Tillotama Shome looks stunning on the beach as she celebrates at Cannes Film Festival
Tillotama Shome wore a sari on the beach, a beautiful counterpoint to the indignities her character suffers in a film that has captivated audiences in Critics’ Week, the smallest of the three side events that follow the official section of the Film Festival.
As good as some of the main selection has been, I was captivated by the films I saw in the Un Certain Regard, Quinzaine (Director’s Fortnight) and Critics’ Week.
Director Rohena Gera’s picture Sir features Ms Shome playing Ratna, a widow who leaves her village to work as a maid in Mumbai. Her employer is Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), a journalist from a wealthy family whose marriage was called off at the 11th hour.
‘The domestic workers are treated as the lowest of the low,’ Rohena told me. Tillotama explained: ‘The reason you see Ratna sitting on the ground, eating her meals, is because the idea of her sitting on your sofa — or any of your chairs — is unspeakable.’
So the idea that Ratna and Ashwin might fall in love is beyond shocking.
I loved the film, in part because I admired the grit that shines through in Tillotama’s beautifully nuanced performance. ‘There’s this idea of privilege and happiness being related,’ Rohena said. ‘But for me it was important not to have Ratna as a victim, but to turn it on its head.
‘To see that for Ashwin, privilege is a gilded cage, whereas Ratna — because she has nothing — has nothing to lose. She’s away from her family and fighting for her life. They give each other little bits of courage.’
Tillotama agreed. ‘It was important to give Ratna dignity. She has an inner strength.’ Both Tillotoma and Rohena said they felt guilty during the shoot.
The actress said: ‘I’m part of this exploitative system, where we do enjoy a certain comfort at a very low cost of employing maids. But I feel that, hopefully, I don’t exploit them. And I employ with a sense of responsibility.’
She added that she had worked in low-paying jobs when she was studying in New York. ‘It woke me up,’ she said. ‘And making Sir woke me up again.’
The film, which the director funded privately, was involved in a bidding war in Cannes and has sold to various territories around the world. There are hopes it will find a distributor in the UK, too. I hope so.
Baz Bamigboye: Thandie Newton’s Star Wars gown goes to town at the Cannes Film Festival
Sometimes, no matter how glamorous the setting, only a cuppa will do.
Thandie Newton, star of television drama Westworld — and part of the Solo: A Star Wars Story ensemble that took over the Cannes Film Festival — boiled the kettle and popped a teabag in a cup.
‘Can’t do a thing without a brew,’ she declared when we met for a chat at the Carlton Hotel. She could have snapped her fingers and a battalion of minders, publicists, managers and hotel catering staff would have come scurrying to see to her tea.
But it was typical of the 45-year-old Londoner (a mother of three) that she just got on and did it herself.
Mother-of-three Thandi Newton wowed on the red carpet at the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France
I laughed when I got to the Palais for the Solo gala to see that not just the stars, but their aides — managers, publicists and agents — had their names pinned to the plush seats.
As Thandie noted: ‘It’s not about the movie star any more. It’s about the spectacle of the brand.’
Luckily, she added, if you’re smart enough, you can still have a career like Woody Harrelson (they both play buccaneering outlaws in the new stand-alone Star Wars film). You can do an industrial movie, like Planet Of The Apes; and then a smart pick, like Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which Harrelson shone as the sheriff.
Thandie exemplifies that smart pattern, too. Her sassy, tart-tongued Maeve in Westworld is TV art. She was making the show in Los Angeles and commuting back to London to film scenes in Solo — which turned out to be a troubled shoot.
Actress Thandi Newton makes a cup of tea in Cannes
Seventy-four days in, co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who made the cool Warner Bros Lego Movie) were fired and replaced by Ron Howard. It didn’t impact too much on Thandie, who shot her scenes with Alden Ehrenreich (the young Han Solo) and Harrelson.
Her role, as Val, marks a signature moment in the Star Wars galaxy. She said there hadn’t been a ‘woman of colour’ in a significant part in any of the Star Wars films.
And she clearly admired Val. ‘She’s competent, uncompromising, highly skilled at what she does — which is to make an idea become reality. You know, if you need a bridge to be blown up, then she’s your woman.’
Thandie wore a fabulous frock (left) on the red carpet. She collaborated with Vivienne Westwood to create it.
She gathered up Star Wars toys from home — dolls of John Boyega, Billy Dee Williams, Samuel L. Jackson and others — and had their images emblazoned onto the gown. Everyone was touching the hem of her garment to study the black actors on it.
This is the prime of Ms Thandie Newton. I was on a judging panel last year that spent more time discussing her terrific part in Line Of Duty than anything else. Westworld is half-way through its second season and she’s already booked to make a third.
She also plays a ‘Kate Adie’-type TV correspondent in Xavier Dolan’s film The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan. And she’s working on a film project she hopes to direct — and play a supporting role in.
She leaned forward and told me: ‘It’s so weird that it has happened in my 40s. I’ve acted for 30 years now and I’m so grateful for the career I’ve had. There have been frustrating times, but the last five or six years I’ve stopped doing anything I don’t want to do — and it’s not that I can afford to do that. It’s just that I’ve seen too much and know too much of the influence the industry has on young minds — my daughters are 16 and 13 and my son is four — and I’m mindful of the harm that can do.’
