Early this year, Hollywood released “Patriot’s Day,” a superb investigative procedural about the Boston Marathon bombing. The focus of the film was the engrossing search, told through multiple story lines, for the perpetrators of the crime. With the film “Stronger” we have a view of the bombing seen through the other end of the telescope, a tight focus on one of its victims. (Now in theaters, the film is rated R for language and intense scenes and runs 116 minutes.)
It’s the morning of April 14, 2013, and native Bostonian and Costco deli worker Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) pleads to get off work so he can go to the Marathon finish line to see his on-and-off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) finish the race. While there he notices a strange man in the crowd only seconds before the first of the Tsarnaef brothers’ bombs explodes, destroying his legs below the knee. He is operated on and saved and comes out of a coma to help the FBI finger his assailant. He also learns his fate, with his noisy, unruly Irish family smothering him, along with the steadfast Erin. Feted and fussed over and constantly called a hero, he struggles both to adapt to what family and city expect of him and to confront his debilitating injuries.
Rehabilitation is achingly hard, especially for a fellow without a strong sense of discipline. Only a team of great health professionals and the committed Erin (who agrees to move in with him for support) get him on the right track. Physical rehab is perhaps even harder with his clinging family – led by mom Patty (Miranda Richardson), an irresponsible lush – constantly badgering him for attention and living off his celebrity status.
His being used as a tool for glory-by-association peaks in an excruciating scene where Mom, during a drunken family revel, rises to make a surprise announcement that Jeff will be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, her ultimate definition of “making it.” With Jeff not knowing of the gambit and Erin completely unaware, a rift with her and his family opens, as his girl realizes how thoroughly he is being used.
Through all of this, Jeff is constantly struggling with how everybody (except Erin) perceives him: as that “hero” and the epitome of “Boston Strong,” the new city slogan. He is not reveling in his newfound renown but just getting pushed around – literally – receiving fatuous praise for accidentally standing near a bomb. The prospect of a baby with Erin, and a candid conversation with a man who helped save him on that day, moves Jeff to finally take on and conquer his leg prostheses. He comes to terms with his notoriety too and becomes a positive symbol of Boston – one year to the day – by throwing out the first baseball of the season at Fenway Park.
“Stronger” is a triumph for Jake Gyllenhaal. Now maturing as an actor, he has recently had more meaty leads in films like “End of Watch” and “Nighcrawler.” He deserves full praise for his portrayal of an insouciant, flighty fellow who must plumb his depths to craft a new life. In showing this dislocation and transformation, I credit director David Gordon Green for not flinching from showing the gritty details of Bauman’s injuries: struggling in the bathroom, in the rehab room, even in the crass bar he habituates. He does everything he can for the viewer to understand the strains on the man and how he overcomes them.
An accolade to Tatiana Maslany (TV’s “Orphan Black”) too, for a firm and moving performance as Erin. Playing a serious person, she makes you believe she could fancy an immature drifter like Jeff, then come to love him as his staunch caregiver, and then accept him as a new man, recharged.
Just as effective on screen, but at the opposite side of the spectrum, is Richardson, a willfully jolly drunk who does little for her son but cling to him as a ticket to ride. She is vividly irresponsible and memorably vile, redeemed only by her steadfast son.
‘Victoria and Abdul’
For those Anglophiles who want another immersion in the warm, luxurious stew of the British monarchy, look no further for your latest fix than “Victoria and Abdul,” an engaging if utterly predictable dip into late Victorianism by a whole passel of old British pros, plus an attractive newcomer. (The film, now in theaters, is rated PG-13 and runs 112 minutes.)
All you need to know is that Dame Judi Dench rules this film as Queen Victoria, way late in her reign, alienated from her son (the future Edward VII), sour as vinegar from her unending rule, and looking for some – any – breath of the novel and the fresh. As she herself admits at a crucial point in the film, “I am cantankerous, greedy, fat; I am perhaps, disagreeably, attached to power.” Her relief comes in the form of one Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young, literate Indian Muslim who is selected to come to London from Agra in 1887 to deliver a special commemorative coin to Her Majesty on the occasion of her golden jubilee.
Abdul is supposed to be invisible to the Queen, but instead he catches her eye, then her mood, and finally her spirit to the point where he becomes her teacher, or “munshi,” in all things Muslim and Indian as well as serving as her clerk. Theirs is a relationship which appalls her family – including the Prince of Wales (a bombastic Eddie Izzard) – and the court, especially in the person of Sir Henry Ponsonby (the uptight Tim Pigott-Smith) but which lasted until the Queen’s death in 1901.
Sound familiar? Of course, we are in the same realm as “Mrs. Brown” (1997), where Judi Dench as Victoria is taken with another fellow beneath her station, an Irish manservant, John Brown, who in the 1860s became a surprise confidante of the sheltered monarch because he was not deferential and challenged the strictures of her rule. Consider the two films bookends of late Victorianism, Dench-version.
“Victoria and Abdul,” written by playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”) and based on a book by Shrabani Basu, is a pleasing confection, principally due to the gentle cross-cultural jokes that the intensely loyal Abdul introduces into the stuffy palace environment (most of the Queen’s entourage are sour racists), and to Dench’s consummate performance, dominating every scene.
Dench is a perfect fit for the aging monarch, even though the actress is 82 years old and playing the 68-year-old Victoria (in 1887). She portrays a woman plagued by old age, loneliness, and a whole series of physical ailments, and her face and body reflect that demise. We see her first falling asleep at another routine royal dinner before Abdul arrives with his coin to perk her up. As the warmth of their relationship grows, Dench is able to show a woman brighten and come alive with both a handsome youth’s attentions and a renewed drive to learn something new and investigate an unfamiliar world. Dench is able to embody the last late flame of life before its end.
Dench has had an amazing career in her golden years, appearing in more than 30 films since 1995. This is likely the last time we will see her as a queen, and she merits a grand curtsey.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.