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Archive for the ‘Literary adaptations’ Category

The Invisible Woman (UK/USA 2014).

Posted by keith1942 on 18 February 2014

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

This film is based on the study by Claire Tomalin of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) illicit relationship with Ellen Ternan (Nelly – Felicity Jones). I decided to see it a week after its UK release. It turned out to be quite difficult. The two independent cinemas in Leeds may screen it, but that is not yet certain. None of the Multiplex listings I checked has the film in their programme. Finally I found it programmed at Bradford’s National Media Museum: though even here it was in the smaller of the Museum’s auditorium. The larger had Her; which had a dozen or maybe two dozen punters. The Dickens’s film had over fifty. I put this down to the dead hand of the Distributors, accentuated by it being the Award season. Our Distribution Companies clearly have little sense of British culture: Dickens may not be the celebrity focus he was in his own lifetime, but following on from his bi-centenary he remains a popular figure and writer.

The film’s title refers to the hidden nature of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly: hidden from the prurient gaze of the dominant Victorian public discourse. The film has been adapted from the book by Abi Morgan and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It has the expected graces of a British period film: beautifully composed and authentic looking production design and a sterling cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Ternan matriarch and Tom Hollander as a delightful scapegrace Willkie Collins.  The plotting however is less conventional. The presentation is elliptical, not just in the use of flashbacks but also in the ellipses from the description of the affairs development. I did wonder if the limitations of a commercial running time, 111 minutes, had not had an effect. There were several missing emotional developments, including aspects of how Dickens bought his passion to fruition. This fits with the sense of the title, the woman hidden from view: but I was aware of these lacunae whilst watching the film.

It is Nelly’s viewpoint that pre-dominates as she provides the main narrative voice. There are however sequences which she will not have seen. One is when Dickens has the connecting door between the rooms of himself and his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon, another fine performance) boarded up. One imagines that Dickens never told Nelly of this incident.

The absences in the film are not just down to discretion. We see sex scenes between Dickens and Nelly and also between Nelly and her later husband, George Wharton (Tom Burke). These throw an interesting and unexpected light on sexuality in the Victorian era.

Claire Tomalin has an excellent piece in The Guardian Review (01-02-2014). She describes how she persuaded Ralph Fiennes not only to direct but also to take the part of Dickens in the film – clearly she is a fine judge of actor and character. She also comments on some differences between her study and the film. These have affected the ending of them film, making it less downbeat. However, it also has the effect of making Nelly a less interesting and less complex character.

This is an excellent production and deserves better than the ‘limited release’ accorded it.

Posted in Biopic, British Cinema, Literary adaptations | 2 Comments »

The Patience Stone / Syngué Sabour, pierre de patience (Afghanistan, France, Germany, UK, 2013).

Posted by keith1942 on 12 February 2014


This was the first seriously impressive film that I have seen in 2014. Unfortunately it seems to be suffering from a very limited release in the UK. It is definitely worth seeking out.

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name – translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage 2011). The author, Atiq Rahimi, has also directed this film version.   The book is set in one room in a small dwelling in Kabul. On a mattress on the floor lies a wounded mujaheddin. His wound is in the back of the neck and he is in a seemingly permanent coma. He is tended by his younger wife who has to arrange the saline drip, or often a water and salt substitute. She talks to him constantly, however she talks about matters and experiences that she would presumably avoid if he was conscious. At times she reads briefly from a Koran, marking her place with a feather. The title of book and film refers to a precious object that the woman recalls that her father told her of: “You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces. …. Sang-e sabur!”

The book is sited almost wholly in the small, bare room where the woman tends her husband. We find out about what happens beyond these walls from the woman and from an unidentified narrative voice. A couple of times her two daughters venture into the room. Later she takes them to stay with her sister, who has both employment and a place to live. A battle ebbs and flows in the streets. A Mullah calls several times to pray for the man, but the wife manages to avoid letting him in. We hear her call to neighbours on occasions. And two sets of mujaheddin visit the room: once when she is absent once when she is present. The book struck me as having a fairly detached description and commentary upon the characters and events in the story.

