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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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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 15, 2018

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue [a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004] and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditorium with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performance in auditorium but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator check the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male works working on a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the |New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing [with liberalism] vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping Afro-American user at a desk. This points up, [as do other parallels], that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way.: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of Afro-American women at a branch [Queens I think]. They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an Afro-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. . In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The management are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviours was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound [August 2018] review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries,.

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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.

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