Sunday, 28 February 2021

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell as an unconventional couple in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Julie Walters (Bella Turner), Kenneth Cranham (Joe Turner), Stephen Graham (Joe Turner Jnr), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Frances Barber (Joy Hallward), Leanne Best (Eileen)

In 1981, Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is performing The Glass Menagerie in Lancaster as part of a UK tour. When she collapses backstage seriously ill, she asks her former lover, young Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), to come to her aid. Peter takes her back to his parents (Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool. The two had met a couple of years ago – Grahame the fading star, Turner the would-be actor – and age hadn’t prevented their relationship flourishing into a passionate romance. The film cuts between what pulled them apart in the past, and the present day, where Turner discovers Grahame has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has at best a few months to live.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on Turner’s book and is directed with just the right stylistic flourish by Paul McGuigan. Fundamentally a straight-forward (even rather conventional) narrative, McGuigan doesn’t crowd out the action and emotion, but skilfully intercuts past and present together (for instance, characters walk through doors in 1981 and emerge in their memories of 1979). This is pretty subtly done throughout (although the glorious, sun-kissed past and the rain drenched Liverpool present isn’t particularly subtle!) and allows the film to focus on its main strengths – the acting.

The success of the film rests on the chemistry – and skill – of the two leads who both give wonderful performances. Annette Bening excels in nearly a career-best role, as a star clinging to the remnants of her career. Outwardly displaying glamour and confidence – complete with a soft-toned movie star voice – it’s a brilliant study of inner fragility and uncertainty. She carefully reveals a Gloria Grahame who is deeply insecure and fragile.

Bening brings a lot of empathy to the role of a slightly lonely woman who has spent years avoiding questions around her own health, terrified that it could make her unemployable. It’s a fear that has a tendency to make her brittle and defensive. And of course, that’s only added to by her knowing that she is ageing in a young person’s profession. Even jokes about age expose her self-doubt and fear. (Peter drops an early clanger when she tells him after their first date she dreams of playing Juliet with the RSC: “You mean the Nurse?” he says without thinking. She throws him out.)

It’s one of the nice things about the film that the only person who really has a concern about age – or ever seems to mention it as an issue – is the older woman. Nobody else in the film questions the relationship between these two on age grounds (all the doubts raised are based on background and, above all, Grahame’s track record with marriage – four and counting). It’s purely an obsession of Grahame’s – because she doesn’t want to be reminded of her own mortality and, unconsciously, the far younger Turner is a constant reminder of this. And Grahame isn’t really that old anyway: certainly not at heart, her vibrancy being one of the first things that attracts Peter to her.

Peter’s feelings though are heart-breakingly genuine, shown in Bell’s wonderfully compassionate performance. McGuigan frequently allows long reaction shots to study the emotional impact of events on the characters, and no-one benefits from this more than Bell whose face is frequently a picture of conflicted, tortured emotion, of grief that he’s only just managing to hold in. Bell is terrific.

The film charts a romance that starts with a blissful freedom, but ends with a very true and heartfelt declaration of love. The past – saturated with cleanliness and colour as it is – is full of fun, romance and semi-surreal early encounters stuffed with expressive dancing (a great reminder that Bell can really move!) and watching Alien. The time the two spend in New York is similarly golden tinged. What draws it to a close is illness – and Grahame’s fears of how it will affect Turner as well as not wanting to live her last few months being nursed by her lover like an invalid.

It’s an involving romance and relationship piece, and it also gives time to how important families can be. Turner’s parents (lovely work from Walters and Cranham) are supportive and caring of Grahame – and his brother (edgy work from Graham) is only frustrated that they put her before their own interests. It makes quite a contrast with Grahame’s family, a mother who seems more interested in herself (Redgrave at her grand damest, showily quoting Shakespeare) and bitchy, jealous sister (a prickly Frances Barber).

But it’s mainly a film about the two leads and while it doesn’t reinvent anything about biopics or romances (or tragic stories of loss), it tells its story neatly and cleanly and allows scope for the acting to do a lot of the work. Bening and Bell more than rise to the challenge.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Maximilian Schell on a misguided attempt to salvage his country's dignity in Judgment at Nuremberg

Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Judge Dan Haywood), Burt Lancaster (Dr Ernst Janning), Richard Widmark (Colonel Ted Lawson), Maximilian Schell (Hans Rolfe), Marlene Dietrich (Frau Bertholt), Montgomery Clift (Rudolph Peterson), Judy Garland (Irene Hoffmann), William Shatner (Captain Harrison Byers), Howard Caine (Hugo Wallner), Werner Klemperer (Emil Hahn), Joh Wengraf (Dr Karl Wieck), Karl Swenson (Dr Heinrich Geuter), Ben Wright (Herr Halbestadt), Virginia Christine (Mrs Halbestadt), Edward Binns (Senator Burkette)

“I was just following orders”. It’s a statement you instantly associate with people who know they are doing the wrong thing, but cling to the idea it’s not their responsibility because they’ve been told to do it. The Nuremberg trials – which started with the major surviving war criminals, but then investigated every level of German society from the army to industry to doctors to the judiciary – exploded this as an excuse. But the trials also raised wider questions, ones that Judgment at Nuremberg explores: how do you make judgments for individuals when, arguably, nearly everyone in the country holds some sort of moral responsibility? What happens when justice collides with political reality? What price is put on getting justice for the few against the need to move on?

These, among others, are fascinating questions explored in Stanley Kramer’s engrossing – if at times a little dry and on-the-nose – film. In 1948 Judge Dan Hayward (Spencer Tracy) arrives in war-torn Nuremberg to judge the trial of four senior German judges. The most prominent of the accused is internationally renowned Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Janning’s passionate advocate Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) believes the trial is about the Allies punishing the Germans and wants to show “we were not all like them”. Prosecuting laywer Colonel Ted Lawson (Richard Widmark) wants the trials to continue until all the guilty have been punished. But with Cold War tensions rising – and Berlin already under blockade by the Soviets – the politicians back home want the trials to wind down, particularly as the Germans could be key allies against the USSR. How will Hayward balance these pressures as the trial progresses?

Kramer’s film is a brilliant reconstruction of the detail of the trials. He had wanted to film the entire thing on location – but, when the trial room was unavailable, Kramer had the trial room rebuilt in exact detail in the studio (the production design is absolutely spot-on by Rudolph Sternard). The film stages all the issues of simultaneous translation, headphones and trial procedure in loving detail. His technical direction is well managed – even if the camera perhaps once too often pans around those involved in the trial while they speak. The trial drama is structured around three key witnesses (rather than documents), and brings out impressive performances from the entire cast.

Abby Mann’s screenplay wisely focuses in, not on the primary Nuremberg trials, but one of the many sub-trials. Little known, this works so well dramatically, because they both delve deeper into how every facet of German life was corrupted by Nazism – that in this case, leading judges condemned those they knew were innocent to death – and also allow an exploration around the purpose of the Nuremberg trials themselves. Were these trials crucially about justice at all costs and should continue indefinitely – as some characters clearly believe? Or were they meant as representative affairs, demonstrating the guilt of a selected few, at which point their purpose was done?

Kramer’s film is an educative piece, which explores this. Crucially several German characters are introduced, each of them unsure as to how much the national guilt should apply to them. Should Hayward’s household staff consider themselves guilty? As Hayward points out, Dachau was only about 20 miles away: not to know of its existence at all, was surely be wilful ignorance. Marlene Dietrich (excellent as an austere widow), is bitter that she has lost everything after her husband (a German general) was executed (an execution that many of the characters feel was harsh). He never liked Hitler, and he wasn’t a Nazi: how bad could he have been? He only did his duty right?  

Meanwhile, firebrand lawyer Hans Rolfe believes that he must salvage some sense of German identity from the trial: he needs to show that “we were not all like that”. And rescuing the reputation of Dr Janning as “the Good German” is crucial to that. An Oscar-winning Schell (the part is perfect for his grandiose style) superbly captures the agonised guilt that has transformed into anger in this man: the desperation to protect his country that leads him to undertake the same brutal interrogations of witnesses during the trial that his clients are accused of doing. Repeating the same actions of the past that he hates, with a misguided goal of restoring pride to his country.