Not surprisingly the film has a less detached sense, seeing and hearing the characters and their actions is a much more immediate experience. And the performance of Golshifteh Farahani as the woman is both powerful and involving for the audience. Moreover, the film, unlike the book, shows us the events beyond the room. We follow the woman and her children into a basement shelter where we also meet her neighbours. We see the Mullah a he makes his brief calls. We follow the woman through the streets of Kabul and to the rooms of her sister. And we see the visits of the mujaheddin and the consequent actions.

Even so the film follows the book’s plot and characterisations fairly faithfully. One difference that puzzled me was that in the Koran is taken away by the first group of Muhadenne, leaving only the feather behind. In the film it remains in the room.

This appears to be Rahini’s first film. He had the good sense to arrange for Jean-Claude Carriére to adapt the book into a screenplay. Carriére is, of course, well known for his work with Luis Buñuel. In his eighties he remains amazingly productive. The last seriously good film that I saw before The Patience Stone was The Artist and the Model, also scripted by Carriére. Whilst the film is faithful to the book it also contains themes and motifs familiar from Carriere’s other film work: a couple of moments reminded me also of Buñuel. Centrally we have the unconventional passive male in the presence of a woman. Then there is the exploration of sexuality linked to an oppressive obsession. And there is the contrast presented between a woman’s access to sexuality – through choice, marriage and prostitution.

Posted in Afghan film, Literary adaptations | Leave a Comment »

Dial M for Murder in 3D

Posted by keith1942 on 8 August 2013


This was the first of four productions that Alfred Hitchcock made for the Warner Brothers studio. The early fifties were the height of Hollywood attempts, through technological innovation, to roll back the tide of television and the new world of leisure. Most spectacularly, but also the most short-lived, 3D offered a unique cinematic experience. For a time, with a film like Warner’s House of Wax (1953), audiences were seduced. But by the time Dial M for Murder came out in 1954 the craze was in its last days. The unevenness of presentations in the new format, and to a degree the basic cardboard and gel spectacles, soon dented audience interest. Most audiences, certainly in the UK, saw this film in a 2D version. Despite these problems the film was a success, it took at least $6 million on a budget of under $1.5 million.

The 2D version has been the standard release on both 35mm and video for years. In fact Hitchcock and his production team use the traditional techniques to produce a sense of depth in many shots: lighting, colour gradation, size and placement, . . . Like the earlier Rope (1948) the film is adapted from a stage play confined to one interior set (written by Fredrick Knott, first for television then the theatre). The film opens this out a little, with additional scenes, including exteriors. Apart from the 3D version, Hitchcock and his crew, including Robert Burks on cinematography, had to adjust to the new wide screen format – 1.85:1. They also had to manage the new colour film process, Eastmancolor. So there were all sorts of technical challenges involved in the production.

In terms of plot we have Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) married to Margot (Grace Kelly) who is in love with a writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cunnings). Since Margot is the partner with the money Tony sets up a murder scheme involving C A Swann (Anthony Dawson). As invariably happens in the movies, the plot goes awry. Nothing daunted, Tony implicates his wife in the death of Swann. Mark attempts to solve the mystery by using his ill-suited skills as a writer of murder mysteries. But the real solution relies on Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). As usual in Hitchcock films there is a MacGuffin, which is the key, which passes round the characters. But thematically it is about the threatened heroine, a sexual triangle, guilt and innocence, and a touch of voyeurism.

The real star of the film is Ray Milland who projects the husband as cynical but charming. By comparison Robert Cummings is passé: it seems that Grace Kelly shared this view as according to Donald Spoto her affair during the production was with Milland not Cummings. It shows in the finished film: her tender glances are to Tony not Mark. Dawson and Williams are both excellent. And Patrick Allen has a walk-on part with a handbag.

The handbag, and a woman’s workbox, along with the telephone and the key are the props that Hitchcock and Burks highlight through the 3D process. Most 3D films had ‘in your face` sequences, literally. This film eschews these, apart from the credits (personably by the studio), a telephone dial, one shot of the key and in a really dramatic sequence, a pair of scissors. However, right through the film the distinctive sense of depth, which is 3D’s virtue, is used to great effect.

