Ashley Jensen

Hysteria (2011)

hysteria 2011

It was thought in the late 1800s, and probably long before then, that a woman suffering from hysteria required stimulation in her nether regions in order to “coax the uterus back into position.” This would right the body and mind, temporarily curing a woman of nervousness, stress, loss of appetite, and any number of symptoms owing to the her weak constitution. Of course, hysteria wasn’t a single disease so often as it was a manifestation of a basic human need. And the thing to satisfy that need – the humble vibrator.

The story of the first such electric massager is brought to humorous life in this film, which weaves a tale of invention with social and cultural change in Victorian England. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully bemused Hugh Dancy) is a forward thinking doctor who insists on cleansing wounds in order to minimize the chance of infection by germs. The preposterous idea that microscopic bugs could cause so much disease and death gets him bounced from one hospital to another until he lands a position at Dr. Robert Darymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic. Well respected for his ability to relieve women of their suffering, if one can call it that, he enlists the young Mortimer to assist in his hands-on practice, and possibly to form an alliance with his younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones).

It’s an amusing film that has great fun with its subject. That Dr. Granville could be so progressive on some areas of medicine yet still subscribe to the belief that women are “unable to experience pleasure without male penetration” garners knowing chuckles. The men are oblivious to the true nature of their work as they briskly oil their hands and finger their way past layers of skirt. Meanwhile, their patients are propped up on an elevated lounge chair, their lower halves covered with a gold and burgundy canopy that lends a certain elegance to the whole affair. Let’s say we’ve come, er, a long way.

And you see how easy it is to give into the temptation to make double entendres and other such coy winks at the audience. There’s sometimes a little too much tongue, and whatever else, in cheek, and the creation of the vibrator and the tremendous social changes that spurred its popularity can seem trite, as if the real significance of the story was brushed aside for some big masturbation joke. One of the first tests of the “feather duster,” as it was initially conceived by Granville’s inventor friend (Rupert Everett), is on an opera singer who’s lost her voice without her weekly sessions. Its success causes her to literally sing in ecstasy, to which I say, to each her own.

The film attempts to add context and seriousness, however, with Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dr. Darymple’s fiery activist daughter and Granville’s intellectual match. She blazes across the screen, full of righteous indignation, demanding her dowry in order to support a poor house for the indigents who are also her friends. The woman is formidable, and so is Gyllenhaal; there’s never a doubt that Charlotte can determine her course in both work and pleasure, seeking gratification in her high ideals and, should chance allow, a partner who shares those commitments. So while Granville is a hero of sorts, the climactic scene shows Charlotte to be the true model of a liberated woman.

Released: 2011
Prod: Tracey Becker, Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis
Dir: Tanya Wexler
Writer: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Evertt, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Anna Chancellor, Tobias Menzies
Time: 95 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Nativity!

nativity

My critical defenses are lowered at Christmastime. Average movies that earnestly convey the Christmas spirit and enkindle greater love for others tend to get a pass. Bonus points are awarded for really cute kids, and singing. By this measure, Nativity! qualifies as a damn good holiday movie. At risk of sounding like an internet troll, if you don’t feel a little better about humanity after watching this group of underdog kids pull off the best nativity play ever, you have no heart.

The story revolves around Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) and the primary students of St. Bernadette’s in Coventry, who attempt to stage a successful Christmas play after years of mediocre efforts. The retiring head teacher, Mrs. Bevans (Pam Ferris), tasks Mr. Maddens with organizing the production, but that is the last thing the burned out teacher needs. Besides, Christmas is just a seasonal reminder that his girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) has left him.

Mr. Maddens, an undistinguished graduate of Midlands Academy of Performing Arts, nevertheless begins to compose a few songs, but his meticulous planning is thrown into disarray with the arrival of his teaching assistant, Desmond Poppy (Mark Wootton). Wooten’s antics test the audience’s patience; Mr. Poppy has the emotional maturity of a middle schooler, which younger kids find boisterous but which thinking, responsible adults probably find offensive. When he is not encouraging general pandemonium, he is planning a field trip to a maternity ward so that the students can better act out the birth of Jesus. “I’ve got a big oaf helping my children to fail,” says Mr. Maddens, after suffering a complete breakdown in classroom control.

