Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, UK 2017

This is a social problem/campaign documentary written and directed by Paul Sng. It is produced by his Brighton-based company Velvet Joy Productions. It presumably had a small budget and, like his earlier feature Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain (2015), it relies on distributing directly to exhibitors. The film’s WebPages offer a overview of the film, a trailer and a list of (at least some) of the campaign groups associated with the film and the issue.

Essentially the film has a fairly conventional form: interviews direct camera; audio interviews played over stills and found footage, directly filmed footage for the production, on-screen titles, graphs and visual data and a commentary, read by Maxine Peake.

Broadly speaking the film has three sections. The opening sets out the problems associated with social housing in contemporary Britain. We hear from both people with detailed knowledge and ordinary people experiencing social housing. The middle and longest section is a series of case studies, again with interviews from professionals and ordinary residents and film of the social housing in question: in some cases low-rise estates, more frequently tower blocks. The final section sums up the preceding film, restating the problems and also setting out more general criticisms of the state in Britain of social housing.

This is clearly a strongly felt representation of the issue and the people interviewed not only describe, but criticise, complain and damn the state of the nation’s housing. However, I felt that it did not serve the issue as well as it might have done. This is partly because of the conventional form and style of the film. Mainly we have sequences of ‘talking heads’. Introducing a subject or case study, these tend to be professionals, even ‘experts’. This is standard television fare. Apart from it feeling repetitious, I do not think this actually gets a topic across with that much clarity. We have a series of sound bites or in another context, tweets. I find that a longer comment from one voice is easier to follow and comprehend. I do wonder if part of the antagonism to ‘experts’ on the small screen tends from the fallacy that this is more effective communication.

I found the ordinary people interviewed for the case studies more informative. And there are some powerful statements by residents, both explaining the problems in their experience, but also recording the unresponsive and even straightforward manipulation they receive from authorities. But similar problems recur across case studies and this feeds into the sense of repetition that I found in the film. The graphs are effective, they generally transmit information effectively in an area where there are numerous numbers and statistics.

The final section draws general conclusions. I think one’s response depends on one’s political stance. I was pleased to see Marx’s famous quotation;

“All that is solid melts into air.”

But it could have done with more of Marx’s analysis. One general and repeated point is that housing should be a right not a commodity. This is fine. But it needed to be seen in the context of capitalism where everything becomes a commodity: e.g. health care. I was not sure, apart from the campaign groups that featured, what the pathway to quality social housing should be. There was, as might be expected, more hope placed in the Labour Party than in the Conservative Party, whilst also criticising councils both Labour and Tory. But the most frequent type of housing seen in the case studies was high-rise Tower Blocks; including the ‘famous’ / ‘infamous’ ‘Red Road flats’ seen in Andrea Arnold’s film of the same name. But the film failed to address the history of these: those built in the rush of the 1960s frequently involved corruption, poor design and poor construction. This is a central theme in the excellent Our Friends in the North.

The audience responded warmly to the film with a round of applause. I did wonder how much this reflected the film itself and how much the issues. The latter was the focus of discussion and Q&A that followed the film. The director, Paul Sng was there with several campaigners involved in issues of social housing. The comments from the panellist were mainly about the issue rather than the film. And this also applied to questions and comments from members of the audience. As well as reinforcing the points made in the film there were also comments about methods of resistance or for change. One person bought up squatting and another penalties for ‘investment owners’ through rates of stamp duty.

The events that overshadowed this screening were the fire and fatalities at the Grenfell Tower Block in London. This, of course, occurred after the producers had finished their film and, as for many of us, the tragedy whilst predicted was an unexpected shock for them. There seems to be a much wider and more intense debate following this. This film even with its limitations, is likely to be an important part of the debate. It is screening again this coming Saturday, June 24th, at the Hyde Park Picture House.

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Note, the screening I saw had problems with the soundtrack. The source was a DCP but the tone and timbre were problematic, making some of the dialogue difficult to follow. I gather the projectionist was working with the sound mixer to try and overcome this. No one after the feature explained what the problem was.