And why does Dr Janning become the focus of this desire to show not everyone was bad? One of the interesting things the film raises is questions of class. Rolfe sees him as the model Good German and Hayward struggles to see why he was involved in miscarriages of justice, because he is very much “one of us”. Ramrod straight, he’s no fanatic (like one of his fellow accused), he’s a noble, world-renowned lawyer. Lancaster’s Janning, with his rigid physicality, clearly thinks himself a world above his fellow accused. He has touched pitch, but feels he’s not really been defiled at heart: that there were clear reasons why he did the things he did. He has no sympathy for the crudity of Nazism, but still feel ashamed that he allowed himself to get tied up with it. He starts the trial trying to be above the entire process, as if not engaging will somehow stop him from feeling corrupted, even while his haunted face drips with shame.

It’s a nobility that many on the US side find appealing. It appeals to the same minds that deems Richard Widmark’s combatative Colonel Lawson as not quite gentlemanly, but vindictive. Never mind that Widmark’s lawyer wants justice done, regardless of the cost. It’s the same sympathy many now feel for Dietrich’s dignified widow, who feels so classy and noble that she can’t really be implicated in any nastiness. Janning unnerves Hayward and others, because if he can fall so can they. It also makes him a perfect candidate for rehabilitation. And, with the Soviets closing in on Berlin, many among the Americans want such a fate as much as Rolfe does, so that Germany can be rebuilt as a bulwark against Communism. But are we kidding ourselves? Janning may be the face of decency, but how decent can he be when he decided justice was an optional extra in his courtroom?

The film carefully explores these questions of politics being the art of compromise: of the need perhaps to end one era in order to start another. They’re attitudes I think the film acknowledges as legitimate, but also questions: “What was the war for?” Widmark’s character asks. When you have horrors such as those in the camps – and the film plays one of the key films to powerful effect during the trial – surely politics as normal can’t be allowed to continue? (Interestingly the film allows Dietrich and Schell’s characters to both, legitimately, question the inclusion of this evidence as too emotive and not relevant to the actual crimes of the accused.) Hayward himself comes under pressure to deliver light sentences which will be better for the country. Will he do so?

How can he when the evidence of suffering is so clear to him. The two key witnesses bought into the film are a man with learning difficulties and a woman who had been accused (falsely) of being seduced by a Jewish neighbour. The roles are played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland – and a lot of the emotion of these scenes partly comes from the tortured vulnerability of these two actors. These are people whose lives have been shattered – unjustly – and have paid terrible personal prices. Yes it might be expedient for us to look past these stories, but is it right?

Yes, you can argue Judgment at Nuremberg is a little preachy, but I think there are many more interesting ideas thrown up here than Kramer (usually denounced as a simple right-and-wrong director) gets credit for. The performances are superb: Schell is of course marvellous, but Spencer Tracy perfectly channels his ability to project morality as the unsettled judge who finds his easy assumptions challenged. And the film finally boils down perhaps to the simple question of right and wrong.

Even at the end Janning, while admitting the justice of his sentence, and the wrongness of his actions, is still desperate for everyone to know he wasn’t really one of them. That he never knew it would come to those horrors. As Hayward says “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death who you knew to be innocent”. Perhaps that the message of the film: justice is complex but needs to be done – and it doesn’t matter about your motives or thoughts, only the things you do.

The Little Stranger (2018)

Domhnall Gleeson doesn't believe in ghosts in The Little Stranger

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Dr Faraday), Ruth Wilson (Caroline Ayres), Will Poulter (Roderick Ayres), Liv Hill (Betty), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs Ayres), Harry Hadden-Paton (Dr David Granger), Anna Madeley (Anne Granger), Richard McCabe (Dr Seeley)

Can an adaptation of a novel work when the key to its success was the way it was told rather than the story itself? With its unreliable narrator and distinctively interior style, Sarah Waters’ book was a tough ask. But, making it even harder for the big screen, The Little Stranger is a ghost story narrated by a fervent non-believer, who witnesses none of the supernatural elements and spends his time finding detailed, logical reasons for why the people living in the haunted house are as unsettled as they are. It makes for a challenge which, for all the style Lenny Abrahamson brings, the film doesn’t quite manage to meet.

Our sceptic is Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a young village GP in the years immediately after the Second World War. Faraday grew up in the shadow of the Ayres house, a grand country seat now being lived in by the last remnants of the Ayres family who have fallen on hard times. Son Roderick (Will Poulter) has been left with debilitating injuries after his RAF service, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) seems destined to become a spinster, and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) struggles to hold together what’s left of the house’s prestige, among leaking roofs and bills that can’t be paid. Dr Faraday becomes an intimate of the household. But are the family’s problems partly linked to a malign presence in the house, perhaps the unsettled ghost of a third, long-dead Ayres sibling? Or is it all just bad luck, frozen pipes, branches on the window and creaking floorboards?

Well of course it isn’t. The film’s main problem is that it takes a book where the narrator spends the entire time stubbornly refusing to accept he is in a ghost story, and repackages it as a more conventional tale of creeps and psychological horror. While moments like this are undoubtedly unsettling, it rather flies in the face of what made the book unique in the first place.

In the book you find yourself – despite knowing deep down he’s wrong, because that’s not how stories work – thinking that maybe all this is just a series of terrible coincidences impacting a psychologically fragile family. In the film, you are never in any doubt that the ghosts are real. Not least, because we are frequently witness to supernatural events. When Charlotte Rampling’s character is terrified in the nursery by the ghost of her lost child, we share the terror with her. A truer adaptation of the book would have only shown us the aftermath – a trembling woman on the ground surrounded with broken glass – and asked us if we shared Faraday’s diagnosis of suicidal depression.

The change in perspective from the book has a particularly bad impact on the Faraday character. Faraday, deep down, is a sort of chippy Charles Ryder, as much in love with the house – and the prospect of one day owning it – as he is with the family itself. This mix of longing, envy and class jealousy bubbles under the surface of the character in the book, qualities that we have to read between the lines to detect. In the film however, these qualities are bought firmly to the surface.

This means that, for all Domhnall Gleeson has just the right rigidity and lack of imagination for the born sceptic, it means the character’s sinister possessiveness towards the Ayres house comes more to the fore. In the film it’s hard to escape the sense Faraday is as much a creep as the ghost (something the film even perhaps vaguely suggests in its open-ended conclusion). He’s cold and undeniably bitter, quietly but resentfully recording each moment where he is treated like a retainer.

The film also loses some of the context of the book as well. Part of the reason this house is falling apart is the declining wealth of the family in a world of post-war depression and higher death duties. Today the Ayres house would have been long since flogged to the National Trust. The crumbling house – compared to the grand vision in Faraday’s memories – is itself a metaphor for a particular class in Britain. However, this gets a bit lost in the film. Instead it’s easy to see the Ayres as just personally unlucky rather than symptomatic of a general collapse of the landed class.

But the film does do lots of good things. The ghost stuff is undeniably creepy – even if, as I say, it leaves the viewer in no doubt that Faraday is wrong and the Ayres are right. Will Poulter is very good in a small role as the bitter and scarred son, while Wilson captures a sense of premature middle-aged drift in Caroline, a woman unhappy in her life but unsure what she wants. Rampling is similarly very strong as a crumbling matriarch.

The film also looks lovely – perhaps too lovely, with its idealised view of a 1950s that surely was dirtier than this – and is well assembled. It just fails to bring a narrative drive to the film to replace the uncertainty and scepticism of the narrative voice that made the book so strong. There Faraday’s dismissals and self-denial about his class envy were what made the story compelling: here they are both removed – and what’s left isn’t quite interesting or unique enough to fill the gap.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Peter Finch, Murray Head and Glenda Jackson in an unconventional relationship in Sunday Bloody Sunday

Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Peter Finch (Dr Daniel Hirsh), Glenda Jackson (Alex Greville), Murray Head (Bob Elkin), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Greville), Tony Britton (George Harding), Maurice Denham (Mr Greville), Bessie Love (Answering service lady), Vivian Pickles (Alva Hodson), Frank Windsor (Bill Hodson), Thomas Baptiste (Professor Johns), Richard Pearson (Patient), Jon Finch (Scotsman)

Is anything better than nothing? Or, sometimes, is nothing better than anything? It’s a question that lies at the heart of John Schlesinger’s mature and surprisingly low-key exploration of relationships Sunday, Bloody Sunday. In the on-going puzzle of life, what on earth are the answers?

Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced woman in her mid-thirties, is in a relationship with young artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head). But the bohemian Bob is also in another relationship, with 50-year-old Dr Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). Bob moves between his two partners. Alex and Daniel, who have never met, accept they have him on a timeshare basis and work within his rules, for fear of losing him.

That’s a brief summary – but this is not a film overburdened with plot. Rather it’s a character study. Perhaps its greatest strength (and for some it’s main weakness), is the lack of melodrama or conflict in this unconventional set-up. Any expectations that this might be building towards a cathartic outburst or a traumatic event of some kind should be dispelled from the start. This is a very restrained and genuine film, deeply heartfelt, that avoids cheapness.

In fact, the film becomes a very striking study of the fear of loneliness. Both Alex and Daniel live in semi-acknowledged fear of being left alone. You can see the emotional fragility in them, when separated from Bob. Alex – who Bob has abandoned during a weekend’s baby-sitting to visit Daniel – quietly sits eating fudge and trying to read a book, while tears play in her eyes. Later Daniel will similarly resemble a little boy lost after being stood up at a restaurant. The excitement of being with Bob – for all his faults – are just as acute as the sadness when left alone in their own company.

Both Alex and Daniel are people staring down the barrel of a life of being alone. Alex is a woman stuck between two stools – too bohemian to be happy in a nine-to-five and a safe everyday relationship, too conventional to fully embrace the sort of devil-may-care casualness of Bob. She seems uncertain herself what she wants from life (the perfect relationship, or the bursts of happiness with a young lover).

Daniel, a gay Doctor in middle-class London from a traditional Jewish background, has spent a lifetime quietly carrying on and accepting companionship where he can find it. A man who has understood that a certain degree of isolation is just part and parcel of being who he is. Who balances, perhaps, the flaws in his relationship against getting only a part of what he wants as opposed to nothing.

It’s those questions the film comes back to time and time again. Alex expresses them most clearly, happy in the moments of playful joy she finds with Bob, but this only covering deep lying anxieties. Flashbacks reveal her childhood worries about traumatic events befalling her father (bought on by the killing of a friend’s dog in a road traffic accident due to the carelessness of a child she is looking after). These fears are directly linked to her tentativeness towards long-term relationships: she invests emotionally so much in those she cares for, that it’s difficult for her to find a romantic partner that is perfect enough to justify this level of commitment.

But Daniel has similar issues: his life has taught him to expect that he might always be alone. An insight into his romantic life before Bob is shown with a chance encounter with a former pick-up (played with chippy aggressiveness by Jon Finch) who forces Daniel to give him a lift and then pinches his medical bag. These sorts of risky, emotion-free entanglements are dwarfed by the tenderness and warmth Daniel gets with Bob, for all that Bob is mercurial and immature. As Daniel says at the film’s end (in a beautiful fourth-wall breaking address to the camera), Bob isn’t perfect but he’s something and that while Bob never made him completely happy, right now Daniel is happy only when he is not missing him. It’s balances like this that people make in their lives.

It may also be a fascination with youth. Both Alex and Daniel are either heading into – or deep into – middle age, and they surely wouldn’t deny there is an additional excitement from spending time with the defiantly young Bob. Bob – a rather thankless role to be honest, played with a deliberate lack of depth by Murray Head – is in some ways a cipher, a rather selfish young man who can only think about moving on to the next opportunity, not the difficulties of being fixed in one place and making the best of it. Does this young man’s attitude carry additional appeal to two people with greater ties and responsibilities? Perhaps it does.

Schlesinger’s film is well-paced, and directed with an intimacy by the director who surely built many elements of his own life into Daniel. The two leads – who share a scene only twice, at one point literally passing each other in cars like ships in the night – are both superb. Glenda Jackson is superbly able to suggest a hinterland of emotional guardedness and fragility, behind a confident exterior, that only cracks at key moments. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance of small moments.

Peter Finch is equally superb as Daniel. The film was controversial at the time for featuring the first gay kiss in British cinema (sexuality questions are refreshingly not a major part of the equation and never discussed, which makes the film ever more modern – the kiss itself is played with an unshowy naturalism). The part had been hard to cast – Ian Bannan was fired (to his later intense regret) for being visibly uncomfortable – but Finch (less worried, perhaps because his romances with everyone from Vivien Leigh to Shirley Bassey were so well known, no one watching in the cinema could imagine he was really gay) embraces the part with a beautifully sensitive empathy. It’s a wonderful moving portrait of a man who has come to terms with loneliness and accepted it. Tender and very true, it’s wonderfully heartfelt.

Both stars (along with Schlesinger and the script, credited by Penelope Gilliatt but likely the work of several hands) were nominated for Oscars (inexplicably the film itself was snubbed), and its perhaps their sensitive and tender work is behind the film’s success. Schlesinger co-ordinates all this into a unshowy but very mature intelligent analysis of relationships and the compromises that come with them. Thoughtful and questioning, it’s adult cinema.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Rebecca (2020)

Lily James and Armie Hammer do their best in an overblown Rebecca the swops Gothic chills for lovely costumes and locations 

Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Lily James (The second Mrs de Winter), Armie Hammer (Maxim de Winter), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Danvers), Keeley Hawes (Beatrice Lacy), Ann Dowd (Mrs Van Hopper), Sam Riley (Jack Favell), Tom Goodman-Hill (Frank Crawley), Mark Lewis Jones (Inspector Welch)

Hitchcock’s film version of du Maurier’s novel casts a long shadow. Few have taken up the challenge to film it since – and Ben Wheatley’s is the first film version in nearly 80 years. But you can be pretty certain that, unlike Hitchcock’s, this one probably won’t be being watched 80 years from now.

In Monte Carlo, a young woman (Lily James) meets and falls in love with rich Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower on holiday. They marry and return to his seat at Manderley. However, on arrival the second Mrs de Winter finds that she is living in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. This feeling is encouraged by the passive aggressive manipulation of Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Slowly, the second Mrs de Winter starts to worry that even her sanity starts to be slipping.

Wheatley is a director with a love of thriller and horror, and he really should be a natural fit to take on du Maurier’s gothic creepiness. But Wheatley feels almost constrained by the period title and beauty. This is a film that totally misses its gothic beats, instead settling for being a lusciously filmed costume drama. It has only a few traces of the unsettling psychology or air of ghostly possession that the story requires, and even those are chucked in haphazardly and then forgotten in order to make way for a pretty sunset or generic shot of Lily James looking sad in the rain.

The inescapable feeling on watching this is that Wheatley actually wants to turn the story into a more conventional romance. The age difference between Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter has been almost removed.  With Armie Hammer too young and Lily James too pretty, there is no ambiguity to Maxim’s feelings or motivations, nor any power imbalance to their charming, sunlit courtship, filled with carefree drives and charming beach picnics. Gone are the suspicions (for both the second Mrs de Winter and us) as to what a rich, sophisticated older man could see in a shy, unremarkable, average-looking girl who’s employed as little more than a servant.

It also removes much of the vulnerability and uncertainty Mrs de Winter should feel, by bringing her onto more equal terms with her husband. From du Maurier’s vision of an innocent woman feeling out of her depth as she’s plunged into an alien world, unable to break through the hauteur of a distant, older husband, we instead get far more of a conventional whirlwind romance that sours when the couple return home.

It’s not really the fault of the two leads, who give sterling work. Lily James has just about the right vulnerability to her, even if she’s still got a bit more spark than the quiet, demure character needs. But James has a fabulous sense determined earnestness to her, an eagerness to do the right thing and not let anyone down (her greater dignity and strength also pays off in sequences where Mrs de Winter takes on a stronger position in the marriage).

