Labour of love – God’s Own Country (2017), dir: Francis Lee

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Francis Lee’s directorial debut is a raw, realistic, and sensual love story between a miserable farmer and his newly hired worker. In an attempt to present the harsh realities of the farming life in addition to not fitting in as he’s experienced it himself, Lee gives us a story so impactful and true to human nature that is impossible to leave one apathetic.

The material is tough but the lead performances are superb, with both Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe) and Josh O’Connor (Johnny) enjoying a captivating chemistry and being exceptional in delivering the emotional depth of their characters. Ian Hart (Martin) and Gemma Jones (Deidre) are brilliant and crudely affective as Johnny’s disabled father and firm grandmother.

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Our first image of Johnny is that of a lonely alcoholic, trapped in a torture of a life. He is not enjoying the company of friends, lovers, or his family and his work is in fact, forced labour. He has no control over his demise and that leads his family to treat him with contempt, pushing him even further to the road of alienation and anger. Johnny’s idea of human contact is so distorted that he is not able to tolerate being touched or kissed, resembling that of a scared animal that first attacks and then runs off.

Gheorghe on the other hand, is calm, grounded, confident and tender. Being an immigrant, he employs sensibility and discipline which comes in complete contrast to Johnny’s carelessness and indulgence. It is remarkable how piercing and emotive is Secareanu’s expression opposite to O’Connor’s tormented look. Johnny’s cry for help is answered in the most compassionate and loving way, granting him acceptance and leading him to a precious connection with a fellow man. The cathartic scenes that follow his surrender to Gheorghe’s affection are disarmingly affective. As Johnny opens up little by little, we witness his life’s shape changing as well.

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Apart from the great scenes between the two leads, there is another I truly loved between Johnny and his father. The particular scene brought East of Eden (1955) in mind, where Cal (James Dean) and his father (Raymond Massey) have a similar purifying exchange marked by those two little words, “Thank you” that seem able to wipe clean years of harshness and bitterness in seconds.

Experiencing the film, it felt as a sensational piece of reality, a precious lesson on the transformational power of love and on the strength necessary to seek a better life by being truer to oneself. In God’s Own Country the silence and loneliness of the Yorkshire countryside is beautifully captured and the relentless and yet, rewarding labour of its people is explicitly presented with honesty and realism. The romantic story that is born and evolves in those landscapes has an impressive intensity and passion that fits the absoluteness of its surroundings.

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After the film you might feel like praising the power of love, experience compassion for the lonely, avoid eating lamb or any livestock for a while, take a trip to the countryside, contemplate about how your surroundings reflect upon your mood and behaviour and finally, you might judge whether you’d be brave enough to oppose to your family’s expectations regarding your work, love life, etc. by following your own path.

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A ‘Good’ Beat Story by the ‘Poker Princess’ – Molly’s Game (2017), dir: Aaron Sorkin

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Molly’s Game is a woman’s psychography with juicy incidents and legal repercussions embedded in it. Sorkin’s script never disappoints as characters fire their brilliant and profound lines to each other with great velocity and precision and thus, amaze and impress us while also, saving the slightly overlong film from feeling tiring. Daniel Pemberton’s score dresses the film in energetic, upbeat tones, melancholic pieces and thrilling bursts as we’ve seen in his previous works Steve Jobs, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Counselor, etc.

The opening scene serves as a dynamic introduction to the competitive, distinguished and smart character of Molly Bloom, a true survivor and determined fighter. Molly is a sassy, impetuous and charming woman with a one-of-a-kind story and so, represents a symbol of both femininity and feminism. Jessica Chastain’s voiceovers are guiding us through Molly’s experiences and life lessons while the film bounces back and forth in time between her childhood, her career steps and the present-time lawsuit.

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The incredibly talented Chastain employs the body language signs and the smooth, thin voice that help her pass for the 22 year-old Molly (when she is in fact 40). To witness her transformation is tremendously exciting, as Chastain’s captivating confidence achieves a magnificent connection with the audience. By staying true to the fiery and sexual real-life persona, she executes a powerful female role beautifully, with precision and absolute focus and makes it impossible to take our eyes off her.

