Talking Pictures

Just another weblog

Far From the Madding Crowd, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 11, 2015


When I saw the trailer for this film I was afraid that this was going to be an extremely conventional and clichéd heritage film. In fact, it is better than that, though given that there is already an excellent earlier version – from 1967 – at times it feels redundant. I have not yet been able to revisit John Schlesinger adaptation, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Since it is available I wait in hope that some adventurous exhibitor will screen it. I don’t really want to attempt it on video, for [like the new version] it is in colour and wide screen., I did feel that someone involved in the new version had watched the earlier, likely several times. This film is full of sequences which remind one of the former. This does not just apply to the opening sequence that introduces the characters of Gabriel and Bathsheba. There are later scenes that look so familiar: Troy’s furtive meeting with Fanny at the Fair: the announcement to Bathsheba of her husband’s suicide; and Boldwood’s final fateful scene in prison.

The film has distinctive aspects, one of the best being Carey Mulligan’s characterisation of Bathsheba; it is different from that offered by Christie and seemed to me closer to the heroine in Hardy’s original novel. Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel is passable, Michael Sheen as Farmer Boldwood is good, but I think neither characterisation matches that of Bates or Finch. Some of the minor characters are excellent; I especially liked Liddy (Jessica Barden). However, Tom Sturridge is not up to the Troy presented by Stamp,

The direction is fair, but seems inhibited by the script. Some sequences, both between the film’s Gabriel and Bathsheba and Bathsheba and Troy, are well done. The use of landscape is excellent. The sequence where Troy demonstrates his swordsmanship to Bathsheba is now set in woodland and looks splendid. And the change from the towering cliff line to the arable farmland is effective. But there are also odd close-ups of props and shots of vacant sets – in one case flowers, in another the Everdene mansion – that suggest rather than deliver some intended metaphor.

My sense is that part of the problem is in the script.  It seems to be attempting to be faithful to the novel, frequently quoting dialogue from the book.  But it strains at transferring to the more literal medium of mainstream film. There are several sequences where Gabriel is added to a scene involving Bathsheba and one or other of her suitors. Early in the film the separate meetings of Gabriel with Fanny and Fanny with Troy are combined, presumably to tie the plot together. And then there are odd ellipses which actually hinder one’s sense of characterisation. Gabriel’s flute, an important prop and skill, is also missing.

The initial accident that besets Gabriel’s farm and Bathsheba’s good fortune are reversed in the chronology. It would appear that the writer could not envisage a visual means of imparting Gabriel’s discovery. The important scene in terms of Bathsheba’s fortitude, when she rescues Gabriel from a smoke filled cabin, is missing. The sequence when Fanny calls to Troy in the barracks is gone: a scene that fills out his character. The swordplay display by Troy looks good, but again the 1967 version captures the description in the book: this does not. There is an important scene with a meeting between Troy and Boldwood missing and weakening the characterisation of both men. Towards the climax of the story Troy’s whereabouts becomes important. The 1967 version had a variation on that in the book, to good effect. This version settles for fleeting shots of Troy, again odd rather than effective.

The film opens with Bathsheba’s voice-over sketching in her life: and there is a single voice-over by her later in the film. However, there is little sense otherwise of Bathsheba’s subjectivity. We get one shot as she responds to the presence of Troy and later there is a shot of her view of Boldwood with different emotional tone. But for most of the film we share the point-of-view of the narrator, exemplified by the conventional shot/reverse shot technique. Similar conventional shots and moments occur frequently in the film. When Bathsheba leaves her aunt to take up the farm she has been left she is wearing a bright red coat. Fanny arrives at the wrong church for her wedding to Troy, opening the door on someone else’s wedding. Preparing to slip out and meet Troy, Bathsheba unwinds the plait in her hair. And the film is very fond of sequences where Bathsheba bestrides a galloping horse: thus when her sheep are stricken rather than sending a note to Gabriel she rides there herself.


The other inhibitor is the score for the film: I assume that royalties are being paid to Vaughan Williams executors. It is frequently over the top and swamps some of the subtleties that the script does offer. There is a key example in the opening and closing of the film. The opening sequence, as in the book, shows Bathsheba out riding in a leather jacket and trousers [the latter seems anachronistic]. As she lies back on her horse to pass under hanging branches she is observed by Gabriel, standing in a field. Then at the end of the film Gabriel has announced his intentions to emigrate to the Americas. After agonising over this Bathsheba sets out after him on horseback wearing the leather jacket but this time a skirt rather than trousers. . Catching Gabriel on a track Bathsheba dismounts: the dialogue is very close to the penultimate chapter in the novel. Prompted by Bathsheba Gabriel kisses her passionately and she responds [miles away from Hardy’s description]. The couple then turn and start to walk home with Gabriel leading the horse.  This sequence inverts the opening in a subtle comment on the relationship: but it is accompanied by a full orchestral score and rim lighting of the couple in close-up provided by the sun. The subtlety seems completely lost.

In fact the Hardy narrative offers a strong proviso on the apparently happy ending. And the 1967 film managed to suggest his with a scene of the couple sitting in the parlour, followed by a close-up of a model soldier on the mantelpiece. A touch of irony missing in the remake.

One improvement in the new film is the treatment of dogs. Both old George and young George [unnamed in the novel] are here. However, the film still treats this conventionally. young George’s presence is cut short. And instead of arriving at Everdene farm with Gabriel old George re-appears near the end. In fact, he is an important presence as Bathsheba wrestles with the choices that have arisen over the story. However, what we have here is another conventional trope, this time regarding endings.

Part of the pleasure of Hardy’s novel is the description of the background and the story’s community. Neither film really attempts to include this, though I felt that the earlier version did have a better sense of its ambience. At one point a schoolboy passes rehearsing a lesson to himself; Schlesinger’s team capture this moment, the new team miss it out. Both films fail to include the fact that both the Everdene and Boldwood farms are tenancies: an important class and economic aspect. The films are clearly intended as adaptations of the novel, rather than transformations or inspirations for a new style work. The credits of this new film include Fox Searchlight and the BBC. Clearly the producers wanted a recognisable genre film for audiences. If one has never read the novel the film could work fairly well, though even here I think the characters motivations will appear undeveloped.

Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd doe offer a series of pleasures that neither film essays and it is well worth reading and re-reading. If you do, then it is worth looking at Amy Jenkins; ‘Bathsheba and Me’ in The Guardian Review (11 October 2014).


Posted in British film stars, British films, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

Strangers on a Train, USA 1951.

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2015

strangers on a train poster

I was able to revisit this film at the Leeds Young Film Festival. We were fortunate to have the film in a relatively good 35mm print. Intriguingly I realised later that this was the ‘pre-release’ version, which only came to light in 1995. Michael Walker, in Hitchcock’s Motifs (2005), provides a description of this version: it has additional footage but lacks the final humorous encounter by Guy and Ann on a train. Michael also makes the point that Strangers on a Train has the greatest number of the motifs that he identified across Hitchcock’s work: this makes it not only a very enjoyable but also a very interesting film.

The film has a striking opening as we follow two pairs of shoes from a taxi rank through Central Station to a waiting train. The shoes suggest something of the owners. The camera shots are deliberately placed in opposing angles. And when the shoes finally meet in the lounge car on the train a slight nudge provides an introduction. Guy Haynes [Farley Granger) is a restrained conventional character, a successful tennis star: he works for a US senator and is having a romance with his daughter Ann (Ruth Roman). Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) does not work but lives off his affluent parents: He is coded as gay. He appears exuberant and is obviously unconventional. What they have in common is a problem: in Guy’s case a separated and pregnant wife who will not divorce him: in Bruno’s case a father who he finds oppressive, ‘I hate him’. Out of this chance encounter the original Patricia Highsmith novel developed a distinctive murder mystery. If you are familiar with Highsmith’s writings then it will come as no surprise that the film makes considerably alterations to the plot of the novel, especially in the latter stages. Whilst the script removes the darker aspects of the novel it also introduces effective additions: for example the issue of competitive tennis which provides a suspenseful climatic sequence.

The audience can enjoy a film that has many of Hitchcock’s virtues. The plotting is ingenious and absorbing. The mechanics of the murder investigation are carefully spread out over the film. The character of the apparently innocent man provides a moral force to the tale. And the stylistic touches, including expressionist techniques and carefully suspenseful editing, add to the brio and allure of the film.