I also had a ‘mobile phone’ problem in the back row. The HPPH has a onscreen notice regarding e-cigarettes ‘not allowed’. However, for mobile phones it merely asks, ‘please avoid . . .’. I think Picturehouses’ ‘switch it off’ is more to the point.

The Wait (L’Attesa, Italy-France 2015)

Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laâge in the house of mourning

The Wait turned up in my film rental list. I’d put it on the list because it features Lou de Laâge who was so impressive in Anne Fontaine’s Les innocentes. I’m glad I made that call because I enjoyed The Wait, which I missed completely when it snuck into UK cinemas in July 2016, seemingly without any promotion at all. This is surprising since it also offers Juliette Binoche in the début feature of Piero Messina, assistant director on Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Messina co-wrote and directed The Wait and composed some of the music.

The setting is a villa in the mountains of central Sicily with Etna as a brooding presence in the distance. Here Anna (Juliette Binoche) is in mourning. The film opens with a highly stylised presentation of what we assume to be a funeral – taking place a few days before Easter. As far as I can make out the time period is around 2002 (a TV programme shows Pope John Paul II and there are no smart phones or social media representations). Anna gets a phone call and her ‘retainer’ Pietro collects a visitor from Catania airport. This is Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the girlfriend of Anna’s son Giuseppe, flying in from Paris. He has invited her to the villa, but hasn’t himself arrived yet for Easter. The rest of the narrative is taken up by ‘the wait’ for Giuseppe’s return. There are several clues to what has happened but Jeanne is kept in the dark – literally at times in the villa. Eventually Anna begins to ’emerge’ and to engage with Jeanne, taking her to a lake to bathe and to a Turkish bath and a museum of antiquity.

. . . out into the light

The Wait is very beautiful (Sicily is very beautiful) – but it is also very slow. Fortunately Ms Binoche can say nothing more eloquently than most actors and Ms de Laâge has plenty of presence herself. Nothing is resolved, but when Jeanne invites a couple of young men back for dinner there is a climactic moment which will in one sense end the wait. The last section of the film moves into what appears to be a fantasy sequence, aided by the Easter celebrations in the local town. The first time I saw a Good Friday procession (in Madrid many years ago) I was deeply disturbed by the hooded men dressed like the Klu Klux clan. Here, Anna is part of a huge celebration of the stations of the cross with a covered Virgin Mary, a large figure carried through the streets, searching for her son. Anna becomes distressed and is lost in the crowd and then in a narrow alley she is approached by a group of men, many still hooded and she searches through them trying to look beyond the eye holes.

Jeanne finds two young men she invites back to the villa. (photo Indigo Film)

I was struck by some of the similarities between scenes in this film and scenes in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953). In that film, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders rent a villa outside Naples with Vesuvius in the distance. They visit the ruins of Pompeii and try to rekindle their love and their marriage. All of the scenes exude tension and emotional frailty. The film ends in a religious celebration in Naples in which the couple become separated. It may be of course that these are the kinds of things tourists do in Italy and no allusion is intended. Reviewers have mentioned other Italian films and directors – Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for instance and the filmic style of Visconti. One reviewer makes the case for Piero Messina as a clearly very talented young filmmaker (b. 1981) who in this case creates a narrative in which the visual style is too strong for the story (which is inspired a ‘real’ story told to the director and then ‘informed’ by a play and a short story by Pirandello). But no doubt as he gains experience the director will make more use of his stylistic touches? I’m not sure I agree with this, but I can see it is an argument.

Anna in the crowds on Good Friday

I would recommend the film on the basis of the performances of the two leads and the meticulous photography (Francesco Di Giacomo) and production design (Marco Dentici). Piero Messina takes credit for co-ordinating these elements and I think he conveys both a strong sense of place and atmosphere as well as the emotional dialogue between the two women. I should add that the film is presented in CinemaScope ratio and has an intriguing soundtrack with another excellent choice of a Leonard Cohen song for the key party sequence. And that dialogue is in French between the two leads but otherwise in Italian.

