Women in distress and under stress seem to have been common themes in movies from 2021. And this has allowed countless actresses to shine.
Two recent releases deliver some of the most memorable performances of the year.
“The Lost Daughter” (US Rated R)
Cast: Olivia Coleman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris
Where to watch: Netflix (USA)
Tense, psychological drama is at the heart of the new Netflix film, “The Lost Daughter”.
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight”) makes her directorial debut and wrote the screenplay, based on the Italian novel of the same name (“La figlia oscura”) from the author known only by the pen name Elena Ferrante.
In the film, a college professor (Olivia Coleman) confronts her unsettling past after meeting a woman (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter while on vacation in Greece (in the book it was Italy). Her obsession with the woman and her daughter prompts memories of her early motherhood.
The picture, like the novel, takes a searing look at motherhood. Not everybody is made for it. Some are downright horrible at it; resenting it and even their children. This concept is not exactly something society likes to think and talk about, as these actions are more often associated with fathers. The mere thought of absent mothers makes some people uncomfortable.
And there’s no better actress to help tackle this uncomfortable topic than Coleman. The Oscar winner (“The Favourite”) has cemented herself as one of the greatest actresses today. Between portraying Queen Elizabeth II for two seasons on “The Crown”, and a concerned daughter to Anthony Hopkins’ “The Father”, Coleman’s range is wide and impressive.
Here, her character Leda seems so real, like someone you actually know. Her responses and interactions seem authentic, and exactly what you may say and do in certain situations.
But we are also blessed with flashbacks to a young Leda, played by fantastic Irish actress Jessie Buckley. Her more impulsive and rash Leda, is a firecracker.
So, we get two spellbindingly powerful and raw performances, both which leave us with rattled nerves, as it’s often unclear where the story is going, and the sense of doom is almost overbearing.
Adding to the jitters is Johnson’s performance. If you’ve dismissed her in the past as a lightweight – and after that “Fifty Shades of Grey” nonsense, who could blame you – your whole impression will change once you see her with extremely exotic dark hair and those piercing blue eyes. Even when she moves and speaks, you’ll wonder if it’s really her.
Johnson is captivating when she stares at Coleman’s character, without even saying a word. The silence is often too intense. The character, who’s also struggling with motherhood, is so mysterious. But Johnson plays her perfectly.
The other bizarre and frankly scary and shady characters also add to the drama and complexity of this beautifully filmed and incredibly well acted and unsettling film.
Currently only available on Netflix USA, search out “The Lost Daughter” any way you can right now, so you’ll understand what all the fuss is when you can’t stop hearing the name leading up to the Oscars.
“Spencer” (US Rated R)
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Timothy Spall
Where to watch: Video on demand
Princess Diana is having quite a moment.
Interest in the late Princess of Wales seems to be at the highest point since her untimely death in 1997.
Between the beautiful “The Crown” on Netflix, and that completely awful “Diana: The Musical” garbage – I pray what folks on Broadway got was less rancid than that cesspool we saw on Netflix – people can’t seem to get enough of “The People’s Princess”.
Late last year, another film about Diana Spencer emerged, starring American actress Kristen Stewart.
Yes, that Kristen Stewart – Bella from “Twilight” fame. But don’t howl like a werewolf just yet. Stewart’s turn as Diana will, for some, be the biggest surprise of the year.
The film centers on one particularly painful weekend in Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage, which had long since grown cold. Though rumors of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities at the queen’s estate. There’s eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game but, this year, things will be profoundly different.
Immediately, the opening credits inform you that this film is “a fable from a true tragedy”. So, right off the bat, you know extreme liberties have been taken, and plenty embellishing is happening.
Here, Diana is not well. Not just with her well-publicized bulimia but, also, apparently, with her mental state. She’s extremely paranoid, she’s seeing things and even people. She’s a wreck!
But the other royals aren’t exactly the most well-adjusted folks either.
Their rigid scheduling and slavish adherence to tradition would drive drill sergeants up a wall. With all of that, and the aggressive and overbearing media, it’s no wonder Diana is losing it.
Watching Stewart, you almost believe you’re observing old footage of Diana – the accent, the mannerisms, it’s almost frightening. But this is no mere impersonation. This is a deep, layered performance.
That vampire thing – along with some of her tabloid exploits – has done Stewart a disservice. But I saw her host “Saturday Night Live” a while back, and was blown away by her versatility. “Spencer” is another perfect platform to showcase her talents.
Perfect as a vehicle for Stewart but perfect “Spencer” is most certainly not! The movie is odd. There are bizarre choices, often feeling like some sort of princess-in-a-medieval-castle-nightmare. The Royal Family is made to look like they belong in a haunted house, and Diana seems just simply like a nut case.
What’s actually real here, or just in the imagination of the writer? You’ll be spending a lot of time on Google when you’re done to find out.
But Stewart makes “Spencer” all worthwhile. It’s the defining performance of her career, and one of the very best performances of this year.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.