The most notable of these techniques is a reflection of a murder in the lenses of a pair of spectacles. The spectacles are passed to Guy by Bruno and then seem to disappear from the plot. They clearly suggest overtones of guilt but unlike another object – a lighter – their fate is unknown. Michael Walker also draws attention to another facet – both Miriam and Ann’s sister Patricia (Patricia Hitchcock) have a similar look, partly due to the spectacles they wear. He makes a general point regarding women characters who wear spectacles:


Apart from the connotations of ‘cleverness’ (in itself, a potential threat to a man), they also serve to draw attention to the fact that she was looking and lent her a certain intensity, the sort of intensity that men, apparently, find disturbing.

This is apt, for both Miriam and Patricia are ‘sassy’ women: they answer back to men. Miriam does this in an argument with Guy: Patricia to her father, a patriarchal figure who is also a lawmaker. Ann on the other hand is the dependent non-threatening woman. She stands by Guy even to the point when he appears to be guilty of a crime.

This gives the film a subversive edge, but the resolution – different from that offered by Patricia Highsmith – recoups this for the audience.


Posted in Hollywood, Literature on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Selma, USA 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2015



This is the best mainstream film that I have seen for some time: it is certainly better than the competitors that carried off Academy Awards. It may sound banal but perhaps the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave in 2014 sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers from stereotypes, such as Afro-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one remembered. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. The main aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events, which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or conservative.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence was shot using noticeable CGI techniques, which the film tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

The film continues with scenes from the private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual day to day experience of the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of J. Edgar Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. When we do hear it there is frequently a noticeable percussion strand.  Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. The sound of noises, such as truncheons hitting heads, are obviously increased in volume for effect. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches: as the marchers cross a now famous bridge it swells with orchestral accompaniment: an infrequent trope in the film. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.


Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film thrice now, on each occasion there were good sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence. After the most recent screening the manager told me a number of people stopped to remark on the power and emotional impact of the film

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit: she does though get ‘a DuVernay film’. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars, including Harry Belafonte, are coming to join them they break into a chorus of Deooooo! Daylight come….  [The opening lyric of a Belafonte hit].

The film is also conscious on the issue of gender. On the way to Selma the black leadership group stop at the home of a female activist for a meal: women nearly always provide the food in this film. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him. However this is followed by a scene where Correta visit Martin in prison and shows herself more open to the political implications of the visit.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical, but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and high and low-angle shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. Young uses an amount of rim lighting, which is very effective in setting out the black faces with their darker pigmentation. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Here in bright sunshine and standing before the white capital of the State, King addresses his jubilant followers. Just to give an example of two sequential scenes. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist in a car. They are partly in darkness, mainly lit by spill and reflective lighting. As the conversation develops we see moments where the light falls frontally on them. And in the following sequence a rejuvenated King stands with his colleagues in the brightness of the State Supreme Court Building and is joined by Coretta. [In what is almost now a convention Martin Sheen appears as the Judge].

The film was mainly shot on location. This in itself provides rich denotative and connotative meanings. A key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was named after a southern general, Senator and one-tine leader of the Ku Klux Klan. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. The meeting between Malcom X and Coretta is shot against a brightly coloured stained glass window. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, siting regally in the Oval office. More subtly King’s home features a portrait of Gandhi. However, at one point marital tensions arise when Coretta is sent a tape recording by the FBI that suggests King’s extra-martial affairs: a small statuette of Gandhi, notable for his calls for purity, is positioned in the foreground.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue is mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action. This is several times combined with well-known songs or offers music which clearly has a base in the spirituals beloved of the black communities. At one point as police violence is meted out to the black protesters on a key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we hear Mahalia Jackson on the soundtrack: later, again on the bridge, the marchers are accompanied by Odette’s rendering of ‘Masters of War’. And at the end of the credits, after the Award winning ‘Glory’, there is a medley of protest songs sang by ‘workers in Selma’.

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anarmorphic ratio, which means stretching or cropping the archive footage – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition and I noted this at times in this film. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. In the scenes with chiaroscuro there was sometimes a lack of definition in the background, and I am sure this would have improved with higher quality. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.


Religion and religious motifs are central to the film, as one would expect. In a key scene between the imprisoned King and a colleague, shot in chiaroscuro, we hear a quotation from the Gospel of St Matthew. King’s sermons/speeches to church congregations are vital moments in the development of the political campaign. Comments and discussions are full both of political and religious illustrations. And moment like the initial explosion or before the stained glass window constantly remind of the central role of religious experience and commitment in the black civil rights movement.

In terms of its politics this film is only partly radical, as you might expect when the distributor are C20th Fox and Pathé. A colleague suggested that the film reflected the politics of Ofrah Winfrey, who is also a producer. I only have a generalised notion of her political values, but the film is clearly reformist. One can see this in its treatment of the agreement between the black leadership and the US political establishment. It is clear again in the cameo for Malcom X, who in the last days of his life was rethinking his politics. However, the struggle around voting rights is mainly about the oppression of the black US population rather than their exploitation. In that sense the film charts an important opening up of black political power.

However, the film’s ending does emphasise one side of the struggle. Among the end credits, which give ‘what next’ for the main characters, we find a woman who shortly afterwards was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And of course, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and even George Wallace died or suffered from extreme violence. But others leaders, like Andrew Young, had successful political careers: the dominant tone here. Yet in recent US elections it has been clear that, especially in the South, that the restriction of entitlement for black voters is a continuing problem. There are the continuing series of deaths of Afro-Americans at the hands of the police.  And Barack Obama, who obviously approves of this film, himself still suffers some of the derogatory attacks endured by King and his colleagues decades earlier.

Still this is a powerful and moving drama with a lot more politics at its core that is the norm for Hollywood.  If you see one Oscar winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.


Posted in Hollywood, Political film | Leave a Comment »

Citizen Kane, USA 1941

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2015


In September 2012, in a Film Extra programme at the National Media Museum, we followed up the Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Poll of the ‘Greatest Film of All Times’. Given that it seems irrefutable that no single person has seen every film ever made the Poll needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, the Museum programmed the top three films in the recent Poll – Vertigo (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) and Tokyo Story (1953). There was a chance to discuss the films and the Poll following the screenings with myself pitching for Citizen Kane, Jen [the then Education Officer) pitching for Vertigo and Roy (of ITP World) pitching for Tokyo Story.

It is worth noting that Citizen Kane was the only one of the three screened in 35mm: the other two were screened from DCPs. I have seen all three films a number of times. I found that the critics first choice, Vertigo, did not really stand up to another viewing. Citizen Kane delighted me as much as in earlier viewings: it is the film that has the most panache. Tokyo Story also stood the test of an umpteenth viewing: and since this film and that by Orson Welles represent entirely different types of cinema, how do you compare or contrast them?

I was reminded of that earlier occasion when I noted an article in the Review section of The Guardian (Saturday April 25th) in which Peter Bradshaw discussed the memorable Welles film. In particular he claimed to offer a new reading of that most famous word from the film, ‘Rosebud’. He joins a long line of interpreters of this particular metaphor, as it is nearly always seen to be. I have a feeling that I have made this point on earlier occasions and surely someone else has, though I do not remember reading it. How does anyone know what is the final breathy word of Charles Foster Kane. In the film a series of cuts carry us through the grounds of Xanadu: a further cut transports the camera and the audience into the chamber where Kane lies dying. Only after he breaths his final word and drops the snow toy does a nurse enter the room. There appears to be no one else in the room at this point?

The explanation usually relies on a line of dialogue by Raymond, the major domo at Xanadu. He, with other servants, heard Kane say ‘Rosebud’ after Susan leaves, and Kane was also holding the snow toy then. Raymond adds a repetition for Thompson, ‘that other time’, the death sequence. But why would Raymond be alone in the chamber with the dying Kane. There is no acknowledgement by the nurse to any one when she enters the room. It is entirely plausible that since no one heard Kane’s final word or words that Raymond invented it for the newspapers. He is certainly trying to milk the journalists for money.

At a more general level the film critiques the reliability and reliance of memories. Those of different characters contradict each other. And they clearly suffer from the personal stance of the character. But more than  this memories can represent very different experiences. Thompson, the investigative reporter, interviews Berstein, Kane’s old manager. He asks him about Rosebud and Berstein suggests ‘some gal’.  He expands.