As Maxim, Armie Hammer has the right sort of authority and conveys the distance and coolness of the character, even while he is clearly too young and at times seems a bit hampered by his accent and setting. (Like some American actors, he at times struggles to fully comprehend the issues of class within the film.) Perhaps the main weakness to the casting is, by playing up his charm and romanticism, you never really think for a moment that this is a bloke who might have murdered his wife. It also makes him never feel like the sort of chap who could honestly ever have though about dispatching his new wife. It again strips out much of the darkness and dread of the original.

Needless to say, Kristin Scott Thomas has a ball as Mrs Danvers, the obsessed and bitter housekeeper, a part that hardly pushes her to her limits but which she delivers more than enough in. Wheatley pays homage to several of Hitchcock’s shooting decisions around the character, and the conveying of her menace is probably the film’s most successful beat.

However, the film fails at too many other important points. The sense of the previous Mrs de Winter haunting the home is lost completely. Too often the creepiness and psychological fear the film is aiming for gets lost, with periodic bursts of Cornish singing used too obviously to suggest unsettling menace. One very successful sequence set in a room of mirrors just serves to flag up how painfully absent the sense of threat and fear are from the rest of the film. To be honest, it’s a film that needs more darkness, more shadows. Instead everything is lit with all the prestige handsomeness of Merchant Ivory and Sunday dramas. Why did Wheatley go for this visual approach? Did he feel that it was expected from the lovely locations and luscious costumes?

And the costumes and the sets do look lovely. The shooting colours are vibrant and beautiful. It’s very grand and charming and it turns a haunting novel with dark deeds at its heart into something safe and neutered.

 The final product is what happens if a combination of styles are thrown together in a way that service not the story, but how each element of it could be best presented. When the film wants to show off the set and costumes, it’s bright and beautiful. At the few times it wants to suggest ghostly intimidation, we get some chanting and a few darkened rooms and billowing curtains. Neither plays well off the other and the film ends up feeling professionally mounted but workmanlike. It’s a shame as Wheatley could have really made something of this. But it feels like he has been forced into a prestige costume drama straightjacket.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Shanghai Express (1932)

Marlene Dietrich is on a train full of mystery and danger in Shanghai Express

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Lily/Madeline), Clive Brook (Captain Donald Harvey), Anna May Wong (Hui Fei), Warner Orland (Henry Chang), Lawrence Grant (Reverend Carmichael), Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Eric Baum), Louise Closser Hale (Mrs Haggerty), Emile Chautard (Major Leonard)

The fourth collaboration between von Sternberg and Dietrich, completed when they were in the middle of – was it an affair, an infatuation or something half-way between obsession and resentment? Who knows. Either way, Shanghai Express is one of the their finest collaborations, a triumph of von Sternberg’s mastery of style and Dietrich’s charisma and appeal, brilliantly shot with some iconic images. The biggest hit of 1932, it’s also a loopy part-thriller, part-romance but with a sort of eerie dream-like logic and that mixes peril and jaunt. It’s a fascinating picture.

Its 1931 and China is in the middle of a civil war. Boarding a train bound for – you guessed it – Shanghai, is a veritable smorgasbord of ex-pats and mysterious travellers. First among them – and reviled by all but one of the other passengers – is infamous “coaster” ‘Shanghai Lily’ (Marlene Dietrich), a woman who (as she says) needed to go through more than one man to get that nickname. The only person in first class who can stand her is Chinese “coaster” Hui Fri (Anna May Wong). The man who has the most cause to resent her though is army physician Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). The two of them were deeply in love, but misunderstandings came between them and he’s nursed a grudge ever since. The rest of the train carry their own petty prejudices – but all these are put in perspective when the train is hijacked by rebel leader General Chang (Warner Orland), who holds Donald hostage to get the release of his right-hand man from the Chinese. What will Shanghai Lili aka Madeline do to save the life of the love of her life?

Clocking in at a slim and efficient 82 minutes, Shanghai Express still manages to have a languid, patient pace to it, taking its time to establish places, relationships and stakes. Part of that also comes from the film being set in a sort of imaginarium idea of China, born entirely out of von Sternberg’s brain. With his long-standing disinterest in realism, von Sternberg’s film is a sort of fever-dream image of China. So it’s kind of fitting the film plays out like a dream, right down to its own pace. At times it rushes swiftly on, at others the stakes hardly seem to matter as the characters move freely around while in supposed captivity and barely consider their lives at risk. At the end of the film, the train arrives (despite the violence en route, the fact its late gets the most comment) and the characters simply get on with their lives.

Perhaps its all part of von Sternberg’s deconstruction of these Europeans and Yanks, whose only engagement with this foreign country is that it should be made as much like the West as possible. Most of the characters on board – with the exception of the women – are selfish, pompous, lecherous, prejudiced, greedy or some combination of all of the above. While they wear an air of respectability, it doesn’t take long to shake them from it. And their judgement of others is swift and irreversible. Even Donald, our nominal hero, fits this bill – he frequently rushes to judgement and pig-headedly sticks there, regardless of logic and experience.

In among this, it’s the women who emerge as the only characters who demonstrate pluck, loyalty, empathy and decency. Anna May Wong’s looked-down-on courtesan goes through a torrid time – demeaned on the train then assaulted by the lecherous Chang not once but twice (the second time an off-screen rape that none of the Western characters ever feel the need to comment on). Despite this, she’s one of the few who acts to defend someone other than herself, and her actions are (eventually) what brings liberation for the passengers (again not that they, or anyone else from the West, thanks her for it). It’s a neatly reserved performance from Wong (perhaps the best in the film), her eyes conveying an only thinly concealed contempt for those around her.  

The closest thing she has to a confidante is of course Shanghai Lily herself. This is the perfect role for Marlene Dietrich, a woman who is both imperious and fragile, proud but willing to debase herself to save the man she loves, cold and knowing but also strangely naïve and romantic. As with much of her best work, what she does so brilliantly here is to bring together a host of contradictions that really shouldn’t make sense (except perhaps as some sort of sexual fantasy of von Sternberg’s?) and make it the most charismatic and arresting part of the film. Dietrich is not the most accomplished of actors - but she is an accomplished presence and undeniably charismatic.

Lily proves that she may be a hard-nosed player of the game, but that she’s more than capable of loyalty and faith to those she loves. She has no hesitation when asked to put herself in the way of danger for them. It’s a shame Dietrich doesn’t have a more charismatic scene partner than the rather bland Clive Brook (who ends up looking very forced as a romantic lead – you end up wondering what on earth this woman sees in him). But Dietrich’s movie-star magnetism holds much of the plot of the film together and provides much of its emotion.

She’s also of course beautifully filmed by von Sternberg – one late shot (with lighting pointing upwards in almost a spotlight triangle, creating a truly striking and erotic image of her smoking against a train door) has rightly become iconic, but the film is packed with them. Von Sternberg, working closely with photographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning) perfectly uses light and shadow to frame Dietrich with an alluring exoticism that compels the focus.

It’s all part of the film’s beauty and the skills behind its shooting. It starts with a series of flourishing tracking shots through busy train stations (something it returns to later on). Scenes that coat the film in smoke, with just backlighting, while soldiers and passengers move in front like a lantern show are extraordinary. The images make superb use of ultra-dark blacks to introduce frequently gorgeous images. With von Sternberg’s setting that only just touches realism in the faintest way possible, it makes for a wonderfully framed exotic fever dream – just as the film itself oscillates between action and languid romance in its pacing.

Shanghai Express is almost impossible to categorise. A romance with thrills in the middle, an action film where urgency is often off the table, a mystery that travels with an almost pre-ordained certainty towards its goal, it truly has a dream-like logic. And I guess if it’s all von Sternberg’s dream, it makes sense that it’s most striking scenes see Dietrich, perfectly lit, with smoke stroking itself around her. After all her charisma is at the film’s heart.

