The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘political thriller’

Salamander (Belgium 2012/3)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 February 2014

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the 'face' of 'Salamander'?

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the ‘face’ of ‘Salamander’?

For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4′s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.

‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.

The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.

The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?

At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Global television | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

The East (US/UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 July 2013

Apparently 'spin the bottle' is popular in anarchist circles.

Apparently ‘spin the bottle’ is popular in anarchist circles.

The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming  from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it  is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.

Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.

The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.

‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.

The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.

The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.

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Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, France 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 June 2013

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

One of the best films to be released in the UK in 2013 looks like being one of the least seen. That’s a shame. If you are one of what I imagine to be many cinephiles disappointed that Mathieu Kassovitz had seemed unable to make another film as powerful as La haine, here is proof to the contrary. L’order et la morale is a hugely ambitious film that took Kassovitz several years to make. It recounts what happened in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in 1988 when an ‘uprising’ of Kanak people on one of the small islands of Melanesia resulted in a ‘hostage situation’ involving a group of French gendarmerie. Unfortunately, the timing of the events during the French presidential election backfired on the rebels. Despite the best efforts of the negotiation team led by Captain Philippe Legorjus of the GIGN (the counter-terrorist unit of the Gendarmerie), the situation was ‘resolved’ with overwhelming military firepower and loss of life. The script is largely based on the memoirs of Legorjus, played by Kassovitz himself in the film.

Kassovitz was once known as l’enfant terrible of French cinema. La haine (1995) was a great critical as well as commercial success in exposing police relations with the youth of les cités, the workers’ estates surrounding Paris where many second-generation migrants grew up. But Kassovitz’s next film Assassin(s) (1997) attacked the media and the young director was savaged by some of the same critics who had praised him for La haine. That film has never been released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. After that Kassovitz moved into directing English language genre films with steadily declining success – while at the same time developing a career as an actor, including an important role in Amélie, enabling him to develop an international profile as both actor and director. What is clear now is that he spent a great deal of time and effort in working on L’ordre et la morale. In the end he decided to play the central role himself, primarily for pragmatic reasons in that the production was so protracted that he couldn’t reasonably ask another actor to take the role. He’s extremely good at suggesting the highly professional approach of Philippe Legorjus (an approach he discusses in the film’s Press Pack).

I confess that the film does demand an audience willing to follow the complex rivalries between the different organisations that comprise the French armed forces and also the unique problems associated with the French political system and its electoral processes. Like the American president, the President of France can sometimes find himself (no women yet) constrained as an executive by the actions of a legislature run by the opposition. But in France the situation is even more crippling because of the cabinet government led by a Prime Minister. In 1988, socialist President Francois Mitterand faced a re-election contest against the candidate of the right, the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. This was the climax of the period known as ‘Co-habitation’. I don’t fully understand how the split of executive powers affected the events in New Caledonia. Mitterand should have had more power in dealing with events overseas, yet as a French ‘overseas territory’ perhaps New Caledonia was considered part of France and this was an ‘internal security’ issue?

The film narrative is essentially a long flashback to the events which led up to the nightmare conclusion. The first forward momentum is the ‘scrambling’ of the GIGN company and their flight from Paris to the other side of the world. When they arrive in New Caledonia they find that some local gendarmes are being held hostage by rebels but also that the French Army has arrived en masse and that any hopes of a peaceful negotiation are threatened by the gung-ho actions of the Army commanders.

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

It eventually transpires that Philipe Legorjus has contacts in Paris who are linked to Mitterand while the Army share the perspective of Chirac and Legorjus will eventually find himself faced by Chirac’s own minister Bernard Pons who is sent out to manage the crisis on the ground. The narrative driver is that Legorjus himself and a small number of his team of negotiators eventually meet the rebels – who are, of course, not the ‘fanatics’ portrayed by Chirac and the right-wing. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but the gripping central narrative places Legorjus himself in an almost impossible position. He attempts to remain professional and a man of honour – but he finds himself participating in brutality. He meets his obligations to some but betrays others. There is no black and white only the murky greys of colonial repression. The central figure of the rebel leader (amazingly played by the real man’s cousin who was a post-grad student in France when Kassovitz found him) is an idealistic young man whose actions are undermined by the local nationalist leaders who are also playing political games. All of this is familiar from too many situations around the world but Kassovitz makes it all real and painful. It’s a long film, mostly talk but with some intense action sequences and an intriguing ‘score’ by the ‘industrial percussion’ group Les Tambours du Bronx. There is also some great community singing under the end credits.

