Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The Cruel Sea (1953)

Jack Hawkins leads his men to war on The Cruel Sea

Director: Charles Frend
Cast: Jack Hawkins (Lt Commander George Ericson), Donald Sinden (Lt Keith Lockhart), John Stratton (Lt Gordon Ferraby), Denholm Elliott (Lt John Morell), John Warner (Lt Baker), Stanley Baker (Lt James Bennett), Bruce Seaton (PO Bob Tallow), Liam Redmond (PO Jim Watts), Virginia McKenna (WRNS Julie Hallam), Moira Lister (Elaine Morell)

In 1953, The Cruel Sea was a colossal hit at the UK box office. With only a few years separating viewers from the sacrifices and struggles of war, it’s not hard to see why. The Cruel Sea is all about those struggles and sacrifices, about carrying on and doing your duty despite it all. But it’s also a film that understands the impact these have, and that that stiff upper lip is often covering a trembling bottom one. That stoic front is sometimes just that: a front. 

Jack Hawkins plays Lt Commander George Ericson, commanding a corvette on convoy duty in the Atlantic ocean. His mission? Make sure those ships make it through and destroy U-boats wherever possible – and everything else is secondary to that. But of course the real battle is against the cruel sea itself: and everyone sailing on her is at threat at any moment from losing their life. In the mid of this the men deal with losses at sea, losses at home, and the constant pressure of always being ready to do-one’s-duty.

On the surface, The Cruel Sea is pretty much the quintessential 50s British war movie. The upper lips are stiff, the accents are super clipped. Everyone is pulling together, regardless of class. Duty, king and country come before everything. But actually, this is a more complex film than all that. The Cruel Sea drills down into the psychological cost of war, and the impact of putting duty to the war above and beyond the needs of the regular sailor. Protecting the convoys and taking out these u-boats come first, and if that means sacrificing lives then it’s got to be done, regardless of the psychological impact that might have on the guy who makes the call.

Jack Hawkins is that guy, and this role pretty much cemented his niche in mainstream as the gruff, duty bound, slightly distant, quintessential officer type. But Hawkins performance here is that entire impression as a front, hiding his own doubt and guilt. During this film Ericson not only has to deal with his first ship sinking – with a huge loss of men – but also his decision to prioritise sinking a u-boat over saving men from a downed convoy ship trapped in the water. The depth charges he orders lead to the deaths of those men in the water: “bloody murderer!” screams an outraged crewman under his command.

And bloody murderer is exactly what Ericson thinks he is. Its’ the tough – and probably right – decision but the deaths of those sailors don’t sit easy with him. He’s the tough captain who can make the call – but his next shore leave sees him getting guiltily drunk and then tearfully expressing his doubts and guilt to his second-in-command. It’s clear that the pressure of making these calls, of sacrificing lives is something Ericson cannot wear lightly – and Hawkins performance in these moments breaks through the reserve of the 1940s to show a real depth of post-traumatic stress and guilt. Hawkins’ performance is raw, touching and above all real – and you feel he is expressing the survivor guilt of a generation who had all made tough calls during nearly a decade of war.

And The Cruel Sea is all about those tough choices, and learning to deal with them. It’s also about that difficult balance between life at sea and life at home. Some families suffer terrible losses, some sailors come home to find loved ones have been killed in the blitz, others find that their wives have failed to stay loyal in the long months they have been away. At sea, there are more than enough pressures and threats, and that cruel sea takes a continuous toll, which is hard to forget. 

The scenes shot at sea have a professional tension and to them, and a really capture that sense that the most noble thing to do is to get on with doing your duty. The officers and men keep a reserve and a determination, as well as aiming to keep their spirits up as much as they can. There is very little patience for those who can’t or won’t put the good of the many first. Stanley Baker’s braggart second-in-command – an insecure stickler for rules, who is clearly both incompetent and cowardly – is treated with contempt and swiftly persuaded to jack it in for a spurious health reasons.

Meanwhile, the rest of the officers are decent, hard-working, determined and put duty and the lives of others in front of their own. Donald Sinden, underplaying (and a world away from the larger than life characters he would go on to play) is excellent as the young officer who grows in statue and authority, as well as having a very sweet romance with Virginia McKenna’s WRNS officer. John Warner and a young Denholm Elliott are equally good as young officers who have to deal with tragedy.

