Friday, 26 July 2019

Brooklyn (2015)

Saoirse Ronan excels as an Irish immigrant in the USA, torn between two loves

Director: John Crowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Ellis Lacey), Emory Cohen (Tony Fiorello), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Jim Broadbent (Father Flood), Julie Walters (Mrs Kehoe), Brid Brennan (Miss Kelly), Eva Birthistle (Georgina), Fiona Glascott (Rose Lacey), Jane Brennan (Mrs Lacey), Jessica Paré (Miss Fortini), Emily Bett Rickards (Patty), Nora-Jane Noone (Shelia), Eve Macklin (Diana), Jenn Murray (Dolores), Eileen O’Higgins (Nancy)

In the 1950s, Irish immigrants flocked to Brooklyn to build themselves a new life. Those who made the move often found themselves torn between two worlds – the lure of the new life they were building across the water, and the pull of the land of their fathers. Brooklyn, based on a successful novel by Colm Tóibín, places this conundrum in an intensely dramatic context by making the conflicting calls on its central character as much romantic as they are emotional.

Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is our homesick young woman, eager to build a new life in America. Sponsored by kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, with more than a passing resemblance to Tóibín) and living in the boarding house of kindly-but-no-nonsense Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters, in a role surely written for her) she finds work in a department store and trains at night as book keeper. She meets and falls in love with a sweet Italian American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), but when tragedy occurs back in Ireland, on her return there she is strongly drawn to her homeland and to kindly, handsome Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Which life will Ellis choose?

You can see why Brooklyn was so popular with Oscar voters, and why it struck such a chord with so many people. It’s reassuringly, warmly, old-fashioned, a big-hearted, brightly filmed, gorgeously mounted “woman’s picture”, the sort of story that Hollywood studios churned out in the 1940s and 1950s (you know, those sort of “who will she choose!” films). Crowley pulls the material together however with real emotional force, married with an interestingly different (if gently touched upon) theme of the immigrant experience.

Helped by a very good script by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn is not only emotionally moving but also much funnier than you might expect. Part of this is deliberate choice, expanding parts of the novel (particularly the dry humour of Mrs Kehoe, seized upon with relish by Julie Walters) that bring the funny, but also from the warmth, regard and humanity it invests its characters in. Ellis is a character so well drawn, whose feelings are so real, that we end up feeling deeply invested in her, and all the more ready to respond to her quick intelligence and dry (but gentle) wit. 

It’s a gift of a part for Saoirse Ronan, who is quite simply outstanding as a quiet, sheltered woman who grows, changes and decides to create her own destiny before our very eyes. (Helped by Hornby’s script again, which uses the Ireland-USA-Ireland structure to pinpoint many dramatic bookends and contrasts that Crowley subtly, and not forcefully, brings to the screen.) Ronan’s intelligence and her conflicting desires are clear in every scene, while her eyes seem able to communicate reserves of emotional depth. In two cultures where it isn’t easy for a woman to define her own destiny, Ronan brilliantly shows the difficulties many woman had in understanding or expressing what they want, in a world where they haven’t been set-up to think like that.

The film also doesn’t make it easier for her by making her two suitors – while radically different men – both such charming, lovely guys. Cohen’s Tony is a boyish enthusiast, full of hopes and dreams, who seems to represent everything that America has to offer Ellis. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim is decent, honourable, kind, old-fashioned man who represents everything that she realises her Irish culture has for her – tradition, decency and a sense of self. It also speaks to how well drawn Ellis is by the film, and how deeply well-though out Ronan;s performance is, that it makes perfect sense that these two very different men would be drawn to her, and that both bring out different parts of her personality, which never feel contradictory.

It works as well because we’ve lived through everything Ellis has. She is present in nearly every scene in the film, and we see her change from a shy, scared, frightened woman on the boat from Ireland who needs to be cared for by an experienced emigrant fellow passenger (a very good cameo from Eva Birthistle) to a woman who flourishes in her new surroundings and the opportunities she is given. We need to feel that connection with her, since some of her behaviour (if it came from a man) would probably be seen as quite shabby indeed. But because we have such an understanding of her inner life – and because Ronan has such an empathetic and expressive face – we understand the reasons for her conundrum.