Harmonium – film or file?

Roy has already reviewed this film and I think he is gives a good sense of what makes it interesting viewing. However, he did not comment on the quality of the screening so maybe he was more fortunate than me. The film seemed interesting but I was constantly distracted by the poor quality of the image. To give examples; there were frequent long shots of a single character in mid-screen and mid-distance and the figure was fuzzy; there were also two-shots where the character farthest from the camera, but active in the frame, was fuzzy. Overall there was a lack of definition and, especially in the interiors, there was a lack of contrast. It seems likely that the film relied to a degree on natural light but even in this case I still thought the definition poor.

I saw the film in Cubby Broccoli at the National Media Museum (now renamed Science Media Museum and programmed by Picturehouse). I checked with Picturehouse and they stated that the film was screened from a 2K DCP.

So I then contacted the distributor, Eureka. They sent the following:

” The film has screened in multiple cinemas across the country and this is the first time that this has been brought to our attention. I apologise if your enjoyment of the film was spoilt in any way, and appreciate your feedback. I’ll pass your feedback on both to the cinema and our production team, because the film did screen from DCP at that venue – that is the only format that was made available to them.”

I followed up this reply with an enquiry about what was the source material for the DCP. This has not received a response. I have had other examples of this lack of response from distributors. I suspect it means they are not happy with the question.

This is where the ‘film or file’ in the title comes in. I was fortunate enough to attend the George Eastman Museum Nitrate Weekend; everything on 35mm. At a discussion I noted that archivists were distinguishing between:

‘film – i.e. acetate or nitrate relying on halide silver grain’.

‘file – digital relying on pixels’.

Even in the 2K digital cinema packages I am sure there is a difference between these two. However, it seems it is technically simple to up load digital video (DVD or Blu-Ray) onto a DCP. A projectionist I asked advised that once this is done there is not an obvious difference in the technical information on a DCP. But there is clearly a difference in quality. DCPs have technical specifications, detailed on a helpful page on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Cinema_Package). Likewise for Blu-ray [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blu-ray]. The comparison put simply is between something like 25 gigabytes for the video disc [or only five for DVD] and averaging a 100 gigabytes for DCPs. I gather DVDs do vary: some are lower than a 100; higher quality ones can get close to 300, and the latter take far longer to load on the server.

35mm prints vary: this was apparent at the George Eastman Nitrate Picture Show. And it has long been a point of comment by critics. One of the arguments for digital is that there is a common standard of projection. Using source materials below the specifications for DCPs clearly subverts this. Critics do not help as whilst they frequently comment on the quality of the style and technique they much less frequently comment on the quality of the actual screenings. [Roy does quite often do this]. Two friends did not remember noting a lack of quality when they saw the film but another friend remembered that he thought the image was not very good.

I tend to avoid reviews before a film because they so frequently reveal plot, character and even dialogue. And I avoid many trailers because they frequently offer a skeleton of the entire plot. But now I find I am researching films online beforehand to try and ascertain what sort of quality file is likely. I am also compiling a list of known suspects.

My Cousin Rachel (UK-US 2017)

The mirror image of the gothic melodrama?

It’s an odd coincidence that this ‘re-adaptation’ of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel should arrive in UK cinemas so soon after Lady Macbeth. I went to see My Cousin Rachel with Nick and when we discussed the film in the pub afterwards we had almost the complete opposite reactions. I was slightly disappointed and certainly not as excited as I was by Lady Macbeth. Nick didn’t share my appreciation of Lady Macbeth but thought My Cousin Rachel worked. Perhaps he’ll add some comments here.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was a very popular writer of novels and short stories. She was often termed a ‘romantic novelist’, but that is a misleading term when thinking about the film adaptations of her work including the three Hitchcock films, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds as well as Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I was intrigued to see that her Wikipedia entry suggests that she had more in common with a writer like Wilkie Collins with his ‘sensation novels’. Certainly, My Cousin Rachel made me think of Collins, partly because of its convoluted family relationships and the importance of letters and wills. The story was adapted first in 1952, the year after the book was published with the intriguing pairing of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the two main parts. I haven’t seen that version but it appears to have been poorly received.

