At last year’s Middleburg Film Festival, the pandemic required attendees to bring a negative Covid-19 test before being able to sit at the venues, where they were also required to don masks. This year, some film fans of a certain age still felt the need to safeguard their health with masks, which was probably wise.
Even still, there was much to celebrate at festival founder Sheila Johnson’s four-day annual event that takes place at the Salamander Resort and Spa in horse and wine country. Oddly, there is no real movie theater in town given the population of 673 who have sprawling estates and mucho money. Instead, films are shown at the hotel’s huge ballroom, the main venue. Otherwise, a community center, a school, and a sporting library are turned into multiplex theaters.
2022 marks a landmark of sorts as the four-day fest gets a chance to really put on the Ritz, given that this is the fest’s 10th anniversary. Yes, it is expensive to stay at the resort itself. But the staff, as well as the volunteers, make sure to allow audience members to be comfortably seated and they are treated well. Snacks are often provided free of charge, including kettle corn, Skittles, and even fortune cookies whose messages featured movie titles that played at fest over the years. There was a wine tasting table set up that allowed attendees in the resort’s main public space where two fireplaces keep things toasty and warm. All I know is that the rosé sample I sipped hit the spot.
But the prime attraction is, of course, the films, many of which will likely be part of the conversation during this year’s award season. The fest kicked off with a bang, with Aussie actress Cate Blanchett, who first won an Oscar for her supporting role in 2004’s "The Aviator" as actress Katharine Hepburn. She then received her first Best Actress award in 2013 for Woody Allen’s "Blue Jasmine". Her newest film, “TÁR,” directed by Todd Field ("Little Children"), finds Blanchett playing Lydia, a conductor of great renown who has carried much hubris through her notable career. She is days away from recording the symphony that will elevate her legacy.
Like many festivals, a narrative feature and a documentary both earned Audience Awards. “Devotion” is based on a book by Adam Makos and the adaption of a wartime story that features a mixed-race friendship between a white and black pilot. Set in 1950, the year when the military became desegregated, the film tells the story of Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), who became the first Black aviator in Naval history. Alas, Jesse constantly faces hostility and racial prejudice. However, he gets support from his new wingman and fellow fighter pilot, Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). Basically, “Devotion” is part “Top Gun” and part “Brian’s Song,” and it definitely deserves a two-star salute in buddy-ship.
As for the winning documentary, the Audience Award went to “Turn Every Page – The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb.” The two Roberts have had a fifty-year relationship, and both are literary legends. Caro is 86, while Gottlieb is his 91-year-old editor. They are trying to complete Caro’s masterwork, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, in this fan favorite profile.
If there was a theme that connected several films at Middleburg and through the upcoming award season, it may be antsy social anxiety as we wind down from quarantining at home and try to feel safe in our outside lives again.
One of the more high-profile premieres about national stress came in the form of “She Said,” in which Carey Mulligan and Zoey Kazan take on the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandals as New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, directed by Maria Schrader ("Unorthodox"). The shocking story researched and written by the two journalists served as a launching pad for the #MeToo Movement, shattering decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault and harassment. Yes, Rowan Farrow went after Weinstein while writing for The New Yorker, but the film captures how these two steadfast journalists put themselves in harm’s way, given how society often treats smart women who dare to go after rich and successful sexual predators.
Then there is Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” starring Brendan Frasier as a 600-pound English teacher who hides his bloated body from his students during Zoom calls. He is kept stable by a female caretaker (Hong Chau) who tries to make him feel safe and somewhat secured, but it is clear that his constant food binging has impacted him mentally and physically. He tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) even as his vital signs start spiraling out of control. Fraser is likely to be a major player during the entire awards season.
Another awards season player will likely be Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” an adaptation of the novel by Miriam Toews, which is based on a horrible real-life incident, the drugging and rape of women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. The author says she wanted to show the women as real humans, not isolated cultists. The film has been dinged for its sort of black-ish and sort of white-ish tone of the film. At least the power-house cast includes Ben Whishaw, who helps the women decide if they should leave their faith for the sake of their children and their own safety. Standouts include Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand, who is also a producer.
Director Florian Zeller follows up with “The Son,” a companion piece to “The Father.” Sir Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for that film about dementia and mental concerns as one gets older. However, even though characters played by Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby do what they can in “The Son,” divorce, depression and mental health work great emotional damage to Jackman’s 17-year-old son from his first marriage. Meanwhile, his second wife isn’t sympathetic or really connected to her stepson and dotes on her own baby boy. It’s a set-up for a sad and depressing film.
On the final day of the fest, I was pleasantly surprised to watch director Sam Mendes’ latest movie, “Empire of Light.” At first, it seems that the story is all about a movie theater called the Empire and the people who work there. We soon learn that Olivia Colman, who plays one of the workers there, is having issues with her unsatisfying existence at the theater. It doesn’t help that her boss, played by Colin Firth, regularly uses her for sex in his office. But when a young and good-looking Black man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the team, Colman starts doting on him as well. Reviews from other festivals weren’t as kind as I am. But it is the ‘80s and there was some truly great cinema at that time. Thankfully, we have Middleburg to remind us of the power of filmgoing again.