These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission.
A Royal Affair (Dir: Nicolaj Arcel). Starring: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Trine Dyrholm, David Dencik, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Cyron Melville. In the late 1760s and early 1770s Denmark ‘s ruler is the whoring, boozing, and mentally precarious Christian VII (Følsgaard). His beautiful, neglected wife, Caroline Mathilde (Vikander), wisely stays in the background, giving birth to a son and lending placid class to the national farce. When Christian is appointed a personal physician (Mikkelsen) to rein him in, Caroline’s indifference vanishes upon discovering that she and Dr. Strauss share two loves: books and the tenets of the Age of Enlightenment. They start a torrid affair in the bedroom and legislative chambers, where Strauss uses Christian’s trust and admiration to overhaul Denmark’s punishing laws, in the process drawing resentment from the nobility. Sumptuously filmed historical drama is well acted by the three principals (particularly the rugged and dignified Mikkelsen), ripe with backroom intrigue, and always engaging. Perhaps its most useful purpose is serving as a reminder, like last month’s The Other Dream Team, that sacrifice for a fair and just way of life is not just an American concept. [R] ***
Sister (Dir: Ursula Meier). Starring: Kacey Mottet Klein, Léa Seydoux, Martin Compston, Gillian Anderson. Whip-smart, 12-year-old Simon (Klein) takes advantage of living near a fancy Swiss ski resort, stealing ski equipment and reselling it to the neighborhood kids at reduced prices. His entrepreneurial hustle is out of necessity; his independence is a mirage. Living with an older sister (Seydoux) more concerned with having a good time than earning a steady paycheck, Simon runs the household and pays the bills. Desperate for love and submerged by responsibility, he is the world’s oldest, loneliest boy—a condition that becomes harder to endure as his sister drifts further away from him. Meier builds the plot and the characters through small moments (Simon learning English through ski magazines) and leitmotivs (the brother and sister’s isolated, towering apartment; wide-angle shots that emphasize space). The movie’s power and poetry gradually seize your attention then never let go. A haunting, beautiful film about a family that runs on obligation, not love, brought to vividness by Klein and Seydoux’s desperate, stirring performances. [NR] ****
The Black Tulip (Dir: Sonia Nassery Cole). Starring: Haji Gul Asser, Sonia Nassery Cole, Walid Amini, Somaia Razaye, Hosna Tanha. In 2010, a husband and wife (Asser, Cole) open a restaurant in Kabul called The Poet’s Corner, where guests can recite poetry. This development enrages the Taliban, which employs extreme measures to shut down the business. Shot entirely in Afghanistan, The Black Tulip provides an extensive look at the real lives of Afghanis. If you want to observe a wedding and learn about women’s changing role in the country, look no further. But by serving as a fact-heavy cultural brochure, Cole extinguishes the narrative momentum, resulting in a violent second half that feels dissonant and shrill. In the film’s production notes, it’s clear that Cole wants to portray Afghanistan beyond the accounts we’ve absorbed in sobering news reports. If that’s the case, why not make a documentary about this unseen side instead of incorporating it into a spiritless, forgettable revenge film? Afghanistan’s official entry for the 2011 Academy Awards. [NR] **
Smashed (Dir: James Ponsoldt). Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, Mary Kay Place, Megan Mullally. Frightened by her increasingly erratic behavior—which includes succumbing to a hangover in front of her elementary school class and waking up in strange places—a young woman (Winstead) decides to quit drinking and attend AA meetings. She gains support from a sympathetic co-worker (Offerman) and her straight-shooting sponsor (Spencer) but lacks support where it matters most. Her writer husband (Paul, TV’s Breaking Bad), sill stuck in booze-induced neutral, is upset that he and his wife’s common bond has vanished. Director Ponsoldt and writer Susan Burke, a recovering alcoholic, offer an unflinching, refreshingly blunt account of the unexpected rewards and obstacles that occur in forging a new, unpopular life path. Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is fantastic—you never stop rooting for her. And she’s supported by a sterling group of actors that lends depth and humanity to characters usually presented as devils or Samaritans. [R] ***1/2