  “One day back in 1896 I was crossing over the Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled     out there was another ferry pulled in. And on it there was girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. And she was carrying a white parasol. And I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t got by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Covering slight holes in the plot is a common device in Hollywood films: so Raymond’s line ‘explains’ the characters’ knowledge of Rosebud. Given how smart Welles and Mankiewicz were I am sure they noted this cheat. I rather imagine they had moments filled with quiet chuckles as they read the interpretations offered for this single word.

As the journalist Thompson remarks,  “I don’t think one word can explain a man’s life”. Nor indeed does the sledge, which the privileged audience seen consigned to the flames. What Rosebud really does is subvert the apparent closure of the film. Thompson goes back to his news agency; the audience go home, but Kane remains, the enigma. Surely one of the reasons that the film has endured so long.

Posted in Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

A Matter of Life and Death,

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2015


This film recently, screened in the Leeds Young Film Festival, is one of the finest of the collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It has a well-written script, the assemblage of conventional and unconventional film techniques, and an oddly quirky but romantic sense of British/English culture. Moreover the film includes contributions by one of the best production teams that Powell and Pressburger worked with. There is Jack Cardiff, possibly the finest cinematographer to work in the Technicolor format. Alfred Junge and Hein Heckwith’s Production Design are both stylish and apt. The editing by Reginald Mills offers the necessary continuity but at other points introduces contrast and counterpoint. And Allan Gray, who had already worked on I Know Where I’m Going, provides music that is both apt and offers well grounded motifs.

There is also a very fine cast. David Niven combines feeling with a sharp edge in the character of Squadron leader Peter Cartwright:

”We also saw, for the first time, the real David Niven: shrewd, kind, quick-witted and full of fantasy, the image of our hero Peter …”

Kim Hunter achieves a genuine sense of emotional feeling as June:

“When she acted, imagination and intelligence showed in every line she spoke.”

Between them Roger Livesey manages the character of Dr. Frank Reeves as on one hand a bluff Englishman, on the other hand one with a strain of committed idealism. And Marius Goring is a sheer delight as the French aristocrat reduced to heavenly work as Conductor 71. There is a Powell regular Kathleen Byron, unfortunately, apart from one fleeting Technicolor close-up, only seen in the monochrome sequences of the film. Robert Coote is the cheery, but now dead, radio operator [sparks] Bob. And then there are visiting stars like Raymond Massey (as Abraham Farlan) bringing the requisite ‘American’ touch to the film.

The plot of the film involves earth and ‘the other world’; though the word ‘heaven’ pops up in the dialogue. And the odyssey of the hero, crossing from life to death, would seem to address for many in the contemporary audience a sense of an after life, which still retained religious connotations. The film certainly speaks to the loss and grief, which was the experience of so many who themselves survived the war.

Revisiting the film for the umpteenth time I was struck by the complexity of tropes, motifs and generic facets that combine in this film. The Red Shoes offers a greater intensity: Black Narcissus offers more exotic and sensuous settings: but this film seems to explore the philosophical predilections of the duo in great depth. The complexity can be illustrated to a degree by looking at the generic aspects of the film.

War Movie:


This is the obvious aspect of the plot: a love affair threatened by the exigencies of armed conflict. After the introduction the film offers a splendid sequence as a crippled Lancaster bomber attempts to return to its base and England. The military personnel and institutions dominate both the earthly sequences and the heavenly sequences of the film. Whilst the film does not dwell on sadness and loss, we are constantly reminded by characters who have paid the ultimate price in armed conflict.


This offers the emotional heart of the film and viewers are likely to identify with and root for the young lovers. In classic generic mould love is threatened by forced separation. Whilst familiarly this has a religious aspect the film manages to find a daring alternative to the norm. The technique of monochrome and Technicolor alternation reaches a climax when ‘the other world’ finally enters its rich palette. And in terms of that film study favourite Propp we have – a villain – Farlan: a donor – Reeves: a helper – Bob: a princess – June: a dispatcher – Conductor 71: a hero/victim – Peter. All we are missing is a false hero.

Peter June

An Atlanticist paean:

This particular type of film is especially strong in the war years and early post-war years. Powell and Pressburger’s earlier films touch on the topic of the ‘special relationship’ between Great Britain [as it then liked to term itself] and the United States. The 49th Parallel is set in Canada but clearly wishes to draw political parallels between the culture of Britain and the culture of North America. The presence of Raymond Massey in both films is intriguing. In A Matter of Life and Death the script deftly resolves past tensions and cements the new alliance in the union of ‘British boy’ and ‘American girl’.

Science fiction:

Not an immediately obvious genre for the film but the opening sequence takes us on a brief trawl across the universe and then arrive on earth. Early in the film Conductor 71 is able to make ‘time stand still’ or as he explains

“We are talking in space not time.”

This is a staple of the genre: one can imagine that G. K. Dick enjoyed or would have enjoyed this film. Moreover in the heavenly sequences we have that familiar pre-occupation of the science fiction film, the form of a future society. Sci-fi’s preoccupation with technology is there with the military hardware and with the Camera Obscure: and one shot of the ‘heavenly records’ looked from above like a modern computer board.


Psychological drama:

Peter is suffering from a mental illness, but aspects of it can be seen as a form of psychosis. The title tell us that one world

“… exists only in the mind …”

The film, unlike Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), is not that interested in the psychoanalytical. However it share with the Hollywood film psychological states presented in dream sequences and a very distinctive mise en scène for these.

Medical drama:

The central conflict of the film resolves around the illness suffered by Peter and the treatment of this by the several doctors. And the climatic sequences of the film cut between heaven and the operating theatre. Indeed to the resolution of the film is at once both medical and judicial.

Courtroom drama:

The climax and resolution of the film occur in the heavenly court. And in earlier sequences we have briefings between prosecutors and between the defendant and his counsel. Very cleverly the film crosses over between its two worlds in these characters. The final witty touch is that one and the same actor plays surgeon and judge.

Political film:

This type of film is not that common in British cinema. But a sense of wider political culture informs a number of Powell and Pressburger’s films: especially The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale. But this film addresses such values in the most direct manner and takes these issues farther. Especially in the declamations to the court by Prosecutor Farlan and Defence Council Dr Reeves we hear aired both contemporary political debates and past debates that still inform the presence.

A film about literature:


Peter Cartwright is a poet and he is inclined to frequently quote other poets including Andrew Marvell and refers to the classics, as with Plato. We have witty rehearsal of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Dr Reeves has published in medical journals: Conductor 71 ‘borrows’ a book on chess from Peter: and literary figures loom large on the impressive staircase running from earth to heaven. At the resolution the Judge makes a witty remark about Sir Walter Scot.

A film about cinema:

The obvious point here is Dr Reeves’ Camera Obscura. And there is the use of both monochrome and Technicolor cinematography. Conductor 71, on the first visit to this world [earth], remarks,

“One if starved for Technicolor up there.”

Numerous critics have discussed the striking techniques involved in a monochrome ‘heaven’ and a Technicolor earth. But the eyelids that close at the start of the operation also have a cinematic feel.

Canine friendly:


The film starts well. Peter walks along a beach, under the misapprehension he is in the ‘other world’, heaven? A black Labrador barks at him and as he walks over to pat the dog he remarks,

“Oh, I always hoped there would be dogs.”

A little later, as Dr. Reeves unveils his new lens on his Camera Obscura: his view of the village is shared by two cocker spaniels [belonging to Michael Powell. But then the cut that introduces June also removes the dogs and they never ere-appear. A mainstream convention that Powell and Pressburger often avoid.

This rich tapestry of motifs and references is one factor which enables the film to work for an audience seventy years on from its initial release. The film’s sense of Englishness and of ‘American’ culture have now past on, in the manner of Farlan and even Reeves, in the film’s plot. But the cultural sensibilities the two filmmakers and their colleagues bought to the work continue to effect a rewarding 104 minutes of proper cinematic pleasures.


Posted in British films, UK filmmakers, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, West Germany 1979

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015


Gunther Grass died in the last week. A towering figure in recent world literature, his most famous work also became a famous film. I have read the novel twice: the second time to prepare for a screening of the film version [in 35mm] as part of a series at York City Screen of European Classic on Film. The other three screenings were The Lady With a Dog from Chekhov: La Bête Humaine from Emile Zola: and That Obscure Object of Desire from Pierre Louys’ The Woman and the Puppet. The Tin Drum was the fourth and final screening. On the way to York that morning I read [as usual] the Saturday Guardian: the best section being the Review. That issue opened with a long article by Salmon Rushdie on adapting literature into film: and he ended by singling out the film version of the Günther Grass novel as a fine example of this art. One could list other adaptation of the same calibre and, as I suggest below, the adaptation has limitations: still it is a great example of the craft and a worthy addition to memorials to the novelist.

