Day nine of the festival yielded one of the collectively stronger days of screenings. Day nine was also one of the heavier days of the festival, with Take Shelter, Tyrannosaur, and Wuthering Heights comprising the last three acts of the line-up. It was therefore a relief to start the day with a comedy, Hysteria. Hysteria is a very funny historical romp that details the invention of the vibrator by a Victorian era physician, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) and his resourceful friend (Rupert Everett).
Mortimer begins his medical profession as a keen physician. He is eager to dispense with antiquated methods, such as bleeding or leeches, and he treats his patients by putting into practice the latest methods advocated by the leading contemporary research. His methods get the best of him, though, because curmudgeonly old-timers run all London’s hospitals.
Desperate, Mortimer takes a job with Dr. Robert Dalrymple, a wealthy curer of women’s needs (Jonathan Pryce). Dr. Dalrymple believes that over half of London’s women suffer from sexual hysteria, a malady whose symptoms include restlessness, anxiety, and burning desires. Dr. Dalrymple prefers to treat his female patients without use of elixirs or tonics, and he take a more manual approach towards offering his clients relief. He is essentially a gigolo with a medical degree.
The fumblings and rumblings of the examination room provide a wickedly funny, if slightly awkward, comedy of manners. Hysteria is also a warm, feel good rom-com, as Mortimer becomes smitten with Dr. Dalrymple’s two daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Dr. Dalrymple pushes Mortimer towards the stiff and proper Emily, but Mortimer’s philanthropic nature suggests that he is a better match for Charlotte, the strong-willed and outspoken socialist. Charlotte’s spirited advocacy of women’s rights extends the flaws of hysteria as a diagnosis into a clever essay on equal rights and women’s suffrage. It seems that both Charlotte and Mortimer believe the time has come for women to take matters into their own hands.
Hysteria marks a droll feature debut by director Tanya Wexler. She crafts a well-detailed period piece and her brave handling of the sexual comedy loosens the grip of the corsets. Wexler also gets some fun, ballsy performances from the cast, especially Gyllenhaal, who executes a British accent far better than Anne Hathaway does. The script by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer occasionally lapses into cliché and the romantic trysts are predictable, but the dialogue is frequently witty and the treatment of this odd area in doctor-patient privilege is truly original. Hysteria will have audiences squealing with delight.
While Hysteria is one of the world premieres on my line-up, the next film, Take Shelter, is among the films that have already been building buzz throughout the festival circuit. Like We Need to Talk About Kevin or Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter lives up to the hype.
Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as Curtis, a young father who suffers from bouts of paranoia. His fears may be either real or symptoms of schizophrenia. (His mother is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, so the latter seems more likely.) Shannon, the current go-to guy for mysterious and/or tormented characters, inhabits Curtis with the kind of mesmerizing weirdness with which Steve Buscemi or Christopher Walken became stars. Shannon takes the film somewhere deep and dark as Curtis probes the roots of his paranoia: whether Curtis’s visions are daydreams, delusions, or signs of the apocalypse remain unclear, yet the terrified angst on Shannon’s face denotes an impending storm regardless.
Plagued by recurrent nightmares, which have palpable aftereffects on Curtis’s perceived reality, Curtis’s visions permeate his everyday actions, causing him to question and judge his friends and family. Like a relic of the Cold War, Curtis’s suspicion of the looming storm leads him to construct an elaborate shelter in his backyard in order to protect his family. Further shelter from Curtis’s intoxicating madness lies in Jessica Chastain’s performance as Samantha, Curtis’s pragmatic wife. While Samantha is possibly the least complexly written character Chastain has enacted this year – she’s hardly Celia Foote – the absence of baity material allows Chastain to make the character her own, and she invests considerable range and compassion to her character. Chastain is the eye to Shannon’s storm.
Most laudable of Take Shelter, though, is the brilliantly spellbinding and ambiguous final act. Writer/director Jeff Nichols takes Shelter into uncharted terrain and ends the film with a dark open horizon. A haunting film, Take Shelter is surely to be one of the critical darlings of 2011.
Not to be eclipsed by Take Shelter, Tyrannosaur, marks a notable feature debut by Paddy Considine. Being an actor, Considine creates a powerful film by relying on the strength of his performers. He has an impressive duo to boot, in actors Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman. Tyrannosaur first introduces Mullan’s character, Joseph, as he stomps out of the pub and is greeted by his yappy dog. Drunk on bitters and testosterone, Joseph receives his pup by delivering a fatal kick to the gut.
The image is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe Tyrannosaur. Considine delivers an unrelentingly gritty study in alcoholism and domestic violence among Britain’s working class. He constructs the film with an air of sober realism, and allows the bruises to speak for the legions of Britons whose lives were ruined by bloody booze. Central to this exceptional character study is Colman’s performance as Hanna, a woman whom Joe befriends who also serves as a punching bag for her volatile husband (Eddie Marsan). Colman is truly heartbreaking in the role, and her performance puts the plight of the victim at the emotional and quizzical core of Tyrannosaur.
Considine also gets points for ensuring that each blow registers sharply, even though most of the violence is off-screen. Tyrannosaur is an arduous film, but it is an honest and intuitive probing of a heavy subject. Considine, Mullan, and Colman also do it justly through their unflinching portrayal. Tyrannosaur was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation at last night’s screening: the standing-O one of the few I’ve seen at the festival this year and it’s well deserved.
While Tyrannosaur is difficult at a guttural level, the day’s final film, Wuthering Heights, is one of the more intellectually challenging films to screen at the festival this year. Andrea Arnold adapts Emily Brontë’s celebrated novel with voracious authenticity. Gone is the languid pacing of many classical adaptations, as are the sweeping score, the heaving bosoms, and the stylized smooching in the rain. This is Brontë stripped and raw.
If not for the title, one might not suspect that Wuthering Heights is based on a book. Arnold conjures up an exciting episodic structure for the narrative, and allows the drama to unfurl in fragmented and synecdochal close-ups as well as disorienting hand-held shots. The film has minimal dialogue, thus expensing with much of the prose that readers assume to be sacred. Wuthering Heights is a wholly cinematic rendering of the literary classic and a wondrous feat of visual composition. Cinematography Robbie Ryan writes the film masterfully through his lens, and offers a markedly original take on the period piece, for his camera rejects the expansive widescreen vistas and swooning pans that usually accentuate such films and instead opts for densely composed frames at the small ratio of 1.33:1. Arnold and Ryan pack as much detail into one frame into Wuthering Heights as a Victorian novelist would into one page. After the success of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights should readily whet the appetite of anyone hungry for another serving of literary cinema.
Will Saturday yield as strong a crop? Let’s hope, with screenings of Winnie, Nuit #1, The Deep Blue Sea, and Albert Nobbs.