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Florence Foster Jenkins 1868 to 1944

Posted by keith1942 on May 19, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

This New York character has been presented in several theatrical plays. Currently she is the subject of two films: one, Marguerite, using her story in a different period and setting and the other, Florence Foster Jenkins, translating the later recorded years of her life to the screen with a few embellishments. I saw the French film first, which gave it an advantage. But having now seen both I think it is the better film, if the less accurate biopic.

Given the advance publicity and trailers for the two films it is not a plot give-away to note that Jenkin’s fame or notoriety stemmed from her being an amateur performer who was often labelled the ‘worse singer in the world’. In a detailed biography Wikipedia notes that she

“was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano who was known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone, her aberrant pronunciation, and her generally poor singing ability.”

As is apparent in the films she became an object of fun for many people who heard her performances, usually private, but in her final year public, at the noted New York Carnegie Hall. The films fill out these in rather different ways and there will be plot spoilers below.

Catherine Frot

Catherine Frot

Marguerite is set in 1920s France and stars Catherine Frot in the title role, a performance that won her a César as Best Actress. This was deserved award. Frot imbues the role with plausibility but also achieves a deluded sincerity that is likely to win audience sympathy, despite her musical histrionics. André Marcon is also excellent as the loving but embarrassed husband. In a neat French twist, whilst he sincerely cares for Marguerite he also has a regular mistress. One of the qualities of the film is the way that it fills out French upper-class society in which Marguerite and her husband move. The accompanying aspect is the way that we also enter the world of professional music and musical criticism. Here we have three very good performances by Sylvain Dieuaide as Lucian Beaumont, a journalist: Aubert Fenoy as Kyrill Von Priest, who has touches of the Dada movement about him: and Christa Théret as Hazel Klein, a professional singer who develops a romantic relationship with Lucien. This trio help fill out the context of period and place but also qualify the responses to Marguerite’s performances.

The film also has a villain in the person of her butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). He keeps a photographic record of Marguerite, which we  realise late in the film is his passport to financial rewards. The fact that he is the only notable black character in the film left me ambivalent.

The film was written and directed by Xavier Giannoli. I saw his earlier film The Singer / Quand j’étais chanteur (2006) . There is a thematic connection here but I think Marguerite is the better realised project. It is ably served by the cinematography by Glynn Speeckaert  and production design by Martin Kurel.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Florence Foster Jenkins is set in 1940s New York and presents the final year or so of the title character. She is played here by Meryl Streep with Hugh Grant playing her ‘common law husband’ St Clair Bayfield. The pair are very good and play the characters fairly sympathetically but I did not feel that they generated that much sympathy for either character. I think this partly down to casting. Meryl Streep is a fine actor but she is also rather technical. I can admire her performance but I am also conscious that it is a performance. Whilst Hugh Grant is associated with fairly light characters and Bayfield appears of this order. The French actors tended to let you forget they were performing much of the time. I never quite felt this in this version. And there is the effect of star casting. The most poorly judged instance of this was Hugh Grant being given a brief party spot where he performs the jitterbug. This seemed to have little to do with the plot. And whilst there is also a mistress in this film it is all rather seemly and even a little coy.

But I think the main factor is the script, which, of course, positions and limits the actors. This was written by Nicholas Martin. His writing career started with travel pieces. He studied at the UK’s National Film and Television School. He then wrote for Television, the only series he has contributed to that I have seen is Midsummer Murders. This is his first feature film script to be produced. I always thought Midsummer Murders was rather light compared with my favourite Inspector Morse. And I feel the same about this film. It seems to aim for a ‘feel-good’ air. The French film is definitely melodrama.

The script does include the information that Jenkins suffered from syphilis, caught from her first husband. But this serious note is not really developed and its function in the plot seemed mainly to explain [again with good taste] that Bayfield and Jenkins relationship is not sexual. I also thought the dialogue presents them as formally married, not as a common law relationship. There is no real villain. We do meet Agnes (Nina Arlanda) who laughs louder than anyone at a Jenkins performance. But then, at Carnegie Hall, it is Agnes who silences the laughter and enables Florence to feel she is a success. The music critics are cyphers, either suborned by Bayfield or in one solitary case reacting critically.