Günther Grass’s book, first published in 1959, is reckoned to be the finest novel published in Germany since the end of World War II. [Both the Penguin and Vintage editions are translated by Ralph Manheim]. It is also a key work, dramatising Germany’s pre-occupation with its past, especially the period of the Third Reich: the extreme nationalism, the wars and the European Holocaust. These remain potent themes, witness the success of the recent fictional work, The Reader / Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink.

Grass’s story is focused on Oskar, a unique individual who stopped growing at the age of three years, and refuses to grow to adult size. He is also gifted with an unusually piercing scream, which punctuates the story of his life. And he plays with, to great effect, the instrument in the title. Oskar narrates his tale from a mental institution, where he has been committed, in the 1950s.

The narration is unusual. Oskar switches from first to third person and back again repeatedly. The book is structured around flashbacks, so the reader constantly returns to Oskar in the then present. The style of the book is far from the naturalism of Zola. The narrative is full of bizarre events, presented alongside detailed descriptions of actual places and of re-created historical actions. Oskar commences his tale in 1899 with the meeting of his grandparents: then takes us through the birth of his mother, her marriage and his own conception in 1924. Thus most of Oskar’s childhood and adulthood are passed under the shadow of the rise of Fascism and of the Third Reich.

Grass sets the novel in his hometown of Danzig. This is a potent spot in modern German history. Danzig was part of Prussia and therefore acceded to the new German Empire in 1871. After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the creation of a Polish State dramatically moved the borders in this region. Much of Prussia was ceded to Poland. In addition East Prussia was separated from the main mass of Germany. As an important and strategic port for the area Danzig was declared a ‘Free City’ under the protection of the League of Nations, [in January 1920]. It had its own administration, currency and so on. Poland, which surrounded this small territory, had a military presence on the Westerplatte and a Polish Post Office. According to the census taken in 1934, Danzig had 383,955 inhabitants, 96 % Germans, 3 % Poles, Kashubians; 60 % Lutherans, 35 % Catholics. Predictably the separation from the ‘German fatherland’ caused outrage among German–speakers in Danzig and in Germany itself.

In the 1930s the National Socialist Party increased its representation in the city. There was also an increasing emigration from the small Jewish population. In November 1938 the city introduced the Nuremberg Race Laws. In 1939 Hitler demanded a ‘korridor’ between Germany and its province of East Prussia. In August the Danzig Gauleiter staged a coup d’etat. Then on September 1st a German warship opened fire on the Westerplatte. The invasion of Poland and the European war had commenced. The Polish Post Office became a battleground. Danzig was annexed to the Third Reich.

Early in 1945 the Red Army conquered the city which it placed under Polish administration. This was followed by large-scale migration from the city by German-speakers. After the war the port remained in Poland and became known as Gdansk. As the latter city it was to have further dynamic and influential conflicts.


Volker Schlöndorff was an appropriate person to transpose the novel to the screen. There had been several earlier attempts, which came to nought. Schlöndorff had already directed several screen adaptations from literature. His first film, which was very well received, was Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966, from the novel by Robert Musil). The film was set in the turn-of-the-century German boarding school, critically examining its cruelties. [This has been a theme in a number of German films: there are parallels with Michael Haneke’s recent The White Ribbon / Das Weise Band Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009].

Schlöndorff was equally apt because he was a member of a group which was to become the New German Cinema. Junger Deutcher Film was inaugurated in 1962 with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto. This was a group of 26 writers and filmmakers who demanded freedom from industry conventions and commercial strictures. They were able to make their way at this time through government grants, support by a new Film Institute in Berlin, and with financial support by German Television. The group included [besides Schlöndorff], Edgar Reich and Jean-Marie Straub. To these were added directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Hertzog and Wim Wenders. The films had disparate styles but the common bond was a critical approach, both to the question of Germany’s past, and to the ‘bourgeois complacency’ of contemporary Germany. This did not always translate into success at the domestic box office, but many of the films were critical successes and fared well on the International Art Circuit.

Schlöndorff Young Torless fitted in with this critical approach, as the film could be read as a metaphorical indictment of German complicity in the crimes of Nazism. His wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who started as an actress, also took up film direction. Her Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, 1979) examined the impact of such movements as the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhoff Group.

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, 1979. West Germany / France.

Bioskop Films Artemis Films & Argos Films.

Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Jean Claude Carrière [familiar from Bunuel’s films], Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seit, and Günter Grass [who is credited with dialogue].

Cinematography: Igor Luther. Editor: Suzanne Baron. Production Design: Nicos Perakis. Music Maurice Jarre. The film is in colour and European widescreen. Running time 142 minutes. German with English subtitles.

Cast: Mario Adorf – Alfred Matzerath. Angela Winkler – Agnes Matzerath. Katharina Thalbach – Maria Matzerath. David Bennent – Oskar Matzerath. Daniel Olbrychski – Jan Bronski. Tina Engel – Anna Koljaiczek (young). Berta Drews – Anna Koljaiczek (old). Charles Aznavour – Sigismund Markus. Roland Teubner – Joseph Koljaiczek. Tadeusz Kunikowski – Uncle Vinzenz. Andréa Ferréol – Lina Greff. Heinz Bennent – Greff. Ilse Pagé – Gretchen Scheffler. Werner Rehm – Scheffler. Käte Jaenicke – Mother Truczinski. Helmut Brasch – Old Heilandt.

The Tin Drum was one of the most financially successful German films of the 1970s. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was jointly awarded the 1979 Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Apocalypse Now.

Predictably the film both compresses and shortens the novel, which itself ran to 580 pages. For example, the opening sequence concerning Oskar’s grandparents leaves out quite a lot of writing and plot. Similarly, in the course of the novel certain sequences are eliminated. But many of the most powerful, like the Nazi rally in Danzig or the battle at the Polish Post Office, remain.

The film also alters the narrative voice. We still have Oskar’s commentary, but the flashback structure has been replaced with a linear form. More drastically, the film ends in 1945 as Oskar and his family joined the evacuation of the German-speaking citizens. This leaves out Part Three of the novel, about 150 pages. The written story carries on until 1954 and contains ironic developments in Oskar life, which comment obliquely on post-war Germany.

Another important change stems from the casting. Oskar is played by the 12 year old David Bennent, [brilliantly]. However, in the novel Grass insistently tells the reader that Oskar develops: though he remains in a child size body.

The film did suffer some attempted censorship in the USA. This was mainly due to objections to the explicit sex scenes, and [I suspect] the outrage was exacerbated by the child-like central protagonist.


About his preference for screen adaptations Schlöndorff has said:

“A great part of my experience in life is reading. A filmmaker translates an experience into cinema. And I consider it legitimate to translate my reading experience into film to try to recall what moved me.”

And regarding the narrative stance of the film:

“It will not always work to stay in Oskar’s skin. Just as he speaks sometimes in the first person and sometimes, alienatingly child-like, in the third, so must the film narrative at times be quite subjective and at times show his shock from outside.”

[Quoted in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992].


Re-watching these films and listening to the discussion caused me to think again about the films and the categories of ‘film adaptation’ suggested by Geoffrey Wagner. Transposition – Commentary – Analogy. These categories were used each week as an analytical tool in relating the individual films to a more general ‘Literature on Film approach’.

Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’

Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’

Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’


Lady with the Dog / Dama s Sobachkoi, 19159 – The stultifying social atmosphere in Chekhov’s writings is a symptom of the decadent Tsarist Society. Perhaps there is a subtle reading to be made of the film’s relevance to 1960s Russia. It was then part of a moribund Soviet Union, which had lost the revolutionary political and cultural impulse of earlier Bolshevik periods. One can imagine apparatchiks aping the ennui of Dimitry’s acquaintances.

La Bête Humaine, 1938 – Zola’s novel provides a scathing critique of the political culture of 1860s France. This is most notable in the final careering train with its troops off to the Franco-Prussian war; [none of the three versions that I have seen actually uses Zola’s amazing descriptive and symbolic conclusion]. That was a war that caused the political establishment to collapse. This is clearly a strand in the Renoir adaptation, but it is less overt than in the novel. In the following year, in 1939, Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] does provide a quite ruthless demolition of ruling class values.

