Thursday, 25 October 2018

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

John Mills brings to life Captain Scott's tragic end in low-key, hero-worship film Scott of the Antarctic

Director: Charles Frend
Cast: John Mills (Robert Falcon Scott), Diana Churchill (Kathleen Scott), Harold Warrander (Dr Edward Wilson), Anne Firth (Oriana Wilson), Derek Bond (Captain Laurence Oates), Reginald Beckwith (Lt Bowers), James Robertson Justice (PO “Taff” Evans), Kenneth More (Lt Teddy Evans), Norman Williams (William Lashly), John Gregson (Tom Crean), James McKechnie (Dr Edward Atkinson), Barry Letts (Apsley Cherry-Gerrard), Christopher Lee (Bernard Day), Clive Morton (Herbert Ponting)

There are perhaps few more controversial figures in historical discussion than Robert Falcon Scott. The great polar explorer was, for most of his career, and for a long period after his death in 1912, a national hero, the man who – with stiff-upper-lip bravery – gave his life struggling against the elements to conquer the South Pole. Scott’s reputation only began to be questioned in the late 1970s, with a series of biographies culminating in a near-vicious – but compelling – anti-Scott argument laid out by Roland Huntford in his book Scott and Amundsen. Scott’s many flaws – both personal and in planning – set a new landscape for seeing his achievements as carrying too high a cost, especially in an atmosphere where the extreme sacrifice was seen as something to be avoided if at all possible, rather than an everyday fact of life for post-war generations.

In this context, watching this Ealing Studios 1948 Scott biopic – one of the biggest box-office hits of its year in the UK – is an interesting experience. While the film’s tone and its depiction of Scott are essentially fairly heroic, the film flirts at points with the errors and misjudgements that led to Scott leading himself and his companions into an icy immolation in a tent eleven miles away from a depot that could have given them a chance to survive.

Frend’s film is very well made and beautifully shot – so perfectly does it capture the look and feel of the Antarctic, and the extreme cold, that you overlook the fact that at no point can you see the actors’ breath – and it covers the main points of the expedition very well. It’s in some ways, today, almost hilariously stiff-upper lip, with the expedition members marching dutifully (and with a self-deprecating smile) to certain death, and the ladies at home speaking with such cut-glass primness you have to keep checking that Celia Johnson isn’t in the film.

There are some strong performances, not least from Mills (a very close physical likeness for Scott himself). Mills was the perfect choice for this role –overflowing with a sense of duty, but with a slight edge of idee fixe pride where it’s clear that he’s not willing to budge from anything to do with his mission. Harold Warrander also makes a strong impression as an artistic spirited scientist, Dr Wilson, who quietly hides his premonitions of disaster and later feelings of regret due to a sense of personal loyalty to Scott. Reginald Beckwith, James Robertson Justice and Kenneth More also give decent performances.

But the main appeal is the glorious technicolour look of the film. The film used no fewer than three photographers and brilliantly mixes together painted backdrops, studio locations and some genuine location footage with skilful and glorious aplomb. The technicolour tinge to the shots is wonderful – watching it in high definition, it’s like a series of polar expedition photos brought skilfully to life. The film in fact apes several of the famous photos from the expedition with such beauty that you feel like they could be printed and framed.

The plot however is more concerned with checking off the events of the expedition – from its conception, through its financing and recruitment, initial excursions and the final (futile?) march to the pole and the death march home. Frend’s film is clearly largely intended to be hagiographic – the men are by-and-large totally committed to the journey, there is nary a cross word between them, and the film never really questions the point or purpose of the journey – or if it was worth the lives of five men to achieve it.

However, there are moments where the film leans towards a more interesting criticism of Scott’s planning and leadership. The funding campaign is largely a disaster, bailed out only by a last minute donation. Scott ignores advice from famed explorer Nansen to take dogs (man hauling is of course more noble) and places far too much faith in motor sledges (he is shown ruefully staring at one after it breaks down). Equipment – not least the vital fuel canisters kept at depots – is shown to be inadequate. The dogs perform extremely well – far better than the horses. The film doesn’t avoid the grisly fate of the horses either – I’ve never understood Scott defenders who claim it would have been cruel for Scott to take dogs to the pole, but never question the working to death and shooting of ponies in conditions they were totally unsuited for. 

The film skirts around the moral responsibility Scott bore for the death of the men who entrusted their lives to his planning. It does show – faithfully – the final depot being placed one degree less further south than originally planned (a shortfall that would contribute heavily to dooming the men later on). But as first Evans then Oates pass away, the film focuses on the tragic loss rather than the planning, preparation and “cut to the wire” contingences Scott was working with that contributed to this (not least his last minute decision to expand his polar party to five from the original number of four, sending three men back to base – with all rations and provisions having been packaged for two teams of four). 

