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The Spirit of ’45, Britain 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2020

I have recently read some comments on where ‘the left’ should go in Britain today. The comments were interesting and also claimed to be inspired by this Ken Loach documentary; distributed digitally. It has the subtitle of ‘The Labour Victory of 1945 – memories and reflections’. It is a historical investigation with a clear political message to the Britain of the Coalition’s policies of ‘austerity’. Loach has a long pedigree of political films, both fictional features and documentaries, that address contemporary and historical Britain from a left position. This cinema of Loach and his collaborators is a cinema of opposition. I however have reservations about this documentary and the interpretation of the politics of the late 1940s. Note though, there is a ‘spirit of ’45’ national day in August [apparently started in the USA]  which appears a completely uncritical celebration.

Like his earlier work this title relies  on the distribution system of mainstream cinema. But the films are not typically mainstream and whilst they are often placed in art and independent categories it  is fair to distinguish his work from that of the ‘auteurs using ‘non-standard language’ . The boundaries of categories are always slippery. Loach clearly is a distinctive film-maker in terms of style of content: but it is also the case that the films are the product of a collective: as Loach has often affirmed the script is the determining basis of his works. That definitely seems the case with this new title and as it relies on an amount of archive footage and of a number of interviews there are several voices peaking to us here.  with its overt political message directed at the current activities of the British bourgeoisie provides an interesting case study to assess his politics and their place in a movement of real opposition.

The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the five years, [1945 – 1950] of the post W.W.II Labour Government led by Clement Atlee. The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in June 1945. It then proceeded on possibly the most radical restructuring of British economic, political and civil society of the C20th. The coincidence of the death of Tory Leader Margaret Thatcher during this film’s current distribution provides a telling set of parallels. It also provides a contradictory position to the hype that has tried to elevate her to the top in UK Prime Minster ratings.

This contrast is deliberately presented in the film. It is constructed around to set of polarities. The first is between the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low decade’, and the late 1940s. The 1930s were the decade of the great depression and of the Tory dominated National Government. The levels of exploitation, poverty and deprivation are only now being matched in the current austerity.

Later the film sets up a second set of polarities, between the 1945 Labour Government and the 1979 Conservative Government. They are indeed polar opposites. And the 1980s saw the start of the destruction of the Welfare State created under Labour. It should be noted that the destruction has taken longer than the original construction, and that the obverse is usually the case. This speaks to the importance of the welfare institutions to Britain’s working classes.

The film is constructed mainly from archive footage. There should be a word of praise for archivist Jimmy Anderson, who has researched and supplied a rich and varied selection of film from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Interspersed with the archive footage are a series of interviews with people who lived through or have studied these different decades. Many of these are working people with direct experience of the 1940s and indeed the 1930s. There are several ‘experts’ and few representatives of the political classes. All are filmed in black and white by Stephen Standen, matching the predominately black and white archive footage.

The interviews are the strong centre of this film. The witnesses are clear and direct, often extremely eloquent. They provide both evidence and personal testimonies to support and enrich the archive material. They are also often moving, as for example the woman who recalls her grandfather carrying round in his wallet the letter informing him of his first council house. A doctor recalls calling on a working class family who, counting the pennies, only advised him of one sick son when there were two. He told the mother; ‘from today it’s free!’

There are also moments, of humour, some grim some satirical. A conservative MP reads out a letter from a constituent who fears that the British Army’s ‘Current Affairs Education Programme’, late in the war, is both subversive and in danger of creating demobbed soldiers ‘all pansy-pink.’

The style is recognisable from Loach’s other work. There is frequent use of overlapping sound. Parallel editing creates significant and signifying contrasts. The interviews are almost uniformly shot from a frontal viewpoint in mid-shot. However, on just two occasions the camera cuts to a side-angle and close-up: in both cases the witness is remembering a traumatic death. In the first instance Bert remembers realising that his mother has died from a miscarriage and the lack of proper medical provision. In the latter Ray remembers the death of a fellow miner due to the lack of pit props in the seam where they were working.

Unfortunately one technical weakness is that the 1930s and 1940s film footage has been re-framed to fit the 1.85:1 frame of the digital release. I was surprised at this act in a Loach film. I wondered if it is down to one of the funders, Film Four, who will sooner or later transmit the film on television. It does show a lack of respect for the footage so carefully selected. And it is quite obvious on occasion, as with newsreel footage where titles are often only partly visible.

A much more effective technique is colourisation, the first time I have approved of such manipulation. The film opens with celebrations by people on VE day 1945. We see them singing, dancing, cheering in the streets and in iconic setting such as Trafalgar Square. At the film’s end the footage re-appears, now in colour. The contrast achieves a fine, upbeat sense. And it fits with the thrust of the film, which is that the loss sense of community of the 1940s is actually re-achievable today.

In both the coverage of the 1940s and of the 1980s there is detailed film on the policies and actions of the two governments. As one might expect, this is a series of oppositions. The Labour’ Governments major achievements are dealt with in turn – nationalising the mines, transport, housing and centrally the National Health Service. And it is in this iconic achievement that the destruction of the later governments is most forcibly made apparent.

The film is not unalloyed praise for the great 1945 reforming Labour Party. In particular the experts offer some critical comments. These include Tony Benn, who was both a participant but who also looks back and examines. Two points in particular emerge as criticism of the Labour Governments implementation of their policies. One is the dominance of centralisation: the other is the lack of any sort of control by the working class. A particular example of this is the new National Coal Board. Its head was an ex-coal owner who had led the opposition to nationalisation.

But there are important aspects of the 1945 Labour Government that the documentary omits. One ‘elephant in the room’ is Finance Capital. In fact one of the early nationalisation in the 1940s was the Bank of England. But the Government went no further, though nationalising the top 100 companies including the banks was a policy supported by grass roots activists. This failure becomes more obvious when our gaze [which the films prompts] comes forward to the current crisis. It is worth noting that the reforming Labour Government was constrained in the same manner as the current Coalition Government. The need to placate the banks and the markets so that they would fund the debts to pay for government action. The UK was a substantial recipient of monies in the USA ‘s Marshall Plan, and pressure from across the Atlantic was clearly a powerful factor. One commentator in the film suggests that the USA aid was partly motivated by the fears of radical change or even revolution by the British working class.

There is the another ‘elephant in the room’; Britain’s membership of what became the Western Imperialist front [NATO], led by the USA. Nowhere in the film are the policies of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism addressed. Among the important issues from the 1940s would be the suppression of the democracy in the Greek Civil War: the handing back of Vietnam to the French colonialist: covert support to suppress the movement for Independence in Indonesia: the creation of a settler Zionist State in Palestine: and the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Notable also was Bevin’s insistence on the development of a nuclear option. The government saw the empire / Commonwealth, particularly Africa, as a source of cheap resources: the groundnut scandal was not about economic independence for Africans but bailing out Britain’s own faltering economy.

These omissions may seem surprising. Ken Loach in earlier films has addressed the Republican war against fascism in Spain (Land and Freedom, 1995); though it omitted the issue of Spanish colonialism. Other films have addressed colonialism: the War of Independence in Eire (The Wind That Shakes the Barley): and resistance to US neo-colonialism in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song, 1996). However, only The Wind That Shakes the Barley actually addresses British colonialism and the central focus of that film is the Irish Civil War. The earlier film Hidden Agenda (190) actually focused on the abuses by the British state and the representation of the Republicans was problematic. The more recent Jimmy’s Hall (20140 is about the struggle in the new Irish free State. Loach clearly supports National Liberation Struggles, witness his defamation by Zionists, but it is not properly developed in his films or this documentary.

These lacunae carry over into the treatment of the UK class struggle. Loach’s film completely fails to deal with one of the most potent factors in the politics of the decade, the arrival of large numbers of black people from Britain’s colonies. This was underway during the 1940s, partly due to the need for additional labour. The Labour Home Secretary opined that ‘he would be happier if the intake could be limited to entrants from the Western countries.” Part of his motivations were questions of ‘tradition and social background’, partly the possible problems of deportation if needed. The Trade Unions were often hostile, as Bevan reported to the Cabinet in 1946. By 1949 there were occasional racist riots, but the Government ‘sat on its hands’. By 1950 a review was underway to “check immigrants into the country of colonial people from the British Colonial territories”. [See Race & Class 1984].

This would seem to be a broader issue that has never been squarely confronted in Loach’s output. His films do feature positive black characters, but only in subordinate roles. Given his output is almost entirely devoted to issue of the class struggle in Britain, the absence of a film that centrally deals with what is termed “race” is surprising. More generally whilst Loach’s film focuses on and supports the struggles of the working class it is debatable whether it fully confront ‘the system’. The continuing strand that runs through most of his films is the sense of ‘betrayal’. This is the message that appears at the end of the very fine series for BBC Days of Hope (1975). And it a feeling that figures in The Spirit of ’45. The film’s main analytical conclusion centres on the failure of working class control. This begs the question of what are the politics of that control.

