Reviews

Reviews

Bridesmaids of Christ

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Review: The Little Hours

Director: Jeff Baena

Runtime: 90 min

Rating: R (US)

Cast: Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon

Availability: Limited release starting June 30


Content warning: Very minor spoilers below, plus a brief discussion of a sexual assault depicted in the film.

When the trailer advertised The Little Hours as “Based on The Decameron by Boccaccio,” I was as skeptical as I always am. “Based on a True Story?” Right.

But I’ll be damned; this is one of the most faithful adaptations of a piece of medieval literature yet put to screen. And it’s fun—in a deeply weird, occasionally disturbing, Aubrey Plaza sort of way.

It would be impossible to make a film of the entirety of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 opus The Decameron. This is because, like A Thousand and One Nights or Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (which is, in many ways an adaptation of The Decameron), it is a collection of short stories rather than a single narrative. So, for those familiar with the Italian original, The Little Hours presents the first story told on the third night.

Yep. That one.

Like any good adaptation, this film takes the original material—a salacious story of a group of very naughty nuns—and expands on it in meaningful ways. We discover that the cookie-cutter “bad nuns” presented for comedy in the original Italian are remade into flawed characters wrapped up in their own stories: sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, always deeply odd.

And on a few occasions, I found myself doing something that I’m not sure I’ve ever done at a medieval film—genuinely caring about, and understanding, the characters and their lives, beyond whether they would succeed on whatever quest the movie presented. Medieval films will often strive to have you cheering for the (almost always male) hero as he rides to glory with lance in hand. But in The Little Hours, I found myself genuinely feeling for the heroines (if you can even remotely call them that), as they went through their days in the nunnery, and felt like I was able to understand what they had to do to get by.

Speaking of cheering for the hero, perhaps the film’s best analogue is Brian Helgeland’s cult classic A Knight’s Tale, which (sort of) does for Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, what The Little Hours does for his Italian counterpart. Both are films full of anachronisms (and, let’s be honest, what historical film isn’t). But where these two differ from the norm is that theirs are anachronisms selected with purpose and delivered to make a point.

In A Knight’s Tale, it was Queen’s “We Will Rock You” sung from the stands of a joust—delivered with gusto to show the similarity between medieval tourneys and modern sporting events. In The Little Hours, it takes the form of modern dialogue (rich with fierce expletives) rather than the cod-Shakespearean dialogue that encumbers nearly every other film set in medieval Europe. And similarly, the actresses use their own American accents rather than Received Pronunciation-British— the standard signifier of “premodern historical film,” whether set in London, Paris or Jerusalem. This, together with the weirdly wending, clearly largely improvised dialogue (all the rage in comedies these days) made the characters feel all the more relatable, their friendships and rivalries more honest. And this is itself honest to the original, in a way—Boccaccio wrote his work in his native vernacular Florentine rather than high-culture Latin.

And it’s not just the dialogue that makes a film set in 1347 seem very of-the-moment. It owes a debt to comedies like Bridesmaids, which revel in tearing off the veil and showing women can be just as funny, brash, gross, and violent as men. In alternating moments, I found myself loving, and deeply disliking almost all of the characters. And The Little Hours takes that to some disturbing lengths, showing three separate occasions in which one of the characters is nearly raped, always with one of the women as the rapist. But those moments are not played for laughs; the scenes quickly turn from absurdist to horrific once the viewer begins to really understand what is happening.

There is one small, heartbreaking subplot that that seems even more prescient than this—look away if you wish to remain entirely spoiler-free.

None of the nuns seem to have chosen a life of celibacy and contemplation. One in particular, sister Alessandra (played by Alison Brie), we discover has been placed in this convent against her will by her father. And though her father has enough money to give generously to the convent, he does not have enough to give her the dowry—and thus, husband and family—that Alessandra desperately wants.

Alison Brie as Alessandra, Aubrey Plaza as Fernanda, and Kate Micucci as Genevra. Courtesy of Gunpoder & Sky.

In this moment, I was struck by a small similarity with another female-centric cultural event currently in the zeitgeist—The Handmaid’s Tale. Each is, at its core, a story about what becomes of women’s agency when they are trapped in a rigid, patriarchal, sexually repressive social structure. The Handmaid’s Tale primarily reveals its protagonist’s unbroken spirit through a venomous, expletive-filled inner monologue. The Little Hours lets that inner monologue out of its cage, to wander the medieval countryside hurling abuse at those, like the gardener in the initial scenes, with even less power than the women. The Handmaid’s Tale grapples with this patriarchal trap for horror’s sake. The Little Hours does so for comedy—and it is a comedy. This is not just because of the absurd jokes around so many turns, but because it is obvious in the medieval world, they were able to carve out a modicum of happiness; the punishments for violating their Rule always seem to be worth the fun.