So both the above films could be seen as using the novel’s narrative to provide a commentary on their own times.

That Obscure Object of Desire / Cet Obscur Objet du Désir 1977  – Louy’s novel seems to satirise C19th bourgeois sexual mores, through the stereotypes of Spanish machismo. These were popular stereotypes in literature. Bunuel’s adaptation retains that satire, but crosses it with themes of social and political violence, social ritual, voyeurism and tourism. Thus the film appears to draw analogies between the novel and contemporary society, but also between social, political and cultural contradictions. Thus I find the film much more subversive than the original book, [and two earlier film versions – a silent ‘porn’ version from 192 and the famous 1939 adaptation with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman]. Also, whilst the film’s staging bears the recognisable signs of the 1970s, thematically it seems to me a powerful parable for the new C21st.

To a degree Renoir’s film version is an analogy. Undoubtedly, Buñuel’s work falls under analogy: in his case for the sake of art and of turning art upside down.

The Tin Drum – Before the discussion I remarked on how revisiting the book and novel had sharpened my sense of how the film curtails the narrative of the novel. It seems that Schlöndorff closes down Grass’s critique to a focus on the Third Reich and Nazism. This possibly makes the film more pointed, but it produces a slightly restricted ‘commentary’. The emphasis is on Germany’s ‘past’: an approach that ties in with the New German Cinema approach. The film is very much ‘adaptation’, for which Rushdie rightly praises it. The ‘commentary’ aspect relates to the ‘commentary’ in Grass’ novel, but in a restricted manner.

So the major problem with the film’s adaptation is that Grass critique of the post-Third Reich Germany is largely missing. This is a crucial theme across Grass’s work, culminating in his unfashionable opposition to the form taken for reunification. Moreover, Grass, especially in later works, addresses the problems of the ‘Soviet Liberation’ and the issue of the DDR. But in its treatment of the fascist period the film remains one of the most biting and powerful dissections of that period of German history. I still find The Tin Drum more politically powerful than recent parallel films like The Reader (2008) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

I have recently seen the film adaptation of The Book Thief, a novel that I enjoyed immensely and which seems to be influence by Grass’s use of fantasy alongside realism. This later film just emphasises the quality of the Schlondorf film. If, as Rushdie argues, The Tin Drum is a great example of how to translate literature to film then The Book Thief is a text book example of how not to do so.

After the screenings, as at every session, we had a 20 to 25 minute questions and comments by the audience, composed of about 65 people. The final comment was by a young women who had attended all the screening and who usually had something interesting to say. I thanked everyone and said I hoped they had enjoyed the film and the morning. She sharply questioned my use of the word ‘enjoy’ and remarked on the grimness of the film. She was, of course, quite right. But I think she also agreed that enjoyment is only one aspect of cinema: there are other equally rewarding responses, and The Tin Drum feeds into a number of these.

Taken from the notes prepared for the York screening. Quotes by Grass in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992. Adaptive categories in Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema, 1975.

Posted in German film, History on film, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

Vĕra Chytilová

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2015


Chytilová was one of the important filmmakers in the Czech New Wave and one of the outstanding women filmmakers in Europe at that time: fortunately less of a rarity now than then. Her most famous film is Daisies (Sedmikrásky. 1966). The film is a collage of colour, editing and avant-garde techniques: it follows the adventures of two young women. The film appears anarchic and Chytilová ’s work is often described as ‘Dadaist’. Certainly this was the most radical of the films to emerge in 1960s Czechoslovakia: the authorities tried to prevent its release. It subverted the prevailing cultural and gender politics, though Chytilová resisted the label of ‘feminist’. The film was screened at an earlier Leeds International Film Festival: unfortunately this used a DVD rather than film or DCP, and one of the screenings had a live musical accompaniment! But Chytilová ’s use of sound is equally important as her play with images.

So it was a pleasure when the Hyde Park Picture House screened two of her earlier student films, courtesy of the Czech Centre London and the Czech National Film Archive. The films have been restored from the original camera negatives by the Imagine Ritrovato in Bologna; fast becoming the foremost European laboratory for the production of such work. The result looked and sounded good and the two films [both from 1962] were an absorbing but also entertaining 85 minutes.

The first film was A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech). This was set among a group of young women working in a cotton-spinning factory and housed together in a women’s dormitory. The film opens with the arrival of a new worker [‘fresher} Eva. And she is the narrative voice of the film, whilst the focus is a young and unruly worker, Jana. The film takes in the highly organised ‘socialist’ culture and working environment. There is a disciplinary meeting involving not just manager and foremen, but other workers. The title of the film comes from a disparaging comment by an older man, some sort of supervisor, on the group of girls. We see the girls at work, in their leisure and with their interests in popular song and [predictably] men.

What gives the films its distinctive quality is the form and style. Much of the film has that fresh, observational use of the camera, which was one of the hallmarks of the Czech New Wave. But the film also has a mainly subjective viewpoint. We see characters and events from Eva’s point-of-view: her voice provides an intermittent commentary on the soundtrack and sequences are often shown through a subjective camera. In fact, only at the end of the film do we see Eva herself. One can see here already some of the tropes and motifs that were to appear in Chytilová ‘s mature films.

This cinematic approach was even more apparent in Ceiling (Strop). This film follows approximately 24 hours in the life of a medical student also working as a model, Martha. We see her modelling and on the cat walk: at mealtimes and with friends, and at parties. The film in some ways parallels Agnes Varda’s very fine Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 À 7, 1961). However, the Czech film differs in two important respects: Cleo, and the audience, learn of the problem that preoccupies her throughout the film right at the outset: whilst with Martha it is over halfway through the film that we learn of her pre-occupation. In addition Cleo encounters a sympathetic young soldier: all of the man in Ceiling struck me as unsympathetic.

The style with both films is also very different. Ceiling uses the elliptical editing that was also apparent in A Bagful of Fleas and which is the hallmark of Chytilová ‘s later films. Whilst Ceiling still has an observational feel there is a greater use of camera and sound techniques which typify avant-garde film. There is a restless camera, jump cuts and a range of angles and distances. The sound ranges through the diegetic and non-diegetic, both with noise and music. And some of the film has a strongly subjective feel and some a more distant presentation. Some critics have made comparisons with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni: what I was most reminded of was L’Eclisse, which itself only came out in 1962. And there is an impressive night-time scene as Martha wanders the urban spaces, which reminded me forcibly of Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes  (1960). This is not necessarily a question of a direct influence. There are common stylistic and thematic tropes across the European New Waves, as they responded to often common and dominant cinematic conventions and common cultural restrictions.

Dina Iordanova (2003) suggests that the Czech New Wave, whilst often quite divergent, did share certain common traits;

The specific manifestations of the Czechoslovak New Wave style can be reduced to an idiosyncratic combination of several characteristics. These include the interest in contemporary topics (often tackled with documentary authenticity), the subtle humour (often bordering on the absurd), the use of avant-garde and editing techniques (often deployed with astonishing persistence) and the attention to psychological detail (often better revealed in the exploration of interactions within a group rather stand in studies of individual protagonists).

Of course, Iordanova is writing about more than style here, but much of her description can be seen in these two films by Chytilová. The one point to emphasise is that A Bagful of Fleas is very much about group interaction whilst Ceiling is a study of an individual protagonist.

Someone remarked after the screening that it was ‘worth turning out on a Sunday to see these films’. Absolutely. If you missed them, well the Hyde Park is screening one of Chytilová ‘s major features, Fruits of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme,  ) on April 30th. Possibly her most avant-garde work, the film uses an extraordinary mix of unconventional imagery and sound: whilst the ‘plot’ offers a symbolic treatment of gender issues.

Posted in East European Film, Films by women | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Tales of Hoffman, UK

Posted by keith1942 on April 4, 2015

Hoffman title

This was a Michael Powell and Emeric Production. It is an adaptation of the opera by Jacques Offenbach and was filmed in Technicolor and includes both operatic and ballet sequences. Both in terms of the Production team and the casting the film followed on from the success of one of the finest Powell and Pressburger collaborations, The Red Shoes (1948). The original opera was based on stories written by E. T. A. Hoffman who is also the key protagonist in the drama. The opera consists of a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. Offenbach died before completing the work and this was done by Ernest Guiraud. His contribution included recitatives, which are not always used: Offenbach preferring speech to recitative. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1881 and has remained a popular favourite: especially the bacarolle from Act 3.

