People Eating Together entries discuss that age-old tradition of people coming together to tear each other apart — Cannibalism! So settle in, maybe grab some coffee or a snack(!), and let’s explore this last social taboo together – because you can’t practice cannibalism alone.
Sometime in about the year 2007, while bored at my job at a children’s textbook publisher, I fell down a Wikihole about cannibalism. In between reading about Sawney Beane and Jeffrey Dahmer, I ran across the Franklin Expedition, which is to Canadian history what the Donner Party is to American. The article was fascinating enough, so imagine my excitement bordering on hysteria when I reread the article in 2017 to find that AMC was making a TV show about it. I loved the show, and immediately listened to the novel on which it’s based. There are significant differences which I’ll go into in the spoilers section of the review, but for now let’s focus on reviewing the show.
(Note: The Terror is planned as a historical horror anthology. Season 1 deals with the lost Franklin expedition (with supernatural elements) and is based on Dan Simmons book of the same name, but season 2 will be about life in a Japanese interment camp in the US during the Korean war, and stars George Takei at the head of a predominantly Japanese-American cast. After the high bar set with season 1, I’m eagerly looking forward to season 2.)
Recently Jen and Achariya have been fortunate enough to review films prior to wide release. We’re very excited about today’s entry, a screener that Jen received from Sony Pictures Classics. As always, the basic, spoiler-free review will appear above the cut, and more in-depth analysis below. And as always, Jen was not paid or compensated for this review in any way.
Based on a memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a powerful, layered romance that is honestly quite difficult to sum up at a glance. Fading American film star Gloria Graham, weakened by illness, is looked after in her last few months by her former lover, a man thirty years younger, and his working-class Liverpool family in 1981. Through a series of flashbacks the audience discovers what brought the unlikely pair together and what ultimately tore them apart. I haven’t read the book so I’ve no idea how much it differs, if at all, from the film.
Annette Benning plays Graham in a knock-out performance. She has already been nominated for several critics’ awards and it wouldn’t surprise me to see her nominated for an Oscar, although the fact she’s not nominated for a Golden Globe seemed a crime. With masterful subtlety, Benning reveals Graham in layers as the story unfolds; she presents a breathy voiced and starry eyed ingenue to her public and the outside world, which is of course why Peter Turner, played by Jamie Bell, falls in love with her; when stressed she becomes shrill and manic at times, such as when Turner mentions her age or crosses any of the invisible lines she’s drawn for him; and lastly, reserved and fragile when she finally accepts that her prognosis is terminal and weighing heavily on her loved ones.
Although the May-December relationship premise of an older female film star and a young male lover is familiar, it would be disingenuous to compare this film to say, Sunset Boulevard.Obviously the relationship here was based on true events, and the story elements are so novel that they feel fresh. Before I realized it was a biography, I found myself wondering precisely that, since truth is stranger than fiction and the characters and settings felt so weirdly solid. Kenneth Cranham plays Peter’s father, delightful in sweater vests and owlish glasses. Julie Walters (best known as the Weasley matriarch from the Harry Potter movies) puts in an amazing performance as Peter’s mother Bella, who helps him look after Gloria when the latter becomes bedridden. Vanessa Redgrave shines in a small but riveting role as Gloria’s mother.
As as aside before we get to the spoilers – I’m hoping the great Hollywood purge of sexist shitbags occurring right now will make room for more filmmakers and films like this one. In an early scene where Graham is warming up for her performance by blowing air through her lips, the camera lingers in close-up on her mouth every wrinkle and line is on display. It was a bold creative choice, the sort that wouldn’t have a place in a film-making atmosphere dominated by toxic masculinity. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was directed by Paul McGuigan (who among other TV hits directed 2 episodes of Luke Cage!) and was produced by the legendary Barbara Broccoli.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had a limited US release last year and seems to mostly be playing the film festivals. I hope it does well and receives a wide release.
Penny Dreadful is intended for a mature audience and it feels like it; I’m not talking about violence or (giggles) BOOBIES, I’m talking about a show that doesn’t insult its viewers or abuse their trust. You won’t find a show that makes you fall in love with a character only to throw them away for no reason, although characters do die. Penny Dreadful may not take itself too seriously, but it takes its viewers seriously and for that I appreciate it all the more.
[This is a spoiler-free entry for Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, Seasons 1 and 2]
My best friend recommended I check out Penny Dreadful about a year ago. On a whim, I bought the dvds, thinking that if I didn’t like it I could give it to someone who did – and I was a gigantic fool for thinking that.
The very first episode drew me in – a rare thing these days since it usually takes me until the 3rd episode to really get interested in a show. With most series that’s how long it takes the crew and cast to get their feet under them and really start moving things alone. A show like PD, which only has 10 episodes in a season (and is expensive to make, I mean the COSTUMES! The SETS!), doesn’t have the luxury of a few “throwaway” episodes and has to be gripping from start to finish. It caught me just a few minutes in and hasn’t let go yet!
