Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Quick notes on two 2021 films, a Finnish picture that opens this weekend at SIFF Cinema Uptown, and a Hollywood star vehicle that’s streaming near you.
Being the Ricardos
Aaron Sorkin writes and directs this look at a week in the existence of I Love Lucy, a seemingly bizarre subject for an ambitious filmmaker. There are Sorkinesque political shadings all over the place, though: some red-baiting around Lucille Ball (“red” as in Commie menace, not hair hue), some Cuban-baiting around Desi Arnaz, a moment or two spent on the place of women in showbiz, and a few slaps at the timorousness of networks and sponsors. Because it’s Sorkin, most of this is steered toward tidy, middlebrow conclusions; also because it’s Sorkin, the steering is often amusing. An appealing cast does not hurt.
But there is one aspect of Being the Ricardos that is fascinating, and it’s woven into the rhythm of the film throughout. It has to do with the art of acting, and more narrowly the art of comedy. At various times, Lucille Ball (played by Nicole Kidman) must solve or improve some shtick from the show being prepared this week, and we regularly see Kidman’s face, utterly grim, working out the scene’s business, cut together with black-and-white footage of the scene in question, its zany slapstick enhanced. Despite her curiously shiny look (digital smoothing of some kind, I assume?), Kidman’s performance is key to how this works: As Ball, she is quick and sometimes loud, but almost completely without the knockabout quality we know from the TV show; as Lucy, she does the vaudeville arms and saucer eyes and donkey-bray voice. It’s two different people, and it’s an eloquent description of an actor’s skill at transformation—not the kind that holds that acting is presence and personality, but the kind that insists in the skill and the craft of the art. Kidman and Sorkin, two devoted beavers when it comes to their painstaking work, are reminding us that sometimes it’s less about magic than determination. There is something refreshing about this, especially as magic is generally given the upper hand when it comes to explanations of the miracle of acting. And what a curious setting for the idea to take flower—the broad comedy of an obnoxious sitcom!
Compartment No. 6
Finland’s Oscar submission (it didn’t make the final round) appears homely at first but becomes more beautiful as it goes along. This is also true of its characters. Laura (Seidi Haarla), a frumpy Finn studying in Moscow, gets on a northbound train for a research trip; she’s going to Murmansk to look at petroglyphs. She’s been stood up by her Russian lover, a more sophisticated academic. Laura must share her sleeping car with a coarse Russian man, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), headed to Murmansk to be a drone worker. (As the journey takes its multi-day course, “Murmansk” begins to sound like some mythical place of no return.) His boorishness makes any kind of understanding between these two people seem unlikely, and indeed at various times we worry whether something bad could happen.
It won’t—the movie’s not a melodrama—but neither is Compartment No. 6 a simplistic heart-tugger about how we might bridge the communication/cultural gap if we just listen better. The film’s grit and humor, and its complete lack of glamour, make its relationship feel earned. Director Juho Kuosmanen has patience, too; the journey will take a while, and his pace is just right for this sort of thing. The story’s lessons and conclusions are fuzzy and fumbling rather than crystal clear, which suits these people, outsiders at best. The best we can hope is that there’s life after Murmansk.
March 4, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.