A number of screenings of the film have featured a Live Satellite coverage of a Q&A following a screening at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. There was Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy. Dot is interesting because she recalled being expelled from the Labour Party in the 1950s for belonging to a group that promoted the policy of nationalising the banks! The central theme of this discussion was a new political movement, Left Unity. This offers the appearance of being a new, more democratic, more radical version of the Labour Party. This also begs the question of the political line required to effect actual, real change. Britain’s Empire was a factor in enabling the British capitalist class to make concessions to the working class. Certainly socialism is not compatible with imperialist power or imperialist ambitions.

The original post was on Third Cinema Revisited and also addressed the question of a distinction between films that address decolonization and films that address  class struggle.

Race & Class 1994, see ‘The Role Labour in the creation of a racist Britain’ by S Joshi and B Carter, Volume XXV, number 3.

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I, Daniel Blake, Britain 2016

Posted by keith1942 on April 18, 2020

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film attracted good audiences on release locally at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I spoke to after screenings had been impressed and moved by the film. The coverage in the media suggested that this was the film by Ken Loach and his colleagues that had attracted the most interest in recent years and one that had had a powerful affect on audiences.

I was able to see this film again in Montreal whilst visiting friends there; it was screened at a small local multi-screen, ‘Cinéma du Parc’. They have regular screenings on Monday nights of interesting films from outside the mainstream. About a 100 people turned up for a brief introduction, the film [with French sub-titles] and a Q&A, with commentary, afterwards. The film got a round of applause and most of the audience stated for the discussion.

I was interested in the responses to the film. Apparently Ken Loach and his colleagues have a high reputation in Montreal. The audience seemed to navigate the particular British context and language fairly easily. Quite a number of the comments offered exampled that paralleled events in the story in Canada itself: we heard about the mistreatment of disability; problems in regard to housing: the ubiquitous CCTV: and the horrors of automated telephone systems and call centres.

My friend Peter Rist, in an introduction, placed the film in the context of Loach’s work: especially in the parallels with Cathy Come Home. We also heard about parallels with the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night / Deux jours, une nuit and Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man / La loi du marché [The Law of the Market].

It was clear that this film travels well and whilst it offers a very British stance and setting, raises issues that are widely experienced. I had reservations about the politics in the film but I do find it a powerful indictment of ‘the condition of the English working class’ in 2016.

In October ‘The Guardian’ newspaper had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film, ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid, the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’: and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and  rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses I saw included people recounting that they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in ‘The Guardian’ seemed to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved  in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics. The French film The Measure of a Man offers another parallel. The French title La loi du marché’ translates as The Law of the Market. This provides an interesting contrast and it is also revealing that the title for distribution in Britain changes the original title so markedly.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this. He also recommends an earlier Loach film, Riff-Raff (1991), which I think is one of the best films on the British working class by Loach and his team since the early television dramas.

Note, an earlier version of this post appeared on ‘The Case for Global Film’.

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Sorry We Missed You, Britain 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 22, 2019

This is the new title from Ken Loach and his regular scriptwriter Paul Laverty. As with the last title, I, Daniel Blake (2016), the production offers a bleak view of another burden falling on the working class. This title also is set in Newcastle upon Tyne, but this time it is a family rather than a single individual that provides the focus.

Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) live in rented accommodation with their two children, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor). Abby works for a sub-contractor to the NHS as a carer to a number of home-bound patients: two senior citizens, a young man with learning difficulties, and a middle-aged woman with a disability. There are likely others we do not see,

Ricky has been out of work for some time though he claims that he has not signed on. He is desperate to work but also he also wants to improve the family situation: specifically by finding the money to obtain their own house. Seb is in the last year at school but alienated from both education and adult society. He hangs round with a group of friends who are on the edge of legality in their activities. Lisa is the youngest; she takes after her mother and is more stable than Seb.

The film opens with a blank screen and the sound of two voices. The image appears and Ricky is being interviewed by a manager at a Delivery firm depot. As the latter explains the terms of the work, labelled self-employment, there is already an ominous sense of where this may lead. Ricky is neither the type of character nor in a situation where he is able to be properly critical of the contract on offer.

It is the merit of Paul Laverty’s screenplay that the premonitions this engenders for an audience do not materialise in a conventional manner.. The narrative not only presents the extremely exploitative nature of the work Ricky performs but also relates this to the problems and tensions within the family. To start with Ricky has to provide a van and he pressurises Abby to sell her car to provide a deposit. This means that she has to use public transport to visit a number of clients who seem to be some way apart, lengthening her working day.

Whilst Ricky owns the van the working arrangements mean that he is tied to a long day, with electronic supervision through the gadget that he must carry at all times. This is a relentless work schedule, with time of delivery set, lots of driving, and often unhelpful or absent recipients.. One occasion when Ricky tries to outmaneuvre a parking warden so he can make a quick delivery offers an example of this brutal work timetable. On another occasion, when Lisa accompanies him for the day, they have a charming moment of rest, sitting looking out over a pleasant landscape. Then the timer on the gadget calls Ricky back to the cab and work.

So both Ricky and Abby are working long hours and therefore absent from their children. We see Lisa and Seb on a number of occasions at home alone, with Lisa making their meals and coping without parents. It is a sign of Lisa’s greater stability that she is seen rousing the unwilling Seb so he is not late for school.

The downward spiral suggested at the opening does result. However, it does so in unexpected ways and with a sense of naturalism that is always one of the strengths of Ken Loach’s film-making. And his cast of characters are convincing and more complex than is the norm in British realist cinema. Chris Hitchen conveys well the driven desperation of Ricky. Debbie Hollywood has the more empathetic role, as the mainstay of the family and as a sympathetic carer. She delivers this with warmth and commitment. Katie Proctor is good as Lisa, seemingly mature beyond her years. Rhys Stone catches the volatile and sometimes erratic behaviour of the teenage Seb. However, this character does not convince in the same way. The changes from his warmth in the family at a meal-time does not quite fit with his later volatile and erratic behaviour. When a rare family meal occurs he is a warm member of the event. But this seems a long way from his malicious prank when his phone is threatened.

There are few characters outside side the family and none of them are fully developed. Their main function is to provide the plot development that impact on the family. The manager at the depot is convincing as a manipulator who must keep the workforce on track and on time. He seems approachable but when the rules require he is completely ruthless. Ricky’s only apparent friend is a colleague at the Depot who appears to fit into the requirements easily. We do see, briefly, another driver, who violently confronts the manager when the ruthless regime is imposed. But this passes with little seeming impact.

We see Abby’s clients’ on several occasion. They provide the needs which demonstrate her caring warmth and devotion. An audience is likely to wonder about other clients whose carers are less dedicated. We do see a school friend of Lisa and we see Seb together with his group, but in neither case are characters developed.

This tight focus leads to a number of limitations in the narrative. In ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a viewer encountered different examples of the state bureaucracy. Here the exploiting class has only one representative, the Depot manager. At one point he explains to Ricky the rationale of his management. He claims that the ‘depot’ is a golden example in the chain, with high rates of accuracy in deliveries. Unsaid is the cost to the workforce of his regime. In that sense the viewer is left to draw conclusions about the profitability of Ricky’s stressful job. One reviewer remarked how this film does not have one of the Loachian tropes; a sequence where the politics of the situation are discussed. In the famous BBC production, Days of Hope (1975), the role of capital and the state were clearly describe and analysed. I doubt that a substantial part of the audience will consider that relationship during this film. One can be appalled at the exploitation but think this is an aspect of particularly exploitative company or ‘the gig economy. In a similar fashion ‘I, Daniel Blake’ could suggest an uncaring bureaucracy without pointing to the role of state agencies in disciplining labour for capital.

The tight focus on the family means that we do not see a working class community. This is similar to the presentation of I, Daniel Blake where a constructed family is centre.  It is generally accepted that the traditional working class communities have, to a degree, fragmented. But they do still exist and there are newer ethnic communities in today’s Britain. The recent Loach films have privileged northern settings where identifiable working class communities can still be seen, always a tendency in the output. The early Laverty scripts had a sense of community. But this has not been maintained in recent films. The strongest communities were is period films like Jimmy’s Hall (2014), set in Eire in the 1930s.

In one way we are back to Ken Loach’s initial features like Cathy Come Home (1966) or Kes (1969), with a couple or individual alienated from a community by circumstance. But there are other films where the community is central to the narrative. Riff-Raff (1991)has a working community.

The latter film also exemplifies another absence, the organised working class; in that film autonomous. This too has suffered decline in recent decades but it remains a force in Britain. The gig economy represented in the film suffers from an absence of organisation for the workers; but the case of Uber drivers demonstrates that this can change. And an earlier title like Looking for Eric (2009)demonstrated the use of both community and working class organisation.

One factor in these absences is Loach choice of pitching his films in the mainstream mode, even if at its peripheries. Thus the films offer a limited number of key characters. Their story is centred around their actions and the actions upon them. The narrative tends to the linear and actions are clearly motivated. Loach rarely uses flashbacks or include reflexive sequences. His films are didactic; a point that repeatedly annoys bourgeois critics. The features are melodramas of protest, usually ending not in victory but at least in the torch of resistance being passed on. But a number are more properly described as melodramas of defeat, and the ending of Sorry We Missed You, while not closure, does suggest defeat.