The Dig (2020)

Ralph Fiennes plays an amateur digger who makes a huge discovery in The Dig

Director: Simon Stone
Cast: Carey Mulligan (Edith Pretty), Ralph Fiennes (Basil Brown), Lily James (Peggy Piggott), Johnny Flynn (Rory Lomax), Ben Chaplin (Stuart Piggott), Ken Stott (Charles Phillips), Archie Barnes (Robert Pretty), Monica Dolan (May Brown)

One of the greatest archaeological finds in British History, the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Sutton Hoo revealed vast treasures and cultural insights that are very rarely glimpsed. Land-owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow with a young son Robert (Archie Barnes), hires self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the curious mounds on her land. Brown discovers one of them holds the buried ship. But the dig is taken from his control by the British Museum, led by Charlie Phillips (Ken Stott): professional archaeologists who want to ensure the work is ‘done properly’. With tensions of class and profession, everyone must race against time to complete as much of the work as possible before the outbreak of the Second World War.

On the surface, The Dig is a charming, heart-felt reconstruction of a fascinating moment of archaeological history, mixed with engaging (but familiar) stories of a working-class amateurs being patronised by upper-class professionals. However, Stone’s film manages to have a richer second layer. With war approaching, and mortality constantly on the mind of most of the characters, it’s also a subtle investigation of legacy, the past and death itself.

Stone’s film develops this with its rich, poetic filming style. Beautifully shot in a series of gorgeous hazy hues, with dynamic use of low-angles and wide-angle lenses, Sutton Hoo is given an almost mystical beauty. Stone also makes extensive use of playing dialogue over images not of the conversation, but smaller moments in character’s lives, from casual meetings to cleaning shoes, that as such take on a profounder meaning. It’s a visual representation of how our legacy is often a snapshot of images and relics, moments that stay in the memory even when events (or conversation in this case) has moved on. It’s subtly done, but carries a beautiful impact.

Then of course, it’s not surprising legacy in on the mind. Each of the characters is at a tipping point in their own lives. Edith Pretty – so consumed with quiet grief over the loss of her husband that she is desperate for there to be something on the other side – is struggling with her own health, aware she will shortly leave her son an orphan. Her cousin Rory prepares for service in the RAF – service she fears will shortly leave him dead (the dangers of the airforce are clearly shown when a trainee pilot crashes and drowns near to the dig).

This connection to the briefness and intangibility of life pushes people to address their own choices. After all they are all standing in the grave of a man considered so important at that the time, a ship was dragged several miles to honour him – and today we have no idea who he was. Married archaeologist couple Stuart and Peggy Piggott confront an amiable loveless marriage (he’s gay, she’s falling in love with Rory) that shouldn’t define their lives. Basil has dealt with quiet grief at a childless marriage, and sees his work in astronomy and archaeology as his legacy.

These ideas are gently, but expertly, threaded together with a reconstruction of the key issues around the dig. Needless to say, the academics – led by Ken Stott at his most pompous – have no time for Basil’s home-spun methods. Basil’s predictions of the Anglo-Saxon tomb are constantly dismissed until he literally digs the ship up. Immediately he is benched to clearing soil (and only on Edith’s insistence is he allowed to remain at all) and later his name will be scrubbed out of the official record. It’s always the way with Britain – and a sign of how tenuous our legacies can be.

The personal stories are not always as well explored. The film has its flaws, not least the sad miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Edith. In reality, Edith was in her mid-50s when the ship was discovered. The film was developed for Nicole Kidman, but with her withdrawal Mulligan (twenty years too young) was drafted in. Sadly, nothing was changed to reflect this: meaning the characters years of spinsterhood before marriage lose impact (seriously how old can she have been when she married? She’s got a 12 year old son!). A softly underplayed romantic interest between Edith and Basil is also rather unsettling considering the vast age difference between them. (It’s better to imagine it as a platonic bond).

It’s still more engaging than the rather awkward love triangle the film introduces late on between the married Piggotts and Edith’s (fictional) cousin Rory. It’s fairly familiar stuff – the closeted gay Piggott, the growing realisation of this by Peggy and the obvious charm and gentle interest of Rory – and more or less pans out as you might expect, although at least with a dollop of human kindness.

The film’s other delight is the acting. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the taciturn Basil, a dedicated self-taught man who knows what he is worth, but struggles to gain that recognition. Fiennes not only has excellent chemistry with Mulligan and Barnes, he also suggests a quiet regret in Basil as well as a fundamental decency tinged with pride. For all that she is miscast, Mulligan does very good work as Edith while Chaplin, James and Flynn make a lot of some slightly uninspired material.

The Dig is at its best when asking quiet and gentle questions about life and when it focuses on the platonic romance between Basil and Edith. Directed with a poetic assurance by Simon Stone, it doesn’t push its points too far and gets a good balance between fascinating historic reconstruction and more profound questions of mortality.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Joan of Arc (1948)

Ingrid Bergman shows France the way in po-faced epic Joan of Arc

Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), José Ferrer (Dauphin Charles), Francis L Sullivan (Bishop Cauchon), Roman Bohnen (Durand Laxart), Geoge Coulouris (Sir Robert de Baudricourt), George Zucco (Constable of Clervaux), Gene Lockhart (Georges de la Trémoille), John Emery (Duke d’Alençon), Richard Ney (Charles de Bourbon), Lief Erickson (Dunois of Orleans), John Ireland (Jan de la Boussac), Hurd Hatfield (Father Pasquerel), Ward Bond (La Hire), J. Carrol Naish (Count of Luxembourg), Frederick Worlock (Duke of Bedford), Shepperd Strudwick (Father Jean Massieu), Alan Napier (Earl of Warwick), Cecil Kellaway (Jean Le Maistre)

A light descends from heaven, and a young girl is seized with a sense of purpose. Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman) believes – as do her countrymen – that she received a message from heaven to help deliver fifteenth-century France back to the French, and out from under English occupation. For three years, this young woman strikes fear into the hearts of the English, inspiring the French into a series of victories (most of all at Orleans) and improving the French position such that the ambitious Dauphin (José Ferrer) is crowned Charles VII. But Joan is a target for the English, and she’s eventually  captured and burned for heresy after a trial notably free of justice at Rouen.

A huge investment at the time, with its colossal cast and loving recreation of medieval France, Joan of Arc is historically a luckless film. Despite its box-office winnings, it failed to cover its immense cost. It gained seven Oscar nominations (and four wins!) with no nomination for Best Picture. Its director, its cinematographer and actor Roman Bohnen (playing Joan’s uncle) all died prematurely after its release. Ingrid Bergman was caught up in scandal – and effectively exiled from Hollywood – shortly after when her affair with director Roberto Rossellini became public knowledge. Producer Walter Wagner was imprisoned three years later for shooting his wife’s lover. The film itself had 20 minutes sliced from it and, for decades, was only available in its truncated version.

Aside from these historic curiosities, Joan of Arc is a well-made, handsomely mounted but fundamentally rather dry and at points rather dull historical drama, mixed with more than enough touches of Biblical worthiness. Victor Fleming himself felt the film was a disappointment, that a trick had been missed – perhaps  aware that his own old-fashioned, rather flat direction fails to bring any inspiration out of the drama.

If drama is quite the right word for what, all too often, are too many scenes made up almost solely of a group of men sitting around a table in medieval garb talking at length of current affairs. Too many of these scenes lack in pace or urgency and many end up feeling forced, with too much of the dialogue reduced to recounting events rather than driving the story.

The structure of the story feels off as well: it can be split into three rough acts: Joan’s search for her purpose, Joan’s time as the inspiration of the French, and Joan’s imprisonment and trial. The trial, in particular, takes up almost the final 45 minutes of the film. The play the film is based on used a troupe of actors performing the life of Joan as a framing device for further insight into the life and impact of the saint. Without this framing device, the actual film becomes a rather dry history lesson.