Flirting with a nun. 14th century.

To be clear, this isn’t absurd caricature. It may surprise you to find that the Middle Ages is full of accounts of medieval women and men of the cloth violating the strict proscriptions of their profession. As Graciela S. Daichman writes in her book Wayward Nuns in Medieval Literature:

The reported cases of errant behavior in the nunnery are far too numerous to list in their entirety. Profligate nuns were not a rare phenomenon in the Middle Ages; they were, instead, a matter of intense concern—also dismay and disgust, even—to the guardians of the spiritual life and the laughingstock of countless others.

The dirty truth of medieval monastic life was that there were many, like Alessandra, who did not choose it out of piety or devotion. Some did not choose it at all, but were given by their families. Knowing this, of course many of these women and men would rebel against the yoke they had been placed under, and find what love, happiness, and sex that they could. There’s something profoundly heartbreaking and beautiful about that.

And that’s the real accomplishment of The Little Hours. Sure, the comedy doesn’t always quite work, and there are a few anachronisms that made even my teeth grind (witches? torture? yawn…). But its magic is that it revealed a side of the Middle Ages that had yet to be put on film, and caused me not just to root for, but to connect and empathize with someone who (might have) lived six centuries ago. Bridging the gap between the past and present is what historical film can do best. That The Little Hours accomplishes that feat—especially in such an unexpected, bizarre and filthy frame—means it deserves to become a cult classic in its own right.


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Reviews

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Broadswords

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Promotional Poster for King Arthur: Legend of the SwordReview, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

Director: Guy Ritchie
Runtime: 126 minutes
Rating: PG-13(US)/12A(UK)/M(Aus)
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen
Availability: Theaters everywhere May 12


Stories of King Arthur have been told many, many times. This story of King Arthur has not been told before.

That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t include components of Arthurian legend as it has solidified in popular imagination. But Legend of the Sword is something else.

Those looking for a retelling of medieval Arthurian literature won’t find it here. I’ve written about the historicity and development of the Arthurian legend elsewhere. Writer-director Guy Ritchie clearly isn’t concerned with that history, or any history for that matter. While Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur attempted to portray some semblance of historicity (on the barest surface, at least), it’s clear from the first few scenes that this version is more akin to swords-and-sorcery high fantasy influenced by monuments like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons.

This movie falls into the “superhero origin story” subgenre. It follows the rise of orphaned Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, channeling Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller) from street ruffian to king as he leads England in a revolution against his evil uncle, the tyrannical, brooding, King Vortigern (Jude Law). Along the way, we encounter Arthurian familiarities like Camelot (though crumbling, not glimmering). Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone. He encounters the Lady of the Lake. And, at the very end (spoilers, by the way) the Round Table is under construction—mirroring the rest of the war-torn kingdom.

Audiences will recognize Ritchie’s characteristic style. King Arthur is full of slow-motion action, flash-backs and flash-forwards, close-ups, flashy camera angles, CGI, and background rock music. The rock music, by the way, falls somewhere between its more subtle inclusion in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and how it’s flaunted in A Knight’s Tale. And the characters are classic Ritchie too: at the beginning, we’re given a time-lapse montage depicting Arthur growing up, the mean streets he learns to navigate, and how he earns a reputation as a street-smart, aloof, and well connected prince of the alleyways. This is an Arthur not entirely out of place in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

Ritchie is more interested in the pre-kingly Arthur than his legendary later self. There’s no romantic plot line in this tale; no Guinevere or Lancelot—a nice change of pace from other Arthurian films. There is no Mordred (who, strangely, is made a foe of the past in the first scene), and no tragic downfall. The movie is centered around Arthur as the head of a gang of revolutionaries creating a new society.

Ritchie brings his affinity for gangster stories to stylizing Arthur, his team, and elements of the plot. These features, along with several moments of deadpan lines and punchiness between Arthur and his friends make the film entertaining, at least in the moment.

Perhaps the most sustained theme is what it takes to rule well—a theme explored commonly, but rarely very thoughtfully, in many medieval films. For example, at one point Arthur and his unnamed magical lady-friend (more on her in a moment) have a conversation about the differences between a king and a man. This question is deeply embedded in medieval depictions of Arthur. True to the long history of Arthurian adaptations, Ritchie adapts it to appeal to his contemporary audience.