The scenes between Chastain and Idris Elba (her lawyer) are remarkably well-acted and resemble the quickest ping pong game of witty lines. The stories of the players involved keep up the interest; the eerie and villainous ‘Player X’ (Michael Cera), the listless and silly-looking ‘Bad Brad’ (Brian d’Arcy James), the tragic figure of Harlan (Bill Camp) and the mumbling caricature of Douglas (Chris O’Dowd) give the film its’ unique poker flavour.

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After having experienced admittedly traumatising events Molly seems powerless and passive when defending herself against the prosecution. To her rescue comes of course, her lawyer and a demonstration of his conviction of her innocence and – despite having broken the law – integrity escalates to an intense argument. Although I recognise the necessity of the scene, it slightly bothered me that Molly’s independent and unapologetic demeanour had to be diminished toward the end of the film and that she should be passionately defended by someone else. I recognise however, that showing Molly defeated and humiliated enhances the story’s credibility, as even the toughest fighters can reach the end of their rope.

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A genuinely funny and emotional scene is that of Costner (Molly’s father) and Chastain, taking the form of a humorous hubris against psychotherapy and shedding light to the unspoken sorrows that drifted them apart. The first argument her father makes is that her subconscious motive behind running the high-stakes games was to control powerful men, having being supressed by his demanding attitude as a child. He soon revokes this as it was only meant to provoke her and set her tongue loose regarding the main pain between them.

It got me thinking however, whether this argument could in fact, stand. Looking at the film and how Molly used her sexuality, to simply manipulate players and preserve her position, I’d say that she wanted power, period. Reigning over a male-dominated industry certainly granted her an even greater pleasure for going against the unwritten rules but overall, she was not aiming to control powerful men but simply, powerful people.

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After the film you might give poker a try, google Molly Bloom, explore Chastain’s filmography to the last, be reminded of how decisive our style choices are in shaping people’s opinion of us. You might imagine whether you’d have pleaded guilty or not, had it been you in Molly’s place. Also, the film might bring forth concerns about your risk love or aversion, whether you’d have the grit to go against the law, or how deeply corrupted you’d end up being by greed for money and power. Finally, you might reconsider the realistic distance between success and failure.

Delusion and self-absorption crisis – Brad’s Status (2017), dir: Mike White

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Self-absorbed and tormented is the status of Brad as we find him beating himself up over the unfulfilled successes he once hoped for himself by comparing his life achievements with those of his college mates. Brad reflects upon the ambitions of his youth, his wife’s influence, the conflicted feelings regarding his son’s potential future success and that of his old friends who in his eyes have far exceeded anything he has accomplished. Voice overs as the storytelling device give us access to the perplexity of Brad’s emotions and perception of the world, the real one and the one created by his fantasies around the lives of his friends.

The film has an unsettling disharmonic score that feels like irritating and rough sound circles and matches perfectly with Brad’s introspective, obsessive analysis of his situation. On paper Brad is not a likeable character and the opening scene makes sure to illuminate his absurdity and neurotic preoccupation with measuring success. However, Mike White’s script draws a daringly honest and sarcastic picture of a middle-aged man who is taking inventory of his life and that brings out our empathy for him, as we recognise his weaknesses and egotism in ourselves.

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Ben Stiller (Brad) is transparent, vulnerable and affective with carefully measured expressiveness and focus.  Austin Abrams on the other hand projects a calm power and sensitivity as Brad’s son, Troy whose confidence and security get shaken due to his father’s high emotional investment into securing him a place in Harvard and at the same time, his questioning the value of sending him to college at all.

White’s script is piercing and impactful by shedding light to dark corners of the human psyche and giving us access to the mind of a man who submits himself into compulsive and agonising comparisons. Towards the end, Brad meets one of his old and very successful friends, in a beautifully acted and thus, uncomfortable to watch restaurant scene and the realisations he comes to carry him to a musical catharsis. In the final scene, we are given a slide hope that he might be exiting the phase of taking stock or at least, beginning to appreciate the good things in his life, his loving family for instance.