The director of this latter film is Stephen Frears. He is what is described as a metteur en scène: I use the term descriptively not evaluatively. His films are very much constructed in co-cooperation with the production team, especially the writer. At its best we get a landmark film like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). But here I felt that Frears presented rather than transformed the material. In fact, the best bits for me were the scenes where we watch exciting visual compositions, notably the final Carnegie Hall concert. Presumably Frears making good use of  the cinematography by  Danny Cohen  the and Production Design by  Alan MacDonald. The film creates New York from UK locations and there is some good CGI work, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Both projects appear to have started off in 2014. Presumably at some point each production became aware of the other, especially as there is French funding in both productions. The French film was released in September 2015 whereas the British film only came out in April 2016. The French film was presented at several festivals, starting in Venice. The British film only had one Festival appearance, in Belfast. In Britain there has been different certification. Florence Foster Jenkins has a PG, despite the reference to syphilis. Marguerite has a 15 Certificate, all those French innuendos. Outside of France Florence Foster Jenkins is doing better box office. In the UK it has already taken well over twenty times the amount achieved by Marguerite. Of course, the contemporary market here [and in many other territories] is skewed against the foreign language film.

The films are fairly different in all sorts of ways. However, both use imagery from the life of the actual Jenkins. The notable example being a costume with angels’ wings that she used for her public performance. Both use original scoring and operatic extracts, though Marguerite uses them more extensively. The character of Hazel enables some fine [as opposed to less fine] singing. The public performance is the climax in each film. And both essay to achieve a moment of catharsis. In Marguerite this is a moment of seeming magic, which just about convinces. In Florence Foster Jenkins it is the efforts of Agnes, which also works, partly due to the performance. And both films end with the impact of reality: tragic in Marguerite but more feel-good in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) UK/France.

Marguerite (2015) France / Czech Republic / Belgium.

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A Taste of Honey Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on April 2, 2016

Taste of poster

This screening of the film was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.

The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.

The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her prospective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.

Jo, Geoffrey and the Manchester Ship Canal

Jo, Geoffrey and the Manchester Ship Canal

What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.

The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.

Taste of Honey

The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.

After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories

 Review for a screening at the National Media Musuem.

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Victim Britain 1961

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

63 'Victim', 1961

I was able to revisit this film when the Hyde Park Picture House screened it in a fine 35mm print. The film stands up well. It has a strong cast and is generally well filmed if in a rather conventional style. It is a seminal film of the early 1960s, basically because it addresses explicitly the question of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Homosexual practice was illegal in the UK in this period though the 1958 Wolfenden Report had recommended liberalisation. Gay people had suffered from police harassment and prosecutions. By 1961 the police were generally more laid back, partly because the law was seen as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ and gay men as easy but innocent victims. The film reflects these aspects in its plot and characters. It is worth noting that the moral panics around paedophilia are much more recent. There are slight references to ‘corruption’ in the film but modern films on the issue would likely be more pronounced. In fact I saw the film in the same week as Spotlight (USA 2015) and that film is centrally constructed around the issue of abuse.

Dirk Bogarde plays Melvin Farr, a successful lawyer who has had a relationship with a younger man, ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McInery). Farr is married to Laura (Sylvia Syms) though they have no children. He had had a previous same sex relationship at University and Laura knew about this before they were married. Barrett is being blackmailed and because he loves/is besotted with Farr he steals at work to pay off the blackmailers. So the police enter the picture. Barrett commits suicide in custody. Farr, who initially refused contact with Barrett, is now struck by guilt and determines to hunt down the blackmailers. This involves him in seeking out gay men being blackmailed: some of whom turn out to be his own friends and professional colleagues.

The police question Barrett

The police question Barrett

The thriller format allows the film to appear primarily as a genre piece. It even has a rather heavy handed red herring. But it is a noir thriller, full of chiaroscuro lighting.  Characters are constantly presented in shadow. There is one intriguing scene early in the film when Melville returns home late and finds Laura still up: she has risen to answer the telephone. It was Barrett but Laura is still unaware of the implications. As they ascend the stairs Melville tells her he loves her and they embrace. Yet both are in deep shadow and the clinch is hardly visible. At other times full illumination falls on a character: one such point is at the moment that Farr realises that Barrett’s death is a sacrifice for his interests.

The cinematography is fairly typical of mainstream films of the period, moving from long shots to mid-shots and then close-ups, especially at moments of intense drama. There are frequent dollies and tracks, and less often crane shots and high and low angle camera settings for particular emphasis. The editing uses frequent parallel cuts, to draw links between characters and events. So in the opening section of the film we first see Barrett on the building site where he works as a wages clerk. There is a crane shot with high angle camera as the police arrive. The following sequences cut between Barrett as he desperately seeks help from his friends and gay acquaintances: the police as they close in on Barrett: and Farr, who refuses to engage with Barrett’s phone calls. As these sequences progress we move from daylight to night and to an increasing noir sensibility.

The film uses quite a number of scenes shot on actual location. Four of these are exteriors of the Farr house. On the second occasion Melville returns in his car and parks. A tilt and pan follow him as he looks to his right. A cut with an eye-line match shows a disconsolate Laura standing by the river. However, the locations do not match. The first shot shows railing and shrubs on the offside, the reverse shot shows a low wall with the river and a panorama beyond. The reverse shot is presumably to emphasise the desolation felt by Laura, but most locations seem mainly to present a particular sense of place.