Hoffman was part of the German Gothic literary movement, writing in the transition from the C18th to C19th. Michael Powell himself noted that he used techniques from German expressionism, which he had encountered first hand in the early part of his career. He writes extensively about the production in the second volume of his autobiography ‘Million Dollar Movie’ (1992).

This opera was one of several suggestions for film adaptations made by Sir Thomas Beecham. He was heavily involved in the production. At an early stage he played through the entire opera score for Michael and Emeric who busily made notes and decisions about their inclusion and treatment in the film. There are minor changes for the film, which does use recitative: the most significant change is that Act 2 and Act 3 are reversed so the film ends with Antonia, a more tragic event.

Beecham conducted the performance of the opera that provides the soundtrack and which was used in the filming for the ‘playback mode’. He also selected two singers who were part of the onscreen cast, though most of the players had their singing dubbed. And he appeared conducting the The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the final frames of the film. The final frame has ‘The End’ followed by a stamped ‘Made in England’ – a nice touch for the premiere in New York, USA.

Hoffman observed by Lindorf

Hoffman observed by Lindorf

The prologue is set in a Nuremberg beer-cellar where we met Hoffman and his friend Niklaus: we also encounter another character Lindorf and learn of a lover figure Stella. Hoffman recounts three love affairs to a group of students: each love affair occupies one act and involves in sequence Olympia, Giuletta and Antonia. The final epilogue returns to the beer-cellar and Hoffman and his friend. A conflict which has underlain the actions and stories of the opera now come to ahead and resolution.

One of Offenbach’s intentions was that all the women should be performed by the same singer. And he also wanted the four ‘villains’ sung by the same male singer. The film follows the latter option but not the former. This is partly that the film makes greater use of ballet, with Michael and Emeric wanting to repeat their success with The Red Shoes.

The film is a sumptuous treat. The settings of the opera provide splendid opportunities for the Production Designer Hein Heckroth and his colleagues. The sets are beautifully constructed, decorated and coloured. The cinematography by Christopher Challis, who had worked on earlier films with Jack Cardiff, is very fine and at times reminiscent of the work of the great Technicolor master. [There is though one oddly inverted shot in this version?] The film is obviously a studio production, mainly shot at Shepperton. And it uses quite a few technical tricks for effect. Pressburger, who was always, quite rightly, credited as co-director with Powell, devised one of these, a lovely transition from Act 1 to Act 2.

Moira Shearer as Olympia

Moira Shearer as Olympia

Moira Shearer dances the main ballet presentation, in Act I with Olympia and she does this with great skill and elan. The embodiment of trickery and deception right through the film is Robert Helpmann, and who performs his own singing. Another performer who appears in all the three acts or stories is Leonide Massine. He, along with Ludmilla Tchérina appeared in The Red Shoes. In Act 2 of this film Tcherina plays Giuletta. The supportering dancers for both acts are also very well done.

The central problem in the film is the two actual opera singers: as I mentioned both were selected by Beecham. Whilst he was clearly an important and influential member of the production I don’t think he had a great cinematic sense. The character of Hoffman is sung and performed by Robert Rounseville. He is extremely wooden, lacking either intensity or mobility. Powell makes light of this in the book, but Rounseville does dampen what in many cases should be vital and passionate scenes. The other singer is Ann Ayars who performs Antonia in Act 3. I am afraid she is rather similar to Rounseville in her performance style. Alongside Hoffman is his friend Niklaus played by Pamela Brown. She was normally a fine actress and was also a redhead – a predilection of Powell. But she is as lacking in passion as Rounseville. She may have restrained he performance because of his: but there is also a strong homosexual strand in the relationship, which may also have been a factor.

The music, of course, is very fine. I am not that skilled in opera and I have never seen The Tales of Hoffman. But I was not that struck with the singing: especially of Rounseville and Ayars. In fact the most compelling singing for me were two duets: one from Act 2 and one from Act 3 and both including Owen Brannigan.

So the best aspects of this film are the visual and the ballet. And the bfi having bought out a DCP have made a good transfer from 35mm. Note though the opening logo is in 1.85:1 whilst the actual film is in 1.37:1. This may explain whilst the screening I attended did not have the masking set in.

Ludmilla Tchérina as Giuletta

Ludmilla Tchérina as Giuletta

I have seen The Tales of Hoffman in the past. I always thought that it was a less than successful follow-up to The Red Shoes and lacked that film’s intense drama. I still think that the latter film is definitely superior, both in performance and in drama. However, this time I felt that the two central performances I mention were the major problem, I think a more intense centre would improve the film immeasurably.

Posted in British films, Film Directors | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da, Turkey 2011.

Posted by keith1942 on March 21, 2015


This is the film that has most impressed me in this new century of cinema. I saw it three times during its UK release. The third occasion was at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. One of the volunteers there, Rachel, grades films from 1 to 10. She explained that a ‘10’ is a film she needs/wants to see twice. I told her this was my third viewing of this film: she reckoned that would make it an 11. After the screening I saw her again in the foyer and we both praised the sequence which includes an apple rolling down a slope into a stream. It is that sequence that I want to discuss in more detail.

First to contexualise the film. It is directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, already well known in ‘art film’ circles for earlier films like Climates (Iklimler, 2006) and Three Monkeys (Uc maymum. 2008). The film was scripted by Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan [married to the director] and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. An outstanding feature of the film is the luminous cinematography by Göhkan Tiryaki: and there is an excellent sound track edited by Thomas Robert and fine art direction by Dilek Yapkuőz Ayaztuna.

The setting is the Steppes in Central Anatolia; part of ‘Turkey in Asia’. The film commences at evening, continues overnight and through the next morning: the setting is clearly contemporary: witness the mobile phones and computers used by characters. Bizarrely the UK distributor’s trailer suggested that the tale is a flashback to ’20 years ago’, clearly misinterpreting a line of dialogue in the film.

The film opens with Production Company credits, and then a short sequence with a shot of men through a clouded window. The camera dollies slightly and we see three men in conversation, drinking and laughing. There is a cut to an exterior long shot as one man comes out and feeds a dog: there is a roll of thunder. A passing lorry acts as a wipe and we are presented with the cast and production credits. The sound of the lorry braking carries on over the credits, followed by bird sounds, the wind, distant barking, and an animal [the dog?) shaking. Such noises are frequently heard on the soundtrack. As the film progresses we learn that the men we have just seen are Yaşar (Erol Erarslan) who apparently owns the garage, and two brothers Kenan (Firat Taniş) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz).

The story proper opens in a long shot at night on a lonely road as dusk deepens: the landscape is hilly with long valleys. The headlights of cars appear travelling along the road. These night-time scenes are beautifully lit and photographed. Night-time driving and thunderstorms are two tropes that appeared in earlier Ceylan films. The cars, two saloons and a jeep, pull up at a spot with a stone fountain and a solitary tree. We will visit several sites with these features over the next hour: the first three lie above the roadway. The cars contain ‘Mr’ Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) and his driver Tevfik (Uğur Arslannoğlu), Abidin, the court recorder (Şafak Karali) and Hayrettin (Fevzi Müftüoğlu) and Ethem (Turgay Kürkçü), two ‘diggers’; the second car contains the Commissar/Chief Naci (Yilmaz Erdoğan) and his assistants, the driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Müntaz Taylan) and Izzet (Murat Kiliç) together with Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and Kenan, now a suspect in a murder case. The jeep contains a Sergeant Őnder (Emre Şen) of the Gendarmes together with a subordinate Mehmet (Hamam Scrubber) and Ramazan, also a suspect. The convoy is trying to identify the spot where the murdered man [Yaşar] is buried, but Kenan is vague about the whereabouts apart from the presence of a fountain and a tree.

The first stop is not the right place. The convoy drives on and we hear a conversation among the police about ‘Buffalo Yoghurt ‘. They reach a second possible site. On this occasion the diggers are called to check a ploughed field alongside the fountain, but this is not the sport either. At this point we are starting to get close-ups of the different characters and a sense of their identities.

The convoy travels on and Naci receives a call on his mobile phone from his wife, she is just an inaudible voice in the background. There is also a brief stop, as the Prosecutor Nusret has to take a piss: the police joke about this.