It’s not helped by Bergman’s performance, which serves to capture in capsule the film’s po-faced piousness. It was a dream of Bergman’s to bring her Broadway performance of Joan to film. Sadly, the script’s lack of wit (or insight into the personality of Joan), means the majority of her scenes fall into a stock pattern: her lines are delivered with a breathless intensity with her hands are clasped across her chest. Aside from a few brief scenes where Joan questions why her voices have fallen silent, there are very few moments where either Bergman or the film seek to delve down into the motivations and inspirations of Joan. Like the film, her performance is bereft of any wit or warmth – instead it is almost devotional in its careful respect.

It’s part of the film’s seriousness. It makes some excellent points on the lasting impact of Joan, the horrific unfairness of her trial and the fact that, by burning her, the English merely cemented her hold on the French people rather than ending it. But too many other issues are pushed to the wayside, along with Joan’s character and motivations. No questions are raised around Joan’s interpretation of her visions. The conflict between faith and war is unexplored. The film sets its store out clearly: this is a devotional work and we should take it as that, and any questions around faith, legitimacy or what drove a fanatical teenager to embrace a life of military campaigning goes unexplored. In truth, we know as little about Joan at the end as we did at the beginning.

Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its plusses. As a piece of devotional film-making, it has a lovely score from Hugo Friedhofer, with just the right uses of heavenly choirs singing through the most devout sections. The design of the film is beautifully done, heavily inspired by medieval manuscripts, with the same striking primary colours and framing. It has in fact a beautifully old-fashioned look to it, a wonderfully designed artificiality. The siege of Orleans is a dramatically staged sequence, with a particularly striking orange-drenched sky. Visually you can imagine this as an incredibly stuffed-shirt Adventures of Robin Hood, but still glorious to look at.

Bergman is also wisely surrounded by a strong cast of character actors, all providing the sort of colour and corruption that Bergman’s stiffly written Joan can’t provide. José Ferrer landed an Oscar nomination for his film debut as the ambitious, weak-willed and envious Dauphin, more interested in realpolitik than doing the right thing. Francis L Sullivan connives and blusters wonderfully as corrupt Bishop Cauchon, fixing the trial. George Coulouris gives his usual hurried authority to de Baudricourt, while Cecil Kellaway inverts his Irish kindness as Joan’s Inquisitor. Off-the-wall casting choices like Ward Bond as a French captain surprisingly tend to pay-off. Shepperd Strudwick makes the biggest impression though as Joan’s sympathetic bailiff (he also speaks the prologue).

The overall film though is one more for history buffs than for movie goers. With its seriousness, odd pace (some events take forever, while others – such as Joan’s capture – either rush past in seconds of happen off-screen) and general lack of any humour or warmth, it’s not always an engrossing watch. Well-made as it is, it’s also directed with a certain flat professionalism rather than inspiration and Bergman seems constricted by the script and the part. A curiosity, but not a complete success.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

The Water Diviner (2014)

Russell Crowe directs and stars in as The Water Diviner

Director: Russell Crowe
Cast: Russell Crowe (Joshua Connor), Olga Kurylenko (Ayshe), Dylan Georgiades (Orhan), Yılmaz Erdoğan (Major Hasan), Cem Yılmaz (Sergeant Jemal), Jai Courtnay (Lt Colonel Cyril Hodges), Jacqueline McKenzie (Eliza Connor), Isabel Lucas (Natalia)

Russell Crowe’s directorial debut is a heartfelt, well-meaning, if rather traditional movie that explores the lasting impact of one of Australia’s deepest national scars, the Gallipoli campaign. Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) is a water diviner who, in 1919, after the death of his wife, travels to Turkey wanting to bring home the remains of their three sons who all died on the campaign. He finds the country to be far more complex than the enemy nation he had expected, with the Turks themselves struggling with occupation. With the help of Lt Colonel Hodges (Jai Courtenay) and the Turkish Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan), Connor discovers two of his sons’ bodies – and hears rumours that his third son may in fact still be alive somewhere in Turkey. Meanwhile, a bond is forming between Connor and hotel owner Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades).

Crowe’s film in many ways tells a very traditional morality story: deep down, despite all the ways we’re different, we are all the same, and the biggest part of coming to terms with anything is taking the decision to move forward and put it behind you. The film bravely attempts to engage with this national trauma, that saw tens of thousands of ANZAC troops ruthlessly (and arguably pointlessly) sacrificed in an ill-planned Turkish campaign. Rather than just presenting the ANZACs as victims, it builds sympathy and empathy with the Turkish side and points out violence and crimes on both sides, from executing prisoners to equivalent casualty lists (including pointing out that the Turks were defending their home from invasion).

It brings this home by filtering this experience through one personal story. Connor is a man who has lost everything to this campaign, who has sacrificed his sons and has every reason to blame the Turks for his loss. But, bar one moment of provoked rage, his natural decency and quiet humility cause him to quickly see these former enemies as people as scarred by war as him. It’s a note the film repeats constantly. The characters we are intended to relate to – such as Connor and Lt Colonel Hodges – frequently treat the Turks with respect (which is returned), while more bitter figures are shown as blinkered and misguided.

Of course, the film can’t resist capturing this détente in a personal relationship, showing the growing intimacy between Connor and Turkish war widow Ayshe. It’s a gentle, but not at all surprising romance – a shame that there is such an age gap between Crowe and Kurylenko – but it does at times feel like a slightly on-the-nose personal reflection of growing understanding between Turks and Aussies.

It’s arguably unnecessary anyway, since a more engaging relationship develops between Connor and Yılmaz Erdoğan’s honourable and slightly world-weary Major Hasan. The very image of the worthy opponent, Hasan is practically human decency made flesh, a man who goes out of his way to help Connor’s quest and becomes the human face of a Turkish army that suffered as many losses as the ANZAC forces. The warmth between these two characters is really the emotional heart of the film, for all it tries to interest us in a will-they-won’t-they romantic relationship elsewhere.

The film is not without flaws. It’s been pointed out that it makes no reference to the Turks’ atrocious actions during the war towards Armenians and Greeks (indeed some dirty Greek vagabonds make an entry late on as final-act baddies). While this isn’t a film trying to tell that story, a single line of acknowledgement – even if it was dismissed by a Turkish character – would have gone a long way.  To speed up the search for his sons’ bodies, Connor is given some sort of loosely defined Shamanic power connected to his ability to find water (later he has vision in his dreams) – it’s a bit of magic that the film could do without. The film introduces several clumsy obstructive Brit officer characters (because nothing brings Aussie and Turk together like a loathing for arrogant Brits!), that serve as script-required roadblocks, either uninterested or fanatically intent on stopping Connor as the scene requires.

But fundamentally this is a very earnest and straightforward plea for understanding and forgiveness that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but is a decent piece of storytelling. Crowe directs the thing with assurance (helped by some beautiful if slightly chocolate-box photography from Andrew Lesnie), contributing a low-key, reserved performance of quiet emotion. There are decent performances throughout: it’s great to see Jai Courtenay get a proper acting role, while Erdoğan is the stand out as Major Hasan. As a gentle Sunday afternoon would-be-epic it more or less fits the bill exactly.

Monday, 8 February 2021

The Servant (1963)

Through a glass darkly: Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in a dark drama as master and The Servant 

Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Hugo Barrett), Sarah Miles (Vera), James Fox (Tony) Wendy Craig (Susan Stewart), Catherine Lacey (Lady Agatha Mounset), Richard Vernon (Lord Willie Mounset)

Imagine a world where Bertie Wooster was a weak-willed, sexually confused drunk and Jeeves a malign force, to whom control over and destruction of his master go hand-in-hand. That’s the basic set-up of Joseph Losey’s masterpiece The Servant, a fascinating and brilliant exploration of class and sex in Britain in the 1960s, a lean, razor sharp, gripping and sinister film that lingers in your memory like a nightmare you can’t shake off.

Tony (James Fox) is a louche, rich young man returning home to Blighty, looking to expand his inherited fortune through dodgy property investments in Brazil. Before then, he needs a home to call his own – and a gentlemen’s gentlemen to run it. Tony hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), a scrupulously polite, observant man, able to meet every single one of his employer’s needs. But why is Tony’s fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig) so instinctively hostile to Barrett? And what is Barrett’s exact relationship with the housemaid Vera (Sarah Miles) he introduces into the house – and who quickly becomes the focus of Tony’s interest? Over time, the balance of power between servant and master becomes more and more uncertain.