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After the film you might fear the moment you will experience a midlife crisis, think about how you measure success and remember that friend you will always feel competitive towards. You might also, contemplate upon Troy’s words about how we should only care about the opinion of our loved ones, as the rest of the world is too self-absorbed to even notice us and finally, be honest about the extent of your vanity and the length of egocentric inner dialogues that go through your mind every day.

Even Dickens’s Ghosts would have given up – All the Money in the World (2017), dir: Ridley Scott

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Being rich is the hard task, becoming rich can just as well be an idiot’s achievement. This is one of the few quotes delivered by Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty. Early on in the film we also get a mini lecture from Getty on how unnecessary and incorrect is the word ‘priceless’, as everything has a price.

Ridley Scott’s crime thriller explores the price of the human life, which here is that of the grandson of the world’s richest man at that time. Getty, the grandfather in question has made crystal clear from the beginning that he appreciates art over people, as in art there is the purity of transparency and straight-forwardness, in contrast to people’s duplicitous nature.

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Although he fantasises, quite comically, about having lived as a Roman Emperor in a previous life, it’s rather obvious he is the reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, only ten times worse. His inconceivably cruel behaviour towards his daughter in law, Gail (Michelle Williams) and his 16-year old grandson (Charlie Plummer) when kidnapped, is the driving force of a real-life drama that stirs up our conception of love, family, power and greed.

The film’s rhythm fluctuates from quick transitions and fast progressions to a slower, more dramatic tone that better served the dialogues. The simple story is intertwined with the promise of complicated characters and minor twists that keep the viewer interested, despite the film’s general flat and quiet tone.

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For instance, young Paul changing hands as a hostage intensifies the thriller atmosphere, Gail’s discovery that her father-in-law has always been a cheap human being that even gave cheap gifts serves as a ungranted relief. Along with the member of the gang that felt for the boy and the doomed escape, these are all examples of what was done right here. The film might not succeed to immerse viewers completely but performances take you where you need to go to enjoy it.

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Michelle Williams didn’t bring enough energy to the part at first, seemed almost unfocussed but around the middle, she picked up by communicating the quiet pain and despair of a woman that had to put up with Getty’s obsession for negotiating prices (in this case ransom), his false pretences for not sparing a nickel and the intense pressure from the kidnappers. Indeed, as did a paparazzi in the film, I found myself wondering why she came across so calm and why even her sorrow and agony were moderately demonstrated. However, in a couple of scenes, when she finds out the price of the statue and when she discovers Getty’s bust, she is remarkable and piercing. Might have been part of Williams’s process but unfortunately, it didn’t work for me as it opposed to my innate belief that the situation asked for explosive and loud reactions.

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This sort of reaction is found in one particular scene delivered by Mark Wahlberg, here as the professional negotiator Fletcher Chase who was appointed from Getty to deal with the kidnappers’ unreasonable requests. The scene is a beautiful confrontation that results in a shocked and mentally defeated Getty. Worth mentioning here is how great Christopher Plummer was in a part that came to him unexpectedly and had to be executed then and there, without preparation within a month.

Although it might be unfair to judge without having seen the scenes he shot (nor will we ever…), I’m glad we got to see Plummer in a heavy, unapologetic and vicious version of Getty as I’m afraid that Spacey’s performance would have too much of Frank Underwoood in it. Plummer is excellent in his few scenes and manages to find the subtlest ways to demonstrate emotion, with his face assuming the role of the most precious tool.

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After the film you might feel more generous and giving, think about your grandparents, start feeling very protective of your ears, and contemplate how subjective are the value and price of our lives to the people around us. You might also, have long conversations about Getty’s psyche in order to explain his complete lack of compassion for a loved one but end up to the disappointing conclusion that accessing the source of cruelty will only provide evidence of how prone we are to it.