Rebellion is a long film (136 minutes) and it represents a remarkable achievement by Mathieu Kassovitz. He plays the central character as a man who internalises and manages to stay cool under pressure (most of the time). As director he manages an enormous ensemble cast with some experienced French actors, but also many non-professionals. I was gripped throughout and fascinated by the depiction of events. Nobody comes out of the events themselves with much credit and by all accounts many of the leading participants have tried t claim that the film is inaccurate. This article by an Australian scholar and former diplomat with experience of New Caledonia suggests that the film does tell at least some of the ‘truth’ and also points out that Mitterand (who won the election) did attempt to develop ‘peace and reconciliation’ after signing the orders to end the hostage-taking with military force. The film was shot in French Polynesia rather than Melanesia but it was eventually shown in New Caledonia – and seemingly well-received. The final credits remind us that there will be votes in 2014 on a process leading towards possible future independence.

I’m not sure if the film will get more cinema screenings in the UK but I urge you to seek it out on DVD when it appears on September 2nd (why so long, Lionsgate?). I think I’d like to return to the film then when a few more people have seen it. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

King’s Game (Kongekabale, Denmark 2004)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 January 2013

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naive Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naïve Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Was this the blueprint for Borgen (and The Killing to some extent)? I missed it altogether on its limited UK release in 2005 and caught it as a VOD offer from Lovefilm (I think it is also available on DVD, but at a price). King’s Game was a major box office and critical winner in Denmark as the first film from Nikolaj Arcel, recently nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with A Royal Affair, one of our films of the year. It is based on a novel by a politician and deals with internecine strife in the Centre Party in Denmark during an election campaign.

The central character is Ulrik, a young journalist played by Anders W. Berthelsen (the father of the abducted child in The Killing III). He suddenly discovers that he has been offered the chance by his newspaper to join the team covering ‘parliamentary affairs’ at Borgen. He has no previous experience of politics except that his father, now a businessman, was once Justice Minister for the Centre Party. His first visit to Borgen occurs when the Centre Party is in disarray after a car crash puts its leader into hospital. He is seriously ill and there are fears for his life. Ulrik is then offered a story (in an indirect way) about the ‘next in line’ at the Centre Party – by the party’s own spin doctor (nicely played by Lars Mikkelsen (Troels, the mayoral candidate) in Killing I. How long will it take the naïve Ulrik to twig that he is being set up? I won’t spoil any more of the plot except to point towards other similarities with Borgen such as the prospect of the first female Prime Minister in Denmark.

I found the film to be very entertaining and pleasingly presented in CinemaScope with crisp and sometimes noirish cinematography. The cast is very strong, especially for a first film. As well as Berthelsen and Mikkelsen, I also recognised Lars Brygmann (who suffers a very similar fate to his character of Troels Höxenhaven in Borgen 2), Nicholas Bro (Justice Minister in The Killing II) and our old friend Bjarne Henriksen (Theis in The Killing I and the Defence Minister in Borgen 1 and 2). This time Henriksen plays a crucial role as a television interviewer. The other lead in the film is played by Søren Pilmark who has an impressive CV but doesn’t appear to have been in either of the two serials that have been successful in the UK. The roles for women are not so good in the film and the principal role of a female political leader is played by the director’s sister Nastja Arcel.

It was interesting to see a more ‘cinematic’ presentation than is usually offered by Borgen, but this came mostly via the thriller elements. I missed the family melodrama elements of the serials and it was interesting that one of the best scenes in the film involved Ulrik dealing with his father – in the presence of his wife. This lack of background for the main characters is possibly the main weakness of the script – but then the film is only a 100 minutes or so and much of the time involves the twists and turns of the investigation. The film has also been criticised for the seeming simplicity of the plot and the ease with which the naïve journalist  is able to tie things together. Fortunately, Berthelsen is such a good actor that I think we go along with him. His character is also resourceful and determined – which makes an interesting dramatic mix with naiveté.

I’m surprised that I haven’t come across references to Kongekabale in discussions of Borgen. I’m sure that British fans of the TV serial would find it an interesting and enjoyable precursor. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Posted in Danish Cinema, Nordic Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Argo (US 2012)

Posted by des1967 on 11 December 2012

argo-poster-header 
Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.

CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.

The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).

In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.

Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”

And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.

These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity.  In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of  the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown  à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.

Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.

This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground.  (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.

Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?

The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards:

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Barbara (Germany 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 November 2012

Andre and Barbara as Bogie and Bacall?

