Review: A woman’s worth is measured by her beauty in writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s unromanticised character study of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, which dramatises a turbulent period when the noblewoman became profoundly aware of the ravages of time. “At the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade, darkening like a cloud,” she ruminates sombrely in voiceover, barely allowing food to pass her lips at formal dinners where impeccably dressed guests chirrup about the media’s infatuation with Her Majesty. Parallels to Princess Diana are inevitable.
Kreutzer’s script doesn’t slavishly curry favour or sympathy for Elisabeth. She is occasionally unkind with words and impulsive, dangerously so when the empress hauls her young daughter out of bed in the dead of night for a horseback ride that leaves the girl battling a fever. “I don’t want you to pass on your recklessness to our child,” seethes the emperor. Vicky Krieps is beguiling in the lead role, delivering a nuanced performance that paints Elisabeth as both a victim of her suffocating times and her own worst enemy. She glides serenely through impeccably dressed sets like a porcelain doll who might break at any moment, hanging on fleeting compliments about her countenance as validation of her self-destructive behaviour.
In 1877 Vienna, Empress Elisabeth (Krieps) lingers in melancholy in a separate wing to her husband Emperor Franz Joseph I (Florian Teichtmeister), perpetually at the mercy of gossip-mongering newspapers that fixate on her appearance. Tightly corseted by societal expectations that dictate how a woman should behave, the empress stands silently as ladies in waiting meticulously document daily fluctuations in weight, fuelling a corrosive sense of self-worth based on her waist size. The royal palace is devoid of joy. One chamber is a shrine to the couple’s daughter Sophie, who died at the age of two.
Stifled by the Habsburg court, Elisabeth travels to Northamptonshire in the spring of 1878 to visit her sister in the company of her son Crown Prince Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) and daughter Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj). The Empress craves affection and she risks more scurrilous rumours by savouring a simmering flirtation with riding instructor Bay (Colin Morgan). “You abandon yourself to every whim without considering your position,” remonstrates her son, who will inherit the throne and his mother’s legacy.
Corsage is a richly textured portrait of a woman who was ahead of her time but all too familiar in a modern era that filters so-called reality for rabid consumption on social media. Krieps effortlessly embraces the script’s multiple languages, gelling with female co-stars to embolden the bonds of sisterly solidarity between Elisabeth and clucky courtiers, who were her confidants. French singer-songwriter Camille’s anachronistic soundtrack is hauntingly seductive, especially the song “She Was”, delivered in a breathless style reminiscent of Billie Eilish.
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Review: In the summer of 1987, shortly before cinema audiences had the time of their lives with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, Whitney Houston bopped to the summit of singles charts around the globe with her infectious anthem I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).
The world danced with the fresh-faced 23-year-old R&B diva, who was midway through a record-breaking streak of seven consecutive number one singles in America – a feat unequalled to this day – as discontent simmered among some fans about her cultural responsibilities as a black superstar in a predominantly white pop world.
“A common criticism of you is that your music isn’t black enough,” a radio host remarks in director Kasi Lemmons’ glossy biopic, which charts the singer’s fortunes from the pews of New Hope Baptist Church to her accidental drowning in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills. “I don’t know how to sing black and I don’t know how to sing white either,” counters Houston, portrayed with fiery intensity by London-born actress Naomi Ackie. “I know how to sing.”
Made with the blessing of the singer’s estate and her mentor Clive Davis, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody sings to the rafters, punctuated by impeccably lip-synced performances of greatest hits and her soaring rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl in Florida. A largely chronological script penned by Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of Bohemian Rhapsody, skips from 1983 New Jersey where Whitney (Ackie) performs in the choir directed by her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) to her first encounter with influential record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci). “I think I may have just heard the greatest voice of her generation,” he gushes, signing Whitney to Arista Records.
She subsequently hires best friend and lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) as her creative director (“I want someone I can trust completely. You’re the only one!”), appoints her father John (Clarke Peters) as head of her management company Nippy, Inc. and conducts a very public romance with Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders).
Bookmarked by a recreation of the singer’s 1994 appearance at the American Music Awards (widely considered her greatest live performance), Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a rousing and reverential celebration that doesn’t airbrush history. Whitney’s romance with Crawford is depicted explicitly for the first time and John Houston’s money-related disputes with his daughter light the fuse on fiery on-screen exchanges. “You work for me,” she curtly reminds him. McCarten’s script is peppered with melodic dialogue (“I’m exhausted. All black women are exhausted”) as Ackie confidently surfs crashing emotional waves similar to yesteryear’s musical biopic The United States Vs Billie Holiday. If you wanna feel the heat of Houston’s rise to glory, Lemmons’ picture simmers beautifully.
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