Because dealing with tragedy is what this film is about. The war at sea is long, often boring and punctuated with danger and loss. The opponent is hard to see, and the clashes with them never clean cut or open. For years of campaigning, you can count on one hand the number of direct clashes Ericson and his crew have with visible u-boats. Despite this, each of these attacks carries huge costs. The war at sea is unrelenting, tough and terrible: but also calls for men who are able to put themselves second, no matter the cost. It’s a great look at the mentality of a whole generation: no wonder it was such a hit.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Dark River (2017)

Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley make for one unhappy family in Dark River

Director: Clio Barnard
Cast: Ruth Wilson (Alice Bell), Mark Stanley (Joe Bell), Sean Bean (Father), Joe Dempsie (David), Esme Creed-Miles (Young Alice), Dean Andrews (Matty)

British Independent film can be a grim place. Clio Barnard is undoubtedly a gifted film-maker and visual stylist, and infuses her work with a striking poetic lyricism – but blimey Dark River is hard going. And not just because it’s a grim film about grim subject matter – it’s a film that feels likes it’s trying way too hard at almost every point. 

Alice Bell (Ruth Wilson) returns to her family’s farm after 15 years, on the death of her father (Sean Bean). A victim of her father’s continued sexual abuse, Alice finds the farm still haunted by memories – and feels threatened by her violent, depressed brother Joe (Mark Stanley) who resents being left to care for the farm and their dying father alone. Both siblings make legal claims for ownership of the farm – and the dispute and tensions swiftly escalate.

Dark River makes no secret of its historic child abuse plotline. But this narrative development seems to have become so common in grounded, grim dramas like this that it’s hard not to view almost everything you see as a walking cliché. Appalling as Alice’s experience has been, this film doesn’t show us anything that we haven’t seen hundreds of times before in a storyline like this. All the expressions of trauma, the style of shooting, the silent dread – it’s all been done before. It already feels tired here and lacking any form of originality.

It doesn’t help that the film is slow-paced, and determined to create an arty atmosphere. For all the beauty of the gloomy Yorkshire dales and rain-drenched sheep, you can’t help but feel the film is wallowing in all its Bronte inspired poetic grimness. Every second of the film seems to be designed to hammer home the “grim up north” feeling, in an attempt to add an amount of poetic weight to a story that feels slight, predictable and all-too-familiar.

Meanwhile, the central conflict of Alice’s determination to turn the farm around and claim ownership of it never seems to ring true. Every second on the farm she feels uncomfortable and haunted by memories: her brother even says she can’t step foot inside the farm house. Why does she want to stay here? Why does she fight so hard to claim possession of it? It never really makes sense.

The struggle between the siblings feels equally forced, remarkable as the film’s understanding of Joe’s drunken inarticulacy and ill-expressed emotional turmoil can be. The true emotional reasons behind their fury never click, as we never get a sense of any real relationship between them either past or present. For all the haunting, ghost-like presence of Sean Bean as the dead father (who appears as a constant vision or half-memory) that sense of the past, and the unspoken tensions don’t quite click into place, leaving the film reliant on the language of cliché.

The film’s main asset is the extraordinary performances of the lead cast. For all the clichéd and familiar scenes and story structure they encounter, Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley are both exceptional. Wilson’s Alice is a heartbroken, vulnerable and confused figure only just able to understand the emotional trauma her father has left her with. Mark Stanley matches her as an angry young man, furious at the world, prone to dangerous outbursts, an inarticulate mountain of rage with no direction. The scenes between these two throb with an emotional strength and truth that the rest of the film can hardly match.

Dark River is very well made and striking in its visual language with some very strong performances. But it’s also overly familiar and trying too hard to be both important and artistic. You’ll quickly find yourself drifting away from it as it goes on, admiring it but never truly engaging with it.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch in an unhappy marriage in the overlooked The Pumpkin Eater

Director: Jack Clayton
Cast: Anne Bancroft (Jo Armitage), Peter Finch (Jake Armitage), James Mason (Bob Conway), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr James), Richard Johnson (Giles), Eric Porter (Psychiatrist), Rosalind Atkinson (Mrs James), Frances White (Older Dinah), Alan Webb (Mr Armitage), Cyril Luckham (Doctor), Yootha Joyce (Woman at Hairdressers), Maggie Smith (Philpot)

Released in 1964, The Pumpkin Eater was rather unfairly seen as too strongly aping the new-wave of European film-making, in particular Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. It’s a strange trend in British culture to ruthlessly lambast anything seen to be too good or too well made, as if trying too hard is vulgar and flies in the face of our love for the amateur. This is supremely unfair for The Pumpkin Eater (which I will say is weighed down by a pretty terrible title – Scenes From a Marriage would have been better, but that one got nabbed by Bergman) which is a little classic of a film.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Penelope Mortimer about her marriage to lawyer-turned-writer John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole), Anne Bancroft (with an impeccable British accent) plays Jo Armitage: an intelligent woman, suffering from depression, with a huge number of children from three marriages. Her new husband, Jake (Peter Finch), is a charming man, a hard working screenwriter, an excellent father to all the children – and, alas, a selfish serial adulterer. The film charts the ups and downs of their marriage, often in a non-linear way, including Jo’s battle with depression and the fallout from Jake’s affair with the wife of a film producer Bob Conway (James Mason).