At the third site, whilst Naci questions Kenan about whether this is the place, Doctor Cemal walks up the hill to take a piss. He stops by a small rock outcrop; thunder and lightning have now started up. And a flash illuminates a sculptured head in the rock. Back at the cars the convoy travels on.

Then a new site which falls away below the road. The Gendarme’s jeep is manoeuvred to illuminate the area. Naci sets off downhill with Kenan. Meanwhile there is a conversation alongside the car between the Cemal and Arab Ali. However, on second viewing I realised from the camera angles that part of this is not a conversation: it is two interior monologues, first by Ali and then by the Cemal, though all of it could be in the mind of the Cemal, who is privileged in close-ups. It is here that we get the line from Arab of ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’, however, he is suggesting that the doctor will look back at these events in the future. This technique of rendering exchanges ambiguous is one that recurs in the film.

The convoy sets off again and we arrive at another site, also down below the road. Here, 35 minutes into the film, is the sequence on which I wish to focus.


Nusret intervenes between Naci and Kenan.

Nusret intervenes between Naci and Kenan.

It opens with an establishing shot lasting about 30 seconds, as the cars’ headlights follow a road into hills: behind the sky is full of dark clouds. They are approaching a bend in the road at a fold in the hillside. There is a cut to a camera angle at the bend. The cars arrive, stop and the occupants get out. Naci checks with Kenan, then points “It could be there”. Naci sets off with Izzet and Kenan, first calling for the gendarmes to turn the jeeps’ headlight on the spot. They head downhill into a culvert with a stream: Naci gets his foot wet, to his annoyance. They walk up the slope on the other side where there are a number of trees. Naci calls the diggers to follow. The camera makes two small pans to follow their progress. Two minutes into the shot Nusret moves into the left foreground. The camera cuts to a mid-shot and we see the Cemal standing nearby. There follow a series of mid-shots, in shot/reverse shot, as a conversation gets underway. Nusret asks, ‘Got any children. Doctor?”. Cemal responds that he has none and that he was divorced two years earlier. [We also later learn that Cemal has moved from the city to this rural area]. Nusret responds ‘Good thing” and goes on to muse pessimistically about life and his work, ”there’s no sense in it.” Then he starts to recount a story: “There was this woman. A friend’s wife. One day… she said that she’d die on a specific date five months later. [after the end of a pregnancy] And sure enough … when that day arrived … she drooped dead.”  “for no reason at all.” The camera dollies behind Cemal round a tree to a new angle with both men in the frame; there is silence. There follows a shot of tree tops, a reverse shot of the two men illuminated from below by the headlights, and then a high angle shot of Nusret through branches, followed by a low angle shot of the moon through branches.

We hear the voice of the Sergeant, “Mr Prosecutor.” A new mid-shot of all three men runs for nearly two minutes as the Sergeant offers both men a biscuit and then asks Nusret about responsibilities in the case. He leaves. There follow more shot/reverse shots of Cemal and Nusret, as the former asks if any doctors ascertained the cause of the woman’s death.

They are interrupted again, this time by a fracas involving Naci and Kenan, in a new long shot of the other side of the stream. Naci, exasperated by the seemingly fruitless searches, turns on Kenan. In three shot/reverse shots Nusret crosses the stream to intervene, watched by the rest of the party. Nusret separates Naci from Kenan and takes him aside; the camera pans with them. Nusret tries to reason with Naci about controlling his anger. After a minute, with the dialogue continuing on the sound track, we get shots of Ali standing by a tree, Cemal watching across the stream, and Kenan looking back, [possibly at the doctor]. A further shot shows Ali shaking the branches of the tree and apples falling to the ground. A sequence shot, running about a minute, follows one apple as it rolls down the slope, into the stream, rolls then bobs down the stream till it reaches an obstruction and rests with other fallen apples, [presumably shot with a Steadicam]. Meanwhile the dialogue between Nusret and Naci continues on the soundtrack and includes the comment, “Is this how we’ll get into the EU?”

The apples.

The apples.

The camera returns to Nusret and Naci in long shot, running for nearly three minutes, including a pan back to the others gathering under a tree. Nusret decides they should have a break. Tevfik suggests the village of Cecili: Ali is not keen, [it transpires his wife comes from that village}. Nusret decides to go there anyway and tells Tevfik to phone the Mukhtar [mayor].

A short ellipsis and we see Izzet in mid-shot bathing Kenan’s face at the fountain. In a series of mid-shots we see Naci drying his socks, Cemal inspecting Kenan face where Naci hit him; Kenan asking ‘Doctor’ for a cigarette: Cemal getting a cigarette from Ali for Kenan; Naci objecting, ‘first you have to earn it’, and then this group getting into their car. The final shot has Kenan seated as Cemal gets in the back seat and saying quietly “Thank you.”

There is a lap dissolve to a frontal shot of the car’s headlights as they drive to the village.

We are now 52 minutes into the film. The sequence uses light and shadow, the main lighting source being the headlights of the jeep and other cars. We have the regular tendency in Ceylan films to use long shots and especially long takes. The whole sequence has a luminous palette. The soundtrack is naturalistic and we hear wind, a solitary birdcall, the water running, and the engines of the cars at times. In terms of themes as the narrative progresses Nusret’s story returns and there are increasing parallels between characters. This is a long and complex sequence, the cinematography, the lighting and the sounds all contribute to a sense of the place and the time, but also, in a way that is difficult to describe in words, add to our sense of the characters. Certainly the visuals includes comments on and metaphors for the characters, their thoughts and actions. The apple rolling down in the stream is an object driven by several external forces, including gravity: this seems an apt metaphor for the characters in the story.


Cemal observes Cemille.

Cemal observes Cemille.

The convoy arrives at the village of Cecili where they are greeted by the Mukhtar [Ercan Kesal). A meal is provided whilst the Mukhtar puts to the prosecutor that the village needs to “Build a nice morgue with a body washing room.” There is a power cut and the lights go out. Lamps and drinks are bought in by the Mukhtar’s daughter Cemille. She serves them silently whilst the men admire her beauty. Cemal and Kenan are especially struck by her, as if she has conjured up a memory. After she serves Kenan she appears to serve a second man – Yaşar! Is this Kenan’s imagining: he exclaims ‘aren’t you dead?”. Then Naci and Izzet take Kenan outside and into a barn. Here he confesses another aspect of the crime to them. Meanwhile Nusret continues with his tale to the Doctor, who asks ‘was there an autopsy’. Naci appears and tells the Nusret what he has heard from Kenan, information that complicates the murder and the investigation. There is another visual symbol as moth circles an exterior lamp and is consumed in the flame.

The search now continues. With early morning they arrive at another site, on a relatively flat plateau, with a fountain and a nearby tree. This is a field of stubble, harsh in the early morning light. And here they find the body, slightly uncovered by a stray black dog. Nusret dictates a report to Abidin, which he types onto a laptop. Then the body is wrapped in a blanket and placed in a car boot. Ali surreptitiously adds melons that he has picked up in the field. During this episode Ramazan has made a confession, but Kenan tells him to be quiet.

Early morning.

Early morning.

The party now returns to the town. When they reach the hospital a hostile crowd is waiting. Insults are hurled at Kenan, a boy throw a stone that hits him on the forehead. We learn that the boy, Adem (Fatih Ereli), is the son of Yaşar’s widow Gűlnaz Toprak (Nihan Okutueu). The prisoners are led away.

The doctor goes to the hospital. In his room he looks at some photographs of a young woman, then of young men: possibly including himself at an earlier age. Naci arrives in his office and the doctor writes a prescription for his sick son. Cemal leaves the hospital: after a Turkish bath and a coffee he returns for an autopsy. First we see him in his office with Nusret, who returns to the subject of the woman who died and asks the Cemal what could have caused the woman’s death. Cemal asks again if there was an autopsy: he suggests there may be an explanation. Like the earlier conversation with Ali it is unclear whether this is an actual scene or is in the mind of the doctor.

The identification of the corpse by the wife follows. She is given the belongings of the deceased. Nusret leaves for an important meeting in Ankara. Cemal and his medical technician Sakir (Kubilay Tunçer) then conduct the autopsy. During this examination another facet of the murder emerges. Cemal makes a decision, a decision which is a response to the different situations of the characters that he [and we] have learned in the course of events. The film ends as Cemal looks out through a window, observing the widow and her son returning home past a children’s’ playground in a long shot and long take. Intercut is a close-up of Cemal with a speck of the victims blood on his cheek. The sound of the children playing continues over the end credits.