Vortigern’s stormtroopers, from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

The core of this King Arthur adaptation is the grassroots resistance by a rag-tag team against an autocratic, tyrannical dictator. Ritchie draws on not-so-subtle imagery to trace a line from the fantasy-medieval world, through Nazism, and ending in present concerns about the relationships between leaders and the people. In one scene, Vortigern looks out at thousands of his subjects, separated by knights clad in all black with eerie face masks. Around him we see several images of eagles with outspread wrings, reminiscent of Parteiadler of the Nazi party. Moments later, Vortigern’s henchmen lead the people in hailing him with a Nazi salute.

A multiracial round table, in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Emphasis on autocratic tyranny and the battle against white supremacy is all the more pronounced given that Arthur’s resistance band, refreshingly, includes people of color. Among Arthur’s crew, we find black men like Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) as one of the leaders, as well as childhood friend called Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Arthur even has a Chinese ally (it’s a fantasy, remember?) named George (Tom Wu). On the other hand, its racial politics aren’t all good; one character is a Chinese man nicknamed “Kung Fu George”—recycling the tired “martial arts master” stereotype rather than developing his character.

The mysterious mage looks over Arthur from waaaaaay over there in the background. From King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Where the film’s racial politics may be patchy, its gender politics are just plain bad. Like many medieval films, this movie doesn’t pass the exceedingly low bar of the Bechdel test. It would be difficult for the movie to pass, since the only woman in a leading role (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) has no name; throughout the movie and in the credits, she’s called only “The Mage.” This might have been a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers to lend her character an air of mystery. But by making the character nameless, she is inherently, sadly, relegated to a lesser position than the other two magicians, Mordred and Merlin—each of whom are only on screen briefly. The women who rescue Arthur as a child and raise him in a brothel (of course) are barely given lines; they’re later tortured by Vortigern. Women are objects in relation to the men around them. It’s telling that, at one point, Vortigern tells a court lady named Maggie (Anabelle Wallis) that she’s only a pawn to be used in his machinations. But the righteous Arthur seems not especially better.

There are a few clever aspects to the characters closest to Arthur. For anyone at least basically familiar with the Knights of the Round Table, it’s clear that the rag-tag men who help Arthur are destined to become his closest confidants. Two of these men are named Bedivere and Percival (Craig McGinlay). At the end, we learn Wet Stick’s true name, when he’s knighted (like the others) “Sir Tristan.” If medievalism fan-service is a thing, this is it.

It’s clear by the end of the movie that Ritchie’s vision is to jump-start a series of films based on the Arthurian legend. While the main plot wraps up, Arthur and his gang are given only a few brief moments to settle into the fixer-upper Camelot. There’s been rumor that Legend of the Sword is only the first of a projected six-part King Arthur series. Perhaps there’s more to come in a film cycle conceivably like Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur for the twenty-first century.

If not, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword at least provides a few hours of over-the-top entertainment around the world of Camelot. If you are looking for a nuanced, sophisticated new iteration of the Arthurian legends for the 21st century, this isn’t it. But if you go in expecting to see a few hours of relatively mindless entertainment, with a gangster-infused Arthur taking down a neo-Fascist Vortigern, you’ll find what you’re looking for.


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Reviews

A Public Medievalist’s Little Red Book

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Review: Richard Utz, Medievalism: A Manifesto (Kalamazoo and Bradford: ARC Humanities Press, 2017). 95 pages, $15.00/£11.99. https://mip-archumanitiespress.org/products/m-77101-116111-24-8211/.


Over the past generation, the humanities have been changing immensely—both due to pressures from within as well as from without. Long gone are the days, if they ever really existed in the first place, of the cloistered ivory tower academic, whose sole job was to dutifully retreat from the world into a quasi-monastic world of study, commentary, and teaching the occasional novice.

And good riddance, too. Many academics have chafed at the increasing pressures from government initiatives and University directives to increase their public engagement. But a new crop of scholars have taken on this mantle with enthusiasm. And while it may not necessarily be where the public might expect this to arise, several scholars in the dusty-seeming discipline of medieval studies have been leading the charge.

It is because of this context that Medievalism: A Manifesto by Richard Utz, part of the Past Imperfect Series at ARC Humanities Press, is so important. It offers an affordable, much-needed call-to-arms to those medievalists still on the fence about working for, among, and with the public. This book—especially its final chapter, which comprises the real “manifesto” of the volume—should be required reading for every medieval studies Ph.D., and taped to the door of many a public history professor. For some, many of its ideas will seem obvious, while for others they may offer a profound challenge; but this fact says more about the current state of the professoriate than about this text.

