LFF 2019 Day 5 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Heart | The Two Popes

For Day 5 of the festival I visited the 1760s, returned to South Korea, and then spend two hours in the company of two popes. I also wound up sat next to Mike Leigh for the third film which wasn’t distracting at all… I am pleased to report that he has excellent cinema etiquette; no whispers, phone light, or loud snacks from the master of British cinema.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It is 1760 and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a small island near France to paint the portrait of Lady Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so that it might be sent to her future husband in Milan. The only catch is that Héloïse does not approve of her upcoming nuptials so Marianne must act as a companion and paint her subject in secret.

Set over the span of just two weeks Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows the hesitant and secretive friendship between the two women as they evolve from subject and painter to something much closer. Amazingly for a period drama (any drama?) this is a film with nearly exclusive female cast that not only passes the Bechdel Test but spectacularly fails the Reverse Bechdel Test on all counts.

The absence of men allows the film to explore the muse and artist relationship with the fresh perspective of the female gaze. The film revels in female beauty without ever feeling exploitative, saving me some hand-wringing. It also allows for period details unique to female-only environments; eye opening aspects of day to day life are hinted at that I would never have even bothered to wonder about.

At its heart is a simple story; that of two women’s tentative steps towards one another. It is told through two stunning central performances and with shots of extreme beauty both in composition and subtext.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a gorgeous, romantic experience filled with beautiful imagery and aching longing.


Jeong Ga-young is the most exciting voice in South Korean cinema right now. Without the hype, or budget, of Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho she is carving a niche that sits alongside, and possibly in response to, the more intimate works of Hong Sang-soo. I was lucky to see her previous film Hit the Night at last year’s London Korean Film Festival and Heart acts a great companion piece and continuation of her body of work.

As in her previous film Jeong has placed herself at the center of this film. She plays a version of herself; a young director who has an affair with a married man and then plots to make a film inspired by their realtionship. The fourth wall is never directly broken but the Jeong’s character happily explains the motivation for making the film to a prospective actor within the film itself. Heart is not just a narrative film, but director Q&A and dramatised behind-the-scenes feature to boot.

Jeong is a filmmaker who is comfortable to play with the form. Heart plays with metaphor, genre tropes, and the basic expectations of a film. It is smart, witty, and sexy. This version of South Korean life is rarely captured on screen. Nothing is sanitised or glamorised and Jeong is not afraid to show herself in an unflattering light.

As someone who is a Hong Sang-soo fanatic, I am excited to finally hear the woman’s side to the story.

The Two Popes

If I were to be dismissive I could describe The Two Popes as nothing more than two men pontificating about the Catholic church for two hours. But I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong…

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis respectively. The latter has travelled to the Vatican to hand in his resignation as Cardinal. Unfortunately the sitting Pope refuses to even discuss his resignation and instead they spend days debating issues of the church, exploring Francis’ controversial past, and drinking a healthy dose of red wine. The results of these talks are spoiled in the films own title and via a cursory Google of either of the lead characters.

Hopkins and Pryce brilliantly capture the character of their familiar roles. Both ably tackling numerous languages and ornate costumes as they portray two famous men of God. While the film is majority dialogue-driven the magnetism of the leads does not let the experience get stale. The more lively their conversation the more lively the camera gets as legendary director Fernando Meirelles goes to great pains to bring energy to endless scenes of two old men talking.

Overall I enjoyed The Two Popes and learned something in the bargain.That said, it isn’t a film I will ever watch again and will be impressed if I remember it next week. Let’s see how well it does when it lands on Netflix at the end of the year.

The Theory of Everything – Blu-ray Review

The Theory of Everything 2

Despite my long-held admiration for Felicity Jones and endless praise for the film I somehow managed to miss The Theory of Everything when it was in cinemas. Perhaps I was annoyed at having to share Jones with the rest of the general public or, more likely, nobody wanted to go and see the film with me knowing that I’d be slack-jawed throughout.

The Theory of Everything follows the romance of Stephen and Jane Hawking (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) from their first meeting at University and through their marriage as Stephen slowly becomes more and more dependant on Jane thanks to the onset of motor neurone disease. Tellingly most coverage of the film has focussed on the acting; to some degree on Jones’ performance as the ever-burdened wife but mostly on Redmayne and his brutal portrayal of a man slowly losing control of his body.

The praise for Redmayne is certainly well deserved as he audibly and physically transforms himself throughout the film from a sprightly young student to a wheelchair-bound professor. Most importantly what Redmayne manages to do is maintain the spark and personality that is such a vital part of the real Stephen Hawking. While he may end the film sitting almost immobile in a wheelchair Redmayne’s Stephen never loses his energy. Alongside Redmayne Jones brilliantly plays a woman not just dealing with raising two young children while coping with a demanding husband, but also shows the pain of a deeply religious woman whose husband does not respect her beliefs.

Together Redmayne and Jones portray a couple deeply in love who find their relationship straining when one loses their physical capabilities and the other struggles to find the emotional strength to carry on. Neither are passed off as saints as they both show signs of selfishness and weakness as their love for one another stumbles. It should definitely be noted that this is not a film about a science but a film about love. And while we’re at it, as a great narrator once said, this is not a love story; this is a story about love.

The film is undoubtedly moving and is as good as it is simply because of its strong lead performances; failing to truly wow with its script or direction. As I look back on the film I find I am left with a sense that some of the less loving emotions between Jane and Stephen may have been watered down. Their marriage was far from perfect, understandably considering the circumstances, and the lack of real anger in an otherwise emotionally open film felt suspect. Luckily the actors are skilled enough to distract you from second guessing while you watch the film itself.

These quibbles aside The Theory of Everything is a great showcase for two young British talents, though I suspect they have better films left in their careers. A film worth watching, just maybe not worth watching twice.

(But only just)The Theory of Everything 1

This being a period British film looking at people and emotions rather than explosions and special effects the extras on the Blu-ray are limited. What you get are a good number of deleted scenes and a brief documentary Becoming the Hawkings focussing on Redmayne and Jones preparing for their roles.

As far as I can tell the DVD has no special features. The horror!

The Theory of Everything is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.