It is instructive to remember the input by the sadly deceased Jim Allen. His Land and Freedom (1995) is a period piece to which The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) can be favourably compared. But the earlier Hidden Agenda (1990)treats of the colonial issue, in the north of Eire, from a contemporary point of view. And Days of Hope has an overt political dimension that is more potent than in any other Loach work. It was also a period drama but it relevance was clear from the attacks in the series, including the dubious honour a Times editorial. Along with other Allen scripts, such as for ‘The Wednesday Play’ like ‘The Lump’ (1967) and ‘The Big Flame’ (1969), it now seems that the early television work was more radical than the recent feature films; ironic in that Loach gave up on television because of censorship.

Ken Loach and his colleagues do produce films that provide and accurate and authentic representation of a common working class experience in the C21st. They do so with passion, warmth and attention to detail: whilst never mentioned in the dialogue the Turner house suffers [among other problems] from damp, the patches clearly visible on the walls in the large screen. And in a contrasting touch the stairwell is decorated with the family photographs taken mainly by Abby. In a complex plotting these same photographs dramatise the family tensions which clearly arise from their economic position. Whilst the political presentation is limited in a number of ways this film, like others by the company, are the powerful representations of contemporary working class life.

The film was shot by Loach’s now regular and excellent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. In is filmed in the typical Loach manner with much use of a long lens; sometimes producing a rather flat canvas but with a good depth of field. It is also shot on 35mm/super 16 but disappointing is only circulated in a digital transfer. But the quality of the chromatography shows through as does the attention to setting, editing and sound design. This is another remarkable milestone in a career now stretching back over fifty years. And it is a title that repays seeing it in a theatrical setting.

 

 

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Red Joan, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on May 10, 2019

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it, and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities. These two fictional versions of a real-life heroine appears to have caused some confusion. The plot synopsis on IMDB relates to the real-life Norwood and not to the character in the film.
The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European emigre Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists. They are also ex-lovers, something only revealed late in the flashbacks. Joan becomes involved with Leo. Come the 1940s Joan is recruited to the secret ‘Tube Alloys Project’ which is actually part of the war-time nuclear research. She is personal secretary to project leader Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moor) and is privy to all of the secret papers to and from the project. Leo and Sonia both urge Joan to pass on secret information for Russia, as the war-time ally is excluded from the circulation of such research. The film hardly at all uses the correct definition of the Soviet Union. Joan resists, she is prejudiced against Russia. At a screening of The Battleship Potemkin she is clearly bored by the film .
Then the USA and Britain use the new nuclear device on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joan is appalled and now starts to pass on secret information via Sonia to Soviet agents. Her justification is that the Soviet Union needs equal access to this new weapon. As the flashbacks develop Leo is killed, possibly by the NKVD; and Sonia flees to Europe. Joan begins an affair with Max. When the leaks become apparent Max is suspected of the espionage and arrested. Joan blackmails a fellow communist sympathiser and secret homosexual, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), now based in the Foreign Office, to obtain Max’s release and new passports so the couple can emigrate to Australia. As they board the boat Joan confesses to Max that she was the spy.
In the present it appears that at some point Joan has returned to Britain, possibly after the death of her husband Max. Her son Nick (Ben Miles) is now a lawyer. He is appalled when he learn of his mother’s ‘treachery’. The film ends as Joan is arrested after the release of the story. At her front door she faces the press and declares that she did indeed pass secret information to the Russians. She justifies this by saying that equal access by the Allies and Russia prevented a nuclear war. Nick, now reconciled, joins her.
The film apparently follows the book fairly closely. The author, Jennie Rooney, studied at Cambridge University. Here she encountered the story of Melita Norwood. Her narrative is heavily fictionalised and one senses it is strongly influenced by the history and myths around the Cambridge spies. Some of the characters in the film seems thinly disguised versions of characters well-known in that history. This seems to have carried over into the film. And the politics of the latter are far removed from those of the actual Melita Norwood. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, commented;
“The film gives its ‘Red Joan’ a conventionally glamorous Apostle-style career in Cambridge University that Norwood didn’t have, along with a less ideological, more-mainstream approach to cold war politics.”
I was trying to work out in what sense he was using ideological? Perhaps that there is not much political dialogue or discussion. The flashbacks focus on the romances between Joan and Leo, and then between Joan and Max. Stalin gets a mention several times, I think being labelled a ‘mass murderer’ at least twice. Leo talks about the Communist International but I do not recollect many members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. William Mitchell was member but lets it drop as he becomes involved in espionage. Hitler gets a few mentions but not Trotsky. The British imperial values are present. It is clear that the ‘Tube Alloy Project’ is about an independent nuclear weapon. In one scene Max stresses the importance of the British research and autonomy whilst the listening Atlee comments approvingly. This probably relates to the strand of values embraced by Joan; equal access for Russia.


The history of Melita Norwood is strikingly different. No Cambridge career. A member of the British Communist Party along with her husband. She actually worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and the secrets she found passed through her office. A convinced communist, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she said:
“I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.” (Wikipedia – BBC interview in 1999).
Given the conformist politics in Britain that was thought to radical for audiences. The title is certainly mainstream in that sense. It is also mainstream and conventional in its form and style. The director, Trevor Nunn, found the story in the novel. But as well as seemingly following the book closely it relies on fairly standard tropes. Judi Dench, as one would expect, is excellent as the older Joan. The rest of the cast are good and the flashbacks work as drama. Visually and aurally the film has good techniques but does not generate great emotion or involvement. The plot is obviously geared towards the development and resolution of the narrative. Max and Joan’s escape seems fatuous even given the failings of British security later. Nick’s final support of his mother lacks conviction and motivation.
It is good to see the story told on film. The period detail is pretty good so it is fascinating [as always] to revisit this important period. But it does little serve to the heroine who inspired the story. Melita may have harboured illusions about the Soviet Union that many other had already overcome. But the still lasting effects of socialist construction meant that in many ways it still pipped an advanced capitalist and colonialist state like Britain. Melita Norwood saw herself as supporting the International Working Class and its own workers’ state. By contrast ‘Red Joan’ comes across as rather liberal and lacking in developed cinematic tastes.

Posted in British films, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Misogyny or Sexism

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2018

Jeannie and Peter in ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’

In my experience of reading material on film I have found that ‘misogyny’ is a term increasingly used whereas the term ‘sexism’ seems to be used less frequently. In some cases I think the former term is less appropriate than the latter term.

‘Misogyny’; some definitions use ‘hatred and contempt for women’, some use ‘dislike and hatred for women’. However, the word ‘misos’ [from the Greek] which combines in the term is given as ‘hatred’. ‘Sexism’; an online definition gives ‘prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.’ There is a clear distinction here and I tend to restrict misogyny to cases where there is a definite ‘hatred and/or contempt’, which infers both an identifiable standpoint and action. ‘Prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination’ suggest unquestioned values that people may or may not critically examine.

I was motivated to consider this recently by an online review of the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). I had seen this film again in the last few years in a 35mm anamorphic print and including the yellow tinting at the opening and closing of the film that appeared in it original release. The review on ‘The Case for Global Film’ included the following;

“His [the protagonist Peter Stenning played by Edward Judd] developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Marcinkiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British Science Fiction(which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.”

I agreed with the characterisation of Jeannie but I questioned the claim of misogyny in New Wave Films and I assumed the reference was to the British variant. In a follow-up to my comment the reviewer responded:

“The broad reference to misogynistic ‘new wave’ films (yes, the British variety but I think the charge sticks to the French one too) isn’t simply about their objectification (which is itself misogynistic) but their role in the narratives (obviously not all of them). This reflected the mores of the time and it was refreshing to see Janet Munro’s character as more than a passive recipient of male attentions.”

‘Objectification’ has a number of definitions but that on Wikipedia is helpful in this case:

”Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as a mere object of sexual desire. Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object without regard to their personality or dignity. Objectification is most commonly examined at the level of a society, but can also refer to the behaviour of individuals and is a type of dehumanization.”

It should be noted that treats the usage as a set of values. Treating someone as a commodity reflects the mode of production and is some way from activities including hatred and contempt. And it is difficult to consider films as ‘individual behaviour’ except in terms of the characters within this narrative; and only some films endorse some characters.

Then I went to the quoted volume, ‘British Science Fiction Cinema’, (Routledge 1999) and edited by I. Q. Hunter. The article quoted was on ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ by I. Q. Hunter an included,

‘She [Jeannie] is stronger and more sexually aware than the hapless, misogynistically portrayed women in the New Wave films, of whom a surprising number fall into one of two grim stereotypes: older women who need sex and younger women who need abortions.”

I did add a further comment and asked for specific examples but none have been offered yet. I do wonder if Hunter has actually watched the New Wave films, British or French.

To address the British New Wave films first; I have appended a listing of titles at the end.