The gay character are an interesting cross-section: including an actor Calloway (Dennis Price): a photographer Paul Mandrake (Peter Copley) : a prominent lawyer Lord Fullbrook (Anthony Nicholls): a car salesman Phip (Nigel Stock):a hairdresser Harold Doe (Norman Bird) and a bookshop owner Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack). These characters are presented in a relatively sympathetic fashion. Interestingly the main villain, Sandy (Derren Nesbit) has a rather homoerotic air to his flat: including a punch ball and an illustration of a  classical nude male sculpture. In fact the most stereotypical characterisation is a police plain clothes officer (John Bennett), who is presumably straight. The key straight character appears to be Barrett’s friend Eddy (Donald Churchill) who assist Barrett at the beginning and then Farr in his investigation.

Harold with Sandy

Harold with Sandy

There are other straight characters, and frequently they express distaste for homosexuals. At an early stage Barrett seeks help from his friend Frank (Alan Howard): and Frank’s girlfriends Sylvie (Dawn Beret) is adamant that

“I wouldn’t have him at home. … Why can’t he stay with his own kind?”

A little later as they embrace at bedtime Frank remarks to Sylvie that Barrett

“hasn’t got what you and I’ve got.”

The two key policeman are Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) – relatively liberal in his attitude – and his aide Bridie (John Cairney) who clearly finds homosexuals distasteful. The barman (Frank Petitt) at a regular haunt for Barrett and friends is amicable in their presence but scathing about them when they are gone. And Sandy’s assistant in the blackmail, Miss Benham (Margaret Diamond) is [according to Sandy]

‘a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom’

with regard to homosexuals. It is her who comes up with the idea of daubing Farr’s garage with

“Farr is Queer”.

Another character who finds homosexuality problematic is Laura’s brother Scott (Alan MacNaughton), also a lawyer. At one point, when he realises about Melville’s orientation, Scott questions Laura about her marriage, asking ‘have you been satisfied’. To this Laura responds that Melville has been ‘kind and understanding’ adding the rider ‘it’s all I’ve known’.

It is pointed that Melville and Laura have no children. In fact, Laura has taken on a day-time teaching job even though she does not need to work for money. It is a ‘working with difficult kids’. We see the children several times in the film. At one potent point Laura is observing a problem child who is, at this moment, painting in a relaxed manner. She peruses a newspaper and then starts as she reads the report of Barrett’s suicide; matters start to fall into place. Immediately the child, in a spasm, daubs his picture of a woman’s head with striking crosses.

In fact, little is made of the question of adult homosexuals and younger males. Barrett clearly has had a relationship prior to Melville with Harold, the older book shop owner. In a scene where Melville meets three gay men and realises their orientation one remarks that ‘ he has never corrupted the normal’. Scott, who is a widower, tells Laura that he fears that his son Ronnie could come to ‘hero worship’ Melville.

The most powerful scene in which the film addresses the issue of gay sex is when Laura, having realised that there is some sort of relationship between Melville and Barrett, questions him. Melville insists that the relationship was platonic. But he goes on to admit that

‘I wanted him’.

This powerful moment was not in the original script but was added at Bogarde’s insistence and with him proposing the dialogue. For the period it is a moment of dramatic and unconventional intensity.

Laura questions Melville

Laura questions Melville

But Farr has clearly repressed his desires. When Mandrake refers to the young man with whom Melville had a relationship at University and who later committed suicide [again!] Melville strikes him. In an early version of the film the script had Melville telling Laura that

“Only religion can help any man who falls in love with those of his own sex but knows that he should deny himself in the interests of society.”

The change is a definite improvement. However there is a short sequence, after Melville’s ‘confession’, when he is seen leaving a churchyard: it is as if he has been to religious confession.

The script had been written by Janet Green and John McCormick. They were a wife and husband team with Green obviously the key writer. She had worked on a number of films produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden. Interestingly a little earlier all three were involved with Sapphire (1959). This was also a film with a thriller format. In this case the central focus was racism, dramatised by an investigation of a young woman who was of ‘mixed race’. In that film also there was distinction between a liberal police inspector and his more obviously prejudiced subordinate. As with Victim and homosexuality, the treatment of “race” was problematic. In fact that film has less apparent sympathy for the black characters than Victim displays for its gay ones.

Relph and Dearden were an important team in 1950s and early 1960s British cinema. Among their output were a number of social problem films. Cage of Gold {1950) is set in the then new National Health Service. I Believe in You (1952) deals with parole officers and delinquency. And there is Pool of London (1951). This film demonstrates equally how their social consciousness is limited by the attitudes of the time. A subplot allows a tentative romance to develop between Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron – a frequent black face in British films of the period including Sapphire) and Pat (Susan Shaw, blonde and white). But it cannot be realised. There is a key scene where as Pat leaves on a bus Johnny leans forward to kiss her, and the bus starts off with a jolt!

