someone whose life and work lay almost entirely outside of the remit of this column. However, of all the inspirations that led to my eventually starting to do this back in 2001, one of the main ones was Clive James' TV criticism from the 1970s and early 80s. James died after a long period of illness earlier this week. Much has been written about the scope of James' talents and the brilliance of his work (of which being a TV critic was only a small part). His writing is fiercely egalitarian and generous of spirit, reflecting a belief that all popular culture is worth paying attention to. He took serious programmes seriously, disposable TV rather less so, and more often than not was breathtakingly funny when writing about both. This is the same philosophy and attitude I have tried to adhere to here (even if most of the jokes are probably not as good). His criticism is still available and immensely readable; this column is really just a pale shadow of the master's work. RIP.