I seldom recommend a movie, but The Glass Castle (2017) has joined the relatively short list of films that I have rated 8 or higher on the 10-point scale at IMDb. (Relatively short is 700 of the 2,100 feature films that I have rated. If that seems like a high ratio, consider that I am picky about what I choose to watch, not an easy grader.)
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
That barely skims the surface of the memoir, which (as my wife tells) me is often harrowing in its depiction of the poverty, squalor, rootlessness, and shame inflicted on the Walls children by their parents. The film captures the essence of the memoir without rubbing the viewer’s nose in squalor or seeking to blame “society” for the fate of the Wallses. And why would a Hollywood film do that, in this day and age, for the Wallses weren’t ghetto blacks or “undocumented” immigrants. They were just rednecks.
And it is for that reason that I admire the film. It just tells it like it was, according to Jeannette Walls. In fact, it pulls a few punches, as it must to fit a book-length memoir into 127 minutes of screen time. But it lands a lot of punches, and lands them effectively. There are no cardboard characters or ersatz themes in this film, which manages to convey Jeannette Walls’s love for her parents, despite all that they put her and her siblings through.
Woody Harrelson, who plays Rex Walls, has the redneck thing down pat. He is like most of the many rednecks I have known and encountered: full of false braggadocio and seething resentment, with the ever-present threat of sometimes-realized violence. Harrelson’s performance deserves far more prestigious recognition than a nomination for Central Ohio Film Critics’ Actor of the Year.
I can’t leave The Glass Castle without mentioning the fine work of Naomi Watts, who does a good hillbilly for an Englishwoman. Watts works in the tradition of British actors, who mostly are able to sound authentically American. This is a talent that is reciprocated only be very few American actors who have tried to sound British.
But if Victoria is representative — and it is, in my experience — British actors should be banned from doing German accents. Three main roles — Prince Albert, his brother Prince Ernest, and his uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians — are given to Brits: Tom Hughes, David Oakes, and Alex Jennings. It would have been hard to get worse German accents by randomly choosing from among American high-school students who have been cast in a senior play.
But that matters little in the grand scheme of Victoria, which is a sumptuous, feminist soap opera. Albert is always trying to usurp or guide little Vickie, who is always putting her tiny royal foot down, when she isn’t making passionate love (with Albert) that results in yet another little encumbrance to the performance of her royal duties.
Poor Vickie. She should have commanded her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to marry her. The result would have been a much more satisfactory soap opera, inasmuch as Rufus Sewell (who plays Lord M.) is a more convincing lover than Tom Hughes (Albert), despite being 20 years older than Hughes.
I must add that Jenna Coleman (below, left) is a cute Victoria. Certainly cuter than the real item (below, right). But that’s a main part of Victoria’s appeal.
There will be a third season, and I probably will watch it, but only because I enjoy soap-operas about the upper crust, like Downton Abbey.
The Crown is another royal soap-opera, which is also destined for a third season (at least). The script-writers’ dislike for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip is so evident that Her Majesty and His Royal Highness might prevail in a libel suit. There may be shards of truth in The Crown, but they are cocooned in fabrications.
To take two blatant examples: The Queen didn’t conspire with Anthony Eden to prevent her sister, Princess Margaret, from marrying Peter Townsend. Harold Macmillian didn’t conspire to unseat Anthony Eden as prime minister in order to succeed him.
In keeping with the historical inaccuracy of the series is the producers’ penchant for casting actors who somewhat resemble the persons they play, but who are much too tall. Alex Jennings (he does get around), is several inches taller than the very late Duke of Windsor; Vanessa Kirby is likewise much too vertical to pass for the tiny (and somewhat late) Princess Margaret; and John Lithgow (question-mark-stooped as he plays Churchill) is far too hulking to pass for the immortal hero of World War II.
I might let the miscasting pass, were it not for the writers’ venomous and inaccurate telling of events. But, again, after ingesting several teaspoons of salt, I’ll probably stick around for another season of Downtown Abbey meets Buck House, as The Crown should have been titled.
A Hollywood Circle
Pride and Prejudice on Film
The Movies: (Not) Better Than Ever
At the Movies: The Best and Worst Years
My Year at the Movies (2007)
The Quality of Films over the Decades
More about the Quality of Films
The Movies: Not Better than Ever (II)
The Longevity of Stars
2013: A Bad Year at the Movies
A Trip to the Movies
Another Trip to the Movies
Unwatchable Movies on the Rise
Film Fiasco: Mon oncle Antoine