This sort of inhibition is apparent in Victim. So we never see any actual physical contact between any of the men. In fact, the blackmail is constructed round a photograph taken of Melville and Barrett in the former’s car through a telephoto lens. But the audience never see the photograph, though it is shown to several characters. And the final moment of the film shows Melville burns the photo. Odd, as it would presumably be evidence in the prosecution that the films’ plot proposed in the resolution though the police do have the negative.

There are more subtle hints to audiences. Early in the film Barrett visits Harold in his bookshop. As they enter his study, in the foreground of the image, a kettle is about to boil. This would seem a steal/homage from Crossfire (USA 1947) in which there is a similar shot of a bubbling coffee pot. Harold runs his own hairdressing salon: indeed one of his customers is Calloway. As Farr travels in Lord Fulbrook’s car at night they pass the building site where Barrett worked. The building is topped by the sign ‘Trollope and Colls’. Spelt as ‘trollop’ the term applies to promiscuous women: here, is it coincidence or comment?

Melville’s home is primarily of the professional class, with a housekeeper. But in the lounge, lined up on the mantelpiece are a line of C19th military toys. All in the flamboyant and skin tight uniform of the early part of the century. They are most visible in a close-up of Melville as he leans over the fire and confesses to Laura.

Even with what may now appear extreme reticence the film encountered problems with the British Board of Film Censors. There is a detailed discussion of this in James C. Robertson key study, The Hidden Cinema British Film censorship in action, 1913 – 1975 (Routledge 1989). Predictably the Boards censors had problems with the film. The fairly long-serving Audrey Field commented:

The synopsis reads perfectly all right: it is a sympathetic, perceptive, moral and responsible discussion of a problem…. But the film may well be a bit of a problem: it is very oppressive … to be confronted with a world peopled with practically no one but `queers’; and there are precious few other characters in this synopsis. Great tact and discretion will be needed if this project is to come off, and the `queerness’ must not be laid on with a trowel.

However, John Trevelyan was the recently appointed secretary and he was more sympathetic to the project. But he also had his reservation,

It is, I think, most important that the division of public opinion should be reflected in this, or any other film dealing with the subject, and I think it would be wise to treat the subject with the greatest discretion. Furthermore, I think it is really important that a film of this subject should be one of serious purpose and should not include any material which might lead to sensationalism and would lessen its claim to seriousness.

Dearden revised the script and the final film involved this response:

“Their reaction was largely favour­able, but four dialogue objections emerged. In the scene between Mel and his wife when he first divulges to her his homosexual urges, she says, `You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl?’ and he replies, `Because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him.’ The BBFC sought the deletion of the underlined words, and the report on the film continued:

Reel 8 We don’t like the scene between Mel and the three men in Mandrake’s studios, where we feel that the case for homosexual practices between consenting adults is too plausibly put and not sufficiently countered. (There was more from Mel about self-control in the last script we read.) We think that this scene should be shortened. Reel 9 We think that the statement `there’s a moment of choice for almost every adolescent boy’ is too sweeping and not a good idea to put into the minds of adolescents in the audience.

Reel 11 … vindictive outburst against homosexuals is likely to give a spurious justification for the kind of blackmail shown in the film; and some reduction would be desirable.

These issues were taken up with Relph, and Trevelyan subsequently met him and Basil Dearden. Evidently they put up a strong fight against the proposed cuts for an `X’ certificate award, for in the event the BBFC insisted upon only the deletion in the ninth reel of the dialogue about adolescent boys. This represented a cut of merely a few feet, on which basis the BBFC allowed Victim on 1 June 1961.

So little was cut but Dearden his team had bought the screenplay closer to the wishes of the Board. There is a slight oddity here as there is apparently a ninety minute cut of the film, which would mean ten minutes deleted from the producers version. But from Robertson’s research it would appear that only a very light cut was demanded. Even so, the film received an X Certificate. Nearly all of the really interesting British films of this period suffered the X certificate, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). However, times change and over the years the certification had reduced, first to 15 under the new categories, then 12 and finally PG.

Trevelyan, in What the Censor Saw (Michael Joseph 1973) recorded the rather different response that film received in the USA.

“As an example of this I remember being surprised that a Code Seal (a seal of approval) was given to Suddenly Last Summer in 1959, a film that included almost all known sexual perversions, but refused in 1961 to a British film called Victim which was a thriller with a background of homosexual blackmail: when I asked the reason for this I was told that the former film did not violate Section III (6) of the Code -‘Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden’ – because the perversions were never specified, whereas the later film violated it because homosexuality was specifically referred to.”