The story is set in the mid-19th century, perhaps the late 1830s (the year is not given in the film, that’s the time the book suggests). Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has grown up as an orphan and a ward of his cousin Ambrose. When Philip arrives back at the estate in Cornwall/Devon he learns that Ambrose has died in Tuscany where he had been spending time for his health and where he married another, distant, cousin. Philip will inherit the estate on his coming 25th birthday but before that event he is expecting Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his cousin’s widow to arrive from Italy. The estate is currently held in trust by the family lawyer (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Ambrose’s friend and godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen). Nick’s daughter Lucy (Holliday Grainger) was Philip’s childhood friend and she clearly has an interest in him. What will happen when Philip meets Rachel? Will he confirm his suspicions that she is a dangerous woman who perhaps caused Ambrose’s demise – or will the naïve young man quickly lose himself in infatuation?

The romance of landscape . . .

This is a good set-up for an engaging narrative. The wild scenery (beaches, cliffs, crop fields close to the sea, woodlands etc.) suggests passion and romance and the large country house with dark stairways, servants hiding in the shadows etc. offers the possibility of the gothic and the narrative elements of film noir and melodrama. All of these were in Rebecca, albeit in the later period of the 1930s. But actually it is the mystery elements which tend to drive the narrative here and this is where the Wilkie Collins references come in. There is a mysterious will that Rachel possesses but which hasn’t been signed. Philip struggles with the legal documents that constrain his behaviour before his birthday. Letters written by Ambrose crop up at various points, discovered in clothes or books. (The relevant titles for Collins’ fans are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).)

The film offers us a vaguely Hitchcockian score by Rael Jones. The cinematography, production design and costumes are all very well presented and the performances are generally very good. I think my problem was that the presentation doesn’t go far enough in suggesting the possible dark side. Director Roger Michell wrote the script himself. He is an experienced director but seemingly a first-time scriptwriter. Perhaps he focused too much on writing a ‘faithful’ adaptation and not enough on exploring the genre possibilities? I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. Sam Claflin gives another solid performance, but I’m still not completely convinced that he is leading man material. I’m a big Rachel Weisz fan, but here her usual strong performance seems to lack something. Overall, I was most impressed with Holliday Grainger who stole most of the scenes she was in. I also enjoyed Tim Barlow’s performance as the ancient retainer Seecombe whose demeanour seems to poke fun at Philip. I think perhaps Michell and Claflin are not quite sure how to present Philip. Is he both the hunting shooting man on the moors and the shy naïve boy? We do see him topless with a toned gym-fit body (nullifying the authenticity of the costumes) in the house but when he leaps down to show his estate workers how to scythe hay there is no Poldark moment with the bare-chested leading man vigorously wielding the blade.

Philip and Rachel when he gives her his mother’s pearls. Is this the dangerous vulnerable Rachel?

Rachel is often seen with her travelling case of herbs which she uses to produce the tisanes which might be poisoning Philip. Sometimes she appears vulnerable, but is she really seeking Philip’s protection? At other times she seems completely in control of her affairs and easily able to outmanoeuvre Philip. In a Guardian piece this weekend Julie Myerson recalls reading the novel as a teenager and seems to praise the film adaptation (“Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film”). She claims that Rachel’s vulnerability is what “makes her so terrifying to men”. I’m not sure I understand this. In Sight and Sound (July 2017) Lisa Mullen thinks the film works but that it “never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions”. I’d agree with that. She also thinks it’s unfair to make comparisons with Hitchcock. Why shouldn’t we? She ends: “Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama”. That seems fair enough. I’m left wondering why those two Wilkie Collins novels have never been adapted.

My Cousin Rachel seems to be working at the box office. Fox put it out on 467 screens for No 6 in the UK chart in its first weekend. By the following Tuesday, with older audience interest it moved into the Top 5. In the trailers below you can compare the leading performances. Richard Burton was just about the right age for Philip and this was his first leading role in a film.