Mr. Poppy needlessly complicates things when he overhears and spreads a rumor that Jennifer, a producer, will be filming St. Bernadette’s nativity play. The misunderstanding escalates far too quickly to be believable but does provide the narrative tension to move the film towards its showy climax. Before long, the entire town thinks that Hollywood will be descending on the school. Mr. Maddens’s old friend and current nemesis, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), doubles down and plots a grander production for his elite private school students. “We need something edgier, more dangerous, something darker. Something like the RSC do every year….Something European, strange, exotic. Something the Americans don’t understand but love.” They decide to stage “Herod, the Opera.”

This strain of dry humor, which Freeman is especially adept at, runs throughout the movie, but the comicality of the script is complemented by Mr. Maddens’s more serious conversations with his students. Not only does he encourage a group of ordinary kids to be a little more than that but he also wants them to just be kinder people. His heartfelt attempts to teach them something actually worthwhile do not come off as syrupy or manipulative but as simply honest, so says the teacher in me.

Those Christmas-appropriate lessons of love and generosity come together in an uplifting finale. It is a nativity play to beat all nativity plays, not because of its polish but because the spirit and story of Christmas shine through so clearly. The soundtrack is truly unbeatable, one that will last for many holidays to come.

There are 6 original songs in the nativity that are sung by the children. Here are 3 that will make your heart melt.

“Nazareth”

“She’s the Brightest Star”

“One Night, One Moment”

Released: 2009
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mark Wootton, Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen, Alan Carr, Pam Ferris, Ricky Tomlinson, Clarke Peters
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014

Gnomeo and Juliet

gnomeo and juliet

The beloved bard’s tales, forever ripe for reinvention, gets the animated treatment in this kid-friendly reimagining of Shakespeare’s popular play. We lay our scene in fair Verona, a pleasant English street, where two households both alike in dignity hate each other’s guts. Ms. Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) are warring neighbors who have a penchant for lawn ornaments. Their ceramic gnomes and plastic animals spring to life and carry on the feud when their owners are not looking, marking one of the more creative use of garden decorations.

Montague’s blue gnomes are ruled by the matron Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), whose nimble son Gnomeo (James McAvoy) engages in dangerous lawnmower races with Tybalt (Jason Statham) of Capulet’s red gnomes. They are led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), who keeps close watch over his daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt). The spirited heroine resents being literally put on a pedestal, which her father does in order to keep her from being smashed; it’s a dangerous life. One night, she sneaks out in disguise and bumps into a camouflaged Gnomeo. It’s love at first sight for the two, until they realize they have just cavorted with the enemy.

The films hews close to its source material but adds a few flourishes. Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is a lonely plastic flamingo, separated from his love when his owners divorced and divvied up the lawn ornaments. He warns the young couple that others’ hate can destroy their love. Gnomeo’s exile following Tybalt’s violent death by lawn mower crash leads him to a giant statue of Shakespeare (Patrick Stewart) in the park. He learns that similar stories have ended in tragedy, which he considers a load of rubbish.

The animation does not jump out – although the film was screened in 3D, but it is bright and cheerful. The gnomes surprisingly retain their gnomish figures. Juliet is a good deal frumpier than her animated counterparts. Meanwhile, Gnomeo is handsomely rotund and sporting a thin silver beard, as is the fashion. And though the movie is self-referential (I liked the Tempest Teapot truck), it manages to avoid tripping over too many pop culture references. Elton John, who supervised the music, provides the soundtrack, and we won’t count him as contemporary. The best part is the voice cast. It is a parade of Britishness, with a sparky Dolly Parton and growling Hulk Hogan thrown in.

“Crocodile Rock” performed by Nelly Furtado, featuring dancing gnomes:

“Hello Hello” performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga:

Released: 2011
Prod: Baker Bloodworth, David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw
Dir: Kelly Asbury
Writer: John R. Smith, Rob Sprackling
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Cummings, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, Dolly Parton
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014