What a difference several decades makes!

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Whistle Down the Wind Britain 1961.

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

whistle down wind

The film was screened in a fine 35mm print at the Hebden Bridge Picture House. The visual quality was very good. The soundtrack was slightly problematic because the mono original did not fit the modern system for surround sound: so the dialogue in particular was occasionally rather loud or rather soft. Also there was some cropping of the 1.66:1 image, presumably due to the masking. Even so, it was a real pleasure to revisit this classic from the 1960s.

The film was produced by Beaver Films, whose other work included The Angry Silence (1960) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Beaver Films worked with Allied Filmmakers, whose other films included Victim (1961)  The key players in this production were Richard Attenborough [Producer] and Bryan Forbes [Director]. The film was adapted from a novel by Mary Hayley Mills [her daughter Hailey Mills was the star] with the screenplay produced by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. So the film involved a number of key members of the British film industry in this period.

Hayley Mills, a rising star at this point, plays Kathy, one of the three Bostock children. Her younger sister is Nan (Diane Holgate) and her brother, the youngest, is Charlie (Alan Barnes). They live with their widowed father (Bernard Lee) and his sister [their aunt] Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). The setting is a hillside farm near Clitheroe in Lancashire: set in the Ribble Valley and lying in hilly moorlands.  And the other farm member is Eddie (Norman Bird) who does little work but spends time trying to trap local wildlife. Nearby locations included a quarry and a railway line and the local town, Burnley [?], with a church and Sunday school attended by the children. We meet other local people but the important part of the supporting cast are the local children with whom the trio play and study.

The drama gets under way when the children discover a man asleep in one of the barns: Blakey (Alan Bates in his film debut). He is injured and clearly hiding. The audience learn that he is in fact a wanted murderer on the run. However the children [mistakenly] accept him as a Jesus, who has figured in their lessons at the local church. Thus whilst the police and locals are on the lookout for the wanted man the children visit and assist the fugitive. The resolution of the film is predictable in terms of the fugitive but the children are able to maintain their belief in the special status of the man. There is a fine final shot as Kathy tells a pair of latecomers that ‘he will return’.

The performances are generally convincing and those of the children are impressive. The film achieves a sense of naturalism that makes the story, rather fey in some ways, entirely convincing. Waterhouse and Willis have produced a well structured story that develops the drama but also offers the pleasures of character, place and time. There are many references to the New Testament: these include a shot of Blakey in a crucifix stance and a young boy who repeats the triple denial by Peter of Jesus.

The film relies extensively on location filming. The settings and the landscapes are well used. The cinematography of Arthur Ibbetson is especially fine. He worked on other Beaver Productions and also on a fine example of colour cinematography, Tunes of Glory (1960). The film uses what seemed to me an usually high ratio of long shots. The characters are constantly placed in the landscape, and at times there is a lyrical quality to the image. There is a particular fine long shot of the children dancing away under trees. Rather like the work of Tony Richardson I felt that the director and cinematographer had watched some of the early nouvelle vague films. My friend Jake thought there were crossovers with Luis Malle’s very fine [and later] Au revoir les Enfants (1987).

The lyricism is re-enforced by the fine score for the film by Malcolm Arnold. There is a distinctive musical theme which accompanies the children in the film. And Arnold also uses traditional songs in his score, including ‘We Thee Kings’.. The film was a success on its original release and it remains a fine example of 1960s British film. It seems to have been the most profitable of the Beaver Productions. The film received a U Certificate at the time from the BBFC and now is rated PG,

“Contains one use of mild language.”

I am trying to remember what that was?

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The BAFTA Nominations 2016

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2016

BAFTA award

The Award season is upon us. And quickly out the starting blocks is the Ceremony of Awards by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. On past years’ performances the BAFTA members, rather like the Hollywood Academy, appear to watch a fairly narrow selection of films. Hence their choices reflect on only a part of the films released in the UK. Some of these have yet to get a general release so I am not familiar with all the titles.

However there are several glaring omissions among the nominations. 45 Years is sidelined in a category titled Outstanding British Film. I am uncertain what function of this category serves. Just to make one comparison. Among the five nominees in the Best Film category is Carol. I would reckon that this is a fine movie, but not any better than 45 Years. Moreover, I think the British film has greater complexity.

It gets worse. Neither Tom Courtney nor Charlotte Rampling enjoy nominations in the Best Actress or Best Actor category. Clearly the Jury at the Berlin Film Festival possessed greater discrimination than their British counterparts.

Tom Courtney has, in the past won a Film and a TV BAFTA and has also received three other nominations. However Charlotte Rampling appears to have never received a nomination at the BAFTAs, though she has been nominated for 45 Years in the British Independent Film Awards. I think Charlotte Rampling is the most striking and challenging actress working in current English-language [and French-language] cinema. Perhaps that is the very reason that the BAFTA members do not seem to appreciate her.

