Love Sarah (2020)

If anyone can put her spirit into this it’s you. Twentysomething dancer Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) wants to honour her late mother Sarah’s (Candice Brown) memory by opening the bakery she was about to open with childhood friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) when she was tragically killed while cycling to recce their new premises. Trouble is there isn’t enough money. She moves in with her estranged grandmother, former trapeze artist Mimi (Celia Imrie) who is reluctant but then the three women pitch their talents and her money together, attracting Sarah’s dishy Michelin-starred ex Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones) as the chief baker – and he may or may not be Clarissa’s father. Neighour Felix Rosenbaum (Bill Paterson) is a surveillance fan whose fancy turns to Mimi just as the gang hit on an idea to attract more customers and a Time Out review suddenly beckons … Imagine her baking that for you every morning with bacon and eggs – and sex. A thoughtful and low key study of grief written by Jake Brunger from a story by Mahalia Rimmer and director Eliza Schroeder, this is a beautifully made film set in London’s Notting Hill. If it lacks a dynamic centre there are compensations – not least in the performances by Imrie, Conn and Tarbet, the joint protagonists. Imrie is always worth watching, a pinch of salt and an amused twinkle never far from her features – here she needs to reconnect with her late daughter in a concrete fashion and (the very talented TV actress) Conn needs to repurpose her life which is falling away with the death of her best friend. Tarbet’s story isn’t as well dramatised but it’s a delicate performance, the dope-smoking ballerina wannabe who can’t make a go of anything, even a relationship that fails and renders her homeless. If the back story isn’t exposed in the melodramatic style we might expect in such a maternal narrative, and it never gorges on itself in the way its spiritual sister Chocolat does (another film about creating your own community), the complications arising from past and current romances, paternity and the idea about baking yourself out of existential and actual depression are movingly articulated. And it’s a nice reference for fans of TV’s Great British Bake Off to have winner Brown as Sarah, glimpsed in the final scene. Shot by Aaron Reid and designed by Anna Papa. Directed by Eliza Schroeder and dedicated to Sonya Schroeder. We make our bakery a home from home

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

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I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

Calendar Girls (2003)

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It’s not just jam and Jerusalem you know. Annie (Julie Walters) and Chris (Helen Mirren) are the two bored laggards at their Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute. When Annie’s husband dies young from leukaemia they come up with a plan to raise money for a relatives’ seating area in the hospital – but last year’s WI calendar only raised a few hundred quid so inspired by Chris’ son’s porn mag collection they devise a calendar with a difference. It’s a raving success. But Chris’s son goes off the rails, Annie is inundated with mail from her fellow bereaved and a trip to the Jay Leno show in LA brings out the tensions between the two. This real-life inspirational story of middle-class middle-aged countrywomen could have been truly mawkish but the interpretation by Tim Firth and Juliet Towhidi covers timidity, adultery, WI politics and bake-off rivalry amid the joking and stripping. Mirren and Walters are both specific and broad when it’s required. There are great character roles particularly for Penelope Wilton, but also Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Geraldine James with Ciaran Hinds, John Alderton and Philip Glenister bringing up the shapely rear. There’s a great moment when the band Anthrax introduce themselves to the infamous ladies. Directed by Nigel Cole.

Julie and Julia (2009)


What an intriguing idea New Yorker Julie Powell had:  to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. And what an intriguing idea Nora Ephron had:  to combine Powell’s account of her food blog with Child’s own account of how she came to learn to cook in France immediately after World War 2 . This isn’t just about two cooks and a lot of food memories. It’s also about two very interesting marriages of equals – a trope that carries through the twin strands of this cooking story as the transatlantic tale smoothly whisks us through these women’s lives as they cope with their own private traumas (which have their larger correlative in 9/11 and WW2/Cold War paranoia). Of course Meryl gets the lion’s share of our interest – apart from anything else, how short did everyone else in the cast have to be to persuade us that she could be six-two?! Her joy is infectious. And the story problem:  is a blog writer really as fascinating as Child whose TV appearances are legendary? And does a call centre operator (albeit for 9/11 victims’ families) moving from Brooklyn to Queens really equate to moving to France not speaking a word of the language and giving up your career (Child was in the OSS)?  The narrative imbalance is efficiently handled with other elements – performance not being the least but Adams’s drabness is an occasional irritant when compared with Streep’s effervescence and Stanley Tucci’s suave turn as her husband. Child’s experiences with French ladies who lunch is paralleled with Powell’s, who makes the cover of a magazine labelled a thirtysomething failure by a journalist among her circle of careerist friends. The women’s lives did cross directly, but with mixed results. With the right combination of ingredients,  Ephron shows how to sift through all of the similarities and differences to concoct quite a mouthwatering feast albeit a souffle rather than a boeuf bourgignon. And boy am I hungry right now: do not watch without ready access to sustenance. Bon appetit!

It’s Complicated (2009)

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The films of Nancy Meyers, the estimable writer-director, reach a kind of pinnacle here. Divorced baker Jane Adler (Meryl Streep) is remodelling her home ten years after splitting up with Jake (Alec Baldwin), the father of her adult children. While being befriended by her architect, Adam (Steve Martin), her married ex-husband seduces her when they are both drunk at their son’s graduation as the family gather in NYC. And … complications ensue. Naturally it’s smart, funny and filled with telling jibes about the battle of the sexes as well as some home truths about how hard it is to let go of a marriage. Meyers’ history of interrogating Hollywood genres has always been artfully concealed beneath hilarious comic patter and situations and Quentin Tarantino was moved to comment of this that she allowed Ralph Bellamy to get the girl! If you don’t know what that means (or even if you do) you could do worse than check out my book on the subject. Pathways of Desire:  Emotional Architecture in the Films of Nancy Meyers is available on Amazon.

Pathways of Desire cover Amazon