It’s that conundrum that lies at the centre of the film, and to be honest what dominates it. It works because it is done with such emotional truth (aided by Michael Brook’s excellent, heart-string tugging score that mixes American sounds with Irish folk to glorious affect), but the film is primarily a nostalgia romance. While it’s very setting makes you think about the immigrant life, it has very little to say really about either the cultural phenomenon or the impact it has on either the USA or Ireland (a charity Christmas meal for former Irish railway workers now all homeless is as close as it gets to talking about long-term integration). It doesn’t really matter, because the central story sweeps you up so much, but it does make the film more of a romance than the grander claims made for it by some as some sort of commentary on Irish immigration.

But there’s nothing wrong with such a handsome, romantic, emotional drama, or one that feels so reassuringly old-fashioned, even as it is made with touches of wit and confidence. Making some welcome comments on feminism, and led by Saoirse Ronan at her finest, it’s still a triumph of old-style, romantic, women’s pictures that you’d have to be pretty cold not to feel some sort of warming in your cockles by the end of it.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood raise Roddy McDowell in How Green Was My Valley

Director: John Ford
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Mr Gruffydd), Maureen O’Hara (Angharad Morgan), Donald Crisp (Gwilym Morgan), Roddy McDowell (Huw Morgan), Sara Allgood (Beth Morgan), Anna Lee (Bronwyn), Patric Knowles (Ivor), John Loder (Ianto), Barry Fitzgerald (Cyfartha), Rhys Williams (Dai Bando), Morton Lowry (Mr Jonas), Arthur Shields (Mr Parry), Richard Fraser (Davy), Frederick Worlock (Dr Richards)

John Ford is by far-and-away best known for his Westerns, many of which are classics. So it’s a bit of a surprise that Ford always claimed the film closest to his heart was this occasionally sentimental drama about a young boy growing up in a Victorian Welsh mining town. Perhaps it was partly because, despite winning four Best Director Oscars, this was the only time Ford directed a Best Picture winner.

Following the remembrances of young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell), the youngest son (of several) of Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), long-running foreman at the mine. The village is beautiful and life seems idyllic – until harsh economic conditions start to take their toll on the village. Wages are cut, moves towards unionisation are harshly resisted by the management, one-by-one the sons are laid off in favour of cheaper labour and the slag of the mine slowly turns the village into a dirty, stained mess. At the same time, the village is shown to be increasingly insular and judgemental, distrusting of outsiders, and suspicious of the preacher Mr Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) and the attraction between him and Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) – made worse after she marries. Huw’s youthful innocence and naivety are met with an increasing attack from reality.

Ford’s film is today a controversial choice for Best Picture – among the films it beat were The Maltese Falcon and, most strikingly of all, Citizen Kane. It’s tough for any film to hold onto the same level of public affection, when it’s widely seen to have robbed a film commonly held up as one of the best (if not the best) of all time. But How Green Was My Valley is no travesty of an Oscar-winner on its own merits. It’s a solid, impressive, sentimental piece of episodic film-making that won’t disappoint you, even if it doesn’t inspire as much as it should.

John Ford directs a handsomely mounted film, full of luscious monochrome shots. It’s a shame that the original plans for the film – to shoot on location in Wales in technicolour – were prevented by World War Two, as the sweep of the real locations would have added a real epic scope to the drama, not to mention make the decline of the village even more obvious visually. But the recreation of the Welsh mining village they planned to film in (in Malibu of all places!) is faultlessly impressive, and Ford creates a real Celtic charm in his shooting of the film.

Celtic is perhaps the key word here as, along with the location, the other thing that ended up jettisoned in the film was its Welshness. There is precious little – if anything – Welsh about this film. It contains one Welsh actor (Rhys Williams), and Ford’s cast use a parade of actors ranging from an attempt at Welsh from Crisp to an imperious mid-Atlantic drawl from Walter Pidgeon. Most actors however settle solidly for something close to Irish – and it’s pretty clear to me that Ford, proud of his own Irish heritage, basically saw this a story of the old country forcing its sons to head to the new country, in the same way his own parents emigrated. It also makes sense for casting the film – there seemed to be precious few Welsh actors in Hollywood at the time, but a parade of Irish actors. 