Berlin Syndrome (Australia-Germany 2017)

Teresa Palmer as Clare exploring Berlin for the first time

The title Berlin Syndrome is very suggestive in this feature about a young female tourist who finds herself trapped after a casual sexual encounter in Berlin. How will the reference to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that idea that a captive becomes literally captivated by their gaoler, become manifest in the narrative? Not perhaps as you might expect. This is a film adapted from a critically-praised novel by Melanie Joosten and directed by Cate Shortland, who made the wonderful Lore in 2012, a film about a not totally dissimilar young woman in Germany in 1945. I was a little surprised that the script was by a man – Shaun Grant. This does feel like a female-centred narrative and Ms Shortland has several female collaborators on her team. In his dismissal of the film, our old enemy Peter Bradshaw suggests that this is a ‘lite’ version of Room (2015) or the Austrian film Michael (2011) (which I haven’t seen). These are not really sensible comparisons since both of these films feature children as prisoners and even though Room does feature a woman prisoner as well, it isn’t a film about the relationship between a gaoler and his captive(s) since we learn little about him.

Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman from Brisbane who has come to Berlin on a whim to photograph the architecture of the GDR and hoping for a life-changing experience – but not the kind of experience she walks into. Soon after she arrives she meets Andi (Max Riemelt) an English teacher in a local Gymnasium. They spend a day together and she decides not to go on to Dresden but to spend the night in his apartment. Bad move. The sex is good but when Andi goes to work, she finds that she can’t leave his apartment in an old abandoned apartment block. At first she wasn’t worried to be in this old building, but now she realises that there is no one else about. Even when Andi returns she still thinks it might be a mistake, surely he didn’t mean to lock her in?

Peter Bradshaw’s other condemnation is that this is just a familiar genre narrative with nothing new to say and that Clare is obviously the ‘final girl’ in the horror film right from the beginning of the narrative. It’s true that it does increasingly become a ‘psycho-sexual thriller’, especially in its resolution but also at various moments along the way. The idea of a man holding a woman captive is by no means unfamiliar and as other reviewers have pointed out there are some parallels here with William Wyler’s film of the John Fowles book The Collector (1969). However, the important difference here is Clare’s sexual desire and her vulnerability as a tourist in a strange city. I think it’s quite legitimate to read the film in terms of Clare’s self-discovery – of her resourcefulness and strength as well as her sexuality. It’s also interesting that on the two occasions when she sees a glimmer of hope for an escape, it’s when another woman appears – but I won’t spoil the narrative. Andi is the other central character and we get to see him at school, in his classroom and in the staffroom. We also see him in the company of his father. There is just enough of a hint about his extreme obsession with control peeping out from behind his ‘normality’ as a schoolteacher.

At first Clare and Andi (Max Riemelt) appear to be simply enjoying each other’s company.

I was impressed by both lead actors. I didn’t think I’d seen them before but researching the film later I discovered that both are very experienced and Teresa Palmer has a mainstream Hollywood career that I’ve missed entirely, though I did see The Grudge 2 (2006), where she played alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. She looks and acts younger than her age in Berlin Syndrome and I did think about how she reminded me of Kristen Stewart (again, something I later discovered is a common reaction). Max Riemelt was in The Wave (Germany 2008), a film I’ve watched several times and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognise him. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ this film and I found Clare’s predicament distressing. I was surprised to find myself thinking about it so much afterwards. The script is carefully written and there are some nice touches that again I didn’t really think about until afterwards – such as Clare’s interest in a book of Klimmt reproductions that makes a re-appearance and Andi’s choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a text for his English class. I also hadn’t thought too much about Clare’s journey from Brisbane to Berlin – an example of that ‘cultural cringe’ that seems still to be relevant in Australian narratives about travelling to Europe to gain experiences beyond Australian suburbia. The thoughts of the women working on the film about travelling alone in Europe are worth reading in the Production Notes. The interesting aspect of the production itself is that it was shot on location in Berlin and then Andi’s apartment was recreated on a soundstage in Melbourne. It’s a seamless fit and this is an impressive production. The film has not been that well reviewed in the UK. I think in some cases it has been dismissed without due attention and I’m glad I saw it. I’ll keep looking for Cate Shortland’s films. If you missed this in cinemas in the UK it’s on Curzon online.

