The publishing industry and the movie industry are lemmings, following popular trends rather than thinking outside the box to come up with something exciting and different. When a new book or film does break out – The Hunger Games (first book, then film) – everyone rushes to replicate that success. So we have had a whole series of dystopian novels and films ad nauseam, none as great as the one which started the trend.
We can say the same about Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller which was a bestseller and went on to become a film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins also became a film, this one with Emily Blunt. So we can imagine all those intrepid editors at publishing houses going through slush piles trying to find the next thriller featuring a slightly crazed female protagonist and coming up with A Simple Favor by first time novelist Darcey Bell.
Like its predecessors, A Simple Favor follows a similar pattern. The woman at the center of the plot is narcissistic and unbalanced, but, like so many people with these characteristics, she can skillfully manipulate others to play along with anything she cooks up. The problem with this set up is that the protagonist and everyone around her become unsympathetic and unlikeable. (That was certainly the case with Gone Girl. Did anyone like Affleck’s character, even though he was the victim?) And without someone to latch onto, root for, the characters become annoying and the plot frustrating.
In A Simple Favor, Emily is in the driver’s seat. She seems to have it all – good looks, an attractive husband, Sean, who is British and works in finance, an adorable son, Nicky, a gorgeous home in suburban Connecticut, and a high-profile job working for a famous fashion designer, Dennis Nylon. She also seems nice, befriending odd duck Stephanie, a widow with a son, Miles, who spends her time writing a mommy blog. Stephanie is so needy that when Emily throws her a lifeline she grabs it with a vengeance. Soon the two are inseparable, spending afternoons stretched out on Emily’s huge sofa, drinking white wine, while their two sons enjoy a playdate. When Emily asks that her friend pick up Nicky after school, Stephanie is only too happy to help. But then Emily disappears and Stephanie is frantic that something has happened to her friend.
Stephanie tells part of her story in her blog, part in straight narrative. While Bell nails the tone and substance of a mommy blog, these passages are irritating. The condescending, cheerful content begins to grate, although this might be intentional on Bell’s part. After Emily’s disappearance, Stephanie uses the blog to enlist support to help find her friend (since she says her readers come from all part of the country, this seems a stretch). When it appears Emily is dead, she continues to keep everyone updated on Sean and Nicky.
There are many revelations and Bell skillfully doles them out. Truth be told, Bell has produced a page turner, even though the characters – Emily, Stephanie, and Sean – continue to act in ways that are off-putting and exasperating. By the end of the book, not one of the trio is anyone a normal person would want to spend time with. But we will be spending more time with them. A Simple Favor will soon be a feature film from Fox.
A Simple Favor
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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.
It’s often forgotten in the whirlwind of grilled hot dogs and sparklers but Labor Day was originally meant to celebrate well…labor and the hard working folks who perform it. So this year along with the mandatory barbecue and fireworks show, consider brushing up on the history of the workers movement with one of the following films. (And remember to tip your server!)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Directed by John Ford and based on John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath recounts the story of the Joad family. After losing their farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, the Joads make an arduous journey across the west to California where they become migrant workers-and find their troubles have just begun. Starring Henry Fonda and John Carradine, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two including Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and Best Director for Ford. It’s also widely considered one of the best movies ever made.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Based on the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name, this is the epic chronicle of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a hard scrabble close knit clan living in South Wales where the family members work in the coalfields. Over time disputes between the mine’s owners and workers as well as environmental despoliation from the coalfields tear apart the family and destroy the once idyllic village in which they’ve lived. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor.
Norma Rae (1979) Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae tells how its title character (played by the indomitable Sally Field) becomes a union organizer at the local textiles firm after her health and that of her co-workers is compromised. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two including Best Original Song and Best Actress; prompting Field’s immortal “You like me! You really like me!” acceptance speech for her second Oscar win for Places in the Heart. That quote was, in fact, a reference to dialogue in Norma Rae.
Silkwood (1983) Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Graduate) and starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell, inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower and union activist who died under extremely suspicious circumstances at the same time she was investigating alleged criminal behavior the plutonium plant where she worked. Silkwood was nominated for five Academy awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay
Made in Dagenham (2010) Directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) Made in Dagenham tells the true story of the Ford Sewing Machinists strike in 1968. The strike was prompted by sexual discrimination against its female employees who demanded equal pay. Starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike it was nominated for four BAFTA awards including best supporting actress for Richardson and Outstanding British Film.
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