Mesmerised are we! – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), dir: Rian Johnson

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Right where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi picks the story up and introduces yet another episode in the sci-fi extravaganza called Star Wars. Episode VIII lasts two and a half hours and is a rich and highly entertaining addition to the saga.

The Last Jedi encompasses everything a Star Wars fan might desire; immense thrills, nostalgic references, emotionally-charged confrontations, burning questions, haunting doubts, crucial dilemmas, mind-blowing visuals and dynamic characters. It also lacks predictability to the extent where it makes you suspect Rian Johnson purposefully dismissed all the fan theories on the web while putting together the script.

The parallel narratives alternate smoothly and allow enough screen time to both familiar and new characters to develop and fulfil their distinct part in this war. Rey is in constant effort to persuade, Kylo is struggling to make decisions, Luke is learning how to be a better teacher, Leia is fighting for the cause, Snoke is arrogantly manipulating, Poe is leading manoeuvres against the First Order, and Finn is throwing himself in the fire. All the aforementioned span among three main storylines that merge beautifully into one at the end.

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Rey, Kylo and Luke are the main draws of this film, delivering great scenes and triggering the most intense feelings. Scenes of the likes of the red-infested fight where Rey and Kylo join forces is gripping and utterly magnetizing as it combines character study, thrilling dialogue, crucial story developments and impressively choreographed action.

Another would be the visually stunning and aesthetically elegant scene of the aircraft explosion in the speed of light. Similarly, to the opening scenes where Poe is taking initiative in his mission, the CGI effects are tremendous. The scene where Luke gets yet another precious lesson from his wise Master in front of a flaming sacred tree is able to give you goose bumps, for obvious reasons.

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I found particularly intoxicating the narrative device of telepathic connection that Rey and Kylo experience, as we are tantalised with the prospect of a great, unexplained connection between the two and we witness their genuine chemistry, pushing them a little further in discovering their true identity. By using this storytelling trick, Johnson enriches the dramatization of events and laces it with playful humour of wisely calculated dosages. Telepathy however, has never been more erotic and divisive as this one, with exquisite closeups, complete with seductive force and dramatic purpose.

As for the laughs that The Last Jedi provides, they are an invigorating addition to the franchise that has made only dry attempts in the past, and sit brilliantly among the dramatized sequences. Self-deprecating humour reigns here with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) representing a caricature of evil stupidity, Poe (Oscar Isaac) expressing his unquenched passion for blowing up stuff, Rey’s initiation to the Jedi lessons by an impatient Luke, and finally, even with Kylo Ren being overtaken by a vengeful fever that transcends into a ridiculous attack that reveals serious anger management issues.

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Johnson’s script is smart and fresh by delving into his characters’ psyche, adding them layers and taking the story in different directions than the expected. His narrative has an impeccably tight flow, excluding only the ineffectual parts of Finn’s and Rose’s mission to find the Master Codebreaker and that of the Rebels’ internal upheavals around defence strategy. Those scenes lacked the energy and appropriate tension, feeling more like a break from the thrilling action. The reason for this is either that fans are not as invested to the characters involved, or that the anticipation for the film’s narrative backbone, involving the central trio was far too great. However, it’s worth mentioning that Johnson finds the right balance between action and dialogue thus, enabling us to identify with the characters and experience emotions of immense intensity instead of relying to explosions.

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The Last Jedi is a fascinating, galactic ride that is simultaneously broad and personal. It is admittedly a classic fight between good and evil, light and darkness but as Rey quickly perceives, reality sits somewhere in the colourful middle. The film explores the limits of ambition, the tragic consequences of momentary mistakes, guilt’s ability to numb and dominate the spirit, the importance of having a mentor and the traits of a good one, the excruciatingly hard dilemmas and the amount of bravery one needs to face them, the majestic self-sacrificial tendencies of simple people and finally, it explores the idea that vulnerability resides even in the darkest existences.

