The princess, nothing compares, call Jane [Festival Dispatch]


Well, it’s a new year, and with it comes another excursion to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, this year’s festival is taking on a different, decidedly more digital form. So, with dozens of films now available to stream for the general ticket-buying public, you might need some direction when getting your festival started. Over the next week, we’ll be bringing you dispatches from the festival, hoping to introduce you to films you might hear more about in the coming months:

Beginning that first Sundance 2022 expedition is one of the festival’s most anticipated documentaries. Continuing the recent wave of fascination with the life, times and death of Princess Diana, Princess is the latest film from director Ed Perkins and uses archival material to investigate Diana’s life with real intimacy and immediacy. Without any narration or talking head interviews, Princess is a remarkable montage, bringing together thousands of hours of archival material ranging from contemporary interviews with the Princess, to man-in-the-street style interviews with the general public, to footage of the Princess at home and with family.

Perkins and his team take this treasure trove of footage and distill it into a film just under two hours long, which itself turns into a magnetic, yet oddly thin portrait of the cultural icon. Primarily highlighting Diana’s relationship with the general public, viewers see images of TV show hosts talking about Diana and her marriage and, more movingly, rabid images of tabloid photographers harassing her at every moment. There’s a distinct power to this sequence, especially since it feels decidedly pre-internet in a fascinating way, but the film’s main problem is that none of these ideas feel entirely new.

Unsurprisingly, the film’s most powerful moment comes when Diana’s death is announced to the world, which is shown in home video footage shot by a group of guys playing cards one night. It’s a poignant and deeply felt moment that feels otherworldly given the anachronistic nature of a cultural moment like this. That said, there are few ideas here, turning what could have been a gigantic achievement of non-fiction storytelling into something that feels oddly complementary to other Diana artifacts produced recently.

Next comes another documentary focusing on a global cultural icon, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Nothing compares comes from filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson who marks her first documentary feature filmmaking effort with a portrayal of legendary musician Sinead O’Connor. Tell his story through his own words, Nothing compares spotlights not only O’Connor’s professional life, but his personal life as well, giving a comprehensive look at one of modern music’s most polarizing entities.

Mainly focusing on its rise to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nothing compares is a sort of counterpoint to the Princess Diana documentary discussed above in that, where Perkins’ film is an accomplished but thin picture, Ferguson’s feels classically edited and yet thrilling and informative. The greatness of Ferguson’s film is not so much in the craft of the film, although it is engaging, but rather in the choice not to focus on the moments that made her famous and instead focus on the preparing for these times. Viewers become aware of the misogyny of the industry she worked in, but instead are contextualized around the early stages of a career, turning those assaults into something even more insidious. It’s a deft choice that adds a lot of depth and texture to an otherwise simple documentary.

Now let’s move on to the world of fictional premieres for Call Jane. The latest from screenwriter-turned-director Phylis Nagy Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a well-to-do Chicago housewife in 1968 who, after having complications during a pregnancy, decides to have an abortion. Following this traumatic event, Joy begins to become more and more involved in the Jane Collective, a group of women who helped other women obtain safe abortions before Roe vs. Wade, eventually becoming an important player within this group.

“Based on real events” Call Jane takes her fictional lead and uses it as a number, hoping to introduce viewers to a real-life collective that led the movement to bring legal abortions to women in need across the country. Nagy’s direction is superb, proving to be more than just a talented scribe, using a relatively static camera and impressive production design to create mood and period beautifully. The banks are Well here, giving a textured and nuanced performance in a way that adds real depth to an otherwise easily dismissable character. That being said, the film feels oddly thin, often finding its characters speaking in protest poster speeches instead of anything resembling actual dialogue.

For example, there’s a moment in the film where the women’s group is confronted with the fact that throughout the film, women of color are largely shunned because they don’t have the money to pay. What could have been a deeply insightful and thoughtful sequence turns into little more than spoken word, itself only elevating the already odd idea of ​​telling this tale through the eyes of a white woman in the upper middle class. Nagy navigates this problem by making a largely engaging and propulsive film, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a largely toothless piece of work.


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