After watching three recent films, I unexpectedly hit upon a similar thread running through each of the features. While disparate in genre — a romantic comedy, and a gothic horror tale — THE LITTLE STRANGER, PUZZLE, and JULIET, NAKED were united by a prominent male character behaving quite poorly when it came to the women in their lives. While I hesitate to label any of the men as wantonly engaging in misogyny, they are united by a cleat fixation on their own interests and passions over those of the women they supposedly care for.

Whether it was by an obsession with a pop culture artifact, a crumbling estate, or an outmoded concept of proper family duties, these men control the women in their lives through yelling, manipulation, or seemingly unshakable ignorance. Some leave small frustrations in their wakes. Others, arguably, death.

Short Takes, Misogyny: THE LITTLE STRANGER
Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Wilson really bring the heat in a scene from THE LITTLE STRANGER. The misogyny will follow soon. (Courtesy of Focus Features)

Short Take, Subtle Misogyny Edition: THE LITTLE STRANGER

A gothic horror film in which an unseen ghost takes apart a landed family in post-World War II. Or perhaps it is simply a legacy of trauma and changing times that finally catches up with them.

Regardless, Dr. Faraday’s (Domhnall Gleeson) obsession with the family and, more specifically, their manor undoubtedly plays a role in hastening that demise. Unwilling to listen to them as they point out the tragedies befalling them, the doctor repeatedly attempts to yell, demand, and belittle them into straightening up and flying right. Even if the ghost — perhaps the favorite daughter who died as pre-teen come back to wreak a final vengeance — is wholly imagined, the family is under siege. If a Britain attempted to tear down its class structure to save itself does not do them in, Faraday will.

Even his solution, that he married the last living daughter Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) ignores the realities of the Ayres family troubles or Caroline’s specific desires. While Faraday appears to be a talented doctor, the longer the movie goes on the clearer it becomes. His pledge to the Hippocratic Oath only covers the physical body. The emotional self he cares little about acknowledging, nevermind healing.

That’s A Wrap

Gleeson’s Faraday is often emotionally inert and the movie following his example. Even during its darkest or scariest moments, it seems allergic to letting its heart rate accelerate. With the exception of a girl hidden by a curtain meeting a dog and the Ayres matriarch played by Charlotte Rampling being trapped in the room, the film seems allergic to the horror aspect of the “gothic horror genre.”

I will say that the set design and director Lenny Abrahamson’s ability to seemingly shrink and grow the size of the house without ever undermining its layout lends the film a great atmosphere. It just never seems to utilize it.

The ending, however, in which a character wanders the empty and rotting manor as though a caretaker, is incredibly affecting. If anything, it hits even harder as it contains such a strong emotional punch in a movie otherwise devoid of it.

Short Takes, Misogyny: PUZZLE
Kelly MacDonald chasing that jigsaw high in PUZZLE. Who knew those colorful pieces could unearth such misogyny? (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic)

Short Take, Subtle Misogyny Edition: PUZZLE

The man behaving badly plotline of PUZZLE is a bit less fantastical. Louie (David Denham) is a salt of the Earth type who fancies himself a fine husband. He works while she stays home, he makes a living for them, she builds the life. All is as it should be, in his opinion. Unfortunately, his wife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) does not feel the same. In fact, she does not feel much until she happens upon a puzzle. Startling herself she discovers not only a talent for jigsaw assembly but an almost spiritual awakening.

In time, she finds herself collaborating with a fellow puzzle aficionado Robert (Irrfan Khan) and upsetting the delicate ecosystem Louie always assumed was just the way things were supposed to work. The interesting aspect of PUZZLE in regards to gender roles is how it elucidates how it is less the roles family members occupy that harm and more the inflexibility of them. Agnes lies early, often, and with surprising skill. Part of this is she cannot even imagine telling her husband about this secret aspect of her life because they have no script for it.

She has never had an outside interest so when puzzles come along it seems, however unlikely, to threaten every aspect of her. Additionally, she has been unconsciously lying for years. She has lied to herself, to her husband, to her entire family that her life was often for years. To lie to help herself for the first time is almost as transformative as the puzzles themselves.

That’s A Wrap

The trio of performances from McDonald, Denham, and Khan has an understated honesty to them; what could have been three very clichéd archetypes are elevated by their work. That said, the film never seems to slip out of second gear. There is kind and winning quality to it but it almost seemed… too small for the big screen. I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout that had I seen it streaming on Netflix I would probably have far warmer feelings for it.

Short Takes, Misogyny: JULIET, NAKED
Ethan Hawke meets Chris O’Dowd in a scene from JULIET, NAKED that is not at all making Rose Byrne uncomfortable. Hawke, alas, will not alert O’Dowd how to stop with the misogyny. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Short Take, Subtle Misogyny Edition: JULIET, NAKED

The only film of the three that offers a portrait of both a man behaving badly and a reformed bad man also happens to be my favorite of the trio.

Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and Annie (Rose Byrne) are two big fish swimming in a small town British pond. Both possess grander ambitions — his academic, hers artistic. As a result, they were drawn to each other. Over the years, someone has come between them though. No, not his new “Movement” colleague. Well yes her, but not really. Really it is all Tucker Crowe’s (Ethan Hawke) fault.

Crowe, a one album wonder disappeared in the middle of a club concert. As a result, Duncan runs a website about and cannot stop obsessing over the seemingly erased from the face of the planet singer. The release of Juliet, Naked — the session recordings of his famous album– finds its way to Duncan/Annie house. It sends Duncan and his community into a tizzy and leaves Annie boiling over with annoyance. Unable to stop herself, she writes a scathing review of the album on Duncan’s site.

Tucker, meanwhile, has lived a misbegotten life of alcohol, drugs, bad relationships, and avoided responsibilities. Now trying to get things right with his youngest child, he spends his days watching his son, reading and surfing the internet, leading to his discovery of Annie’s review. The stage is then set for a penpal relationship that might just be becoming more.

That’s A Wrap

There is a generous warmth and sweetness that I loved about JULIET. Most movies that take you somewhere are big sci-fi affairs with worlds you will never see. This movie, however, does a wonderful job in grounding you in this small grey town. You can appreciate why someone like Annie can feel herself putting down roots and hating it while someone like Tucker would dream of such a place. Unlike the too small PUZZLE, JULIET, NAKED lovingly fills the frame with this real living breathing place.

Performance wise, it is great to see Hawke play Tucker as a rumpled mess. You can see the traces of handsome Crowe had in the eyes or the way he moves, but Hawke does not let vanity obscure what time and bad choices have down to this “rock star.” Rose Byrne continues to prove she is a quietly great comedic actress. Going smaller than, say, NEIGHBORS she still finds the humorous moments in the script and makes them dance.

Just a very charming affair, start to finish.

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