45 Years has suffered in other ways. It failed to get a nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. There we find Carol, which is in some ways of equal quality, and also Brooklyn and Steve Jobs, which are definitely not of the same quality.

Postscript: it seems that the members of the Hollywood Academy do have a more critical gaze than those of the BAFTA; Charlotte Rampling has been nominated in the Best actress category for 45 Years.

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Obituaries, June 2015

Posted by keith1942 on June 13, 2015

There is an old saying, ‘deaths come in threes’. It certainly seems o this week, with three important names in the world of cinema.

 

As Mycroft Holmes

As Mycroft Holmes

Christopher Lee; I was amazed at how long was the list of his screen appearances on IMDB. He played not only in many films but also in several film industries. The newspapers are already ‘identifying’ his key roles. Mine are all early in his career. There affine later performances but in the early days he appeared in key and fine films.

There are the great Hammer horrors:

The Curse of Frankenstein 1957.

The Hounds of the Baskervilles 1959,

Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966.

I saw all of them in the cinema whilst reviewers worried over my moral corruption. My taste in horror was settled in those films and their performances.

The Wicker Man (1973) sort of subverted hammer though I always thought the film was overrated, but Lee was its best feature along with the cinematography in the final sequence; by Harry Waxman.

And then there was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). This is the finest portrayal of the great detective on film: but then it was written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond and directed by Wilder.

Ron Moody with Oliver Reed.

Ron Moody with Oliver Reed.

Ron Moody: he also made a number of films but, for me, it is one performance that stands out: his Fagin in Oliver! (1968). The character is problematic in terms of prejudicial representation of Jewish people, (also true in the book). The BBC played an interview clips with Moody this morning. He said when the film came out he was most nervous about review that would appear in ‘The Jewish Chronicle’. To his relief the review stated that the film was ‘suitable family viewing’. He opined that this was the apogee of critical terms in the Chronicle.

Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman.

Finally Ornette Coleman, a jazz rather than film performer. In fact he was one of the truly great innovators and performers in Jazz. Surely one of his recordings should be included in a desert island ten. However he scored one very appropriate film, The Naked Lunch (1991). And along with the recordings there is a film portrait, Ornette Coleman: Made in America (1985).

All will be missed. And I shall watch or listen to all three over the coming week. Especially Coleman who was the most active in recent years.

 

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Far From the Madding Crowd, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 11, 2015

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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.

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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).

 

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Brassed Off, UK/USA 1996.

Posted by keith1942 on September 25, 2014

Brassed-Off-poster

30 years on from the pivotal miners’ strike of 1984 the anniversary recalls a key time in late C20th brutal capitalism. One contribution was the screening of the drama-comedy Brassed Off at the Hyde Park Picture House on Yorkshire Day. As the audience suffers the travails of another capitalist crisis the film was a poetic reminder of what has been taking place.

This is a drama/comedy that manages to combine an amount of gritty Yorkshire humour with a series of bleak personal dramas. The film is set in 1992 at the Grimley Colliery. Following on the victory of the government, the police and their paymasters: coal mine after coal mine is closed, miners rendered redundant and mining communities suffer economic, social and personal dislocation.

The strength of the film is in the performances of a team of experienced and talented character actors. Leading them is the now sadly lost Peter Postlethwaite as the bandleader, Danny. His son, Philip (Stephen Tomkinson), imprisoned during the 1984 strike, is caught in a catastrophe of debts and family breakdown. Two stalwarts of the band, Harry (Jim Carter) and Greasley (Ken Colley) provide humour but also sympathetic support. Whilst Jim (Phillip Jackson) represents the harder edge of the group.

Much of the personal drama is conventional, especially the romance between Andy (Ewan McGregor in a role that fits his distinctive talents) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), And there are conventional but distinctive moments of humour – the fish and chip shop call ‘In Cod We Trust’: the recurring pool games at the Pub which Andy continually loses: and the band sequences in their rehearsal hall. And there is the local Bus Company with international destinations like New York on their logo but also ‘mainly Grimley’. Then there are the two wives cum fans, Ida (Mary Healey) and Vera (Sue Johnston), who travel to the Band’s concerts and sport the band’s colour – purple.

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The film does attempt to present equally positive representations of women. The success of this varies. We frequently see the picket outside the pithead of ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. But the film fails to develop the characters involved. Harry’s wife Rita (Lill Roughley), a member of the picket, remains a cipher. Equally the film fails to develop a sense of the community in the mining town. Only once do we see a large set of town characters, waving the band off to the finals. The standout among these supporting characters is Melanie Hill as Phil’s long-suffering wife Sandra.

