This week, we have two small films in limited release, both highly recommended.
Leslie van Houton. Patricia Krenwinkel. Susan Atkins. If you are chilled by simply seeing these names in print, then you lived through the horrific murders perpetrated by the Manson family cult in the summer of 1969. You remember a face you’ll never forget: Charlie, of the ratty-looking long black hair and terrifying eyes. “Charlie Says” recounts the whole story, from the days on the ranch while Manson gathered his acolytes, young women from all walks of life looking for something different, through the Tate/LaBianca murders and the immediate aftermath. But the main focus of this film—and which makes it different and worthwhile—is what happened years later. Three of the young women were serving life sentences in an isolated part of the prison and became the focus of a program to try to make their jail time have some purpose. It is the slow and steady work of graduate student Karlene Faith (co-writer and author of the book on which the film is based and played by gifted actress Merritt Weaver) to ease the women away from parroting Manson’s “life lessons” so they could think for themselves and finally, to realize the horror they inflicted on their victims. English actor Matt Smith (“Dr. Who,” “The Crown”) plays Charlie and he does a fine job of it, except he can’t quite pull off that mesmerizing, crazed stare—could anyone? But he is less important here than the girls/women and their stories. Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten is particularly effective and affecting as a passive, lost soul caught up in the Manson aura and doomed by it. Crisply directed by Mary Harron, “Charlie Says” is a small gem of a film... if you can bear re-visiting the entire horror story. I was reluctant to do so but am glad I did.
“Non-Fiction,” also in limited release, is a French film and oh, is it French. We have much wine drinking, dinner parties with interesting food and interesting people, some adultery, some lies, enormous charm and a spirit of European world-weariness, or cynicism, or whatever the word is you want to use. The focus here is the world of publishing and much of the many group conversations are about the future of the book, digital vs. print, marketing to the nonreader, the future of the entire publishing industry vs. self-publishing. In other words, the movie covers what is actually going on at this moment in time all over the world, with that special touch that an Olivier Assayas film (“Demonlover,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Personal Shopper”) always has. Lots and lots of dialogue and lots and lots of ideas. The cast is very attractive, especially Guillaume Canet as the cool, confident head of a long-established publishing house, and his wife Selena, played by Juliette Binoche, an Assayas favorite. Vincent Macaigne does a wonderful job portraying an insecure, rather nebbish-y author whose star is fading but who can’t help but write books that feature thinly disguised real people and are always open to lawsuits. This is a treat for those of us who care about books and ideas, and who are suckers for foreign films with subtitles. I raise my hand.
If you have the chance, HBO is showing a marvelous eight-episode historical drama called “Gentleman Jack.” Suranne Jones is perfectly cast as a tall, assertive woman who dresses in men’s clothing up to a point—she still wears skirts because the year is 1832 in Yorkshire, England. But they’re long, black skirts, and she strides through her days in boots and top hat. She knows deep inside that she is a man born into a female body and conducts much of her life that way. Based on the real-life diaries of Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright (“Happy Valley,” “Last Tango in Halifax”) has created a truly pleasurable, sometimes painful, often amusing story of a woman looking for love but born into the wrong body and the wrong time in history.