Losey was an ex-pat American, driven out of the country by the McCarthy hearings. This adaptation of a Robin Maugham novel is the sort of brilliant deconstruction of (and assault on) the British class system and manners that perhaps only an outsider) could have made. The film drips with an air of corruption and vice. Even the earliest, most unobtrusive frames carry an air of over-observant malice. No coincidence this is also the leading quality of Barrett, perhaps one of the most darkly malign forces on film, whose piercing intelligence sees everything and whose self-control never slips. Losey’s camera constantly lingers over the slightest shot and detail, to an increasingly unsettling degree. As the plot becomes increasingly dark, claustrophobic and horrifying, the film’s exploration of the class-fuelled psycho-sexual, alcohol-fuelled relationship between Barrett and Tony becomes ever more pointed.

Losey partnered with the perfect script writer in Harold Pinter (who also briefly appears as a posh restaurant goer). Pinter’s lean, spare and menacing dialogue, with its corrupted poetry and acute psychological insight, is easily his finest film script – and perhaps the only one that truly could sit alongside his finest stage work. Pinter’s brutal vision of this twisted world is coated in a dark menacing commentary on Wodehouse (Susan and Barrett’s “duel” over the placing of a vase comes almost straight out of Jeeves) – and above all on the weakness that underlies those dependent on servants, as well as the loathing a servant can develop for his master, while still loving the control he has over his life.

Losey responds to this masterful script with some inspired work, making the house where the action takes place increasingly claustrophobic and disturbing. The camera work slowly becomes more intimate as the film progresses – and Barrett entraps Tony increasingly into a total, infantile dependence on him. Takes become longer as the house itself – increasingly dishevelled, with Barrett’s property increasingly appearing throughout the property, while Tony’s goods are disposed of – seems to close in around the action. Reflections and mirrors increasingly dominate the film, as if pulling us with Tony through a glass darkly.

It’s a good servant who understands his master’s needs before he knows them. Barrett is the best kind of servant. Within seconds, the unctuous, Uriah Heap-like Barrett (ever so ‘umble), has dissected the character of the foppishly weak playboy Tony, and identified him as man with no will of his own, ripe to be dominated and manipulated. Dirk Bogarde has never been better than his work here, a terrifyingly precise and soulless manipulator, whose veneer of obsequious service drops away with his affected accent to reveal a deeply corrupted, terrifyingly cruel man. Bogarde never allows a second of doubt to enter Barrett’s mind – even when it (briefly) looks like he’s lost his position, Barrett’s face is contorted with a contemptuous curl of the mouth and a cocky defiance. It’s brilliant work from Bogarde, creating one of cinema’s greatest monsters, destroying because he can.

His tools are of course to use his master’s fondness for booze and pretty faces against him. Vera – played with a sparkingly flirtatious richness by Sarah Miles, which disguises her ruthless disgust for Tony and his selfishness – is inveigled into the house as Barrett’s “sister” (actually his mistress), and swiftly instructed to seduce the hapless Tony, bending this playboy to her will. Losey’s camera follows in smooth shots as this woman moves from one man’s bed to another – while you can feel the influence of Pinter in the spare, sexually charged power Vera uses to seduce Tony (and the hints of submissive excitement in Tony). Losey soundtracks their first encounter – Miles erotically discussing the weather, pure Pinter genius, while Fox’s throat is so dry you can almost feel it yourself – with first the dripping of a tap, then the rocking back and forth of a pan in the sink. It brilliantly suggests the way Tony himself seems to be being consumed in a hypnotic trap.

Not that Tony is particularly sympathetic himself: a weak-willed, rather feckless and languid playboy whose interests in pleasure quickly tip into addiction. James Fox is perfectly cast in a role that plays on his aristocratic assurance, but finds deep reserves of doubt and inadequacy in him. Pinter and Losey draw more than a bit of a question mark over the sexual undertone in the relationship between Barrett (at least metrosexual) and Tony, that travels across sharing the favours of Vera. After (temporarily) throwing Vera and Barrett out, Tony collapses into a grief-stricken mess over Vera’s bed – the bed shared with Barrett – the camera gliding gently over male nudes pinned to the wall. Later Tony will debase himself fully to Barrett, reduced to crawling around the floor, his tie used as leash, dragged to perform with prostitutes for Barrett’s dark amusement.

If there is a character who sees through this early it’s Wendy Craig’s sensitively played Susan – but even she can have no idea of the horrors of Barrett’s plans to break Tony completely to his will. Susan recognises – even if she can’t understand why – the sinister satanic nature of Barrett, even while she seems powerless to do anything about it. Her attempts to empower Tony to break his dependence on this omniscient figure fail completely. In a beautiful Pinterish touch, at the end she almost considers joining their bizarre, sex and alcohol fuelled menage – as close as cinema as perhaps got to skirting a sort of sexual hell.

The final act of the film (it has a neat three act structure, Pinter superbly constructing the screenplay to show Barrett and Tony’s shifting power relationship), sees an almost infantalised Tony now meekly accepting (almost apologising) as Barrett lets rip – all pretence at humbleness gone and Northern vowels increasingly let loose – with his abuse and disgust.

In a brilliantly dark commentary on the upper and serving class, such is the dependence on one for the other, that the house collapses in Barrett’s temporary absence. The power may lie with Tony – but when Barrett stops collaborating with that, the imbalance between them is revealed. It’s Barrett who can actually do things – from cleaning to cooking – that Tony cannot. The drive and will of the middle classes eventually overwhelms and breaks the upper class, turning them into a vehicle for their own entertainment, like some sort of dark National Trust.

The Servant is a profoundly brilliant film, one that could stake a claim for being one of the greatest British films ever made. Losey’s sharp outsider’s eye brilliantly dissects both the tensions between the classes, but also the disturbingly awkward relationship the British have about sex, a drug for the reserved, a pot of unspoken but deeply desired treats. Bogarde is quite simply superb, Barrett is one of the greatest monsters of cinema who could strike fear into the heart of Hannibal Lecter. Pinter’s dialogue is brilliant. This psycho-sexual class drama is a work of art and essential viewing.

The Eagle (2011)

Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum on a spectacularly un-fun adventure in The Eagle

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Channing Tatum (Marcus Flavius Aquila), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Marcus’ Uncle), Mark Strong (Guern/Lucius Caius Metellus), Tarah Rahim (Prince of the Seal People), Denis O’Hare (Centurion Lutorius), Douglas Henshall (Cradoc), Paul Ritter (Galba), Paul Ritter (Galba), Dakin Matthews (Legate Claudius), Pip Carter (Tribune Placidus), Ned Dennehy (Chieftan)

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle is one of the classic young adult stories of all time. An enjoyable odd-couple-turned-brothers-in-arms series, with plenty of action and adventure it arrives on screen as a dark, gloomy and above all not-really-fun-at-all story that doesn’t seem to know whether it’s aiming for a boys-own yarn or an adult adventure. It basically fails to make either work.

In Roman Britain AD 140, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a young centurion whose father was one of the commanders of the Ninth Legion, which disappeared twenty years before somewhere in the North. Now Marcus is working to save his family honour – but his career as a centurion is cut short after he is injured almost single-handedly saving his garrison from attack. Depressed, he resolves to head north to try and find his father’s legion’s missing eagle standard – accompanied only by his strong-willed slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who hates Rome but owes his life to Marcus who saved him from execution in the gladiatorial ring. Heading North they find the eagle is in the hands of a savage tribe of warriors, who take no quarter.

Kevin Macdonald’s film probably should work like a Bernard Cornwell novel remixed in Roman Britain – or, better yet, like a proto-Simon Scarrow novel. There should be a growing sense of odd-couple bond – or at least chemistry – between Marcus and Esca as unlikely allies who become even more unlikely friends. Sadly, Macdonald misjudges the mood and instead turns the film into a grimly serious, mud spattered and miserable travel saga, which slowly drains any sense of enjoyment out of the story and its mission.