The 3D process was cumbersome, required additional lighting to cope with the two-camera set-up and filters, and was not that good for close-ups. One notices that Hitchcock’s fondness for the large close-up is mostly absent in this film. In exhibition the 3D version is dimmer than the 2D version. And process shots are problematic, especially noticeable in the street scenes which act as transitions. However the digital 3D process is more audience friendly than the 1950s 35mm process. The glasses don’t often fall off and they work even when askew. And generally the 3D effect seems to work across the auditorium. I did see a 35mm 3D version of Dial M for Murder in the 1990s. We were advised to sit at the back of the auditorium to get the 3D effect: it did work, but other people elsewhere in the auditorium were less fortunate.

I tend to agree with Mark Kermode about the process generally. However Dial M for Murder, as you might expect with Hitchcock, utilises the technology to intelligent effect. In the famous interview with Truffaut he is fairly dismissive about the film. But I find it difficult to think of another 3D film where the sense of depth is so impressive.

Moreover the film is full of the touches and motifs that one associate with Hitchcock. So there are crossovers with Blackmail (1929), Rope, Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951) and, still to come, Vertigo (1958). It possibly affected Hitchcock’s collaborators. The music is by Dmitri Tiomkin, but frequently it sounded as if I was listening to Bernard Herrmann.  It is not the best of Hitchcock’s films: however, it has many of his virtues and is vastly entertaining. One of the remakes, A Perfect Murder (1998, Andrew Davis) demonstrates what is lost when lesser hands are at work.

Posted in Film history, Hollywood, Literary adaptations | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Thérèse Desqueyroux (France 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 August 2013

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Claude Miller died soon after completing this his 15th feature film. It was a distinguished career which included a period when he was production manager for first Jean-Luc Godard and then, for some time, François Truffaut. (See this obituary for more background.) Two films from him as writer-director that I remember enjoying are Un secret (2007) and Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). The first of these drew on Miller’s own background, born into a non-religious Jewish family, and the second was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with Sandrine Kiberlaine as the central female character under pressure. Both the anti-semitism of French society in the twentieth century and the pressure on a young woman feature in Thérèse Desqueyroux, an adaptation of a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, previously adapted for a film by Georges Franju in 1962. Mauriac is a canonical figure in French literature and won the Nobel prize in 1952. His granddaughter Anne Wiazemsky was an actor in the 1960s and 1970s and later a novelist. She married Jean-Luc Godard and appeared in several of his films.

I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier adaptation (in which Emanuelle Riva takes the central role) so I’m not able to make comparisons, but I would certainly be interested in seeing the Franju film. The lead in Miller’s film is taken by Audrey Tautou and that was one of the attractions for me. It was interesting to see Ms Tautou in a role that challenges audience assumptions about her star persona (cf her role in Delicacy (2011). The story is set in a very distinctive location – the Landes pine forests of Aquitaine, south-west of Bordeaux – in the 1920s. Thérèse is introduced as a teenager playing idyllic games with her friend Anne. Both girls come from local families which own large acreages of the forest, making a good income from wood and resin collection. But whereas Thérèse is the daughter of a radical and thinks for herself, Anne is more conventional – though her obvious enjoyment of hunting might be read in different ways. The surprise is that six or seven years later Thérèse agrees to marry Anne’s brother Bernard – like his sister highly conventional in his attitudes towards love, marriage, family and status. The mystery is why Thérèse allows herself to fall into this trap and her first test is how she will respond when her sister-in-law has a romantic affair with the handsome son of another local family. Bernard decrees that the affair is unsuitable and that the family’s good name is being besmirched. The young man clearly has Jewish blood – Thérèse refers to his family as ‘Portuguese’.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

The National Media Museum programme guide described the film as a costume melodrama which led to certain expectations and I want to explore what ‘melodrama’ might mean in these circumstances. Thérèse as the central character is certainly a potential melodrama figure – in particular as the woman ‘in peril’ in the suffocating embrace of Bernard’s family. I think that there is a case for relating this to the ‘woman’s film’ scenario. On the other hand, there is no female best friend to confide in (the relationship with Anne changes) or much of a possibility of a ‘positive’ romance to pursue. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for scenes of ‘suffering’ as an intelligent and curious woman is expected to ‘behave responsibly’. Melodramas are usually concerned with emotions that are repressed or suppressed – and which then ‘return’ or are ‘released’ through an excess of music, colour, cinematography, mise en scène etc. In this case, there is a certain austerity about the mise en scène and the music, although often there, seemed unobtrusive (mostly classical piano pieces) to me. However, the dark house in the forest is clearly Gothic and when Thérèse meets Anne’s lover it is, of course, by the sea. The internal/external world is also represented through a series of sequences which might represent Thérèse’s thoughts, dreams or nightmares.