There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?

Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.

The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.

Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)

There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover  or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.

The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.

Posted in German Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, Den/Czech/Ger/Swe 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 22 July 2012

Mads Mikkelson as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline (photo by Jiri-Hanzl)

A Royal Affair was a major box-office hit in Denmark in March and has received some rave reviews in the UK and other European territories. It also appears to have done very well in Australia and it will open in North America in November through Magnolia. Perhaps we are seeing the return of costume dramas? The young female lead in this film, Alicia Vikander from Sweden, is next up in the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina. She’s very good and definitely a name to watch.

A Royal Affair is an enjoyable and interesting film for many reasons. In one sense it is a familiar Nordic co-production, a €6 million budget film that easily holds its own against much more expensive British, French or Hollywood productions – demonstrating once again how Lars von Trier’s Zentropa has the capacity to be a major European producer. In the UK, part of the fascination with the film comes from the success of recent Danish and Swedish TV drama series showing on BBC4. The high quality of the performances in the film is enhanced for audiences who can also enjoy spotting familiar faces in the background. What is unfamiliar is the history – I suspect that the intricacies of Scandinavian and German history in the eighteenth century don’t feature strongly in the curriculum in most Anglophone countries. I confess that I had to do some digging to fully appreciate the story which is fairly closely based on the facts of a real ‘royal affair’.

Alicia Vikander plays Caroline Matilda, a member of the British Royal family and younger sister of the Prince of Wales. (Alicia’s father was German of course since the Hanoverian family ascended the British throne in 1701). Her arranged marriage to Christian VII lands her in Copenhagen in 1766 (when the real Caroline was just 15, he was 17) having to learn yet another language (she already spoke three or four). She is beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, but unfortunately Christian is an immature young man who may be mentally ill. Certainly he is unwilling or at least unconcerned about his marriage duties or running his country and Denmark-Norway is a reactionary state governed by a conservative council of ministers. Caroline herself is interested in the Enlightenment and is taken aback when her books are confiscated as ‘unsuitable’. She becomes embroiled, unwittingly at first, in a political narrative in which one group seeks to smuggle Enlightenment ideas into the court, exploiting the weakness of the king, while another, led by the Dowager Queen, seeks to replace the King with his younger step-brother. The agent of the Enlightenment group is Johan Struensee, a German doctor who is appointed as the King’s doctor. He manages to develop a strong bond with the King – and also with the Queen.

Struensee is played by Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the biggest Danish star of the moment. He’s very good of course but perhaps just a little too rugged as a doctor and self-educated scholar. The King is played by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who won the Berlin Film Festival acting prize for his performance – while still at drama school. It is certainly a remarkable performance. The three central characters are ably supported in what is on the one hand a relatively conventional ‘illicit romance’ narrative but on the other a powerful political thriller. The romance works pretty well I think and the costumes are gorgeous – I can imagine that the film will be enjoyed by the audience that sought out The Duchess.

The first few scenes of the film seem to promise a strong visual style but really what follows is fairly conventional and presumably limited by budget considerations. It still looks wonderful, however. More to the point, there is so much crammed in to the 137 minute running time that too extravagant a mise en scène might obscure the plot developments. I confess that my attention did wander in the middle of the film – but only for a moment. The script by director Nikolaj Arcel and his writing partner from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rasmus Heisterberg is based on a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. I think it works very well though I do have a few queries. At one point the King is distracted by being ‘given’ a young African boy, almost as a pet or playmate. He is told that the boy escaped from a Dutch slavetrader’s ship. He is delighted by something so ‘novel’. However, Denmark had its own slave ports in West Africa in the eighteenth century. Is this a deliberate obfuscation? The other odd aspect of the plot is that although we meet Caroline’s mother at the beginning of the film, after that we never hear any more about her family. When Caroline is later in difficulties it seems surprising that she never contacts her brother – who was George III, the British monarch and one of the most powerful people in Europe. History seems to suggest that it was the German connection that was the problem. All the royal families of Northern Europe seem to have been interconnected and family relationships were somewhat fraught.

I surprised myself by feeling quite emotional at the end of the film, partly because of what happens to the characters and partly because of the political outcome – perhaps this is a romantic melodrama/political thriller? On the latter score my feeling was that it is all very well reading Rousseau and Voltaire but as a young Queen it is advisable to watch your back and to read Machiavelli.

The official UK trailer:

Posted in Danish Cinema, Melodrama, Nordic Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

 
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