What seem to me to be the fine qualities of this film flow both from the components parts [e.g. the excellence of the cinematography and sound) but also from the overall effect. The film is downbeat but there are also many moment of humour. There is the conversation on yoghurt; jokes about Nusret frequent stops to relieve himself; and recurring comments that he looks a little like Clark Gable. During the meal in the village Ali is ragged about his pretensions. The film is a rather sorry tale of human foibles, but it also seems a complex comment on the larger society of Turkey in the C21th. The characters cover a range of classes in that society: a member of the governing elite, administrators and bureaucrats, the professional, a petit-bourgeois and ordinary working men. The characterisation by the actors is completely convincing; it is the expressions of Cemal, Kenan and Nusret that receive particular attention. It is the men who speak and act throughout the film. However, the issue of gender emerges forcibly in the very silence of the women. [Intriguing parallels with The Silences of the Palace, Tunisia 1994]. We encounter five women in the film: Naci’s wife only heard inaudibly on the end of a mobile phone: the unnamed female protagonist in Nusret’s story; the Mukhtar’s daughter in the village: the unnamed young woman in Cemal’s photographs: and the murdered man’s widow, who speaks at the identification, once with a solitary ‘yes’, otherwise with several nods and ‘uhum’.

An intriguing comment about women in rural Anatolia argues that whilst women suffered under patriarchy in traditional society, modernisation, which includes rights for women, has led to political institutions that are predominately ‘male domains’. This film seems to offer a poetic comment on this condition.

It offers more of course. I found that my understanding of the main characters changed and developed over the film, but that also developed when I returned to watch the film again. Like most good art there is not a simple set of values posited by the film. But the complexities of the characters relationships and experiences illuminates their condition and their decisions and actions. Cemal, the doctor, is clearly the key character; but it also seems to me that the film draws parallels between him and Kenan and also between Kenan and Nusret. It is a long film [158 minutes] and spends much time on small and often seemingly insignificant details: such as Ali’s surreptitious fruit gathering. But these small details feed into the illumination of character. The use of the wide screen means that, even in mid-shots, one is aware of the setting and of sets and props, which also feed in to our awareness.

In interviews Nuri Bilge Ceylan has spoken of his admiration of Anton Chekhov. In my early viewing of this film I was reminded in particular of his play The Seagull. There are parallels between the film and the play both in the relationships of characters and in the tragic events that play out. However, there are also parallels with another play by Chekhov, Uncle Vanya: including the character of the doctor. The final sense of Chekhov’s plays finds echoes in the final sequences of this film by Ceylan. At the end of Uncle Vanya Sonia has a long speech, which opens:

“Well, what can we do? We must go on living! … We shall go on living, Uncle Vania. We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings. We shall patiently suffer the trials which Fate imposes on us; we shall work for others, now, and in our old age, and we shall have no rest.” (Translated by Elisaveta Fen). The speech ends on a more optimistic note, something that is there tentatively in the last moments of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The speech also suggests parallels with Ceylan’s other films, in particular with his more recent Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu, 2014). Probably as fine a film which I need and want to see again.

The status of the temporality in the film is somewhat ambiguous. A film fan I know queried the opening shot of the main film, which he suggested implied knowledge of the story to come. This interested me. The film can be seen as a playing out of Ceylan’s recollections or exposition of the story. In this case the opening shot would fit with his point-of-view. So whilst contemporary one could read the film as flashback, another aspect of its complexity.

Th film is in colour and CinemaScope [2.39:1] with a Dolby Digital soundtrack. Whilst it originated on 35mm. in the UK it was only available on DCP. The UK release has English subtitles, used for the quotation in this article.

The author’s original review of the film can be found at http://thirdcinema.wordpress.conm: the Blog also has a review of The Silences of the Palace.

Note, this was originally written as an article for Media Education Journal for a regular shot on sequence analysis’s, but the editors found the sequence in question to long for the article’s function, presumably the A Level Film Studies.


Posted in Turkish film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Regeneration, UK 1997

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2015

Regen 1

I revisited this recently as part of the W.W.I: Through the Lens series at the Hyde Park Picture House. The film was screened in an old but visually good quality print. The soundtrack was occasionally muffled from wear and tear, but overall it was a great experience. The Hyde Park obtained the print with some assistance from Rafford Films, the original Production Company: at a time when projection and programming seems to be a dying art in cinema it is good to see an exhibitor giving this care and attention to a film. And it is a film that deserves such treatment. As you might expect in an UK period drama the acting and characterisations are excellent. Adrian Scot has provided a fine adaptation of the novel by Pat Barker: I have not read the book but I suspect that Harris has also changed the emphasis somewhat. The cinematography by Glen MacPherson is very fine, and together with Production Designer Andy Harris he has created really convincing images of the World War I frontline. The editing appears seamless, but it has certain unexpected cuts, which are sharply implemented. There is a lot of music, as you might expect, by Mychael Danna, but it works well and is in keeping with the treatment.  Director Gillies MacKinnon has done an excellent job of bringing the contributions of this team together. The film is a co-production between the UK [including Scottish agencies] and Canada: it would seem that the story has some connection with North America.

In an intelligent piece of programming the main feature was proceeded by some film footage from World War I. This was a video copy of footage shot at two hospitals treating mental disorders in troops afflicted by the trench warfare. The film was provided by the Welcome Trust Library and I would think it never received public exhibition at the time, late 1917 and 1918. The film presented a series of soldiers who suffered from some sort of neuroses bought on by the horrors of the warfare. The film concentrated on showing the success of the hospital treatments: some of the recoveries from severe physical disabilities bought on by trauma were remarkable. There was less coverage of the treatment, which seemed to consist of physiotherapy and hypnotic suggestion. The Picture House staff selected the Third Symphony of Henryk Górecki as an accompaniment: this worked very well.

This archive material fitted very well with the prime focus in Regeneration, the treatment of officers suffering mental traumas after service in the frontline. Reviews of the film on release picked up on the depiction of the relationship between two famous World War I poets, Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) and Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), in the film. But the prime focus is Doctor William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) and his relationship with his patients, especially Sassoon. There are two other key characters, Billy Prior (Johnny Lee Miller) and Burns (Rupert Proctor). Burns, like Owen, is not really developed as a character. Prior is an officer, but working class, which sets him apart from most of the staff and other inmates at the rehabilitation hospital.

Rivers is a sympathetic carer and listener. One sequence shows him visiting a specialist in London, a Dr Yealland, whose brutal treatment of traumatised soldiers provides a striking contrast with those of Rivers. Rivers listens to their harrowing memories, and together with the audience learns of the horrors of the experiences of war. These confessions also take their toll of Rivers himself.


Much of the film is set in the relative quiet of the hospital and its grounds. But the memories and dreams of the characters enable us to see and hear the brutal and violent warfare. These flashbacks and dreams both illustrate the traumas of the different patients, but also provide motifs relating to the well-known poetry of Sassoon, and even more so, of Owen. A recurring dream sequence is set in some sort of tunnel near the front-line – clearly referencing one of Open’s most famous poems.

The use of colour [or lack of it] provides a striking contrast to the hospital. But another contrast using colour is also drawn between Rivers’ office where the patients recount their experiences, and the laboratory of Dr Yealland. The film appears at first as a fairly typical example of British ‘realist’ cinema. But the use of colour, of counterpoint in the editing, and the relationship between the film’s present, the flashbacks and the dreams, produces a rather more ambiguous sense of reality and subjectivity.

There are also several sequences away from the hospitals and the front-line. The most important of these depicts a relationship between Prior and a ‘munitioneer’ [a worker in a munitions factory), Sarah (Tanya Allen). Their relationship includes two scenes of sexual encounters. One provides a moment of rare tenderness late in the film: the other uses a flamboyant overhead shot as a moment of contrast. However, I did feel that this emphasis on heterosexual sex offered a distraction from the unexplored homoerotic and homosexual aspects of the story. It appears that these, and a bi-sexual aspect, are much more explicit in the original novel.

The film does explore the contrasts of class through Prior and the conflicts between youth and age and between mavericks and the military establishment. The film also offers an underlying sense of irony. Whilst Rivers’ methods are contrasted with those of Yealland, in the end both fulfil the same function, sending men back to the front-line and death.


Posted in British films, Literature on Film, UK filmmakers, War movies | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.