She’s adamant she will not participate in productions that portray women in a detrimental way, even if it’s not her role that’s offensive. ‘If I feel the production is being derogatory about other female characters, then I won’t do it. I know how important it is to stand your ground.’
She had a powerful epiphany when she was 37 — the life expectancy in Zimbabwe, her mother’s birthplace. ‘That was a powerful wake-up call,’ she said. ‘No one expects a woman of colour in her 40s to have a little surge in her career — especially in Hollywood, which is such a chew-you-up, spit-you-out industry.’
She doesn’t hold a grudge but she remembers those who spat her out and now want to work with her. ‘I remember everything,’ she told me.
Her family has a hectic year ahead. Husband Ol Parker directed Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with Lily James and Meryl Streep, which opens here in July. And daughter Nico, 13, is one of the leads in Tim Burton’s Disney live action Dumbo movie.
‘We thought it would be a couple of days on a Tim Burton film but it became nearly six months,’ Thandie said of Nico’s experience. ‘And now she wants to be an actress.’
Thomasin is shooting to the top
A bullet in her luggage nearly derailed Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s Cannes debut.
The 17-year-old actress, from Wellington, New Zealand, stars alongside Ben Foster in director Debra Granik’s splendid film Leave No Trace.
Thomasin (pictured) told me she found a spent bullet when she was visiting a farm in New Zealand. ‘I saw it, and picked it up because I thought it was a cute thing to keep. I threw it in a bag and didn’t think for a minute it was going to create an incident at Heathrow,’ she told told me following the screening of Leave No Trace, shown in the Quinzaine (Director’s Fortnight) to a rapturous reception.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, 17, is the star of No Trace. Baz Bamigboye says she’s a ‘natural’
‘I was worried for a bit that I wouldn’t be allowed to continue the journey.’
In the film, Thomasin plays the American daughter of an ex U.S. soldier who has chosen to live off grid in the middle of a state park. Father and daughter forage for food and live under the stars.
Granik made Winter’s Bone, which starred a young Jennifer Lawrence and was pivotal to the Oscar-winning star’s early career.
And there’s a sense the same will be true of Thomasin and Leave No Trace.
She’s a natural, and I was as surprised as others in the audience when she came on stage later with Granik and Foster, and spoke with a strong Kiwi accent. She also has a small role opposite Timothee Chalamet, as Henry V, in director David Michod’s Netflix film The King, based on Joel Edgerton’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry V (she will play one of Henry’s sisters). But there’s a bigger part — in a much bigger film — that will also shoot in Europe later this summer.
Thomasin, who has a down-to-earth sweetness about her, was travelling with her parents: mother Miranda Harcourt, acting coach to the likes of Nicole Kidman; and father Stuart McKenzie, a director; and younger sister Davida.
She’s truly part of New Zealand theatre royalty. Her maternal grandmother is New Zealand stage legend Kate Harcourt.
Watch out for…
Spike Lee at ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Outs during the 71st Cannes Film Festival
Spike Lee, who has been arguing with me for three decades — and there have been some humdingers.
But he’ll find no argument from me about his great movie BlacKkKlansman, based on the true story of a black Colorado undercover cop, played with terrific swagger by John David Washington, who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK, with help from a fellow officer played by Adam Driver.
Lee (right) infuses the story with some swagger of his own, but it doesn’t get in the way of a fantastic tale. He underpins his film with the bombshell fact that in 2018, the United States has its first KKK president. ‘And don’t forget your Brexit,’ he added — though I pointed out it was not ‘my’ Brexit.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War
The movie is a love story between singer (Joanna Kulig) and orchestrator (Tomasz Kot) who meet in a state-sponsored folk troupe used for propaganda in post-war Poland. Freedom comes at a price, but love demands a higher one.
Franky Lily, in director Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s film Shoplifters about a ‘family’ that isn’t what it seems at first. The group becomes more dysfunctional when Lily and his ‘son’ think they are doing a good deed by taking in a little girl who has apparently been abandoned in the cold. By film’s end, when everything unravels, I wondered what I would have done. This is bound to be in the BFI London Film Festival in the autumn.
Yoo Ah-in, Yuen Steven and Jun Jong-seo, who play an intriguing threesome in director Lee Chang-dong’s gripping psychology thriller Burning, about a would-be writer living in a rural district (Yoo) who uncovers a world of mystery and malice when he meets up with an old girlfriend and a hip city dude.
Marcello Fonte, who plays a dog-loving groomer (also called Marcello) in Matteo Garrone’s new film Dogman. Initially, the passive Marcello irritated me and I wondered why he would allow himself to be bullied by a violent local, played by Edoardo Pesce.
But sometimes when a dog bites, as Judge John Ellison used to say when I covered Kingston Crown Court back in the day, it needs to be locked up and dealt with. Marcello does just that. And it’s not pretty.
Luis Ortega, who has directed Lorenzo Ferro and Chino Darin in El Angel, the true story of pretty-faced Carlos Eduardo Puch: a cat burglar turned killer who terrorised Buenos Aires in the early 1970s.
Ferro, making his screen debut, is superb as Carlos, known as ‘Carlitos’, who gets his kicks out of breaking and entering, because he believes that other people’s property belongs to him.
Ortega directs with great flair, and Ferro’s is a name to…watch out for.