I, Tonya (US 2017)

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a teenager when she first meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), photos courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.

Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney)

For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.

Tonya becomes the first American woman to perform a successful ‘triple axel’

Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.

Jeff, Tonya and her trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) are approached by a police officer with a report of an anonymous threat

The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being  interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.

Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.

There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.

I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.

Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.


Deutschland, bleiche Mütter (Germany, Pale Mother, West Germany 1980)


Trümmerfrau: Lene (Eva Mattes) looks towards a different future in postwar Germany

Deutschland, bleiche Mütter is a film by New German Cinema director, Helma Sanders-Brahms, released in 1980.  It has recently had a release, in the UK, on BFI-sponsored Blu-ray DVD, giving a much wider audience the chance to see a film that has been considered a neglected classic.

Deutschland, bleiche Mütter intertwines the events of the war with the filmmaker’s own personal history. As such, its feminism and its political reassessment of the past is shaped by its German context.  The story is based on Sanders-Brahms own parents’ war experiences. Lene (Eva Mattes) directly represents the director’s mother, Helene Sanders and the director’s own daughter, Anne is cast as Lene and Hans’ (Ernst Jacobi) daughter, Anna. The film focusses on three separate movements: courtship, marriage, war and motherhood, post-war family reunion. It is an ambitious blend of allegory and naturalism, creating a complex meditation on the war generation’s experience and culpability, especially in relation to Nazism. The layering of story and symbol is part of its action of vergangenheitsbewältigung, of ‘mastering the knowledge of the past’ which became intensely associated with New German Cinema. Formally, the film effects a very complex intertwining of documentary footage of the ravaged country with drama, which itself moves from realism to Brechtian detachment. Its family-centred narrative deals directly and self-reflexively with the complexity, in late 1970s Germany, of one generation looking back at another.  Sanders-Brahms succeeds in sustaining the emotional naturalism, even with the film’s strong visual symbolism.  She creates a moving and intimate family history; and even whilst the film focusses on the relations of mother to daughter, her portrait of Hans is sympathetic and rounded.  The DVD release contains a film of Sanders-Brahms journey with her father back to France, where he was stationed during the war.  She adopted the matrilineal surname of Brahms and, whilst the story is centred on the journey of mother and daughter across a war-torn Germany, her father’s emotional experience is not ignored.

The importance of intergenerational exchange is clear from the film’s title sequence, where we hear the voice of Brecht’s daughter reading his poem, ‘Deutschland, bleiche Mutter’ (written in exile, in 1933).  Sanders-Brahms’ film is itself a daughter’s; it is her voice which addresses Lene in voice-over, merging the identity of director with a fictional adult daughter looking back.  Fellow NGC director, Margarethe Von Trotta characterised the circumstances in which they were trying to write their own stories: ‘We felt that there was a past of which we were guilty as a nation but we weren’t told about in school. If you asked questions, you didn’t get answers’ (Knight, 2004, p.62). Von Trotta’s film, Die Bleierne Zeit (1981), creates a counterpoint to Sanders-Brahms’s film, because of her more direct engagement with her contemporary political history as part of a story of family, through the relationship of sisters Marianne (Barbara Sudowka) and Julianne (Jutta Lampe).

On its release Deutschland, bleiche Mütter received criticism for being too personal for a political film and too political for a personal one. Peter Hasenberg of film-dienst : “If it were a purely personal film one could not refuse it one’s sympathy. What makes it problematic is that the director does not limit herself to personal memories.” (quoted in Bammer, 1985).  This was an uncomfortable blend in post-war Germany.  The sympathy evident in Sanders-Brahms’ representation matches the filmmaker’s view that ‘I don’t live any differently from my parents; I just live in other times’ (Kaes, 1989, p.142).  She describes another kind of inheritance regarding the ‘strength’ that their mothers had learnt they had during the war: ‘After the war, that strength in many cases was suddenly worthless.  But we, children of that generation, who were born during the war, inherited it’ (quoted in Kaes, 1989, p.160).

Sanders-Brahms’ ability to deliver an affecting melodrama at the same time as critical dialectic – Lene’s face in the mirror will become symbolic of the greater ravages of war – shows that her work deserved greater acknowledgement. Her debut feature, Heinrich (1977) (the literary subject of Heinrich von Kleist), received the highest national film award, the ‘goldene Schale (‘the Golden Bowl).  She had trained on set rather than at film school, her mentors consisting of Sergio Corbucci and Pier Paulo Pasolini. She then worked in television successfully before moving into film production. She talks with great passion about her career and life at a filmed seminar event here. Her work is intriguing because of its range, and its defiance of categorisation.  She is, arguably, a European auteur very much in the mode of Chantal Akerman; a filmmaker who might be called feminist or written as a female filmmaker, but whose work ranges across forms and themes with a much wider perspective in her exploration of women and history. Chantal Akerman has adopted her own kind of ‘daughter’s gaze’ in certain of her films, such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and, more recently, No Home Movie (2015).  Sanders-Brahms left Paris, where she found the critical acclaim she lacked in Germany and offers of funding in the early 1980s, to return to Berlin because her young daughter was so unhappy living there. At the film event she commented:  ‘movie is wonderful, but compared to a child, it’s nothing…your answer to the world will always will be your child and not your film.’