The travails of their family life – with financial problems and debts undermining the family – are among the most moving in the film. Scenes focussing on Danny are equally powerful. He is completely convincing as the bandleader, down to his conducting. [Harry’s stand-in performance by comparison is amateur, presumably deliberately]. There is a great shot, set against the pithead, when Danny’s illness finally catches up with him. And the hospital scenes following are also extremely effective.

Without being overly didactic the film also vents the anger of the mining community about their treatment. Phil has an almost surreal scene as he performs as Mr Chuckles [a party clown] at a middle-class children’s party. Whilst Danny has the great set piece delivery at the penultimate and climatic sequence in the Albert Hall. Unfortunately the opposition are also undeveloped and fairly conventional characters. These include the smarmy manager leading the closure of the pit and one miner who just wants ‘to take the money – ‘bribe’. For the film the most powerful enemy in the story is the disillusionment amongst the miners themselves.

What works best are the scenes of the community of miners: at work and in their off-duty hours. The pit brings out the best qualities of cinematographer Andy Collins. The short montages in the mine and at the face are incredibly effective. And there are some luminous shots of the great pithead at dusk and at night.

The other splendid contribution is the Brass Band music, provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. They provide both non-diegetic music and on screen performances, including near the beginning in the band’s rehearsal hall with Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez ‘orange juice’: at a series of open-air competitions in the Saddleworth area: and finally at the National Brass Band Finals at The Albert Hall. These are frequently played over montages of developments in both the personal and the community life. We also hear Hubert Party’s Jerusalem, Percy Grainger’s ‘Danny Boy’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ [‘Land of Soap and Glory]. The tunes are familiar and a number evoke a traditional, almost whimsical sense of English or British culture. But the strength of the film is that this suggests, not the conformist ambience of ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, but a different England, closer to that described by Richard Hoggart.

The last suggests an England that has passed on, which is the case. But the new, nastier, more competitive England still bears all the ‘birthmarks, moral political and intellectual’ of the earlier periods. Brassed Off manages to suggest this. And whilst the feel-good ending may seem a little too upbeat it is accompanied by on-screen titles reminding the viewers of what has been lost.

An added pleasure was that the film was screened in a pretty good 35mm print.

Originally posted on ITP World.

 

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Pride, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2014

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This is another film in the British cycle that deals with the exploitation of the working class and specifically the conflicts in the Mining Industry which reached a climax in 1984. The   Sight & Sound review commented: “In its engaging, funny, affecting, even inspiring way, ‘Pride’ is essentially a rousing paean to joined-up activism in an era of radical conservatism.”

This is a message that to varying degrees is central to the cycle, and Pride recapitulates most of the earlier films in some way. Like Brassed Off the central story focuses on the problems faced by the miners and their communities. Like Billy Elliot it is set during the period of the actual major dispute. And also, like Billy Elliot, and to a degree to The Full Monty, performance is the key to the characters and plot. And like Made in Dagenham it twins industrial relations with a question of social oppression to the forefront before that of economic exploitation.

The film is scripted by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, both of whom have predominately theatrical experience. This shows in the film. It relies on character and performance rather than cinematic techniques. There are occasional long shots of events and landscapes, but predominately we see a focus through mid-shot and close-up on the actors. There is much less reliance on, for example, parallel editing: something that is very effective in Brassed Off, and to a lesser degree in Billy Elliot.

Like the latter film we also see little of the actual strike. The story, like The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Made in Dagenham focuses on personal relations and dramas and on divisions within the working class. Pride does address questions of gender effectively. Walters notes that “[Village life is more matriarchal]”. Here it scores over a film like Brassed Off, where the role of women is downplayed. Pride also has a much stronger sense of community. One does get a sense of the virtues and tensions of the Welsh mining community: something that Brassed Off and Billy Elliot fail to elicit. Billy Elliot and The Full Monty are extremely weak on empathy for working class life. Brassed off and Made in Dagenham are better at this. Pride emulates the latter two films.

The film is weaker on the Gay and Lesbian communities. The Gay and Lesbian characters do seem a little stereotypical. Of course, the villagers are led by stalwart British character actors who are masters of their craft. The younger actors in the London scene don’t have that experience. I also felt that the film was rather coy on the issue of sexuality and tentative on the issue of Aids. It has a 15 Certificate, so this probably reflects the pressures of the British Board of Film Classification’s obsession with what one might describe as ‘middle-class values of seemly behaviour’.

Walters also comments re the developments in the plot that “this is very much a story about public actions rather than private feelings. Or rather, the personal is invariably political:”. The axiom he quotes is the wrong way round: it should actually be that the ‘political is personal’. That seems to me to be what happened during the epic strike and in this particular strand within it. But, like it earlier companion films, Pride does not really address that. The economic imperatives for closing down the mining g industry, with the concomitant undermining of the Trade Union movement transformed the lives of many people who became politically involved.

