International Women’s Day is March 8th. In the spirit of the occasion, it seems appropriate to consider watching a movie with a woman director. Sadly, at present, this is a limited field, nevertheless we have found five worthy contenders and hope to see far, FAR more in the future.
The Piano (1993) Written and directed by New Zealand’s own Jane Campion, this romantic drama starring Holly Hunter as a mute piano player and widowed mother who becomes entangled in a convoluted love triangle with Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel. It made over $140 million worldwide on a seven million dollar budget, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three; Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. Campion also became the first and thus far only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. She would later go on to direct the award winning romantic drama Bright Star, as well as write and direct the TV mystery/drama series Top Of the Lake starring Elisabeth Moss in a role that’s won her a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award.
Monsoon Wedding (2001) Directed by Indian born Mira Nair this romantic comedy details various entanglements and dramas taking place during a traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi. Along the way we are treated to song and dance numbers as well as a number of observations about life in Modern 21st Century India and Punjabi culture. The movie was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival making Nair only the second Indian to win in that category. Nair would go on to direct such films as The Namesake (nominated for a Gotham Award and Independent Spirit Award), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (for which Nair won The Bridge, The German Film Award for Peace), and Queen of Katwe (nominated for four NAACP Image Awards and Winner of Best Family Film by Women Film Critics Circle.)
Lost In Translation (2003) Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola), this bittersweet comedy starring Bill Murray (in a role that many considered to be his best work to date and which launched a career renaissance for him) as a washed up movie star who connects with young, unhappy, newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson in her breakout role). The movie was a huge breakout success earning over a $100 million on a four million dollar budget. Johannson and Murray each received BAFTA Awards. The film garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. Coppola actually won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Sofia would later become the first American woman to win the Golden Lion the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival for 2010’s Somewhere which she also wrote and directed.
The Hurt Locker (2009) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days). This war thriller about an Iraqi bomb squad starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty is one of the most suspenseful and grittiest war movies ever made with an incredible emphasis on the psychological toll of combat. It’s so intense and realistic you can almost taste sand in your mouth during one particular sequence. It was universally acclaimed by critics and went on to win six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Bigelow won the award for Best Director and as of this date The Hurt Locker remains the first movie directed by a woman to win either Best Director or Best Picture. Bigelow would go on to direct Zero Dark Thirty which would be nominated for five Oscar awards including Best Picture.
Selma (2014) Directed by Ava DuVernay. While DuVernay was the first African American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Director for her feature film Middle of Nowhere, it was this historical drama starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. based on the real life voting marches from Selma to Montgomery,that helped her truly rise to prominence. With Selma, DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director as well as the black female director to have her film nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th examining race and mass incarceration in the U.S. She’s currently working on directing on an adaption of A Wrinkle in Time for Disney with a budget exceeding $100 million making DuVernay the first black woman to direct a live action film with a budget of such size.
Top photo: Bigstock
Their romance begins innocently enough. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and her sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael, Edith from Downton Abbey), attend an event at the London Society Mission, where they dance with foreigners who are attending colleges in England. Ruth exchanges glances with one of the students, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), and soon they are dancing and talking about their mutual love of jazz. Although not the jazz played by Brits, Ruth jokes. The relationship continues. They share 78 LPs, dance at other venues, and take long moonlit walks.
Seretse is not a regular student, but a king, in line to ascend to the throne in the African country Bechuanaland. When he shares his status with Ruth, she takes the news as a sign that their romance is over. Instead Seretse proposes, bending down on one knee, the blinking lights along the River Thames providing the perfect romantic backdrop. He tells her to think about it, stressing that her life will drastically change. She’s made up her mind, however, and accepts on the spot.
The opposition begins to line up. Ruth’s father, George (Nicholas Lyndhurst), is outraged, telling Ruth she will bring shame to the family. If she goes ahead with the marriage, he says, he won’t see her again. Equally furious about the impeding union is Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), the regent of the Bangwatho Kingdom, who has raised his nephew since the death of his parents. Taking a white woman as his queen, the uncle emphasizes to his nephew, will endanger his reign and throw the country into turmoil.
The most strident voice against the marriage comes from the British government, since Bechuanaland is a protectorate under British control. By 1931, South Africa was no longer part of the British Empire, but because of that country’s mineral resources, maintaining economic ties remained important to Britain. In 1948, the South African government’s National Party instituted the segregation policy that became known as apartheid and put pressure on the British government to prevent an interracial royal marriage in Bechuanaland, its neighbor to the north.
Love wins out and the couple, accompanied by Ruth’s sister and some of Seretse’s friends, ties the knot in a small ceremony. Soon they are on a plane to Africa, Ruth thrilled by the scenes below of widebeasts and giraffes fleeing across the terrain. On the ground, the couple is angrily confronted by Tshekedi, his wife, Ella (Abena Ayivor), and Seretse’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto). While Tshekedi’s attack is aimed at his nephew, the two women target Ruth, telling her she will never be accepted by them or by anyone in Bechuanaland.
But with the people assembled, Seretse delivers a heartfelt speech, emphasizing that he loves his country, his people, but also his wife and cannot rule without her. (Those watching The Crown on Netflix will no doubt recognize that argument from Edward, Duke of Windsor, who said he could not rule without Wallis Simpson by his side. He was forced to abdicate.) Seretse’s address succeeds in winning over his subjects, but his problems are not over. British government officials demand that Seretse come to London to settle the dispute between him and his uncle. Once in England, however, Seretse is forbidden to return to his country. Thus begins many years of struggle where Seretse and Ruth fight to be reunited and for him to assume his responsibilities.
Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British government representative to Southern Africa, relishes giving bad news to Seretse, prolonging his suffering, even causing him to miss the birth of his daughter. The crisis becomes a political football in Parliament, with some opposing how Britain is interfering in African affairs for financial gain. The discovery of diamonds in Bechuanaland raises the stakes on all sides. Seretse wants to make sure his people profit from the mining of that resource.
The film is based on the true story of Seretse and Ruth. He went on to become the first elected president of the new country, Botswanna. Ruth won over her detractors, fighting for racial inequality and working for many charitable causes during her lifetime.
Directed by Amma Asante who also directed Belle, the film was shot in London and on location in Botswanna. The script is by Guy Hibbert adapted from the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams. Cinematography by Sam McCurdy, is spectacular.
Some of the supporting cast emerge as caricatures, particularly Davenport and Tom Fenton (bad boy Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), who overdoes his role as a sinister British official. The two leads, however, are not only solid, but a joy to watch as their romance unfolds, hits speed bumps, and then triumphs. Oyelowo and Pike have real chemistry on screen, whether they are dancing in their bedroom, the music heard only faintly from another room, or talking on the phone, their separation exacting a toll.
As Ruth, Rosamund Pike silently absorbs the blows from her new in-laws, a sign not of weakness but of strength. She’s confident in the love she has for her husband, and in his love for her. Through her deeds – taking on labor-intensive work in the village, placing her trust in local doctors, and nursing her newborn daughter alongside village women – she slowly begins to win over even her fiercest enemies, particularly Seretse’s sister, Naledi. (A wonderful performance by Pheto.)
Oyelowo first demonstrated his skills at playing great orators in his performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. This film takes advantage of that talent, giving him several moments where he displays his ability to engage those around him with his words. Yet in the more intimate scenes, whether making a stand against his uncle or taking in the bad news delivered by a supercilious government official, Oyelowo shows another side of Seretse, a leader who despairs that he may never get that chance to lead, not for his own glory, but to lift up his people. It’s an extraordinary performance.
Photos by Stanislav Honzik. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.