I won’t spoil the narrative but I will reveal that the resolution is not perhaps what we might expect after Therese is driven to fairly desperate measures and if you have seen the marvellous earlier film with Audrey Tautou, À la folie . . . pas du tout (2002), you might see a resemblance in the final shots of the two films. The hint of Hitchcock is also shared by the two films. I suppose I’m suggesting here that there is an element of film noir in this melodrama. I was intrigued to discover that Claude Miller decided not to follow the flashback structure of the book but instead to tell the story in a linear narrative – which actually makes the story more mysterious (and alters the portrayal of the husband).

When I came out of the film I wasn’t sure if I had ‘enjoyed’ it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a form of melodrama and that Claude Miller demonstrated great skill in his last film. All the performances are good and Ms Tautou has successfully extended her range. As Bernard, Gilles Lelouche also acts against his established character type (he usually plays comedic roles) and he also succeeds. I’m not sure that the film got the promotional push it needed on its UK release so you might struggle to find it but during a summer of tedious blockbusters this is an intelligent gem and I hope that I’ve intrigued you enough to want to see it.

The film’s Press Book is here (in French and in English).

Here is the Australian trailer (it reveals something about the plot that I have largely concealed):

Posted in Directors, French Cinema, Literary adaptations, Melodrama, People, Stars, Womens Film | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Lincoln (US 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 4 March 2013


Dreamworks and C20th Fox. Director Steven Spielberg. Screenplay Tony Kushner, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Editor Michael Kahn. Music John Williams. Sound Design Ben Burtt. Costume design Joanna Johnston.

Academy Award for Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Academy Award Best Production Design Rick Cater and Jim Erickson.

Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s award winning film is a reconstruction of a key moment in US history and the US Civil War. In another sense it is also a biography of the most famous of US Presidents, using a key moment in his life and career rather than providing an overall picture of the man. The key moment is the point at which the US Congress, sited in Washington and the Unionist North’s territory, finally approved a constitutional amendment that abolished slavery. In a sense this was an act that addressed the unfinished business of the founding fathers when they proclaimed all men equal: except of course the enslaved Afro-Americans or Negroes (the politest term in use in that period).

This is an epic production running for two and half-hours. The cinematography, sound and production design are all of a high standard. The film’s score is impressive if occasionally overly sentimental. Daniel Day-Lewis as the President has already received widespread praise, but the whole cast is excellent. This combination of talent and performance gives the film credibility both as an absorbing story and as a history lesson. The conflicts and machinations that preceded the historic vote in the House of Representatives seems to have been bought to the screen with reasonable accuracy, though there is now a debate about the veracity of the Connecticut vote in the film: an odd lapse in what seems a convincing reconstruction.

The central figure of Lincoln emerges partly in the familiar guise seen in earlier biopics: we several times see and hear his famed ability to produce a story appropriate to every occasion. A skill that often exasperated his colleagues but also frequently effectively disarmed his opponents. Less familiar is his foray into political corruption, using patronage to manipulate the vote where morals and rhetoric have failed.

Critics have already remarked on the absence of Afro-Americans from the central focus. The film opens with a strong and brutal depiction of one of the early hand-to-hand battle involving newly recruited Negro soldiers and Confederates. But after that the plot relies mainly on Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), a dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields), and William Slade (Stephen Henderson) the male manservant in the White House. Absent, except perhaps as part of a group of Black men who attend the day of the actual vote, is the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This could be seen as an accurate reflection of the period: the preoccupation of politicians was the Union, and genuine proponents of equality between black and whites were a small (though vocal) minority. However, this dominant focus on the white, male élites has been apparent in the earlier work of Spielberg. Schindler’s List has as its main characters the Aryan Oscar Schindler and Amon Goeth: Munich (also scripted by Tony Kushner) is pre-occupied with Israelis rather than Palestinians: Amistad, like Lincoln, has as lead characters the white members of the political élite. The exception is The Colour Purple where the focus is clearly on oppressed Afro-American women.