Still Pride is an entertaining film. It combines drama and comedy in an effective fashion. It does actually dramatise aspects of the lives of ordinary working people that much of mainstream cinema is totally insensitive to. Like Brassed Off it makes good use of music. The film opens with Pete Seeger singing ‘Solidarity Forever ‘ and ends with Billy Bragg performing ‘There is Power in the Union‘, and an overlapping Welsh choir. In between there is a moving rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’ And as with the genre overall, it manages to end on a more upbeat note than the actual historic events – with Miners Delegations joining the 1985 Gay and Lesbian London Pride March. That, of course, is very much of our times.

 

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Anna Neagle

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2012

Anna Neagle’s acting style, like many of her films, now seems very dated, but the images she created, with Herbert Wilcox, still persist in our culture. For not only was she an extremely popular star but, in a series of performances from the mid-30s to the start of the 50s, she created “a noble type of good, heroic womanhood”, redolent of the values of her time.

She started with standard theatrical adaptations, but in ‘Nell Gwyn’ she initiated a line of portrayals out of British history. As Nell, she embodied the ‘hidden’ side of royal life, as the King’s mistress: appropriate when the most popular royal of the time was Edward, whose own affair precipitated a national crisis.

So it was fitting that Neagle and Wilcox should subsequently take part in the process of re-popularising the monarchy, generating new myths and providing the basis for a new chapter of well-regarded royalty. ‘Victoria the Great’ and ‘Sixty glorious years’ intermingled snatches of official history with the domestic life of the Queen. They demonstrated a stable family model at the heart of the British ideology. Neagle’s Queen shows the development of a young girl into the mother figure of imperial Britain. Walbrook’s Prince Albert provides the focus for popular prejudices about the monarchy, the social changes dictated by the new imperial role, and the emotional life of the Queen.               

With the outbreak of war (‘the people’s war’) Neagle moved on to personify heroines from lower down the social scale. Amy Johnson in ‘They flew alone’ is an ordinary girl who does extraordinary things; she shares with Victoria a steely determination to achieve her destiny. “In a few short hours she’s broken open a great gap in the fence that’s been surrounding our young women for centuries.”

After the war, in ‘Lady with a lamp’, Neagle returned to the most successful and resounding period of imperial history. As the screen Florence Nightingale she gave a portrait of another great Englishwoman who broke the conventions of society and whose sacrifices and sufferings created an enduring icon for the culture.

Two wartime films with fictional story lines utilised Neagle’s stature in the cause of the Anglo-American alliance. In ‘They live in Grosvenor Square’ she chooses to love the Yank ally rather than her homegrown suitor. The bond between the two nations is cemented in a sacrificial gesture when the American crashes his plane to save an English village. In ‘Piccadilly incident’, the male lead (the inescapable Michael Wilding), believing the Neagle character dead, marries an American woman, their male offspring providing a renewal of the bloodstock (a motif in a number of wartime movies). Neagle’s death is again a sacrifice, a convenient plot solution and an ideological equivalent of the death of the American flyer in the earlier film. Her films share more than one commonality, one of the most notable being her battles with male authority. Not with fathers, either missing, dead or singularly non-authoritarian, but with male officialdom, usually upper class. Her choice of partner is likewise upper class. When she marries a less aristocratic figure like Jim Mollison (in ‘They flew alone’) the union is incompatible and they part. Elsewhere, Prince Albert and Sidney Herbert (in ‘Lady with a lamp’) both die young, worn out by work for the nation. Allen (in ‘Piccadilly incident’) appears to be castrated, only losing a walking stick on the occasion of his two marriages. And when Courtney (he of ‘Curzon Street’) goes to rescue his wife in an air raid, it is he who gets injured and has to be nursed by the Neagle character.

This is fully in keeping with the Neagle persona. Her women are strong, articulate and totally committed. While they are allowed moments of emotion and weakness at the death of a child or a loved one, in the moment of crisis they are firm and resolute. It’s partly this resolution which in the end leads to the films’ procession of sacrifices – of domestic happiness (‘Odette’), of the loved one (‘King’s rhapsody’, among many), health or even life itself (‘Nurse Cavell’). Thus while her women may seem radical role models, they are still extremely conservative in their safeguarding of class, family and state.

‘My teenage daughter’ attempts to protect the family from the moral panics of the 50s – pop culture, juvenile delinquency and black immigration. The mother whom Neagle plays here has to both recognise her own errors (caused by her career) and acquire a husband. It is as if she has left behind her past roles and independence, part of the slow process of the dilution of women characters in the British cinema at that time. 

Originally appeared in Film Dope 46 March 1991.

 

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