But look past the film’s complete lack of Welshness – not to mention its presentation of the Morgan’s family home as far more clear and spacious than it would have been in real life – and pretend this is an almost Irish story, and you can focus on the film’s strengths. Although presented with sentiment and nostalgia, How Green is actually a more coldly realistic film than that. While shot with a luscious regard for the past, the film’s themes work to undermine this as much as possible – dealing with disillusionment, depression, unemployment and societal collapse. While Huw may remember the past as being a glorious country, we can see from the tumoils of his family that it was far more complex than that.

Of his siblings, most lose their jobs at the mines and are forced to emigrate. One who remains loses his life due to the mine’s working practices. Their father buries his head in the sand, and refuses to support any moves towards unionisation or the worker’s attempt to improve their lot. The family relies totally on the mine, but by the end of the film have been more-or-less destroyed by it. Even Huw’s sister Angharad, who has a good marriage to the son of the mine owner, finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with her affections for Gruffydd the source of cruel comment from the village. The valley may be green on the surface, but it’s far darker underneath. 

And poor Huw either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. After struggling through bullying from a teacher at school, he finishes school and is awarded a scholarship – only to reject it in favour of remaining to work in the mine, having learned all the wrong lessons from his life (and to the horror of his father). Ford stresses Huw’s youthful naivety by not ageing up Roddy McDowell (very good) at all as Huw – Huw remains forever a 12-year-old-boy, even as events race on. It’s a neat capturing of both the older Huw (who narrates) imagination of what he was like, and also serves to stress how Huw’s nostalgia is framing the story we are seeing. It also makes Huw seem even weaker and vulnerable than he is – a shot of Huw labouring in the mine behind a seemingly giant cart hammers home his weakness – Ford shoots many scenes with low-angle lenses to make us visually emphasise with Huw and to see the world from his perspective.

How Green’s main weakness is its hesitation to commit to either the cold reality, or the hazy nostalgia that the film’s filming style uses. It lands between the two stools, wanting to tell us the truth while also wanting us to leave with a warm feeling towards the simpler times of the past. It’s perhaps not helped in this by the episodic nature of the script, which moves from event to event without much in the way of overarching narrative. It makes for a film that leans even more towards a slightly maudlin view of the past as a series of entertaining stories, which serves to cover even more the darker themes of the film.

Ford’s cast are a mixed bag. Donald Crisp is superb as the father, part imperious patriarch, part loving father – and won the Oscar for his work here. Equally good is Sara Allgood as his wife, the ideal loving mother than a son would remember, but with a spine of steel. Maureen O’Hara brings a passionate romanticism to Angharad, while Barry Fitzgerald and Rhys Williams are entertaining as a drunken trainer and his boxer protégé. Mnay of the rest of the cast though are weaker, with Walter Pidgeon rather stolid as Gruffydd and many of the actors playing Huw’s brothers reduced to balsawood under the burden of odd accents and earnest characterisation.

Ford’s film is a very good one that, if it catches you in the right mood, will certainly move you. I am not sure it caught me in the right mood on any of the occasions I saw it, but I appreciate its technical assurance and excellent direction. It fails to really find an effective balance between its darker tones and its nostalgic outlook, but it still works for all that. It’s not Welsh but it is a good film.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

The Railway Man (2013)

Colin Firth is haunted by the past in The Railway Man

 Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast: Colin Firth (Eric Lomax), Nicole Kidman (Patricia Lomax), Stellan Skarsgård (Finlay), Hiroyuki Sanada (Takashi Nagase), Jeremy Irvine (Young Eric Lomax), Sam Reid (Young Finlay), Tanroh Ishida (Young Takashi Nagase)

There is perhaps nothing harder to do in life than to put the past behind you and forgive. We all seem to be hot wired to want revenge and to seek it against all odds. It’s rare indeed the man who learns to put the rage against the past behind him and to extend the hand of friendship.