This, of course, is part of a larger representations found across Hollywood production. The 1989 Glory, which has a much greater attention devoted to Negroes fighting for the Union in the Civil war, still relies on the character of the white officer of a Negro regiment for much of its drama. It does offer Frederick Douglass a few lines of dialogue. Spielberg has a strong sense of Hollywood conventions and history. In one of the nicer touches in the film Senator Thaddeus Stevens, a noted abolitionist, takes the House of Representatives amendment home to read to his black housekeeper and partner. This is clearly a rebuttal of the notorious The Birth of a Nation, where Stevens is presented through the character of Senator Stoneman, who is suborned by his black housekeeper and paramour.

This is the point in the film when we hear the actual amendment, read by Stevens to his partner after the historic vote on January 31st 1865.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (There is a second paragraph concerning implementation).

No mention of black people or of equality for black people. It points up the limitations of the Unionist North, the Amendment and the political establishment of the 1860s. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, shows another side of this problematic: the riots in New York against compulsory service in the Civil War armies. My sense of the US myths is that these limitations are not commonly part of the iconic representation of Lincoln. Indeed Spielberg seems to want to rescue Lincoln, assassinated just after the end of the war, from any culpability for the carpet-bagging exploitation of the defeated South and the reneging on promises to Negroes. Frederick Douglass wrote after the end of the Civil War that the Negro was “free from the individual master but a slave of society. He had neither money, property, or friends.  … He was turned loose naked, hungry and destitute to the open sky.” But the film ends with a flashback to Lincoln’s second inaugural address then held in March 1865: later in the year than in contemporary elections. The speech ends with the prayer, “With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Of course, this end scene plays into the inevitable comparisons when we have the first black President just starting his second term in the White House. Some of Barack Obama’s election speeches clearly played into the Lincoln tradition. In that sense, though this has been a long cherished project of Spielberg’s, the film speaks especially powerfully to contemporary USA. Despite the celebratory tone at the end of this film the project of what the film calls ‘racial equality’ has yet to complete its long, violent and demanding journey: as indeed has the States yet to achieve peace with all nations. This has probably played large in the sensibilities of both the Academy members and audiences. The Guardian newspaper (g2 film & music 22.02.13) handily provided some comparisons between the box office performances of Academy Award front-runners. Lincoln is out in front in the USA ($177 mill) ahead of Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Argo and Life of Pi. But overseas it trails behind all the other five titles ($59 mill to Life of Pi’s $466).  And in the UK it is followed by Argo trailing the other four, (£6.9 mill to Les Misérables £36 mill). The actual Academy Awards were spread across these films (and others) but Lincoln with twelve nominations only gained two Oscars. There seems to be a disjuncture between the Academy and the indigenous audience.

It is a cerebral movie, and outside of the USA the political machinations of the Washington élite in the 1860s may lack excitement and panache. Some of the reviews offered strong put-downs. However, despite its lack of action it is absorbing from beginning to end. And Spielberg and Kushner know how to ring the changes. The historic congressional vote combines the drama in the chamber with some nicely judged scenes around the waiting Union. And the so famous assassination is quite daringly different. Hollywood can still turn out a winner when the subject and the filmmakers are fully in tune.

Posted in Film history, Hollywood, Literary adaptations, Politics on film | Leave a Comment »

Stacking up the numbers on Hollywood remakes – a win for subtitles?

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 March 2012

Trying – and probably failing – not to feel smug, I offer you this article in today’s Guardian by number cruncher Charles Gant. A week before the release of Headhunters, confidently expected to be a worldwide hit as a Norwegian film, Gant reports that MGM has conceded that David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will make a loss in cinemas (despite grossing over $230 million). Gant questions why Hollywood makes a seemingly pointless remake – our sentiments entirely. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is reported as being interested in taking the lead role in Summit’s remake of Headhunters.

Having just read Headhunters – and enjoying it very much, I’m very much looking forward to the film and I’ll be introducing it on April 14 at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of a talk on Nordic Crime Fiction. Please come along.