Like every good manifesto, this little volume is stuffed with heretical ideas. The first chapter, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?: The Middle Ages, Ourselves” is a case study of pulling down the sacred cow of some historians: total objectivity. Utz weaves together the story of his parents and his own coming to love the Middle Ages with a brief overview of the state of the field. The heretical idea here is that no medievalist, no matter what some may profess, is cut off from broader cultural ideas about the Middle Ages—in short, that they can never, nor should they, truly remove themselves (and their passions) from their work.

The second sacred cow that Utz attacks, in Chapter 2, is that of unquestionable academic authority. Medieval studies, as a discipline, began very much as an amateur affair. But since its nineteenth-century beginnings, the field has rent itself from, and placed itself above, the “mere” amateur love of medievalia. This professionalization was a good, perhaps even necessary thing. But the consequence is a current world where most medievalists only talk to other medievalists, writing in high-status but low-readership journals in an impenetrable language of their own creation.  This system is not just unsustainable, it’s morally wrong. Scholars have an obligation to not just to uncover new knowledge, but disseminate it to the best of their ability.

The next three chapters form a sort of second part of the book, each marked out as an “intervention”. Each intervention (in Eastern Bavaria, Atlanta, and within the world of religion) outlines a different plot of fertile soil for the interested public medievalist. In all of these locations, there are ready ways in which medievalists can, and should, engage with the public to positive effect, to present a more complex and nuanced image of the past and its relationship with the present and future.

The final chapter, as mentioned previously, is the best of a good bunch (probably because it is the most direct and concise). In it, Utz presents six brief manifestos for the public medievalist. They, boiled to their essences, are:

  • Medievalists are not so different from other lovers of the Middle Ages;
  • The best work in medieval studies recognizes the history of the public’s engagement with the topic;
  • Medievalists should tear down the barriers to understanding our subjects, and write not just for our colleagues, but for everyone;
  • Academic hiring and promotion committees should recognize, reward, and incentivize good public engagement;
  • The amateur interest in the Middle Ages in our culture is a blessing, not a curse; medievalists should embrace it, use it, and learn from it; and
  • Traditional academia has its place, but the world needs a new kind of medievalist—one unafraid to engage with reception, popular debates, the media, and accessibility.

Taken together, these form a powerful call for medievalists to go forth and engage with the broader public, to create, in his words, “a more truly co-disciplinary, inclusive, democratic and humanistic engagement with what we call, for better or worse, the Middle Ages” (87). While the rest of the book should not be skipped, if you must read only one chapter, read this one.

From the above, it should be obvious that I feel strongly that this book is not just good, but necessary. That said, it does slip up in a few places—not least occasionally falling victim to a problem of “do as I say, not as I do”. To its extreme credit, ARC Humanities Press has offered it for $15/£12 (and as an e-book for less) which lowers one barrier to entry considerably. But some of the other barriers remain. For or example, Utz rightly castigates other medievalists for speaking only into their particular echo chambers in a language needlessly riddled with convoluted constructions, opaque jargon, and assumptions of prior knowledge. But, especially in the first two chapters, I found that Utz employed some of this very style, which left me occasionally scratching my head. To his credit, Utz admits its seductive power over him. Speaking of the BABEL group, he admits:

their demiurgic polysyllabicity, which I personally find exhilarating, may present an insurmountable barrier for those amateurs who have never called the “ruined towers of the post-historical university” their home” (22).

Yes, this is a book by a medievalist and for medievalists. And yes, in order to be “taken seriously” among some academics, there may be a need to flex one’s proverbial polysyllabic muscles, and simply name-drop all the academics a reader “should be expected to have read” (pity the poor master’s student who picks up this book). But if one is to increase accessibility through increased comprehensibility, the work, as they say, begins at home. I do not fault Utz for writing a book that shouts into the very echo chambers that he criticizes. It is there that this message needs to be heard. But I do hope that his next monograph is written for a wider audience.

All that being said, it remains a worthwhile book, with messages that deserve to be read and repeated. While it does not mark the beginning of the effort towards vigorous public engagement among medievalists, it can be hoped that this volume might consider more of them to join the cause.

Disclosure: This reviewer received a free copy of the book in exchange for this reviewProfessor Utz adapted a chapter from this book for The Public Medievalist. 

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