Alice and Joe in ‘Room at the Top’

The ‘older women who need sex’. This might refer to Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. In Room at the Top the older woman is Alice Aisgill played by Simone Signoret. Alice certainly has a sexual relationship with the younger Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey) but the relationship is about much more than sex. The key sequence here is when Alice and Joe spends a few days together at a country cottage. This depicts a serious and loving relationship. One that leads Alice to effective commit suicide when Joe marries the younger Susan Brown (Heather Sears). A death that leaves Joe distraught with both loss and guilt.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Rachel Roberts plays the married Brenda who is having an affair with the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney). Their relationship is primarily sexual but it is also notably friendly. Brenda does not just need sex, she wants a relationship with fun; this is more than the merely ‘need’ used by Hunter.

Rachel Roberts also plays the widowed Margaret Hammond who is wooed by her lodger Frank Machin (Richard Harris) in This Sporting Life. In this case it is because of her repressions that Margaret cannot consummate a sexual relationship with Frank and this is important in the tragic end of the relationship. There is Helen (Dora Bryan) in A Taste of Honey, the mother of protagonist Jo Rita Tushingham). But Helen wants sex and a good time, and she does not need younger men to enjoy this.

Hunters comments in this case seems simplistic and based on the plots of the films rather than the characters in the story. Simone Signoret and Rachael Roberts give fine performances in all three of their films and these are portraits that are complex not simplistic. It occurs to me that Hunter may have been thinking of a different film in this case; Alfie (1966) where the titular protagonist (played by Michael Caine] has a relationship with the older Ruby (Shelley Winters). Ruby does indeed dump Alfie for a younger and presumably more sexually active man. But Alfie is not a New Wave film, it is a ‘swinging London’ film.

Alfie and Ruby in ‘Alfie’

When we turn to ‘younger women who need an abortion’ this might include A Taste of Honey with the pregnant Jo. If Hunter thinks that this film includes misogyny I am [almost] lost for words. Jo is one of the finest portrayals of a young women in 1960s cinema And while her mother Helen is less sympathetic her portrayal is not misogynistic. She is feckless but she also has a vibrant feel for life. Moreover Jo decides to have her child. And she is assisted by Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a breakthrough in the portrayal of homosexual characters.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could feature again. Here it is Brenda, the older married woman, who needs the abortion. But this is not treated in a misogynistic manner. Brenda’s attempted abortion in the film is a harrowing experience and it is also a breakthrough in British cinema in the representation of this. A Kind of Loving does seem closer to his description. But when Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie) is made pregnant by ‘Vic’ Brown (Alan Bates) they actually marry and the film’s focus is the strains within the marriage because it was occasioned by an unintended pregnancy.

There is The L-shaped Room (1962) adapted from the novel by Lynne Reid Banks. But it is the male doctor who suggests an abortion and Jane (Leslie Caron, in an award winning performance) decides the have the child. It is her preparation for the birth and the relationships that she has that occupy the film.

Perhaps we have the same error repeated. In Alfie Gilda (Julia Foster) is made pregnant and Alfie tries to arrange an abortion. But Gilda finally has the child and marries an older but more sympathetic man. And Alfie is left ruefully wondering where his life is leading.

So if the comments regarding the British New Wave seem misjudged, what about the Nouvelle Vague. These were less specific, just a generalised comment by the reviewer. But having seen the French films on a number of occasions I am equally mystified.

Michel with Patricia in ‘A bout de souffle’

In À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) might seem a misogynist but the film does not endorse his behaviour, as indeed neither does Patricia (Jena Seberg). Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) has at least one male character who is a misogynist but the centre of the film are the four women, interesting and attractive characters. Lola (1960) has Anouk Aimée in the title role of a celebration of a woman pursued by three men who makes her own choice, even if the audience may not agree on its suitability. Jules et Jim (1962) may focus on two male friends, Jim (Henri Serre) Jules (Oskar Werner), but its real subject, treated as capricious but full of fascination, is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). And there is Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), which I have just seen again at the Leeds International Film festival. This is more ‘Left Bank’ that Nouvelle Vague but it is a wonderful study of a young women treated as subject in her own right. One could continue with films by Jacques Rivette or Eric Rohmer.

I just have to object to the use of misogyny with regard to any of these films. Such films should in the first instance be judge in the world and culture for which they were made. And both the British New Wave and the French Nouvelle Vague are trailblazers in so many ways, including in the representation of women in mainstream and commercial cinema. Even in the world of art cinema they are notable. If the judgement is from later standpoint then the contemporary culture needs to be accounted for as well.

The use in the earlier comment of ‘objectification ‘ would seem to be of this type. But, as the Wikipedia definition makes clear, the term represents a separate discourse from that implied by misogyny. Films are distinct from the individuals who made them, even the more influential and powerful individuals involved. Objectification falls into the area of [another much abused word] ‘ideology’. But referring back to Marx, who uses the term with both intelligence and precision, then we have not just dominant ideas but ideas that represent the surface rather than the underlying social relations. But hatred and contempt besides being personal are separate from the underlying values, though they may be influenced by these.

The sort of comment in the ITP review and in Hunter’s article do a grave disservice to the study of film. The notable films of the 1960s deserve to be critically examined but with intelligence and care.

BFI and Wikipedia listings for British New Wave;

Room at the Top (1959; directed by Jack Clayton)

Look Back in Anger (1959; directed by Tony Richardson)

The Entertainer (1960; directed by Tony Richardson) [only in Wikipedia

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; directed by Karel Reisz)

A Taste of Honey (1961; directed by Tony Richardson)

A Kind of Loving (1962; directed by John Schlesinger)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962; directed by Tony Richardson)

The L-Shaped Room (1962; directed by Bryan Forbes)

This Sporting Life (1963; directed by Lindsay Anderson)

Billy Liar (1963; directed by John Schlesinger)

I would add,

Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966; directed by Karel Reisz).

 

NB. There is a section in ‘Behind the Scenes at the BBFC’, edited by Edward Lamberti (BFI 2012) dealing with the period; ‘The Trevelyan Years …’ and dealing with ‘Women and the New Wave’. I think the discussion of how these films were treated supports my argument regarding these titles.

Posted in British films, French film | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Happy Prince, Germany, Belgium, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2018

This is the new film about Oscar Wilde, titled from his famous short story. Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall is one of the most well-known and dramatic careers in C19th Britain. A popular writer and journalist, a successful playwright, raconteur and epigrammatist, the revelation of his homosexuality, the repressed and noir looking underground of Victorian society, led to disaster and early death. There have been numerous books about Wilde, and quite a few theatrical plays and television features and programmes. And there have been four English language features films, and French and German features, plus several documentarians. And his plays and his one novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’, have a number of film adaptations.

There is much material for the films. Apart from biographies and treatments in other media, memoirs of Wilde abound. There is his own ‘De Profundis’, though this and the recollections of people who knew him are not always reliable. And the famous trials were recorded in detail and all these film versions utilise the more notable contributions by Wilde. ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ [from an essay] has become a well used phrase in English.

Oscar Wilde (1960) was produced by Vantage Films and distributed by C20th Fox. It garnered an ‘X’ certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, a classification that seems bizarre fifty years on. It was shot in black and white and in the Academy ratio, quite a late example of the use of this ratio. The director was Gregory Ratoff, a Russian émigré who moved first to Paris and then Hollywood. The script was by Jo Eisinger and based on a play that included reminiscences by Wilde’s friend Frank Harris. Eisinger had earlier scripted the notable 1950 Night and the City.

The key members of the cast were Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde; Phyllis Calvert as his wife Constance; and John Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas,[Bosie], Wilde’s lover and the cause of his downfall. Morley is fine presenting Wilde as society wit and epigrammatist; the sexual side is much weaker. But the film itself is weak on this; apparently a scene involving Wilde soliciting a ‘rent boy’ was cut. Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) does not generate enough charm to justify the obsession that Wilde developed for him. Calvert’s Constance is under-written and her casting presumably followed from earlier roles where she was a put-upon wife, such as They Were Sisters (1945).

The film opens and closes ion Wilde’s grave in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It then revisits Wilde’s infatuation and introduces his nemesis, Bosie ‘s father, The Marquis of Queensbury [spellings vary], played by Edmunds Chapman who never exhibits the manic qualities ascribed to the character. What stands out is the trial and the now famous cross-examination by Sir Edward Carson (Ralph Richardson). Richardson plays the character as steely and pitiless. The film also uses the trial transcripts and offers the fullest dramatisation of the court hearing. Following the trial we briefly see Wilde’s incarceration and then his decline in Paris.

The Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1960]] notes the circumstances of the film’s release.

“The film, by five days, of two neck and neck versions of the Wilde story to reach the screen, Oscar Wilde was still being edited up to a couple of hours before the press show. “

This partly accounts for the lack of life in the film and in the portrayals. Possibly responding to Richardson’s careful demolition Morley does give eloquence to the passage of the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’.