The film is less interested in this, more keen on showing the heroic progression of events. It gives us moments, but the main purpose of the film is to sing the praises of Scott. This means, for me, the film becomes more and more deficient as time goes on and the histographical debate around Scott becomes all the richer and more engaging. For all the qualities of the film itself technically, it doesn’t have anything to contribute towards this and just offers up the straight printing of the legend.

For me, by the way, Scott is almost the ultimate expression of Edwardian amateurness, taking on the most challenging environments of the world with a superb confidence in a “special role” for the British in history. While Huntford’s personal dislike for Scott stings too much, there are legitimate points to be made about Scott’s poor planning, his obsessive disregard for learning from his mistakes and his refusal to engage with or embrace the sort of Inuit techniques that Amundsen learnt from. And, at the end of the day, while you could say Scott was unlucky compared to Shackleton, whose equally disastrous expedition at least saw all his men return alive, the fact remains that Scott’s old-school, old-fashioned, Britain-shall-prevail-attitude led not only to his own death but the deaths of four other people in hellishly cold conditions thousands of miles away from their families. Say what you like for his bravery, but don’t forget the price that others also paid for it.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou stumble through the dire The Da Vinci Code, possibly one of the dullest films ever made

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jean Reno (Captain Bezu Fache), Paul Bettany (Silas), Alfred Molina (Bisoph Aringarosa), Jürgen Prochnow (André Vernet), Étienne Chicot (Lieutenant Jérôme Collet), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Saunière)
In 2003 the world went a little crazy. Maybe it was all the buzz of conspiracy that seemed to be everywhere. Maybe people wanted a bit of escapism from the misery of our post-9/11 world. Or maybe there is just no accounting for taste. But inexplicably, a staggeringly poorly written thriller by a hack author, peddling a tired old conspiracy, became one of the most popular books of all time. Yup, ladies and gentlemen, it was a time of silliness, paranoia and poor taste. It was the time of The Da Vinci Code.

When the curator of the Louvre (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is found dead in the museum, with his body covered with bizarre self-inflicted wounds and symbols, visiting Professor of Symbology from Harvard Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in to consult. Langdon quickly finds himself the main suspect and on the run, aided only by the victim’s granddaughter Sophie (Audrey Tautou in a truly thankless part of continual question asking, devoid of any agency). Following a trail of bizarre clues, Langdon ends up investigating a conspiracy that leads to the heart of the Catholic Church – could the Church be founded on a lie? Could Jesus Christ have in fact been married to Mary Magdalene? Could she have been his intended heir? Did she have a child? Has a secret society run (at various times) by the Knights Templar, Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton worked since the dawn of time to protect the secret? Of course they haven’t, but that’s not going to stop the film.

Okay let’s get the main event out of the way. This is a terrible film. But it’s not terrible for the reason you might think. I mean, sure, it’s poorly scripted bobbins, with poorly developed ciphers for characters, and it peddles a conspiracy theory which is total, illogical nonsense from top to bottom. But that’s not the main reason. The main reason this film is terrible is that it is so unbelievably fucking boring.

The film is an utterly faithful, practically scene-by-scene reproduction of Dan Brown’s book. And it immediately reveals how little Brown knows about how to write a good thriller. The film has two or three action “set pieces” or moments of tension – at least, they would be tense, if only there were any stakes to the situation, or the characters’ motivations or the peril they’re in made the slightest bit of sense. They don’t. You’ll barely remember the car chase, or any of the moments where the heroes are held at gunpoint. None of the characters have any definable personalities, other than what they are invested with by the actors playing them. But then that’s no surprise from a novel where the lead character is defined solely by being brainy, having a Mickey Mouse watch (such a character!) and (film rights pleading ahoy) looking like Harrison Ford.

Just like Dan Brown’s turgid original, this film quickly turns into a series of scenes where characters fling exposition at each other to whizz us through a series of sub-par brainteasers and anagrams, which are only solvable with information the characters have but the audience doesn’t (hardly making it a fun thing to play along with). You’ll find yourself wishing for those anagrams back though, once they move on to spunking the novel’s bizarre conspiracy theory into our ears. The low point of this is when Ian McKellen’s polio-suffering billionaire historian (a billionaire historian! Who has a private plane! Of course he does…) tees up a handy PowerPoint presentation he just happened to have sitting around ready, and regurgitates all the mystic mumbo-jumbo that the film tries to pass off as fact.

