Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
Greece/United Kingdom/Israel/USA, 2021. Endeavor Content, Samuel Marshall Productions, Pie Films, Faliro House Productions. Screenplay by Maggie Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. Cinematography by Helene Louvart. Produced by Charles Dorfman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Talia Kleinhendler. Music by Dickon Hinchliffe. Production Design by Inbal Weinberg. Costume Design by Edward K. Gibbon. Film Editing by Affonso Goncalves.
Internal observations, quiet longings, memories of past wrongs, regrets for mistakes made, these are all the waves of emotion crashing back and forth in the mind and heart of the main character of Elena Ferrente’s novel, and in translating them for the big screen, writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal tries to create dramatic motion by adapting these experiences faithfully.
This version of Shirley Valentine is the one that you won’t want to watch with your mom, and stars Olivia Colman as a Harvard professor who is vacationing alone on the Greek island of Spetses, enjoying some quiet days reading on the beach, soaking in the sun and indulging in delicious food.
Her tranquility is interrupted by the arrival of a loud, overbearing Greek family with whom she immediately butts heads, they ask her to give up her spot on the beach to make room for them and she tersely refuses, getting called a “cunt” by one of the boys in the group and receiving open disapproval from the very pregnant Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk, who is spot-on) for not being nicer; making a movie in which we are made to find women compelling without them ever trying to be nice enough seems to be the motivation for Gyllenhaal, whose characters are constantly struggling with the limiting expectations placed on them.
Eventually the ladies smooth things over enough for tense, brittle politeness, but Colman becomes fascinated with Callie’s sister Nina (Dakota Johnson), the mother of a toddler who takes her back to her own haunted memories (played in her younger years by Jessie Buckley) of raising her two small children and failing at her maternal duties. Her peaceful vacation solace is taken over by an obsession with bitter regret as she recalls concentrating on her academic career while being constantly distracted by her two daughters, whose demands for her attention she could never satisfy because she never really wanted to.
In the present, she enjoys awkward interactions with the manager of the property she is renting (Ed Harris) and a friendship with a cabana boy (Paul Mescal) who warns her about making friends with Nina, whose family he says are “bad People”. We never find out what exactly makes them bad people beyond the fact that their younger members can’t behave in a movie theatre and their older men have a menacing swagger, in fact most of Colman’s journey through both her own emotional minefield and the interactions she has with other characters are frustrating for how stingy they are with actual information to help us understand the generosity of her emotional reactions to things.
That we’re watching a character who contradicts so many common expectations of women in cinema by never being particularly likeable is refreshing (as is hers and Gyllenhaal’s refusal to ever apologize for this), but to watch little more than her being grumpy while never having any significant connection to the characters around her is not (and if it were going to be, it would need to be far shorter than 124 minutes).
Despite the gorgeous Greek scenery that Gyllenhaal surrounds her main character with, the internal psychology that feels so muscular on the page (Ferrante’s words always propel you forward) quickly feels indulgent and uneventful on screen, even with an actor as complicated and captivating as Colman playing her.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress (Olivia Colman); Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley); Best Adapted Screenplay
Critics Choice Award Nominations: Best Actress (Olivia Colman); Best Adapted Screenplay
Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Actress-Drama (Olivia Colman); Best Director (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Actress (Olivia Colman)
Venice Film Festival Award: Best Screenplay