Qissa – the Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India/Germany/France/Netherlands 2013)

Irrfan Khan as the proud Umber Singh celebrating with his son

Like Gurinder Chadha, the co-writer and director of Qissa, Anup Singh, was born in East Africa into a family which had originally had its home in Rawalpindi in Northern Punjab before Indian Partition in 1947. Unlike Chadha he attended university in Bombay and then FTII in Pune for his film school. His approach to a film about Partition might therefore be expected to be different to Viceroy’s House, but also to have a personal dimension. Qissa is a co-production with a mixed crew and creative inputs from Europe and India. The film was shot in (Indian) Punjab after a long search for locations.

Introducing his film at HOME during the Indian Partition weekend, Anup Singh told us that ‘qissa‘ means a ‘tale’ – the kind of story that might be told in a community setting. He also suggested that many such tales involved lovers from different sides of a barrier such as a river. These stories would then involve various forms of ‘crossings’ or ‘transgressions’ as the lovers attempt to meet. Cue a very different kind of ‘Partition’ story.

Anup Singh working with Irrfan Khan and Tillotama Shome

The film is dominated by the central performance given by Irrfan Khan as Umber, the head of a Punjabi family whose village has been attacked at the time of Partition in 1947. It’s a tribute to both the director and the other excellent actors in the cast that this powerful central performance doesn’t derail the narrative as a whole. After committing an act of revenge, Umber moves his family from what has become ‘Pakistani Punjab’ to ‘Indian Punjab’ and begins a new life working in forestry. At the moment his village was being attacked, Umber’s wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) was giving birth to the couple’s third daughter. When, a few years later, a fourth child is born, Umber decides that this is his son and he proceeds over the next few years to treat ‘Kanwar’ as a warrior Sikh who will hunt and grow strong. He ignores the evidence that this is his fourth daughter, not his son. In the second half of the film an incident pushes Kanwar (now played by Tillotama Shome) into a marriage prescribed by local custom. Something has to give as Kanwar moves to live with Neeli (Rasika Dugal).

Kanwar and Neeli together

This second half of the film, as the title suggests, moves into the realm of a form of ‘magic realism’. The whole film is constructed so carefully, with close attention to details of the mise en scène, that the shift does not seem abrupt but instead seems to develop naturally. The narrative resolution then returns us to the opening shots of the film so that the whole narrative seems like a dream (or a nightmare) – and one that will return. A recurring motif is the well in the courtyard of each of the two houses that the family occupies. In the Q&A, Anup Singh told us that his grandfather had told him that in the terror experienced in the moment of Partition, many women in the Punjab had hidden in wells. In one scene in the film the young Kanwar, having watched his/her father washing, is lowered down the well in the bucket with sunshine penetrating the lower reaches of the well. At other points in the film, the dominant component of the image seems to be a mirror, an open window or doorway, a shaft of sunlight or the reflecting surface of a pool of water. It’s not difficult to recognise the metaphor for the trauma of Partition, although it is presented, very beautifully, in these symbolic images – and is open to interpretation of what it actually means for the individuals concerned.

Tisca Chopra as Mehar

It was only after the screening that I fully appreciated that the crossing of the river and the journey to a new location forced on the family by Partition is an echo of Ritwik Ghatak’s thematic concerns in his Bengali films. But the ‘absence’ in Anup Singh’s film is the central symbol of the train which seems to appear in every other Partition film narrative that I can remember and is clearly present in Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star – which was screened in Manchester immediately before Qissa.