The competing version was The Trials of Oscar Wilde, with executive producers Irving Allan and Albert R. Broccoli. This film also received an ‘X’ certificate, with slightly more justification. The film was both scripted and directed by Ken Hughes,; he went on to direct the fine film version of Oliver Cromwell (1970). The film was based on a novel of the same name by Montgomery Hyde and a theatrical adaptation by John Furnell, ‘The Stringed Lute’. The film was shot in Technirama 70, with fine Technicolor and a ratio of 2.20:1 in the 70mm prints, [2.35:1 in the 35mm prints]. The film had a talented production crew, Ted Moore providing the cinematography : he worked on several Bond films. As also did the designer [along with Bill Constable] Ken Adams. And Ron Goodwin provided the music. The film looks and sounds much better than its rival.

The plot begins at the same point as Oscar Wilde, the opening of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. However the film fills in the preceding relationship between Wilde and ‘Bosie’. In fact the film portrays this relationship in much greater depth. One gets a sense of the involvement between the two men and their other relationships, wife and father. John Fraser is good as lord Douglas whilst Lionel Jefferies is excellent as the mad, manic and macho Marquis of Queensbury. Yvonne Mitchell plays Wilde’s wife Constance but the part is again underwritten. We meet their children briefly and at one point hear Oscar telling ‘The Happy Prince’ [incomplete]. At the centre of the film is Peter Finch’s portrayal of Wilde. He does not really catch the writer or the notorious public figure but invests great skill in his obsession with ‘Bosie’ and in the way his life collapses.

Given the title of the film the treatment of the criminal libel case is underdeveloped; ‘trials’ in the sense of the personal. James Mason is not as ruthless as the Richardson portrayal. The film does deal with the two subsequent prosecutions, one ending in a dead-locked jury the other in Wilde’s draconian and moralistic punishment. The film ends with Wilde’s release and does not follow him in his exile in Paris. The last shot is as he leaves London by train. This common trope offers the sight of Wilde spurning ‘Bosie’ as his train departs.

This is a pretty good portrait of Wilde but its primary concern is the in famous relationship and his personal suffering. London and theatre-land of the period is well drawn but seems slightly external to the characters. The powerful scenes are those where Wilde’s obsession increases at the same time as Bosie’s demands increasingly sap his artistry and his social position.

Thirty seven years on and with social attitudes to sexual orientation much changed came Wilde (1997). This biopic was produced in a period when films openly and explicitly addressing gay love were frequent. The film was credited as British and to three other territories; there are a number of production companies, including monies from British and European state agencies. The screenplay is by Julian Mitchell from the book ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann. It is filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1 and in full Metrocolor. Martin Fuhrer cinematography makes good use of the production design by Maria Djurkovic and very fine costumes by Nic Ede. Oscar Wilde is played in the film by Christopher Fry whose personal and sexual orientation are closer to the subject than that of the earlier actors. He does capture the flamboyance of Wilde’s public image and [to a degree] the contradictory nature of his desires and attractions. The film sets this up in an inspired opening sequence. Prior to marriage the young Wilde, already a noted social figure, visits and entertains miners as he makes a trip to the USA and ‘out west’. This nicely sets up the public figure of Wilde and his ambiguous standing.

The film gives us Wilde’s married life and his two children. Jennifer Ehle has a better written part than her predecessors and offers more rounded portrait of the character. Michael Sheen plays Robert Ross, who both introduces Wilde to the pleasures of homosexuality and also remains a steadfast friend through the travails that will follow. But the film’s prime interest is in Wilde’s sexuality and his obsession with Lord Alfred Douglas, (Jude Law). Their sequences are the most extended in the film and the two actors give full rein to the obsession on one side and the self-centred conduct on the other. Some of the scenes, like Wilde’s sojourn in Brighton whilst ill, cross over with the earlier Trials. But this representation is more powerful and complex, thanks in part to the greater latitude allowed the subject in this period. Tom Wilkinson, as the Marquess of Queensbury, is good and allowed a more complex characterisation than the earlier films.

The film was classified ’15’, how times changed. And it contains a certain amount of explicit sexual conduct. However, I do not think there is any frontal nudity, and the film successfully avoided the ’18’ classification in Britain. The film does show us both Wilde and Bosie’s sexual relationship and their indulgence in what then [as more recently] were described as ‘rent boys’. But that focus takes the film away from the most famous aspect of the story, the notorious trials. The treatment of the libel case is fairly perfunctory in relation to the earlier versions. And the two cases of prosecution are past over.

There are some grim sequences of Wilde’s prison term. And we follow him to exile in France. However, the film ends when he and Bosie re-unite, [though in actuality this was a brief reunion].

The film, as in earlier versions, uses much of the recorded dialogue. Some of the stormier scenes are taken from the account Wilde himself gave in ‘De Profundis’. And there are a number of scenes where we hear Wilde’s famous short story, ‘The Selfish Giant’; suggesting a critical line in the narrative,.

Now, twenty years later, we have a new version of Oscar Wilde. ‘A passion project’ for writer and director Rupert Everett. Apparently it took Everett five years to bring the project to completion. It is credited to Belgium, Italy and Britain; the list of Production Companies runs to two columns in S&S, the main sources being the BBC, Tele München and Télevision belge. The film was shot digitally and in colour and 2.35:1. The main location for the project was Bavaria, with other sites in Belgium, France and Italy. The cinematography by John Conroy looks good as does the production design by Brian Morris. Both interiors and exteriors are convincing and full of interest. The locations partly reflect the film’s focus, the last years of Wilde’s life following his imprisonment and exile. The title of the film is taken from the famous short story by Oscar Wilde, which also figured briefly in the earlier Trials. But here the story becomes a metaphor for the downward spiral of Wilde’s life. The last line of that story suggests the posthumous upward spiral of his work and reputation.

The film opens in 1900 with Wilde already in exile. His life there is intercut with flashbacks to the earlier parts of the story. In a couple of places we get a montage of clips summoning up the past but also highlighting the parallels and oppositions in his career. In an early sequence he entertains a crowd in a low Paris bar with a rendition of a music hall favourite, he collapses and this is followed by a montage of clips including his sentencing for ‘immorality’, the vindictive Marquess of Queensbury and the deeply depressing Reading Gaol. In another sequence, that also appeared in Wilde, we see Oscar pursued by homophobic young Englishness in a Normandy town. There follows a montage of clips that present the opposition and parallels in Wilde life, including a grim sequence as he was baited on his way to prison counterposed with his triumph at the opening night of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Right through the film Everett and his team counterpose the life in exile with memories and returns to both Wilde success and fame and his degradation after his fall. Nicolas Gaster editing is to be commended.

Everett’s Wilde dominates the film. Philip Kemp notes that

Rupert Everett, in his magisterial role as writer, director and star, catches the theatricality self-mocking aspect of the flamboyant littérateur almost from the start.” (Sight & Sound July 2018).

Everett also catches the rumbustious vitality which enabled Wilde to entertain people across the Victorian divide, from bourgeois to proletarians. This also brings out his sympathy, [though not very analytical] for the exploited and oppressed.

Everett dominates the screen so that other characters are not that fully developed. Both Edwin Thomas) Robbie Ross) and Colin Morgan (Lord Alfred Douglas are excellent as Oscar’s lovers. Emily Watson is fine but gets only limited screen time. The rest of the cast are those who Wilde encounters in exile with a key British character, like the Marquess of Queensbury’ seen only briefly and not credited.

The film offers a valedictory portrait of the artist, with all his flaws and vices. It also give insight into this destructive urges which explain how his great success was followed by such a precipitous fall. And it addresses directly and fully his homosexual activities. The BBFC gave the film a ’15’ certificate noting that

very strong language, strong nudity, drug misuse”.

We see Oscar recounting ‘The Happy Prince’ to two young French urchins, one of who he pays for sex. And in another fine transition we cut to the earlier Wilde recounting that story to his two sons. I think this story makes a better metaphor for Wilde himself that that of ‘The Selfish Giant’ used in Wilde. Everett subtly changes some of the tale to suit the film. Thus the ‘young man in as garret’ becomes

a broken man … He was a writer, but he was too cold to finish his play”.

Here the sentimentality in some of Wilde’s work, though not his famous plays, comes to the fore. And the part of the story [featured elsewhere in the film] where the Mayor decrees the fate of the statue of the ‘Happy Prince,’ cast aside and melted down, draws Wilde’s moral with emphasis to his own fate at the hands of the moralistic Victorian society.

The film has its flaws and the occasional longueur. But Everett’s characterisation, the vivid portrayal of Wilde’s treatment, and the moral valuation offered by the film, make this my favourite of the film adaptations. Given Wilde’s place in the Pantheon, the richness of his artistic work, and the key place he occupies in the history of ‘coming out’, I am sure that we will see more films on this subject in the future.

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Apostasy, Britain 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2018

This is a new release which has enjoyed a number of favourable reviews but for me the word that best describes the title is ‘glum’. This was due to a combination of factors, especially the subject, plot and the style.

The subject is a family who are members of the Jehovah Witnesses. There is an absent father [unexplained] the mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran ), the elder daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and the younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright). The plot presents both their family and the local Kingdom Hall congregation of which they are members. As the narrative proceeds the faith of the family comes up against increasing contradictions which are fuelled by the authoritarian nature of the Witnesses, embodied by the all-male elders.