Shot in sumptuous black-and-white, The Pumpkin Eater is so well made by Jack Clayton it became almost a stick to beat it with. One contemporary review even mentioned it was “irritatingly without flaws” in its film-making, as if this was a bad thing! Clayton’s direction is detailed, precise and beautifully done and throws a host of fascinating images at the screen, as well as drawing out some simply superb performances from the cast. Clayton chooses interesting angles and visual mirrors – events from scenes are reflected and repeated, in different contexts, in later scenes. The camera takes up unusual positions, not least a zoom in on James Mason’s mouth as his character spits out vile insinuations.

Clayton’s direction also captures a superb sense of empathy with his characters. His depiction of depression and ennui in Jo Armitage captures the sense of drift beautifully. Early in the film, she is captured in shot aimlessly standing in the shade of a car port. At her lowest she seems to get almost stuck in the frame. The film’s most famous moment features Jo breaking down in despair in Harrods – a wonderful sequence that uses a combination of POV, overhead shots, a camera attached to Anne Bancroft as she works, and a crashing close up on Bancroft’s face (also repeated later in the film) that all serve to stress her isolation, her despair and the mixed to hostile reaction to her tears from the shoppers around her. 

But the film doesn’t solely take Jo’s side. It’s interesting how many contemporary reviewers – men and women – found Jo a tiresome and selfish woman (she’s not, just an unhappy one). That’s partly due to the film’s success in making Jake a fully rounded character. Sure he’s charming and fun, but he’s also clearly a great dad and genuinely cares for Jo – it’s just that he can’t help himself doing things that end up hurting her. The film is also careful to suggest that, deplorable as some of his actions are, he has a point about the pressure of adding another child to a family which already has about seven (two of them at least have been farmed off to boarding schools, and it’s clear in one late sad scene that Jo now hardly knows them). How are they meant to cope? How are they going to be able to support another baby?

The film works as well because both Bancroft and Finch give extraordinary, fully rounded performances in the lead roles. Bancroft had just won the Oscar for Best Actress, and it’s quite something to think that committing to this British picture was her next gig. But she immerses herself in the character, and sells every single one of the complex emotional ups and downs Jo goes through. She’s perfect at drawing us deeply into Jo’s sorrow and uncertainty, but also her brittleness and anger. She’s not afraid to acknowledge that sometimes depressed people are immensely difficult and frustrating – or that they are also intensely vulnerable and fragile. Peter Finch is equally good as a hail-fellow-well-met, whose selfishness doesn’t quite fit into his self-image as a good guy but who is overflowing with good intentions and small moments of kindness.

Both actors are helped immeasurably by a very strong script by Harold Pinter. Pinter’s structure intelligently draws out great depths from the material, as well as playing smart games with structure and timeline that provoke thought. He is the master of the stand-out scene, and the film is crammed with smaller moments that stand out in the memory. Maggie Smith has a brilliant cameo as a shallow, gossipy house guest who may or may not be having an affair with Jake. In one extraordinary sequence, Jo is accosted at a hairdressers by a total stranger (played by Yootha Grace) who recognises her from a magazine article about Jake, who oscillates between wanting to be her friend and vicious bitterness that she isn’t. 

It’s a sign of the gift parts that this film gives to actors. Stand-out amongst the remaining cameos is the great James Mason, whose cuckolded husband at first seems to be a decent, if overly bombastic life-of-the-party type, who reveals himself to have unending reserves of bitterness and poison and delights in pouring anger and suspicion into Jo’s ears.

Clayton and Pinter’s work dovetails perfectly here into a sharply intelligent, haunting film which throws you into a marriage that refuses to paint either side as either completely wrong or completely right (Clayton was even concerned the film may have gone too far in making Jake sympathetic to the detriment of Jo). A compelling storyline, in a beautifully made film crammed with intelligent lines and wonderful moments, The Pumpkin Eater can rightly claim to be an overlooked classic of British cinema.