As far as I am aware, Qissa was not released in the UK, but has appeared in one of Channel 4’s seasons of Indian films. This Punjabi language film was released in cinemas in its four co-production countries. The curator of the Partition Weekend, Andy Willis, told us beforehand that when he had started to think about the films to show, Qissa had been the film he knew must be included. I’m glad he gave us this opportunity to see this fine film. Here’s a trailer for a Dutch release (with English subtitles):

The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge, France-Belgium-Japan 2016)

Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Wild Bunch/Why Not/CN4/Belvision

The Red Turtle is every bit as good as the rave reviews make it out to be. It seems pointless to add another general review so I’m just going to focus on a few points. Subscribers to Sight and Sound are lucky to have an excellent review by Kate Stables and an interview with the film’s director Michaël Dudok de Wit (by his son Alex) in the June 2017 issue. This short (81 mins) animated feature has a narrative that riffs on the original Robinson Crusoe story by Daniel Defoe. The new idea from de Wit and his writing collaborator Pascale Ferran introduces a magical/mystery element in the form of a large turtle. If you have knowledge of the legend of the ‘selkie’ from Celtic and Nordic culture you’ll know what to expect. There isn’t a great deal of plot – instead there is the pleasure of interaction between a very limited number of characters and a real sense of humanity recognising its place in the ecology of the South Pacific. It’s no wonder Studio Ghibli is a partner.

Michaël Dudok de Wit at work

The most interesting institutional issue is that this is the first co-production outside Japan for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, in the UK, we are used to experiencing Studio Ghibli’s output in cinemas being filtered through the distribution muscle of Disney and having to choose a subtitled screening (if we can find one) or a ‘re-voiced’ American version with big name actors. But that ‘re-voicing’ is the only ‘creative’ input by Disney. The Red Turtle has no dialogue (beyond cries of alarm, warning, greeting etc.). Studio Ghibli actually approached the animation director Michaël Dudok de Wit after his Oscar success with the short Father and Daughter (2000). Dudok de Wit is Dutch, but trained in the UK (at West Surrey College of Art & Design). He has worked in London and in Paris and Barcelona. He decided to take up Studio Ghibli’s offer when it became possible to work with French and Belgian film funds. Having not made a feature before he decided to use a large group of animators but hoped that they would respect his unique style which combines European and Japanese-Chinese styles. I found an interview with de Wit which appears to have been conducted for Positif magazine. Here are de Wit’s thoughts on the techniques he developed:

[Interviewer] Let’s talk about technique: apparently, you discovered digital at Prima Linea Productions.

That’s right. Prima Linea is the studio — in Paris and Angoulême — where we made the film. While we were doing our first animation tests, another crew was finalising the film WOLFY, THE INCREDIBLE SECRET, using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. With this tool, you can instantly visualise the results of your animation, without having to scan drawings separately. It’s more economical, gives you more creative freedom and increased control for retouching. We animated two versions of the same shot, one with pencil on paper and the other with this digital pencil. The line of the digital pencil was more beautiful and that convinced us.

One of the charcoal drawings included in the Press Notes

For the backgrounds, we chose a different process. The drawings were made with charcoal on paper, very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated. It would have been hell to animate them in 2D. As everything is finalised in the same graphic style, you can’t tell it’s digital. During the production I didn’t do any animation or scenery, only small touch ups.

I can vouch for the effectiveness of these decisions. I sat in my usual seat in the centre of the second row close to the screen and I could appreciate the ‘graininess’ and the subtlety of the backgrounds. Kate Stables suggests that some of the backgrounds depend on a style similar to ‘grisaille’ – creating depth through careful shading in grey or another single colour. One reason for preferring anime to contemporary American animations with computer generated backgrounds is the use of drawn backgrounds and The Red Turtle is a standout example of what can be achieved. It’s also interesting to think about the use of long shot compositions, especially in the earlier part of the film where ‘the sole survivor’ is coming to terms with his position in a setting that can move from idyllic to dangerous very quickly.