Ivanna is strong in her faith despite the problems she faces; she works in what seems to be a council office. Alex is also committed but she suffers from anaemia; she works in a gardening team.. This as a problem is raised right at the start of the story when we learn that as a child Alex had a blood transfusion, insisted on by a hospital despite this being contrary to the beliefs of the Witnesses. Luisa is the odd one out. She attends a local college and her encounters with people of other or of no faith has an effect. She becomes pregnant and it this this issue that drives a wedge between the family and incurs the restrained wrath of the elders.

As you might guess the film ends up with a critical perspective on the Jehovah Witnesses. The narrative is generally low-key and the presentation of the meetings and rituals of the Witnesses is matter-of-a fact and [it seems] very accurate. The drama, as much as there is, is partly presented through performance and partly through the use of ellipses in the plot.

The cast are good and they are convincing and [despite the low-key presentation] there are scenes of powerful emotion . The film aims to add to this through the style. The palette of the film is almost dismal and the framing concentrates on the interaction of the actors. At time though the settings [such as the family home] are important in setting the mood.

The problem with the style for me is that the title is shot on a digital format and not one of particularly high quality as far as I could tell. [I have not been able to find a listing that gives the technical information]. The title is in colour and the unusual aspect ratio of 1.5:1, [apparently the ratio used in photographs that were source for the production]. But especially in the interiors of the family home the image has low contrast and low definition: 35mm film would have improved both areas. The visual effect was, for me, best described as ‘muddy’.

I also found the narrative uneven. It seems to aim for a social realist presentation. Yet there are some lacunae in the plot. When Luisa is pregnant Ivanna has to bail her out as Luisa has not got a job and appears broke. Yet she drives round in a relatively new saloon car. I also wondered if other aspects of the Witnesses beliefs would not have created problems? We get their ‘shunning’ of apostates, their reliance on a particular version of the bible and their proselytizing. But they also reject quite a few obligations of citizenship and this seems to be missing.

The narrative is hard work, partly because we get so much of the Witnesses theology, which is fundamentalist and reactionary. I possibly could have managed the plot and characters if it were not for the poor image. As it was I found the title’s 95 minutes a real struggle. I saw it at local cinema where it seems the film has so far enjoyed good audiences, and quite a few of them thought it good. The writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo [who has direct experience of the Witnesses] clearly aims to subvert the fundamentalist religious values propagated by the Witnesses. But we have been here before. Michael Relph and Basil Dearden addressed the central topic, the objection to blood transfusions, in one of their social-problem films, Life For Ruth (1962). This was a film in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio. The Witnesses were not actually identified as the religious sect in this film, but it clearly dramatised the same issue. My memory of it is that it worked better as a drama that this new title.

Apart from the hardship of sitting through the film I am also unhappy about the vagaries of British distribution. So Apostasy is screening at a local cinema for seven night but not a single cinema in Leeds/Bradford has yet screened The Young Karl Marx which is both politically superior and far more entertaining.

Posted in British films | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Nineteen Eighty-Four: Adaptations and Reformulations of Orwell’s Novel

Posted by keith1942 on December 25, 2017

The grim futurist vision in Orwell’s famous novel would seem not to have come to pass. Even though, thirty years further on from the titular date, we still have not suffered the dystopia he envisaged, the book remains a potent and influential text. Orwell’s novel reflected a host of influences: his early life and preparatory school: his experience of the depression in the 1930s: his experience of sectarianism, the suppression of anarcho-syndicalist organisations in Barcelona in 1937: his experience of the destruction and scarcity of the war years: his time at the BBC and his experience of its bureaucracy: his readings and knowledge of events both in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, including Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ (1940), and of the Fascist dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s: and writing the novel in the post-war world of rationing and the ‘cold war’.

There is also the influence of the earlier novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931), though this book relies on hedonistic addiction rather than brutal surveillance. A stronger influence would be the Soviet novel We (Мы)  a dystopian story by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. There are many plot cross-overs though Yevgeny’s novel is set farther in the future in an advanced technological society.

Orwell’s vision is bleak and pessimistic. He subscribes to the notion of a totalitarian state. And as is common with that concept he elides the political economy of his society. Whilst it offers some version of socialism it also appears to operate under a system of commodity production and exchange.

The book has been adapted into plays, radio plays [including ‘The Goons’], for television [including the trivial Room 101]; into an opera and even a ballet; the last impressed me more than I expected. Predictably there are also television and film feature length versions: some attempt a literal translation others involve influence or reformulation.

The BBC broadcast an adaption in 1954: CBS had already broadcast a US Network version in 1953. The BBC production was written by Nigel Kneale, a key figure in television science fiction. It was directed by Rudolph Cartier who was a seminal figure in early British television drama. The production was recorded in a studio with filmed inserts. The dominance of close-ups and fairly bare television sets works to generate a real sense of paranoia appropriate to the book. This version closely follows the book though some sections are elided, as for example with the exterior sequences in the ‘prole’ area. We do get the INGSOC slogans, examples of Newspeak and references to the critical work of Emmanuel Goldstein. However, the long analysis in Orwell’s book from this source is missing. The film does essay the brutal interrogations inflicted by O’Brien and the final defeatist sequence. Peter Cushing as Winston and André Morell as O’Brien stand out in a strong cast.

In 1956 Holiday Film Productions filmed the novel in the UK at the Elstree Studio, including using London locations. This is an inferior version to the BBC production. The translation to the screen cuts down on the novel, much of the plot is there but the discussions of the politics and values of Oceania are missing as is the analysis of Goldstein. One addition is Winston demonstrating to the Telescreen in his flat that he is not carrying any forbidden items. Names are changed, O’Brien becomes O’Connor and Goldstein becomes Kalador. The film was a tool in the Cold War. The United States Information Agency provided about a third of the budget. The emphasis of the film is the ‘Red Menace’. An introductory title tells us it is not science fiction but set ‘in the immediate future’. At the film’s end a voice over enjoins that this fate await our children if we ‘fail to preserve our heritage of freedom’. The film was shot in London and aims for a realistic narrative giving a contemporary feel. Some of this is very well done and evocative. There are two striking shots in particular. One, of feet ascending steps in Trafalgar Square, seems [wittingly or unwittingly] to invert the famous shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). And, near the end, there is a striking overhead shot of Winston as he stands before a large poster of Big Brother. In fact there were two endings. The one for the US market closely followed the book. However, for the UK,

“It seems that the BBC flap prompted Columbia Pictures, the distributors, to shoot two endings, one faithful to the novel and the other more hopeful.” (Tony Shaw, 2006).

1984 (1956)
Directed by Michael Anderson
Shown: Edmond O’Brien

Similar influences lay behind the 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s other dystopian fable, Animal Farm. The animation by Joy Batchelor and John Halas is excellent but the film strays from Orwell’s original in ways that parallel the Holiday Film 1984. There are also several television films of this novel. I did wonder if the CBS television version of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ had a similar provenance.

Then in the actual year of 1984 Virgin Cinema Films produced a version, set in London and filmed in the locations listed in the book and in the time-frame of the book (April to June) and adhering Orwell’s original title. It opens with an onscreen quotation from the book,

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The film was scripted by Michael Radford with added material by Jonathan Gems and directed by Michael Radford. The two key characters are John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. Hurt is aptly cast, Burton never quite achieves O’Brien’s Machiavellian persona. But the major problem is the scripting. The film emphasizes the subjective viewpoint of Winston Smith. Some of this, like the diary with an internal voice, is very effective, as are flashbacks to Winston’s childhood. The book’s analysis is only briefly presented. At one point Winston reads to Julia from Goldstein’s book the passage about war, but little else. Oddly when Winston visits O’Brien [alone] the latter is not explicit about claiming to be part of the undergrounds. Even more oddly there are a series of ‘dream’ sequences which involve a door marked ‘101’ opening onto a green but artificial landscape bathed in sunlight. At various points the landscape includes Winston, Winston and Julia, Winston and O’Brien and all three: plus one shot where it is empty. Room 1001 is one of the memorable inventions in Orwell’s book, the site of the ultimate torture and mind-bending experience. But what exactly these ‘dream’ sequences’ were meant to suggest is not really resolved though they obviously provide an opposition to the actual Room 101 and stress Winston’s subjective stance. Perhaps they relate to the final ambiguous shot of Winston, face screwed up, mumbling ‘I love Big Brother’.

The sound and vision of the film is effective. The production design presents a sort of grunge war-time Britain. This is shot with great skill by Roger Deakins, director of photography and camera operator. And the Eastman film stock received special processing to achieve the desaturated look. But the story within this feels rather hollow and never achieves the grim dystopian feel of the book.

