STREAMING REVIEWS: ‘Queens’ of their era

Published September 27, 2021, 11:16 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

The two films today are new drops on Amazon Prime that are worth your viewing hours – one based on a best-selling French novel, and the second is based on a stage musical.

The Mad Woman’s Ball (Amazon Prime – France) –  When Victoria Mas released her novel, little did she expect the rapturous acclaim it would receive from the critics and the reading public – earning her and the book several prestigious prizes, including the Prix Stanislas and Prix Renaudot des Lycéens. So it was only a matter of time before we’d get a film adaptation. Besides acting in it, Mélanie Laurent also directs, and the sense of time and location is wonderfully evoked Paris 1885. Laurent plays the head nurse at the Salpêtrière asylum, where an exclusively female population is housed. And it’s into this asylum that our main character, Eugénie (played by the luminous Lou de Laâge is placed. Only daughter of a typical bourgeois French family, she’s gifted and has an independent streak. Apparently, enough to have you committed.

Yes, this was an era when women had no voice; and stubborn wives, free-thinking daughters, even inconvenient mothers, and mothers-in-law, could be petitioned by men to be incarcerated in these asylums, where they were treated as mental deficients. What happens in the asylum, the experimentation that went on (a shameful episode of factual medical history), and the grand spectacle of the annual Ball, where some 300 inmates are dressed in ball gowns and French society gawk and make like they’re charitable by donating money for the asylum’s upkeep, are all unveiled in the measured pace of European filmmaking. Think of the film as a feminist version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, mashed up with Les Misérables. If watching this drives you to the book, then it’s all been worth it, as it is a minor masterpiece of a novel.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Amazon Prime – UK) – You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve just watched an updated version of Billy Elliott after you’ve watched this entertaining musical. Set in today’s Sheffield, England, it’s like Billy has grown up a bit, and is now 16-year-old Jamie (the angular Max Harwood). The big difference is that Jamie has more definitive ideas as to what he wants to be. It’s a coming-of-age film, chronicling Jamie’s big dream of being an entertainer, and specifically, a drag queen. Supposedly a true story, there are strong fairy tale elements here, but it doesn’t stop us from enjoying the film and how enthusiasm and commitment to telling the story will outweigh when narrative or structural weaknesses the film has.

It was originally a stage musical, and you’ll see how the set pieces, montage, and rousing final notes, all lend to that provenance. Richard E. Grant as an aging drag queen past her prime is the scene-stealer here. But it’s Harwood who takes full control of the opportunity and material and makes every second on-screen matter. There’s the father who rejected him outright, the Mum who accepts and loves him, the bullies and haters at school and in the town – and as mentioned, those who’ll act as his guides to the world of drag queens and burlesque. In typical high school fashion, the whole thing culminates in a prom, and while there aren’t that many surprises, or wrong-footing the audience, I’ll agree that they give it all a new sheen and gloss. If you like Ru Paul, shows like Pose, you’ll love this.