Posted in Literary adaptations, Nordic Cinema, Norwegian Cinema, Novels, Swedish Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on 26 March 2012

The final shot of The Ghost

There is an off-quoted line in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary Handsworth Songs (1986) “There are no stories [in the riots] only the ghosts of other stories.” I remembered the line when I was mulling over Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost (2010). As with other directors honoured as auteurs his films often stimulate recollections of his own earlier films: ghostly traces or memories from the previous works. Thanks to Channel 4 (who screened the film more or less in the original aspect ratio) when I watched The Ghost again some of these ghostly references reminded me strongly of his classic Chinatown (1974) The S & S review also rightly suggested ‘ghosts’ from Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966) and Frantic (1988) among others. The reviewer (Michael Brooke) makes the point that the film closely follows the original book by Robert Harris (who scripted the film with Polanski) but suggests that the plot and story world are in part what attracted Polanski to the property. Of course, both the book and the film use familiar generic elements, but the parallels seem to be to be stronger than that. Much of the film adheres closely to the plot found in the book, as indeed does the dialogue. However, there are two significant changes, which I comment on below.

In Chinatown a private eye investigates first an affair with and then the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Swerling). The private eye becomes involved with the widow and her father, a corporate baron. His investigations lead him to discover fraud and corruption in the L.A. Water and Power Company. In The Ghost a writer who polishes and re-writes autobiographies for prominent people is hired to  ‘ghost-write’ the memoirs of ex-British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a drowning at sea. When Adam Lang is publicly pilloried for aiding secret CIA rendition of suspects, political secrets surface and become threatening.

The parallels with Chinatown are there most obviously in the two male protagonists of these films. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye in Chinatown, thinks he knows his trade, but by the film’s finale he is clearly out in depth in the world of criminality symbolised by the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost appears to be a smart member of a little-publicised authorial profession; but he also is soon out of his depth in the murky world of power politics. Both men appear in a scene where they look at evidence but fail to unravel the meaning of a word at the time. Jake talks to the Japanese gardener by the Mulwray pool, and only later realises the possible meaning of ‘glass’. The ghostwriter reads the opening chapter of Adam Lang’s memoir without realising the significance of ‘beginnings’. In the end Jake survives, unlike the ghostwriter, but he is equally destroyed by a world that is far more sinister and complex than any he has previously experienced.

Both men are victims of a woman who is essentially a femme fatale, alluring but dangerous. The women are deceptive and it is unclear to what degree they are responding to the hero or merely manipulating him. Ruth Lang [Olivia Williams] of The Ghost survives unlike Evelyn Mulwray née Cross (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown, but both are equally the puppets of powerful men: men whose public persona is far removed from their actual ruthless real selves. John Huston’s corporate baron Noah Cross is prepared to go to any lengths to profit from the exploitation of L.A.’s dependence on water: and he is equally determined in pursuing his personal power. Tom Wilkinson’s Professor Paul Emmett pursues political power and profit with an equivalent ruthlessness, though we learn far less about his personal pursuits. Noah Cross is an actual father who literally embodies a classic myth of incest and the sexual exploitation of the child: Paul Emmett is a father figure rather than literal parent: but indirectly he controls Ruth’s sexuality through the arranged marriage to Adam Lang.

The secret in Chinatown is the manipulation of water whilst in The Ghost it is the identity of a CIA agent. However, in both films it is the search to crack the secret than impels the narrative. Moreover, that basic element water is key in the mise en scène of both films. We see water in Chinatown in the reservoirs, in the ocean, in a boating lake and in the pool of the Mulwray mansion. In The Ghost it surrounds the main action, on Martha’s Vineyard Island on the US eastern seaboard, and characters constantly cross over it or walk alongside it. And in both films the action that starts to crack open the secret is the drowning of an innocent man, Evelyn Mulwray’s husband in Chinatown, previous ghostwriter Mike McAra in The Ghost. Both are made to look like suicides but in reality are the victims of a secret conspiracy. Moreover, a female witness in the case also dies, literally in Chinatown, comatosed in The Ghost. The first significant change from the plot of the book is related to the death in The Ghost. Late in the book the writer, fearing the close attentions of the CIA, meets an ex-colleague of Adam Lang, the politician Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh). He travels to New York City for the meeting. In the film they meet at the motel alongside the mainland ferry terminus for the Island. The sequence includes the writer joining and leaving the ferry, as he fears a repeat of the death of his predecessor Mike McAra. The change immediately conjures up both the plot and the symbolism of the earlier Chinatown.