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Rey’s persistence and strength are effectively communicated in Daisy Ridley’s performance while she is attempting to trace her roots and secure a future for the Resistance. Ridley emits focus, compassion and inspirational strength. However, I find the most moving and emotionally-complex performance belongs to Adam Driver whose expression encapsulates beautifully and painfully the eternal clash between good and evil. Driver’s closeups are haunting and piercing as he powerfully communicates the conflict, the loneliness and the weight his father’s murder had on his soul.

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Admittedly, the last hour of the film is a barrage of action, emotion, betrayal and confrontation with amazing visuals, where even the blood red fighting ground elevates the grandeur of the spectacle, and Joh Williams’s score dresses the dreamlike atmosphere. Apart from the dark, sensual cross-cutting dialogue, what stayed with me afterwards was how compelling and imperative women were to the storyline. It is rare to witness a film that allocates equal dynamism and importance to male and female roles, with the difference that the Last Jedi certainly skewed female.

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Rey is a powerful, smart, loyal and determined person, an admirable survivor and a brave, passionate fighter. General Leia is an established leader and a powerful galactic icon, and Vice Admiral Holdo surprises with her pure, self-sacrificial mission. With Rose, being a fair and brilliant girl who manages to turn a corrupted city upside down and many other Rebel warriors featuring in the film, it’s evident that the Force is with women in Rian Johnson’s vision. Finally, part of this vision is to make clear that you can be a nobody and at the same time the most powerful creature in the galaxy.

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After the film you might book for the next screening, take some time to process the overflow of emotion and spectacle while listening to the atmospheric score, realise how boring white salt is and catch yourself using the word ‘force’ a little too often. Also, you might have dreams about (a shirtless) Kylo Ren sobbing while talking to you about his childhood trauma and inner conflict, or you might dream about Yoda and Poe spending the night in jail after being arrested for arson.

Love’s GLOrious epilogue – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017), dir: Paul McGuigan

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The film is a personal portrait of a love story, no matter how unusual and morbid it becomes. The early memories of their affair interwind with the last days of Gloria’s life and in fact, are only two years apart, which makes it feel even more an unfair and tragic a conclusion. Flashbacks and the present are smoothly alternated in a way that will make you think about parallel universes and the relativity of knowledge and time. The reality is that because we are set to see Gloria’s end since the very beginning, this tragic disposition sets a tone of inescapable misery and grief that affects the lightness and playfulness of their early days of carefree loving.

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It is an affectionate yet sad story of an improbable romance. The 30-year age difference between Gloria and Peter challenges the credibility of this love affair but given the charisma of this woman and her brilliant acting career it makes sense why in the eyes of a young man, a struggling actor nonetheless she would be the most desirable woman.

And to be fair, she truly is. Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame) is so powerful, charming and piercing that you won’t be getting enough of her. Glo’s voice is hypnotising and smooth like a fingertips caress, her body moves with grace and her eyes sparkle with childish vitality and excitement. Annette Bening’s presence is so strong and mesmerising that fills the screen and your heart with admiration, anticipation, sorrow and tenderness.

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Jamie Bell is excellent as Peter Turner, his energy is infectious and his affection transparent as it feels incredibly original. It is an amazing gift he has to always appear authentic and emotionally charged with his physicality playing a great part in that.

I loved the dancing scene they share when they first meet because it a splendid prologue of their later affair and a glimpse of who they truly are. They are not synchronised but they are a pair, he is energetic and passionate, she is delicate and craves for attention and desire. The restless movement of the camera transmits the sexual tension, the eagerness for closeness and the curiosity for each other. The Romeo & Juliet scene towards the end was also an unforgettable experience as performances were sensational and the gesture in itself is the most moving declaration of love.

If nothing else, the film gives room for great, impactful performances and a bittersweet feeling about love. In that sense, Film Stars is a film about giving someone what they need, offering affection, sharing amazing moments, standing by them when trouble appears and finally, coming face to face with an immeasurably painful loss.

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After the film you might re-watch some Gloria Grahame films, question whether age difference limits sexual attraction, think about what makes you fall in love; could admiration be an integral part of it? Also, you might start picturing yourself in 30 years from now and wonder whether love will have a central role in it and finally, you might be entertained by the thought that experiencing a great romance could occur in the most improbable time and place (like Liverpool…?)

