The Two Reviews: Top End Wedding and Red Joan

Top End Wedding (2019, Universal Pictures)
Directed by Wayne Blair. Featuring Miranda Tapsell, Gwilym Lee, Kerry Fox, Huw Higginson & Ursula Yovich.

This Australian comedy is a delight. It has a mostly Indigenous cast and crew, including writers and director, and proudly displays a uniquely Indigenous good-humour as well as personal journeys into staying true to family, culture and having a self-identity.

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Lauren (Tapsell – The Sapphires) and Ned (Lee – Brian May in the recent Bohemian Rhapsody) are romantically-involved lawyers working in Adelaide. On the day Ned resigns from his boring job, he decides to propose to Lauren. Lauren’s high-flying boss Hampton (Fox) gives her ten days to get married and return to work. But Lauren insists they must be married with family present in her hometown of Darwin, in Australia’s Top End. So, off they set; arriving to discover that Lauren’s mother Daffy (Yovich) has left her heart-broken husband, Trevor (Huw Higginson). Unable to cope with her leaving, he regularly takes himself off to sit in the pantry cupboard, replaying a tape of the song ‘If You Leave Me Now’ by Chicago. It’s pretty funny. But before Lauren and Ned can marry, Lauren must find her mother. The film develops into a bit of a road-movie, with emotional disappointments and frustrations beset along the way; and I briefly thought it might lose its overall feel-good momentum, but it quickly regains itself. Meeting her friends and family (a cast of lovable odd-bods) along the way, she eventually finds her mother on the Tiwi Islands, her home country. Daffy, herself, is trying to reconnect to family and country. There, on the Tiwi Islands, the entire ensemble of family and friends catch up to celebrate a glorious wedding.

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Co-written by Tapsell, with Joshua Tyler, the script is sharp and witty, and punctuated by heart-affecting moments. Combined with good directing by Blair (The Sapphires), excellent editing by Chris Plummer, good sound, and well-lit, crystal-clear cinematography by Eric Murray Lui, this is a well-crafted film. And the sound-track (David McCormack and Antony Partos) is on key. The performances, however, lift the film another notch. The entire cast puts in superb performances, and it is hard not to be completely immersed in their quirky personas. Tapsell is wonderful as the (mostly) up-beat bride-to-be; Lee as the likeable and affable groom; Huw Higginson as Lauren’s traumatised father Trevor; and Ursula Yovich as her soul-searching mother Daffy are all outstanding.

There are plenty of laughs and pieces of Indigenous Australiana that are familiar and heart-warming. Not a perfect film, just a very good one. Lots of fun.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 4/5

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Red Joan (2019, Trademark Films)
Directed by Trevor Nunn. Featuring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya and Tereza Srbova.

Red Joan is a British spy drama, based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, and inspired by the real-life KGB informant, Melita Norwood. A young Joan Stanley (‘Red Joan’, played by Cookson) becomes friendly with a group of Communist students – notably Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her ‘cousin’ and Joan’s love interest Leo (Tom Hughes) – while studying physics at Cambridge.  Joan’s espionage is told in a series of flashbacks as an aged Joan (played by Dench) is questioned by the Special Branch.

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Red Joan is not a spy-thriller, but a drama about an intelligent and empathetic woman who is horrified about the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and thereafter tries to ‘level the field’ so that one Superpower will not attempt to use such a bomb again without great risk to themselves. As a senior researcher at a secret nuclear research laboratory, she leaks technological intelligence to the KGB from 1938 onwards. Her motivation is not communist politics (she does not agree it with anyway) nor a betrayal of Britain as a pro-Soviet devotee, but her desire is to avert mass suffering that would likely occur if only one side had the bomb.

Actually, I found the film refreshingly human. It has an emphasis on an ordinary woman from the London suburbs and later, on a hedge-pruning granny. It is not a series of slick action-men running around exotic places in the world in a contest between good and evil, and using an array of secret service gadgets. It has much more depth than that. Cinematography by Zac Nicholson, filmed in ‘period’ (i.e. ‘muted’) colours, adds to the feel of the times. The cast is good, but the absolute stand-out is Judi Dench as the aging granny spy. Even for the consummate Dench, this is a wonderfully nuanced characterisation. The rest of the cast are fine, though I found her Cambridge friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her somewhat pretentious persona to be a little jarring.

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By way of background, Norwood (whom Joan is based on) has been described by some historians as “the most important British female agent in KGB history and the longest serving of all Soviet spies in Britain.” Yet, she was never arrested due to lack of evidence (not her age, as stated at the end of the film). A secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, she leaked technological intelligence to the KGB over several decades. She made a public TV statement in her front garden after being ‘outed’ in the press in 1999. Jennie Rooney later wrote a novel loosely based on Norwood’s life. The film is itself based on this novel, generously adding fictional events, people and circumstances. I state this because, while some criticisms might be made of this film, there are an especially high number of negative reviews in the US where some reviewers slip into political rants about the horrors of communism and what a stupid person Joan (Norwood) must have been, rather than discuss the film itself. In recent years there has been concerted campaigns in the US in response to many Hollywood and British films, pointing out the dangers of ‘political correctness’, the growing influence of non-white people and women in leading roles as examples of a world gone mad (these are organised right-wing campaigns). Even the Guardian opens its dull review with a comment about the ‘Red Peril’. It’s disappointing that this film has been unfairly ravaged by politically motivated reviewers in the era of Trump, but that is sadly a serious trend these days for all genre of films.

There are criticisms to be made though. It is directed by Trevor Nunn, an old-hand at impressive theatre productions, but rarely has he ventured into film. And it shows. There is an emphasis on drama – that’s a good thing – but it lacks the intensity of romance or the menacing tension of interrogation. And both those ingredients are essential in a film like this. But Dench and Cookson do hold our attention. This film is not a riveting, action-laden spy film; it is an understated (a little too understated) personal drama. Not for everyone, but serious admirers of film drama might well appreciate it. I did.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5

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