There are crossovers elsewhere in the mise en scène. Both protagonists wander in desolate places like beaches and dried-up riverbeds. The framing and blocking in particular scenes offers hints as to the way the mystery will unravel. This is particularly true of the Asian servants in both households. One intriguing plot piece is that in Chinatown it is the Japanese gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) who inadvertently reveals to Gittes the key information around a man’s death by the pool in the Mulwray garden. In The Ghost, as in Chinatown, house servants are Asian, Dep and Duc. And it is the Vietnamese gardener (Hong Thay Lee) who offers the use of the car to our ghostwriter, and it is the car, which leads him to Paul Emmett and the secret behind the death of Mike McAra.

In both films photographs provide key evidence for the investigation. In particular a photograph of long ago that reveals an important but unknown relationship: Adam Lang with Paul Emmett in The Ghost and Noah Cross with Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. The more recent film also uses technologies not available when Chinatown was produced or set. But in both cases the investigation depends partly on information provided by individuals and partly by commercial or state institutions: public records in Chinatown and the Internet in The Ghost. Both the L.A. Water and Power Company and the Central Intelligence Agency appear as large, secretive and corrupt institutions, balefully exploiting rather than protecting the citizenry they are supposed to serve.

The final shot of Chinatown

In particular it is the final scenes of the films that have so many common elements. Both Jake Gittes and the ghostwriter are bought down by hubris. Jake meets the chief villain Noah Cross to expose his crimes, only to be overpowered by his henchman. The ghostwriter presents his discovery of the secret to Rachel Lang, who tells Emmett and death follows. In the final sequence of Chinatown shots are fired as a car drives away, the car halts, horn sounds and a girl screams. A crowd gathers, and then we see the dead woman. As Jake is led away into the darkened and emptying street, newspapers blow across the desolate space. In The Ghost a car speeds towards the writer and us. We hear a car bump, and see concerned or shocked pedestrians run towards an ‘accident’. As the light fades the pages of a manuscript blow across the desolate space. The latter is the second major change from Harris’ book and is similar to the way that Polanski altered the original script for Chinatown by Robert Towne.

Viewers are likely to take away a similar feeling from both movies, a tragic end in failure. The powerful remain unscathed and unexposed: the innocent have died: and the well-meaning but ineffectual hero has failed in his quest. There is a telling line in Chinatown spoken by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Jake Gittes, “it takes a while for a man to find himself’. The tragedy of both of these films is that the man in question fails to find himself, or at least finds himself too late.

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Ecosse’s Wuthering Heights

Posted by keith1942 on 14 November 2011

A 'wuthering' view

Opening film of the 25th Leeds International Film Festival.

UK 2011. In colour and 1.37:1. 128 minutes. UK certificate 15.

Producer, and founder of Ecosse Films, Douglas Rae, came along to talk to the Press after the morning screening of this new film. When asked about the production he said film production was always difficult, but this more than most. He praised his director, Andrea Arnold as uncompromising but incredible.

Ecosse films was set up in 1988. It started out making documentaries and arts programme. The company commenced feature film production in 1997 with Mrs Brown. Since then its features have included Charlotte Gray (2002), Becoming Jane (2007), Brideshead Revisited (2008) and Nowhere Boy (2010). Rae remarked that their output is divided evenly between original scripts and literary adaptations. But the above titles also suggest another thread, a distinctly English [within the larger British culture) sensibility. It also has a feel of the Public Broadcast ethos: one of the features for Television was Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (2005). This is also a part of the strand of the heritage area, though with a modern irreverence visible at times. One can see the appeal of Emily Brontë classic. Whilst there have been a number of earlier film and television versions, it retains an enduring appeal. And the themes of the outsider, of regional distinctness, and of class conflict, suggest the possibilities of a very modern reading.

It seems that several different directors were considered over the pre-production period, though I thought none of the name mentioned seemed as suitable as the final choice. Arnold has made her name with two gritty, realistic contemporary urban features. However, they also show an interest in landscape and in nature. Moreover, both films are concerned with the traumas of love and sexuality, with the violence that passion can arouse, and with people’s responses to personal conflicts. These are also at the heart of Brontë’s masterpiece, with the most passionate story in English literature, but one which also features a high degree of violence. What makes this film distinctive in Arnold’s output, less that it is a period story than that the primary focus is on the male protagonist, Heathcliff. That he is black is in fact truer to the novel than most people remember. [See also Whitewashing Heights by Paterson Joseph in The Guardian November 12th].