The show has so much going for it, it would take about 10k words to really get into why people should be watching it, but here are just a few moments and thoughts on why I am enjoying it so much. I shall keep them spoiler-free!
It’s a testament to the amazing actors that I literally CAN NOT pick a favorite character. I love them all!
As an English lit nerd, I love that some of the classics of Victorian horror/science fiction literature have been assembled on screen in such lush detail and surroundings. As history nerd, I love that certain problematic aspects of the Victorian age are addressed and explored, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the fore – slavery, imperialism, Native American genocide are all discussed and inform the world in which the characters live [NOTE: while the issues are touched on, they are not the focus of the show; this is a show about hot people doing interesting things in amazing costumes on amazing sets as they explore the darkness within the human soul vs. the darkness of actual supernatural evil].
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), is an invented character but she combines many of the common Victorian female tropes even as she challenges them. I like to think she’s based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, or Oscar Wilde’s mother. She’s intelligent, outspoken, and has a rapier wit. She hangs out with a bunch of dudes in a time when a man and a woman being alone in a room for more than five seconds could bring ruination on a woman’s good name. She also deals with some of the pain in the ass prejudices women had to put up with at the time – such as being dismissed as being ‘hysterical’ and dealing with mental problems. Green makes Vanessa the center of every scene with her animated face and occasional moments of pinpoint comic timing – and when she has one of her many dark moments, then you’d best plug in the nightlight and break out a blankie because it’s getting SCARY up in here.
Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, is another delightful explosion of tropes. An American, he is a walking lesson of the existential guilt most modern Americans feel about the ‘let’s settle this land and pretend the people already living here aren’t really people and MANIFEST DESTINY FTW GUYS’ problem. Ethan was in the military and assisted in the extermination of tribes (a difficult thing to accept about his character I admit), and now works as a sharpshooter for a Wild West show when he isn’t diddling starstruck chicks whom he forgets the moment he leaves town. He’s busily drinking himself to oblivion when Vanessa approaches him in the first episode. Hartnett is the kind of actor who can make folding laundry watchable – which is funny because when he first came on the scene back in the early 2000s I thought of him as another pretty boy who’d be in a bunch of romances and then fade away. The more fool me – it’s clear that he was studying at the McConaghey School of Enlightenment and I am terrible and judgmental.
Sir Malcolm Murray is another delightful deconstruction; played to the hilt by the glorious Timothy Dalton, Murray divides his time between exploring Africa, being a shitty father, and being a shitty husband. He’s the engine that drives the story of the first season, and he’s powered by enough self-importance and unshakeable firmness of character that he could make a lord-shaped hole in a brick wall. Of course his demons come home to haunt him, but watching Dalton chew scenery is one of my favorite pastimes and he plays the character beautifully. Much of the first season revolves around his attempts to find his daughter Mina (and if you know anything about Victorian literature, yes, it’s THAT Mina).
We also have Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway with staring, glassy-eyed perfection. It’s hard to bring something new to such an old, familiar character, but Treadaway makes every movement and thought riveting. His Frankenstein is a species of unusual optimist, at once deeply cynical about religion while incredibly naive about human relationships, to the point of denial–fitting for a man who only believes what he can physically quantify.
GOSH. I am running out of raving room! And I haven’t even covered Billie Piper (MAGIC as Brona the Irish prostitute), Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Rory Kinnear as… well, I don’t want to spoil it. His entrance is QUITE…ripping? *upper crust English laughter*
There’s a moment in the very first episode that caught me, and I’ll share it here because it’s such an elegant hook and I don’t think it really counts as a spoiler.
Vanessa and Sir Malcolm employ Ethan as a hired gun to guard them down in a vampire’s den. A fight breaks out, and a vampire barrels across the room toward one of the men, intent on gutting them. With no gun or weapon, Vanessa steps in and gets in his face with absolute self-assuredness. Armed with nothing more than glower power and disapproving Victorian schoolmarmishness, she has the stopping power of a Desert Eagle and the vampire is frozen in place. She’s no damsel in distress, and I love her for it. Sure, she’s in danger at times, but so are the other characters and I love what a weird family of beloved misfits they become.
Penny Dreadful is intended for a mature audience and it feels like it; I’m not talking about violence or *giggles* BOOBIES, I’m talking about a show that doesn’t insult its viewers or abuse their trust. You won’t find a show that makes you fall in love with a character only to throw them away for no reason–, although characters do die. Penny Dreadful may not take itself too seriously, but it takes its viewers seriously and for that I appreciate it all the more.
Penny Dreadful is available on DVD and on Showtime. The 2nd season just ended but the show’s been renewed for a third. Check it out if you like your horror served hot and with some dashedly witty dialogue!
Have *you* seen Penny Dreadful? What did you think?