Released only a year later Brazil (UK 1985) is in many ways the most brilliant of  cinematic rendering of Orwell’s novel. It is directed by Terry Gilliam, combining his usual surrealist touches with sardonic often macabre humour and a wishful romanticism. The script, by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown is witty though the narrative does fly off at tangents at times. The design, cinematography and special effects are all excellent and contribute to making this bizarre dystopia believable. The basic modus operandi of the film is to invert just about every aspect of the Orwellian original. So whilst the literary Winston might seem to be driven by a search for father figures this protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is mother fixated. In fact his romantic ideal, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), seems at times interchangeable with his mother Mrs Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond): there is even a brief visual reference to Vertigo (1958). The dystopia is a world of bureaucratic ministries gone mad, driven by control freaks and obsessed with covering over errors. The war is replaced by faceless urban terrorists. The surveillance and policing is overbearing but also fails to achieve its objectives.  The buildings are grandiose but the technology is constantly breaking down and operating incorrectly. The slogans are less frequent, also inverted, but just as disturbing,

“Truth is Freedom.”

It is also a capitalist society based on commodity production.

This film has the familiar look of Gilliam’s style: I was especially taken with a automated surveillance machine that acted rather like an eager puppy. There is a brief visual reference to Potemkin, [playing with the 1956 version?] Like its immediate predecessor, and typical of Gilliam’s work, the film offers a series of fantasy/dreams. These offer alternative romantic and upbeat sequences to the dystopian world. And, unlike the preceding Ninety Eighty-Four, they come together at the conclusion to offer resolution between the subjective and objective worlds in the film. That conclusion plays intriguingly with that in Orwell’s novel. The film repeatedly offers sequences that are as brutal and downbeat as the novel. And, like Orwell, Gilliam and his team come up with original and distinctive images and motifs. Hapless victims are trussed in metal tagged sacks for torture. The site of this is Room 5001. But the ‘brainwashed’ or ‘unthinking populace’ are not central except in the brutally realistic terrorist acts.

A slightly earlier science fiction film is an example of influence rather than transposition, Blade Runner (1982). We have replicants instead of proles or perpetrators of ‘thought crime’. But we do have the intrusive surveillance in what is clearly another dystopia. And the impressive design of this film also harks back to Orwell.

“The Ministry of Truth … was startlingly different from other objects in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” (‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell).

Intriguingly the original release version also contained the much criticised flight by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) from the city to a green landscape. This parallels the setting presented [dreamlike] at the end of Brazil and it is similar to the dreams of Hurt’s character, Winston, in his subjective version of Room 101. In the book green countryside is the site of Winston’s and Julia’s first tryst and initial sexual acts. Otherwise Orwell’s book is resolutely urban, conjuring up the traditional opposition between the urban and the rural that is a central trope in traditional melodrama.

That is also a trope in another dystopian film, Logan’s Run (1976): though that film seems to be more influenced by Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. That would also be true of the far better science fiction film Gattaca (1997). Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is probably influenced by both but the idea of firemen who burn books and an underground dedicated to memorising forbidden texts appears to be a riposte by the original author Ray Bradbury to Orwell.

There are indeed many other films that offer examples of the influence of Orwell’s classic. Dark City (1998) has another dystopia, somewhat removed from the world described by Orwell, but whose hero suffers the problem of rediscovering the actual past whilst an underworld power controls to a degree how people perceive. This is one among a number of suggestions on the Web by fans of the novel and its numerous re-interpretations. Robert Harris, the novelist, regards ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as the most influential novel in modern writing. His books reflect this, as do film versions such as Fatherland (1994) and his screenplay for The Ghost Writer (2010).

And the cycle will probably continue, a

‘Romantic’ new version of 1984 planned with Kristen Stewart’ (Yahoo Movies in 2016).

seems to have fallen by the wayside. It is a sign of how Orwell’s nightmare vision has gripped the popular imagination that artists continually return to his classic novel. It seems that ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ will be with us for many years to come.

There are many articles and books and Web postings on Orwell and ‘1984’. Especially useful for Film Studies is Tony Shaw, 2006 – British Cinema and the Cold War The State, Propaganda and Consensus, I. B. Tauris, London and New York. This article was originally  written for the Media Education Journal, Issue 60, which celebrated the magazine which first appeared in 1984. It seemed a nice touch to write about Orwell’s now famous year.

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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

Daphne Du Maurier published this novel in 1951. It offered a romantic and mysterious story with many of her familiar features. The novel is set in the C19th, but offers no particular dates. The setting is Cornwall, and the book includes descriptions of the Cornish countryside and, importantly, the coastline and the sea. There is a Gothic feel to the novel and there are traces of the influence of the Brontë sisters. The obvious reference is Du Maurier’s earlier classic, ‘Rebecca’. It shares the setting and the mystery from the past. However, instead of a young and naïve female narrator, we have a young, naïve and male narrator.

This is Philip Ashley who has been bought by up an older landowning relative Ambrose. Early on Ambrose’s death takes Philip to Florence and later leads to his meeting Ambrose’s widow Rachel.

Rather as with ‘Rebecca’ the book offers an investigation of a woman; in the earlier novel this was the dead wife of Maxim de Winter: this later novel investigates Philip’s cousin Rachel. However, the final resolution of this story holds ambiguities whereas in ‘Rebecca’ the mystery is fully explained. Just as Rebecca is aided by the intimidating Mrs Danvers Rachel is aided by the more slippery Rainaldi: [slippery perhaps because he is Italian]. Both films offer aspects of the Gothic. One genre that frequently has a Gothic feel are the ‘threatened wife’ scenarios. In these two works we have the ‘threatened husband’.

The ‘mystery’ offered by the novel is less deliberately ambiguous. However, I felt that this is not completely convincing. In ‘Rebecca’ the final conflagration of the house, with Rebecca working through the medium of Mrs Danvers, strikes down Maxim and is powerful and effective. In ‘My Cousin Rachel’ we have a death and then Philip’s anguished questioning, ‘Rachel my torment’. This ties in the narrative to the subjective narrator, often an unreliable source. Philip’s judgements are partially backed up by what he reads in the letters from Ambrose: but Ambrose was sick and could have been mentally unstable. What Philip recounts is partial and contradictory. A key element are the herbal drinks [tisanes] that Rachel makes. These may indeed be poisonous but in which case, if they did cause Philip’s illness, why does she nurse him so assiduously. Covering her tracks does not seem quite sufficient. The investigation of ‘cousin Rachel’ is carried out by Philip and in his mind the jury is still out. For the reader the problem is not just Philip’s subjective viewpoint but his failure to analyse what he has seen and heard fully. The written portrait of Rachel manages to present her as apparently quixotic which makes Philip’s uncertainty convincing. However, it is likely to be a problem when Rachel, as in a film, is literalised in a character that is both seen and heard.

The first film adaptation of the book was produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1952. In black and white and running 98 minutes the film was helmed by Hollywood professionals: script by Nunnally Johnson who also produced and direction by Henry Koster. The filmed starred Richard Burton as Philip and Olivia de Havilland as ‘my cousin Rachel’. This was Burton’s first film in Hollywood. Du Maurier was not keen on the initial screenplay and later unimpressed with de Havilland’s characterisation. She did, though, enjoy Burton’s Philip and some sequences actually filmed in Cornwall. An important change is that the key setting of an Italianate garden is replaced by a rocky seaside cove. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is finely done. And the visual chiaroscuro emphasises the Gothic feel more than the novel. There is a romantic and dramatic score by Franz Waxman. The screenplay is highly compressed: 98 minutes is really insufficient for the plot and characters. The setting of the film is the 1830s: information gained from Ambrose’s tombstone visited by Philip, something he avoids in the novel. Burton has Philip’s intensity and impetuosity but lacks the naivety in relation to women. De Havilland lacks the complexity of Rachel, but this is at least partly due to the scriptwriting. The film does retain some of the ambiguity of the novel, but the relationships do not convincingly prepare for the final questions. On a happier note Don, the Labrador, survives avoiding his accidental death in the novel.

Now, in 2017, comes a new adaptation. The main production company is Fox Searchlight, who presumably retain the copyright to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It is a company project and writer and director Roger Mitchell was recruited to this. The film has received quite a few favourable reviews. It is in colour, with a ratio of 2.35:1 and runs ten minutes longer than the 1952 version. It has also enjoyed location filming in both England and Italy, so the film should offer settings that would meet the wishes of Du Maurier.

The production offers some unknowns and some promising possibilities. This is Mitchell’s first screenwriting credit. His previous directorial record does not offer a lot of relevance to this type of property. He did direct Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012) which I enjoyed and which has some slight parallels with this story: an older man has a relationship with a younger cousin and visitors play important parts in the plotting. Rachel Weisz is cast as ‘cousin Rachel’. This would seem to be ideal. She has starred in some rather run-of-the mill genre films but also some fine dramas: of particular relevance here is her role as Hester Collyer in  Terence Davies’ beautifully judged version of The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Sam Claflin plays Philip. Rather like the director how appropriate he will be is hard to judge. The ‘Pirates’ film and the ‘Hunger’ series’ have little in common with Du Maurier’s romantic mystery. I thought he was good in Their Finest (2017) as Tom Buckley, but that character is far removed from Phillip Ashley.