The production has also been well served by a number of Arnold’s regular collaborators. The cinematographer Robbie Ryan also worked on the earlier Red Road (2007) and Fishtank (2009). His efforts on this film won him the coveted award at the Venice Film Festival. The film is shot almost in the Dogme style using a handheld camera and prodigious close-ups. The exteriors uniformly rely on natural lighting, whilst the interiors use very low levels, almost imperceptible. Both the Editor Nicolas Chaudeurge and the Production Designer Helen Scot worked on the earlier features. And the Sound Designer Nicolas Becker and the Sound Recordist Rashad Omar have worked previously with Arnold. The sound track is another fine feature of the film, with predominately location sound filling in with the noises of the countryside and nature. Even the majority of the music is diegetic.

The screen story is by Olivia Hetreed, who also worked on Girl with a Pearl Earring. Arnold’s entry into the production meant entirely reworking the screenplay. And the plot leaves out much of the action in the original novel [unlike the 1992 version, which follows the complete novel, more or less]. Essentially the story is told from the point of view of Heathcliff: so when he is off the page the film offers an ellipsis. [Essential action is retold in the dialogue]. I thought this worked well, though a friend felt that this left out Cathy’s motivation, an important aspect in the novel. This is an aspect which presumably will disappoint some fans of the book, but I do feel that it captures the poetic aspect of the novel.

Happily the film relies on Yorkshire locations. Rae said that Arnold spent six months scouting locations. The Heights and much of its surrounds were filmed in Western Swaledale. In summer this is great walking country, with splendid views, winding but interesting paths, and some excellent hostelries for mealtimes. In winter the countryside is grimmer: rain, wind and mist can surround one and the terrain is rich in tufts and frequently very muddy. The film certainly realises the Yorkshire sense of ‘wuthering’. And the Heights is a working farm, candlelit, rough-hewn and prey to the elements. Rae’s fellow producer Kevin Loader commented: “It’s the hardest shoot I’ve ever been part of; there was a constant awareness of wind and water, the darkness and the harshness of the elements. But it brings home that kind of isolation and closeness to the natural world.”

The early part of the book, the developing relationship between young Cathy and Heathcliff, takes up about 70 minute of the film. Then we have a break when Heathcliff leaves angry and frustrated. The second part of the film treats the events after Cathy’s marriage but does not carry the tale to the end of the book. This runs for about 50 minutes. The first section of the film has the developing passion and obsession between young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and young Cathy (Shannon Beer). This is powerful drama, and the terrain and the landscape are an integral part of the force of the story. The film uses a range of natural objects, particularly stones and feathers, as props and as metaphors. The supporting cast, including other non-professionals alongside the lead pair, make this an effective portrait of an early C19th household and hamlet.

The second part of the film involves both the Heights and the Grange, the later the home of the affluent Linton’s. A Press colleague thought this part rather slow. I did not find this, but I did feel a change of pace and intensity. I think this is in part because the central pair of Heathcliff (James Howson) and Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) are now played by a non-professional opposite a professional actor. Arnold explains her aim: “We looked for non-actors for the Heights and actors for the Grange. I wanted the Heights to be raw and untamed and elemental and masculine and the Grange to seem mannered and more feminine and careful.” [In fact, the casting division is not quite as strict as this, but the contrast is there]. This expresses the repressive nature of the situation, the early film being oppressive rather than repressive. This is underscored by the disparities between the Heights and the Grange: the latter all lights, decorum and social niceties. It is symbolised in one way by Cathy’s hair: mainly down and loose early in the film, now pinioned up behind her head. Some ringlets do hang down which distinguishes her from Isabella whose hair is firmly bound up. It is also affected by the more conventional use of metaphors: one of the few false notes in the film for me was a cage containing a canary in the Grange, seen in close-up at least twice. But this repression is the way that the tragic tale of Heathcliff and Cathy runs: repressions of class, gender and ethnicity

The film has divided critics strongly. However, interesting films frequently do this. For, like the star-crossed lovers, and the original novel, this is a film on the edge.

NB A report in Tuesday’s Guardian suggests that James Howson as the ‘older Heathcliff” had his dialogue dubbed: though this does not seem to appear in the credits.

Rona’s earlier review of the film.

Posted in British Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Literary adaptations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


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