Such a man was Eric Lomax (played here by Colin Firth). In the 1970s Eric meets and falls in love with Patricia (Nicole Kidman). The two are married, but Patricia soon discovers Eric is still plagued by memories of his imprisonment as a young man (played by Jeremy Irvine) by the Japanese during the Second World War, and in particular a prolonged period he spent being tortured by the Japanese secret police for building a radio. Lomax is unable to begin to talk about his experiences, even as trauma causes his life to deteriorate. Fellow ex-POW Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård – very good in a small but vital role) is the only one who has even the faintest idea of his experience, but cannot persuade him to even speak about his past or try and move on. After discovering his torturer Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is alive and well and working as a tourist guide in the very camp where Lomax was tortured, he travels to Japan, torn about what he should do.

Teplitzy’s film is powered by several marvellous performances, not least Colin Firth who is excellent in the lead role as the deeply repressed, tormented Lomax who in his heart has never left the prison where he suffered unbelievable torment. The film is a carefully structured, and deeply moving, character study of how atrocious and inhumane actions trap us all – both the victims and perpetrators – in patterns of suffering where we feel our own humanity drain away. Even handed, honest and generous, like Lomax’s book, it’s an engaging and moving tribute to the strength of the human spirit and our capacity for generosity.

Not least because when we finally meet the aged Nagase, he is far from the monster we expected. Like Lomax he too is haunted by the past, but where Lomax cannot escape the horrors he suffered, Nagase is plagued by guilt and disgust as he realises his actions as a young man were far from those of a righteous soldier, but rather a brainwashed pawn in a brutal army. Nagase, like Lomax, is desperate to purge himself of memories of this past, and has worked his whole life to try and make amends for the suffering he has caused. No simple good guys and bad guys here – both torturer and tortured are dehumanised, scarred and traumatised by the actions they have carried out. 

Teplitzky films that torture with an unflinching honesty, that leaves you in no doubt about why it has had such impact on Lomax. Jeremy Irvine is very good as the young Lomax, scared, vulnerable but brave and self-sacrificing who puts himself in the way of danger to try and protect his friends and then goes through savage beatings, interrogations and water boarding for information he doesn’t have. It’s difficult to watch, but never sensationalised and the traumatic pointlessness of these methods is abundantly clear. 

These memories, slowly revealed, are all too apparent in any case in Firth’s blasted face.  The film slowly reveals his psychological damage, with the opening sequence in fact suggesting a far lighter film ahead. The opening follows the meeting of Lomax and Patricia on a chance train journey. Playful and charming, these scenes work so well due to the wonderful chemistry between Firth and Kidman. It plays off in spadeas the plot gets darker and more disturbing. Kidman is very easy to overlook here in the “wife” role, but she invests it with an emotional honesty, a supportive woman eventually driven to the edge of her capabilities.

After the lightness of the opening, Terplitzky introduces the past literally like ghosts, with Lomax caught in a sudden delusion of himself being dragged through the hotel on his honeymoon, screaming in panic, to be carried to his torture danger. Throughout the film, the image of his torturer as a young man appears at various points (including at one point in a field as a train passes behind him), a constant reminder of how the past is here and now for Lomax.

It builds towards a sensational series of scenes as Lomax confronts Nagase, powered by two exceptional performances from Firth (barely able to control his anger, rage and pain) and a beaten down, distressed performance of shame from Hiroyuki Sanada, who matches him step for step. Sanada is superb as a man who confronts his nightmare – a man from his past – but also overwhelmed with the opportunity this gives him for amends. 

That’s what the film captures so well. This tension between past and present encapsulates the universal theme of our desire for revenge and our human need to connect coming together. Lomax and Nagase had every reason to kill each other, but their reaction to seeing each other is surprising, moving and a deep tribute to the human capacity to connect and move on. Grief and the past will destroy us all if we let it. The heroic examples of both Lomax and Nagase show us this doesn’t need to be the case.