I’m sure I don’t need to recap the nonsense of this film, but seeing it boiled down from the book is a real reminder that Brown clearly read widely but with no depth. For starters, most of his understanding of everything from the church, to the Templars, to the history of Europe is bogged down in inaccuracy and misinterpretation. By the time the film is claiming that Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity angered the church you’ll have lost all ability to take anything the film says seriously (for the record, the Catholic church didn’t have a problem with gravity, and even if they did, as an Anglican living in a Protestant country, Newton wouldn’t have given a damn anyway).

None of the film’s (or book’s) ideas are even that original – it was all spewed forth in a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail (several characters here have names that are anagrams of the writers and editors of these books) in 1982. The idea of Jesus having a whole line of secret descendants is arrant bollocks. The idea of a secret society working to protect this secret is even more stupid (it was revealed after the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to be a total hoax, swallowed whole by that book’s writers). There is not a shred of reality here – rather, it’s typical paranoia and anti-establishment bollocks repackaged as dark reveal.

This is before we even touch on the – heaven help us – “art analysis”. The dark hints of conspiracy in The Last Supper by Da Vinci boil down to: (a) there is no Grail in this painting, (b) the bloke to the left of Jesus looks a bit like a girl so must be Mary Magdelene (“a hint of bosom” McKellen tells us playfully), (c) there is an inverted triangle between Christ and this man/woman – so surely a sign of the female dominance! The fact that the painting shows only 12 disciples and Jesus – meaning that if Mary was there, it should show 14 people not 13 – isn’t considered worth mentioning. But then that’s par for the course for the film’s bullshit clues “discovered” in works of art to support the film’s bullshit, anti-Catholic agenda (the church being staffed in this film exclusively by shadowy, Bond-villain types, with a ruthless agenda for extremist Catholicism and murderous Albino hit-monks they dispatch at will). Give me a break.

But if the film had packaged this all up in a gleefully silly, high energy story, it could still have been an entertaining watch. Unfortunately, it’s completely and utterly boring. It goes on (and on) for almost two and a half hours, and in between unengaging lectures and tedious dialogue scenes it drags like you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost impossible to get engaged in anything at all, and it’s really not helped by the flat, dimly lit, for-the-money direction from Ron Howard. There is no zip or fun about the film whatsoever, as if the book’s massive popularity made the producers worried that if they treated the book like an action adventure yarn, or a fun bit of nonsense, then it might offend people. Instead they treat this nonsense with a deathly reverence usually reserved for Biblical epics that’s fatal for the viewing experience of the entire film. 

It's supremely dull, very self-important, and for all the hard work of an interesting cast of actors (who do their very best) it’s a complete, yawn-filled, pile of stinking crap. As the man said: “Holy Blood? Holy shit.”

Friday, 19 October 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Three girls go up a rock and are never seen again in Peter Weir's masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock

Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Rachel Roberts (Mrs Appleyard), Anne-Louise Lambert (Miranda St Clair), Dominic Guard (Michael Fitzhubert), Helen Morse (Mlle de Poitiers), Margaret Nelson (Sara Waybourne), John Jarratt (Albert Crundall), Wyn Roberts (Sgt Bumpher), Karen Robson (Irma Leopold), Christine Schuler (Edith Horton), Jane Vallis (Marion Quade), Vivean Gray (Miss McGraw), Martin Vaughan (Ben Hussey), Kirsty Child (Miss Lumley), Jacki Weaver (Minnie)

Is there any film as haunting and elliptical as Picnic at Hanging Rock? An impenetrable puzzle shrouded in mystery and wrapped in an enigma, it’s the ultimate “mood” film, where everything you understand in the film has be teased out from its sidelines and the unspoken motivations. It’s not going to be for everyone: Peter Weir tells a story on the feature-length Blu-ray documentary (longer than the film) of the response of one US distributor when he saw the film: “[He] threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it because he had wasted two hours of his life – a mystery without a goddamn solution!” That’s a fair comment – but accept that this mesmeric film is somewhere between mystery, hynoptic trick and ghost story and you’ll find treasure in it.

Based on Joan Livesey’s novel (which many believed to be true – a fate that also faced the film when it was released), on St Valentine’s Day 1900, a group of girls from a finishing school head to the Hanging Rock in Victoria for a picnic. Three of them (and one of their teachers) walk up to the rock and simply seem to disappear. The subsequent search by the authorities is baffling – and the impact on those left behind is brutal. 

There is barely any real plot in Picnic at Hanging Rock but it’s not a film about that. It’s all about the mood, the creeping sense of menace, and the general uneasy dream nature of the story. Everything follows a woozy dream-like logic – and the atmosphere is built upon by the use of panpipe music and skilful use of classical music. Weir’s film is a masterpiece of ghostly, unsettling spookiness with the rock itself as some unknown mystical source at its centre – the first shot of the film shows it slowly appearing in the mist, as if it has somehow been transported there from some fantasia land outside of the normal.

