Saturday, October 30, 2021

WAR WITCH (2012)


                    “War Witch” is a Canadian film about child soldiers in Africa.  It was written and directed by Kim Nguyen who was inspired by a story about child soldiers in Burma.  He met with actual child soldiers to write the screenplay.  He decided to set the movie in a fictional African civil war.  The movie was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The production had to hire security armed with AK-47s.   Many of the roles were given to amateur Congolese actors.  The main role of Komona was given to fifteen-year-old Rachel Mwanza, who was homeless and living on the streets when she auditioned.  She did not know how to read or write.  The movie was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards.

                    The movie opens with a raid on Komona’s village by rebel forces led by Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga).  She is conscripted and forced to execute her parents.  She is told that her gun is her mother and father now.  She joins other children as members of the rebel group.  They are trained as soldiers.  She is twelve at the time.  Komona gets a reputation as a witch and becomes Great Tiger’s personal sorceress.  When hallucinating, she can see government soldiers hiding in the jungle, so she is special.  She is befriended by a teenage warrior named Magician (Serge Kanyinda).  They fall in love and escape the rebels in an attempt to live a normal life, but that is not in the cards. 

                    “War Witch” treads similar ground to “Beasts of No Nation”.  Both have a teenage soldier as the protagonist who are under the sway of a charismatic rebel leader.  The differences include that “War Witch” has a female main character and “Beast” concentrates much more on the leader (played by Idris Elba).  They share the unrealistic depiction of just how bad life was for the typical child soldier.  Komona’s arc is not nearly harsh enough and the upbeat ending is not convincing.  She does not become a hardened killer (similar to Agu in “Beasts”).  An unrelenting look at the life of a child soldier probably would not be commercially viable, so you can not fault Nguyen for not wallowing in the inhumanity and desensitization most child soldiers experience.  There are enough visceral scenes in the movie to get the point across and its not a documentary.  It is the tale of a remarkable teenage girl who survives against the odds.  The main reason to watch the movie, besides to get informed about child soldiers in Africa, is the performance of Rachel Mwanza.  Considering her background, her debut is awesome.  She carries the film.  She won several acting awards.

                    The movie is a bit overrated.  It is too spare to really have a major impact on the viewer.  There is not a lot of dialogue.  There is no big picture and no villain.  However, it is not predictable.  Partly this is because it pulls its punches a bit.  If seen as a tale of a teenage girl’s journey through the shoals of warfare, it can be entertaining.  You won’t leave it without wondering how this kind of thing can happen to children.



Thursday, October 28, 2021

That Hamilton Woman (1941)


                    “That Hamilton Woman” (“Lady Hamilton” in Great Britain) was one of the films made to encourage American support for Britain during its darkest days of WWII.  The treatment was suggested to director/producer Alexander Korda by Winston Churchill and supposedly became his favorite movie.  He once claimed to have seen it 83 times.  Churchill, a fan of Horatio Nelson, wanted a movie made about him and his famous romance with Emma Hamilton.  It was a tale all Englishmen were familiar with, but it would have been revelatory for American audiences.  Korda had the brilliant idea of casting the current Hollywood celebrity couple – the newly wed Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.  It didn’t hurt marketing that their romance had some parallels to those of the movie’s characters.  The actors had fallen in love and conducted a public affair while still married.  It was their third movie together.  They had begun their affair during the filming of “Fire Over England” (1937).    The movie was scripted by Walter Reisch (“Ninotchka”) and R.C. Sheriff (“Journey’s End”).  They had the ulterior motive of slyly tying the tale to Britain’s current situation.  They succeeded in drawing the attention of the America First Committee, which encouraged a boycott of it and similar films (“The Great Dictator”, “Foreign Correspondent”, “The Mortal Storm”).  And Korda drew the attention of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of accusations he facilitated MI-5 agents in their ferreting out German activities and infiltration of isolationist groups in America.  Fortunately for Korda, his appearance before the committee was aborted by the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The movie was well-received by critics and audiences.  It was nominated for four Academy Awards -  Sound, Art Direction (Alexander’s brother Vincent, who did a wonderful job on a small budget), Cinematography, and Effects.  It won for Best Sound.

                    The movie opens in Calais where an alcoholic prostitute is arrested and thrown in jail.  She shocks her cell mates by revealing that she used to be the famous Lady Hamilton (Leigh).  Her tale results in a flashback to her better days.  When she was 18 and significantly more beautiful than her current jailed self, she arrived in Naples at the home of Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray).  Although engaged to his nephew, Hamilton has paid off his nephew’s debts and “acquired” Emma.  She is offended at first, but what’s a stripper to do but make the best of it.  And the best of it is a lavish lifestyle with a husband who only requires she grace his arm.  He Eliza Doolittle’s her and soon she is running his Tara.  Two years later, in walks the dashing, but officious, Capt. Horatio Nelson (Olivier).  There is a spark there and when she intervenes with the rulers of Naples to support the British, Nelson is impressed.  At this point, the movie becomes a chronicle of Nelson’s career and the evolution of their romance.  Nelson’s greatest hits are simply alluded to.  If you are British, you can fill in the blanks.  If you are American, read up on it.  The romance progresses to the point where Sir William snarkily acknowledges it and Horatio has some very awkward moments with his wife.  But love will prevail and they manage to weather the storms.  While sailing by Nelson’s successes at the Nile and Copenhagen, the movie goes all in for the climactic Battle of Trafalgar.  And then it’s back to the Calais jail cell for the what-ifs.