Instead, Esca and Marcus seem to hate each other’s guts for most of then movie until the plot finally absolutely demands that they lay down their lives for each other – at which point, an unearned switch takes part. Rather than an amusing “opposites attract”, men on a mission banter that the film sort of needs, instead everything is morose, angry and very, very serious. By the time the film hits the sort of banter tone it needed at the start, the credits start to roll.

It’s not helped by the choices of the two lead actors. Tatum is at his most “serious” here, with none of the playfulness and lightness that can make him an engaging presence. Instead he’s muscle bound and frowning, dispatching enemies without a second thought and forever gloomily reflecting on his father’s lost honour. Bell gets the tone slightly more on point, but he’s given almost nothing light to work with, instead having to juggle guilt and resentment at the oppression his people face and his part in it. With the dreary photography, all this misery finally starts to wear the viewer down.

Where’s the enjoyment of all this adventure? I get the film wants to make a serious point about the cost of empire and conquest, but did that have to be at the cost of any sense of fun? At least the film does take an interesting decision to make all the Romans American – reflecting the fact that America is “the new Rome” – but it doesn’t really take these revelations anywhere.

Not that you would really want it too as this is supposed to be an adventure story. Instead it’s a gloomy trip of two angry people in extreme cold and mud to grab a metal eagle, punctured by darkly framed fights, dully assembled dialogue scenes and a bubbling dislike between the two lead characters that never flowers into respect until far too late. By making neither of the two lead characters particularly likeable, we never really invest in their journey – and in the end just plain don’t care about what happens to them or if they ever get that eagle at all. For an adventure story, this is one trip you’ll insist you’d rather stay at home and guard the base. 

Saturday, 6 February 2021

King Kong (1933)

The end of an unsuccessful New York vacation in King Kong

Director: Melville C Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Native Chief), Steve Clemente (Witch king), Victor Wong (Charlie)

Of course, Citizen Kane is possibly the greatest and most influential film ever made. But, let’s be honest the paw prints of Kong is what we see most often in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Kong may have met his end atop the Statue of Liberty (a death the poster spoiled), but his children are everywhere, from Alien to Jurassic Park to Avengers: Endgame. King Kong basically sets the template for special effects movies and Hollywood has almost been remaking it, in some way shape or form, for almost ninety years. But few films can match its momentum, action – or above all the heart it gives to its beast.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a Hollywood director who has a plan to make his next film a huge success. He’s got a map to Skull Island (no need to worry with that name) where he’s heard rumour that a mighty creature is just waiting to star in his next film. Denham needs a female lead – so plucks Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) off the streets promising her the adventure of a lifetime. During the voyage to the island, she falls in love with first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). On arrival at the island they find a tribe of ferocious narratives, who kidnap Ann intending to sacrifice her to their god Kong – a massive gorilla. Instead Kong falls for Ann and carries her into the jungle. When Driscoll and Denham go to save her they find Skull Island is a dangerous place (who knew!), stuffed with brutal dinosaurs and scary beasts – and that Kong himself has no plans to give Ann back.

King Kong’s final hour is essentially little more than a stream of action scenes. However, few action films since have paced its action as well as this film does. With special effects by Willis O’Brien, one of the earliest masters of stop-motion, Kong in turn takes on a T-Rex, a pterodactyl, a village of natives and then most of New York in a series of escalating and dramatic sequences which use all the tricks Hollywood had, from animation to models and back projection. Each of these sequences are perfectly done and carry the sort of awe that stop-motion animation can project – all those hours of work! – helped by the successful (and brilliantly clever) use of back-projection to have these battling beasts seeming to tower over the human cast. You can imagine how thrilling it must have been – I’m not sure anything like this had been seen before.

But the film has really lasted because Willis O’Brien’s skill is to add humanity and sensitivity to Kong himself. There is a reason why Peter Jackson (director of the sensitive but overextended remake) talked of weeping when he saw Kong meet his end. From almost the very first shot, Cooper and O’Brien cut to Kong’s eyes, which have a surprising soulfulness to them. And after all what does Kong really do wrong in this film? He is perfectly happy on Skull Island – he even only attacks other creatures when they make the move on him – he has no desire to go to New York and spends half the film trying to protect Ann from danger (not that she thanks him for it). The animation takes several moments to create the soul in Kong – from the ripples of his fur to his curious inclines of the head. After defeating creatures, he curiously picks up their crushed bodies, as if surprised to find them unresponsive. He gently moves Ann. There is a sort of innocence to him. After all what is he but a small-town guy who heads to the big city and falls for the wrong gal?

As such it’s rather hard not to root for him – or feel his pain (and shock) when attacked by planes at the top of the Empire State Building. You can see in Kong’s eyes the lack of understanding about what these metal objects are that are punching through his skin. The shooting gallery is tinged with tragedy – and it’s hard not to cheer when Kong manages to take one of these planes down. For all his fierceness, Kong seems like a real person, a vulnerable guy taken out of his depth against his will. The cruelty of exploiting Kong for Broadway ticket sales, as Denham plans to do, seems particularly un-just. It brilliantly allows us to get the best of both worlds: we can enjoy the spectacle of the wild animal Kong snapping the jaws of T-Rexs but we also feel for him as a confused and frightened animal put to death in a world he doesn’t understand.

Perhaps its easier to sympathise with Kong because so many of the human characters in it barely register. The first forty minutes is low-key – and often frankly rather flat – competently filmed but fairly-stiff build-up, carefully (and at times rather pointedly) establishing the situation and themes. None of the actors make much an impression (not helped that the second half of the film is so Kong focused that they hardly have a line to share). Robert Armstrong is effectively arrogant and ambitious as Denham. Bruce Cabot is pretty wooden as Driscoll (his first film after being recruited from the studio doorman staff, he has said he essentially stood where he was told and that was it). Fay Wray has a certain sweetness and charm as Ann, but barely opens her mouth other than to scream after the first forty minutes (in a neat bit of wit, her rehearsal on ship is standing still and practising screaming silently at an object she can’t see). With its blundering Hollywood director at the heart of all the chaos, King Kong could also be one of the first Hollywood satires.

Intentionally or not the film has an imperialism to it. Denham is an arrogant man out of his depth – although I am not sure how far the film is aware of this – and the crew come across as arrogant and clueless, blundering into a wild environment with an armed over-confidence (that quickly gets them all killed – most of them tumbling to their doom with an almost sickening rag doll snap after a meeting with Kong). You can sense that as well in the awkward lack of PC in framing the (black) residents of Skull Island as blood-thirsty savages with a lust for human sacrifice. However, with its eventual sympathy for Kong, there is enough here to allow the viewer to read into it a certain amount of post-colonial criticism of this sort of H Rider Haggard meets Arthur Conan Doyle world.

The film is very proud of its “Twas beauty that killed the beast” concept (it’s repeated numerous times in the film – not least most famously at the end) – but it’s an idea that is already framing Kong as the victim. So, for all the triumph of the design – the production design is stunning, rarely have Hollywood back lots looked as good – and the awe of Kong, the idea of him as a victim is there from the start.

A lot of that awe though comes from possibly the film’s MVP: Max Steiner. King Kong is one of the first films to use a full orchestral score and the music is vital to adding heft, drama and danger to this stop-motion beast. Steiner’s score superbly uses motifs to build Kong’s presence and operatic crescendos that brilliantly heighten the drama. It’s certainly one of the most influential scores ever written – and it’s impact on film history is so lasting, that watching the film today you take it’s revolutionary nature for granted, so often has the way of using music become part of our accepted cinematic language.

King Kong lasts because of the awe it builds for the monster, but also the way we start to feel for him. Complimented by the professional skill of Cooper and Schoedsack’s direction, King Kong still grips today, for all that you need to read into it more depth than is (perhaps) there. But depth isn’t what made Kong great. It was the excitement and drama of the spectacle - and its so exciting you barely notice that Kong dramatically increases in scale as the film continues. And while special effects have moved on, the power of what’s presented here hasn’t. Deserves to be listed as one of the most influential films ever made.