Weir’s film became the most influential film of Australian cinema, and its tone set many of the key thematic points followed by later films of what became known as the “Australian New Wave”. It explores uneasy balances in Australia between the wildness of the country – and indigenous people’s beliefs and culture – and the social structures from the British residents who had claimed the land. Picnic also explores the beginnings of a split between long-standing Australian residents and those clinging to the upper class Brit lifestyle of the motherland. Weir’s film – with its brilliant photography – lingers on the nature surrounding the rock. Not only the rock itself, with its odd formations and strange structure, but also the animals and the environment about it. There is something unknowable, wild and untamed about these surroundings – something mankind can’t control or understand.

Weir shoots the film with a lush impressionism – everything has a hazy unreality about it – and the dreamy nature of the film is built on with the dark hints of sexual feeling bubbling under the surface. The girls are all on the cusp of discovering their own sexuality – and there are plenty of open suggestions of same-sex crushes, of growing awareness of their sexual natures among the girls. It doesn’t stop with them either – the adults are equally drawn towards unspoken desires (left very much open to interpretation). Weir gets some perfect visual representations of the stonking repression forced on top of all these feelings, not least a wonderful shot which shows several of the girls standing in a line tightly doing up each other’s corsets.

And that perhaps, it’s hinted, is what happens on the rock when the girls disappear. Trance-like, they walk towards a gap in the rock and seem to disappear. What drew them there? Lead girl Marian (a perfect performance of ethereal other-worldliness from Anne-Louise Lambert) even seems dimly aware in the opening scenes that she is bring drawn towards something. The only girl who isn’t drawn towards the mystic is more repressed, dumpy Edith – whatever the force is that calls the other girls, it leaves her panicking and screaming. What’s going on? Something dark, sinister – and you can’t help but think sexual.

And what does that mean for those left behind? A mess. Rachel Roberts (a late casting replacement for Vivien Merchant, and famously awkward around the girls on set) is very good as the distant, draconian headmistress of Appleyard Academy (basically a sort of finishing school for posh girls). The regime she runs at the school is a mixture of oppressive and discriminate, with punishments handed out according to Mrs Appleyard’s personal feelings about the students rather than any reflection of their own behaviour. Part of the film’s story is the fracturing of her own personality that happens as response to the disappearance – her collapse slowly into a sort of paranoid insanity, powered by drink. What dark secrets is she hiding? (The film hints that she has more knowledge than she should have of at least some of the darker events of the story, but never reveals how much or indeed why.) 

But then the whole cast are dealing with problems they scarcely seem to understand. There is a curious – perhaps homosexual bond – between Dominic Guard’s repressed English teen and John Jarrott’s earthy, ultra-Aussie outbacker (a very good performance from Jarrott in a character that could easily have fallen into stereotype). Perhaps that’s why Guard’s character is drawn constantly back to the rock – and also why he too seems to have such an overwhelmed reaction to it.

The sole character in the film who feels most capable of expressing their emotions is the school’s French teacher Mlle de Poitiers. Played exquisitely by Helen Morse – she gives the warmest, most engaging performance in the film – she is the only character who seems able to get in touch with her emotions, unfiltered by too much repression. Perhaps it is no coincidence that as a “double foreigner” (French among the Brits in Australia) she is less affected by the rules around her. Either way, she becomes a perfect audience surrogate, as slowly horrified and confused by the actions she sees around her in the college as the viewer is. Morse is fabulous in these scenes, from a burst of emotion when reunited with a character she thought lost, to quietly watching Mrs Appleyard’s disintegration late in the film.

But the real star is Weir’s masterful direction of the mood of this film. Like that distributor said, there isn’t any plot as such – vital events happen off screen, and there is the distinct feeling that you are only being told half the story – but despite that, the film is compelling. So much is conveyed in the mood, the tensions, the style of the film that you are invited to bring your own interpretation to events. That makes it a continually rewarding piece of cinema – it invites you to make your own answers. 

This juggling of atmosphere to make something so enigmatic is so crucial to the film’s success that the recent mini-series remake effectively continued the trick (with a few extra insights into Mrs Appleyard), and contained arguably even fewer answers over its 5 hours than this did in 2. But Weir’s brilliantly made, beautifully shot, eerily unforgettable film rightly takes its place as (perhaps) the greatest Australian film ever made: it’s a film that is about Australia, and about the tensions, confusions and mysteries of that country. Brilliant.