                    “That Hamilton Woman” takes its title from the reaction of British crowds upon seeing the couple in public in London.  The original title of the film was to be “The Enchantress”, which might have been more accurate about Emma, but a 1941 movie could not have lived up to that title.  The Production Code was at its height of ludicrousness, so this famous love affair had to be depicted as chaste.  Olivier and Leigh could not be shown in bed together and not even slightly disrobed.  How Emma became pregnant with Nelson’s son is left to the imagination.  The passion had to come through the actor’s interaction and this is partially successful.  Olivier portrays Nelson as upright, but susceptible to a comely ankle.  Leigh has more fun with the flirtatious Emma.  There is some chemistry from the real-life couple, but the main appeal of the movie to viewers would have been seeing them act together.  Leigh is gorgeous, as is to be expected.  You don’t get the green eyes because the movie is black and white, but she still has the wow factor.  This despite the low budget which resulted in make-up only on the side of the face the camera was on.  She was the perfect choice to play a woman who was painted by George Romney.  Thankfully, the movie spares us from an accurate depiction of her portly later years.  (Leigh in a fat suit would not have been good for box office.)

                    “That Hamilton Woman” is not a war movie until it gets to Trafalgar.  This sequence almost makes the movie worth the wait for war movie buffs (who tend to not be romance buffs).  It does a good job depicting the battle and includes the memorable moments like the signal “England expects everyone to do their duty” and Nelson’s refusal to dress less like a peacock begging to be shot.  There is plenty of action and cannonading by the models, but it is hard to follow who is who and the movie made the poor decision not to depict the “Nelson touch” by having Olivier explain his plan to his officers.  In fact, the movie makes no case for Nelson as a great leader.  (And frankly, it is not clear that he was a great lover either.)  Nelson’s death is spot on and surprisingly uses the accurate “Kiss me, Hardy” last words (instead of “Kismet, Hardy”).  I wonder how they got that past the censor.

                    As a war movie, “That Hamilton Woman” comes up short.  It reminds of “Gone with the Wind” in that it is more of a romance set in a war.  It gets credit for being based on a true story that deserved Hollywood treatment.  Even though it had a hidden agenda, it is not overly patriotic and I doubt viewers left the theater and immediately wrote a check to England.  I bet most simply enjoyed it for its entertainment value, which was high for the time, but seems tame today.  A miniseries on Nelson is definitely needed today.  Why has this not happened, BBC? 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is surprisingly accurate for a historical romance.  Emma was born poor and early in her life had to fend for herself.  She was blessed by striking beauty which meant her career path was obvious, especially for an ill-educated woman.  As early as age 15 she was a concubine for a wealthy gentleman.  She would dance nude on tables at his bacchanalian parties.  She eventually settled with George Grenville.  He farmed her out to the artist George Romney, who became obsessed with her.  He did a lot of paintings of her and made her a celebrity.  Grenville decided he needed to sleep with someone who was wealthy, so when he got engaged to an heiress and she was not into open marriages, he shuffled her off to Naples to entrance his uncle.  She did arrive with her mother.  Hamilton was 55 and newly widowed.  She was the best present he ever received.  He was an art collector and she was living art.   She was less excited, but once she realized her “vacation” on Naples was meant to be permanent, she decided to make the best of it.  Sir William was kind and doting and they fell in love.  When they married, he was 60 and she was 26.  She was quite the hostess and soon was best friends with Queen Maria Carolina (sister of Marie Antoinette).  Her fame swept Europe when she came up with her performance art called “Attitudes”.  She would dress up and portray famous statues and paintings.  Nelson had been married six years when they first met.  He was infatuated from the start.  They corresponded and the love grew.  When he returned, crippled, lacking some of his dash, she still fainted in his arms and the romance was on.  As the movie shows, they were often apart for long stretches. 

She and Sir William came to England when she was pregnant with Horatia.  Sir William didn’t mind.  The press loved her and was not critical, at first.  When Fanny gave him an ultimatum, he chose Emma.  Nelson bought a home and they lived together, with Sir William and her mother.  She spent lavishly decorating it.  When Nelson left again, the loss of a second baby at age 6 weeks, increased her loneliness and encouraged her depression.  She began gambling, drinking, binge eating, and spending.  When Nelson died, she grieved for weeks.  She got little from his will, but she continued to spend her way into deep debt.  She did spend some time in debtors prison from 1811-1812 and then moved to Calais to escape her creditors.  She was now an alcoholic and addicted to laudanum.  She died in poverty in 1815 at age 49.