Sexual repression unlocks magnificent powers – Thelma (2017), dir: Joachim Trier

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Thelma opens with a mysterious, ice-cold act that introduces us to the character by posing a grave question. What is wrong with Thelma? What terrible things is she capable of that pushes her own father to the edge?

Thelma is a slow-burn existential thriller and a beautifully-shot supernatural Nordic tale that is uniquely scary, sexy and empowering. There is a dreamy, alluring and magical ambience that Trier orchestrates, especially through the exquisite slow movements of the camera, the indulging portraits and the sensuality of Thelma’s fantasies and dreams. The film presents an amalgam of drama, romance, coming-of-age adventure, thriller and mystery.

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There is a precious serenity and smoothness in the sequence of shots that are dressed with a cryptic, intense and rough soundtrack. It is impressive how a language contributes to the telling of a story, is almost a character in itself and fits perfectly the surroundings and idiosyncrasies of the protagonists. The Norwegian language, rich in musically intonated consonants, of the likes of F, S, L and R (at least to the ears of someone who doesn’t speak any of the Germanic languages) is sweet and hard at the same time, just like our heroine. Her face is perfect, like that of a porcelain doll but is also tormented and desperately emotional. Eili Harboe is excellent at conveying fear, confusion, lust and joy and so delivers a captivating and piercing performance.

Thelma is young, inexperienced and shy when she leaves home to study in the capital. Like a scared animal she slowly and carefully makes her first steps out in the world, which she has been taught is full of dangers and corruptive temptations. She takes little bites at a time and seems to surrender control and gradually lose herself, or to better put this, reinvent herself.

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Thelma is a victim of controlling parenting and that is a much relatable element of her story. She struggles to make her own decisions, to establish her limits and personal space and be the master of her mind and heart. Her catholic upbringing dictates her to feel shame for experiencing sexual attraction for her friend Anja (Kaya Wilkins). The pair has a beguiling chemistry that enrich their masterfully-directed scenes together.

This unprecedented passion for her friend sets off a vicious cycle of repression for Thelma and pills off her conditioned reservations by allowing her true self hesitantly immerge. Guilt and fear around homosexuality begins as her main trigger but later on, it is just the tip of the ice berg as she is called to trace the origins of her inexplicable powers and shed light on her complicated relationship with her parents. It is only through crisis and struggle that Thelma gets in contact with her original identity and instinctive desires that unlock her long-banished potential.

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Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt stage Thelma’s suffering, confusion and self-discovery with a brilliant script and Trier’s visual style is masterful and aesthetically compelling. Remarkable scenes unfold throughout the film such as the still of the broken glass of milk stained with blood, the frightening swim in the deep, blue pool, the reptilian erotic hallucination, the intense opera incident and towards the end, the flaming punishment in the lake.

The director collusively winks at the audience with the closing scene that addresses universal agonies, such as the ambiguity of liberty of choice, the exertion of one’s power over others and the strength needed to accept one’s true nature. We have witnessed Thelma go through fire and water to liberate herself from the ghosts of her past and the shadows of her present, so we naturally find ourselves on her side in her decision to embrace her powers. With the ending credits came a huge smile on my face because I have immersed into the story of a kind and loving survivor who has taken life by the horns and has found her place in the world, just the way she is. With the last seconds of the film came pouring ethical questions around Thelma’s choice but by that point I loved her too much to care.

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After the film you might crave a (forbidden) apple, bring yourself to recall the times you felt you had supernatural powers (might as well be when you were five…), think how you’d use your powers, would you be selfish or share them with the world? Also, you might think about your life choices up till now, be honest with yourself and count the ones that you made entirely on your own but then, you might think…are we ever free to choose when we are forever shaped from our environment?! Finally, you might have some weird dreams involving burning boats, birds, reptiles, thunders and beautiful but dangerous creatures lurking in the shadows.