The crabs in The Perishers

One of the genuine pleasures of the film are the tiny crabs that often accompany the actions of the man on the beach and act like a comedy chorus. For a while I couldn’t work out why the affected me so much, then I realised that they reminded me of a classic Daily Mirror cartoon strip, ‘The Perishers’ (1959-2006). Every year the children and their dog would go on a seaside holiday where they would meet the crabs in a rock pool – crabs who believed the large eyes of the dog were mystical ‘eyes in the sky’ as the crabs saw them from beneath the water-line.

There are so many pleasures in The Red Turtle, ranging from the cartoon-like fun with the crabs to the ecological questions, the folk tales and mystery and the emotions created firstly in relation to the turtle and then to the human family. Like all the best animations, The Red Turtle has something for everybody. It’s especially thrilling that the film achieves its effects without dialogue. There is music, however, as Michaël Dudok de Wit acknowledges :

The music is key as there is no dialogue. I didn’t have a clear idea of a specific musical style. Laurent Perez del Mar made a few suggestions including a very beautiful melody that was perfect for the main theme. I was delighted. He was quick to suggest music where I would not have thought to have any, and he was right. He often surprised me. [Same interview as above.]

Some reviewers have suggested that there is too much music but it seemed fine to me and served the narrative well. You can hear the main theme in the UK trailer and glimpse the style outlined above:

Dough (UK-Hungary 2015)

A French ad for ‘Dough’. The reference to a Ken Loach comedy/drama is interesting.

This film has finally been released in the UK, a year after France and the US. In many ways, it is an old-fashioned film, though its subject matter is contemporary enough. I hesitate to refer to the 1940s/50s Ealing Comedies but it does offer some of the same pleasures as those films (and to more recent films like those of Nigel Cole such as Saving Grace (2000)). My puzzlement as to where the film came from creatively lasted until I realised that its director and co-producer Jonathan Goldschmidt is a UK TV drama veteran who has not made a feature for the cinema since the Julie Walters comedy She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas in 1985. I’m not sure what he has been doing in the meantime, but his production company Viva Films co-produced this film with Hungarian partners and the interior scenes were shot in Hungary. Goldschmidt was a major figure in UK television and set up links between Granada and NDR in Hamburg. Later he worked on various EU audio-visual initiatives. The most pertinent connection for this comedy is probably his work with the great writer Jack Rosenthal.

The plot is very familiar. Nat (Jonathan Pryce), an ageing East End baker, is struggling to keep open his shop in the face of competition from a local supermarket chain owned by Sam Cotton (Phil Davis) and when he loses his apprentice to Cotton’s (who want to attract custom from Jewish residents) it looks like the end is near. In a desperate step he takes on a new ‘lad’, Aayash (Jerome Holder), the son of the shop’s cleaner, an African refugee from Sudan. Nat is becoming estranged from his own son, now too ‘respectable’ to support his father and he reluctantly begins to accept his new Muslim apprentice in his traditional Jewish bakery. But Aayash has his own problems – he is locked into an arrangement to deal cannabis for a local ‘hard man’ (Ian Hart). By accident, he stumbles across a possible solution to everyone’s problem and suddenly the baker’s shop is doing a roaring trade. You can probably guess what has happened and the narrative follows a familiar course.

Jonathan Pryce with Pauline Collins – an attractive couple for older audiences.

The script is witty and the cast are very good. As well as the three veterans listed above, Pauline Collins plays Nat’s landlady. Jerome Holder is also very good. The audience in the French cinema in which I saw the film last year laughed in all the right places, some of them seemingly ahead of the subtitles. Other than that, the most striking aspect of the film for me was the inclusion of scenes set in a synagogue – relatively unusual I think in British cinema. Jonathan Pryce has been playing Shylock in the US I think – and he has also starred in Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why the film took so long to get a UK release – I would have thought it would sell well to older audiences. This weekend my assumption proved correct, ScreenDaily reports that Dough was released on 19 screens (mostly in London I suspect) and achieved a very respectable £2,700 per screen over the weekend. Again, I suspect a strong Jewish vote of confidence. If it does turn up near you, give it a go for the performances and some decent laughs.