Rachel Weisz is indeed fine as ‘cousin Rachel’. She offers real attraction, changeable behaviour and a certain ambiguity about her aims and motivation. Sam Claflin is very good as Philip. He achieves the gaucheness around woman which is important, however he does not really make the character naive. The supporting cast are good. Holliday Grainger gives Louise both her desires for Philip but also a much more down-to-earth understanding. Rainaldi is a much changed character in the film but Pierfrancesco Favino carries the part well. I should add that the numerous dogs are now only two unnamed Irish Wolf Hounds. As in 1952 we are spared a canine death, but only because [typical Hollywood] they disappear from the film about half-way through: [and Philip is wilfully responsible for the death of a horse]. Rainaldi also disappears abruptly from the plot for a time, unexplained.

The film has fine cinematography by Mike Eley. It uses locations in Italy [Florence looking fine in long shot] and Cornwall to good effect. The scope image is very effective for these landscapes. The cinematography in particular effects a Gothic feel. There are scenes heavily laden with chiaroscuro and we frequently see characters through framings such as doors, windows and banisters. There is fine period design, sets and costumes by Alice Normington, Barbara Herman-Skelding and Dinah Collin respectively. The editing rhythm at the hands of  Kristina Hetherington takes the film forward in many places at a fast pace, using ellipsis after ellipsis to drive the story on.

In fact I think this is often overdone. There are several places where the actions and/or motivations are not totally clear. Thus Rainaldi leaves Philip’s house after his first visit but it is only later in dialogue that we discover where and why. And I suspect that if one does not know the book the status and contents of the different wills will remain unclear; again only a later piece of dialogue fully explains about the marriage restriction that will limit Rachel’s inheritance.

The designs certainly achieve the period setting, as do the costumes. Note though, that following the book, the specific period in the C19th is not presented. There are some exaggerated differences. One is the state of Philip’s mansion. Early on Louise helps Philip prepare the house for Rachel’s visit. it is a dishevelled and grungy mess. Only a few months later, as Philip in an usually smart attire, waits for Rachel and the Christmas presents, the room is transformed, even with new and expensive wall paper.

The film takes much of the plot at a fast pace. But it also takes the time to dwell on particular cinematic moments. One is the Christmas party for the workers and tenants on the estate. During the revelling and carousing there is slow track along the seated labourers which achieves a fine feel.

At the point of Philips 25th birthday when he comes into his inheritance we follow the consequences of his gift of jewels to Rachel. This leads to a sexual act, quite clearly implied in the novel. Here the scene ends with a defocusing as Philip and Rachel lie back on the bed followed by a dissolve. This achieves the effect set out in the book. However, a little later there is a second sexual act in the woods: this I felt was a misjudgement, though Rachel’s stony face as Philip grunts on top of her spoke volumes.

Alongside this there is a important revelation late in the film when Louise translates an Italian letter for Philip. Enlarging on the book Louise comments that

‘Enrico [Rainaldi] is more Greek than Italian …”,

that is he prefers boys! I suspect this is part of an attempt to give the book a modern sensibility regarding gender and sexuality. However, like the editing, I find this overdone.

One of the most important sequences is Philip’s serious illness late in the film. The length of this is cut from weeks to days: an example of how the film speeds up the plot. This is still very effective. At one point we have a montage of what appear to be both flashbacks and hallucinations. The scenes show the manner in which Rachel tends Philip. It also prepares the ground for the shock that Philip receives on regaining some sort of health.

One space that this new version retains from the 1952 film is the replacement of the gardens by the seashore and cliff-tops as key settings. The accident on the cliff top sets up the later fatality effectively. In fact there are far more beach sequences in this film than either in the earlier film or indeed in the original novel;. Philip’s final remorseful voice-over as he sits on the beach uses this richly mythic setting to full effect.

 

The film opens and closes, as does the book, with Philip’s voice-over. The opening offers series of brief flashbacks that provide a helpful ‘back story’ to the main narrative. The ending here, with a carriage bowling along in the countryside, is possibly a little too pat. The novel seems to suggest that life after the events will be much darker. In this film Philip, [as did Richard Burton’s Philip] asks ‘why?, ‘did she?’. This is where the novel ends. However events in the film, for example the careful nursing of Philip [who may or may not have been poisoned] suggest that motivations are relatively uncomplicated. I did find that the novel failed to completely motivate this ambiguity. A weakness which the earlier ‘Rebecca’ does not share. Of course, the film does not need to strictly follow all the ins and outs of the novel. But I felt that ‘cousin Rachel’, despite Weisz’s fine performance’, is a less ambiguous figure. And therefore Philip’s tortured musings seem not properly motivated. As I noted I think there are unintentional ambiguities in the plot, partly because the film has such pace, presumably because it comes in at under two hours. Along the way it looks and sounds good and the characters are always interesting. But just as the novel of ‘Rebecca’, remains a superior work by Du Maurier I think the Daryl Zanuck production of that novel [directed by Alfred Hitchcock] remains the best film adaptation of her pen.

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The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

The film was screened from a 35mm print at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the AGM for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture.

The 1930s is often seen as a ‘low decade’ for British films. But, apart from many of the ‘Quota Quickies’ [made on the cheap to take advantage of state subsidies] there were some fine and well made movies. This title is one of those. It was directed by Michael Powell, shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

The film is a melodrama set in a traditional community where modern influences are threatening the established way of life. Tensions within communities are accentuated by conflicts over tradition versus the new. The central problem is the impact of modern life and new technologies on a traditional community in decline. One example in the film is that the Islands fishing work has been taken over by trawlers operating from the Scottish mainland. This conflict is personified in the persons of the sons of the Manson and Gray families. Ironically the conflict is played out in a traditional ritual: a contest on the steep Island cliffs.

Powell’s story was inspired by reports in 1930 of the evacuation of St. Kilda [in the Hebrides]. In fact he had to shoot the film on Foula in the Shetlands. Given the story that was the source the film’s resolution is pre-ordained. The drama is developed by the conflict, which to a degree is a generational conflict. But there is also a romance, itself tragically affected by the larger conflict.

The film makes impressive use of Island rituals. Early on we see the Sabbath morning and the inhabitants gathering at the Kirk for a service and a traditional sermon running over an hour. Later we see the Islanders herding sheep for traditional hand-picking of the wool. There is an open-air ceilidh. A major event is a funeral and wake for a victim. And finally, we watch as the Inhabitants file onto a trawler, leaving their home for the mainland.

These characters are well played by familiar actors like John Laurie (Peter Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray) and Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray) with lesser known performers like Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson) and Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson – seen in other classic films like I Know

Where I’m Going (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947)]. They were supported by actual islanders living on the location, the Isle of Fulva: and [rather Hitchcockian] Michael Powell as a Yachtsman.

The film opens as the yacht, with Andrew Gray, on-board as it sails into the small harbour. On a tour of the Island the trio come on a stone slab, marked ‘Gone Over’; marking the spot where Peter Manson fell. Then as Andrew wanders pass a croft and then the Kirk we enter a flashback to ten years earlier. Finally the film returns to the trio after detailing the mains story.

Three cinematographers worked on the film but the key lighting cameraman was Ernest Palmer [H.E.]who captured the beauty of the wild terrains and massive cliffs of the island. Nearly the whole of the film was shot on location with a few linking shots added at the studio. There is extensive use of superimpositions and these tie together the present and the past in the film. Presumably the experience of location filming stood him in good stead on a later film,  San Demetrio London (1943). The soundtrack was  by W. H. Sweeney and L. K. Tregellas, also excellent and combining actual sounds and music. The music includes three songs by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music is mostly used for sequences that offer drama and heightened emotion.

The production team had to live on the island for several months from June till October, a long way from the studios which were the normal home of film crews. The latter stages saw them battling wind and rain. Michael Powell wrote the story: the script seems to have developed during the shoot, taking in rituals that were part of the actual Island life. The film was produced by a US émigré, Joe Rock, who ran a small independent studio near Elstree. Most of the technical crew had worked with Powell before. He had established himself with a number of ‘quota quickies’, including a recent success for the Rock Production Company The Man Behind the Mask (1936). The film’s pre-release was in the summer of 1937. Michael Powell recalled [in his autobiographical ‘A Life in the Movies’  (1986)]:

“The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

And Basil Wright [of the British Documentary Movement] trumpeted in the Cinema: “If The Edge of the World achieves the success it so well deserves, it will be yet another reminder that vast production costs, exotic casts, and cosmopolitan scenarios are perhaps not the ultimate plan for the British Cinema.”

The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

[Later] Joe Rock, who was fighting for the film, had sent a copy to New York to a small distributor, who submitted it to the National Board of Review film critics, and they chose it as one of the best foreign films of the year, which gave me a wonderful lift.”

This was well before British films won the occasional Academy Award. It was also seen and liked by film impresario Alexander Korda, And it was at his Denham Studio that Powell and Pressburger commenced the most memorable partnership in British Cinema.

The film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1990, though the present 35mm print is slightly shorter than the original release. The film was re-issued in cut version in 1940, running 62 minutes. The restoration runs 74 minutes. The print is good, though the is some variation on the  image, presumably due to different source material. And since 1990 it has suffered a few minor cuts, so we get what seem like ‘jump cuts’.

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