Leading German scholar Erica Carter’s brilliant and detailed notes on the film to accompany its DVD release can be found here.

These notes are adapted from the presentation for Reel Solutions Saturday School: War Babies: Women in Berlin in 1945  Information for future events can be found on the website.


Bammer, Angelika (1985) ‘Through a Daughter’s Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother’, New German Critique, No. 36 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 91-109.

Kaes, Anton (1989) From Hitler to Heimat. The Return of History as Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.

Knight, Julia (2004) New German Cinema. Images of a Generation, London and New York: Wallflower Press.

My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, France 2015)

The three ages of Paul – (from left) Antoine Bui, Quentin Dolmaire, Mathieu Almaric

Arnaud Desplechin is the kind of auteur director who is seemingly always going to get a showing at Cannes. Several reviewers suggested after this film’s 2015 appearance at Cannes that Desplechin was a Proust for our times. This is a reference to his exploration of the life and loves of his alter ego Paul Dédalus as played by Mathieu Amalric. This character first appeared in 1996 in Ma vie sexuelle. The 2015 film is effectively a prequel to the earlier film with Dédalus presented as a young boy (Antoine Bui) and as an adolescent (Quentin Dolmaire), although it is bookended by contemporary scenes with Amalric. The main narrative concerns the 19 year-old Paul and is told as a long flashback.

The mystery about the release is why it has taken so long to appear in the UK. Desplechin had another film screened at Cannes in 2017 (Ismael’s Ghosts) but My Golden Days has taken nearly three years to roll out slowly across various territories. Its arrival in the UK now is thanks to the estimable New Wave Films. I suspect that some cinephiles find Desplechin to be self-indulgent in his use of Amalric to play semi-autobiographical roles. I’ve only watched A Christmas Tale (France 2008) – though I have a copy of Kings and Queen (2004) which I found difficult to get into. I might return to it now. One of the things that interests me about Desplechin is that he comes from Roubaix and that the city appears in both A Christmas Tale and My Golden Days. Roubaix is part of the wider Lille metropolitan region and as a textile city is twinned with Bradford in the UK. I was fascinated when I visited it.

Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther

The adult Paul Dédalus is an anthropologist who has specialised in the communities in what was once Soviet Central Asia. At the beginning of the film Paul is about to pack up and leave Tajikistan to return to Paris. During his last few hours with his local lover he remembers his childhood and particularly his mentally-disturbed mother (this the first ‘souvenir’). On his arrival back in France, an incident prompts him to remember his teenage years and the long flashback begins, first with his schooldays and an eventful trip to the USSR (the second ‘souvenir’) and then his difficult access to his anthropology degree in Paris – third souvenir and the bulk of the narrative. We meet his younger siblings Delphine and Ivan, his cousin Bob and his friends Kovalki and Mehdi. Paul’s father is not really active in the household which is held together by Delphine. On one of his trips home from Paris, Paul meets Esther, still at school but an unusual young woman and for Paul a compelling presence. Over the next three years the two will have a sometimes tempestuous romance.

Paul’s father (Olivier Rabourdin) and is sister Delphine (Lily Taieb).

This central youthful romance is well presented. It’s intelligently written and beautifully acted by Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther (the young actor who is also featured in I Got Life! (France 2017) which opens next week). Desplechin was born in 1960 so his own ‘coming of age’ would be the 1970s. But here he uses the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a kind of social and political marker and this does tie in to Paul’s family history which links to Russia and specifically to Belarus (where part of the film was shot). Before I saw he film I wondered if it would be like the 1968 student-based films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas, neither of which I’ve seen, but I remembering being put off by trailers I saw. I suspect Desplechin’s film is different, but I’m happy to be corrected.

I noted in the credits that the music soundtrack in the film includes something from the Georges Delerue score for Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). Delerue was also born in Roubaix but I think what intrigued me was that I thought about Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films while watching My Golden Days. To some extent, Desplechin follows Truffaut in using a single actor as an alter ego and follows the character created for that actor across different films dealing with different times in his life. I felt that though Paul and Antoine are very different characters, something about the characters is shared – a seriousness about aspects of culture, a willingness to do whatever it takes in the face of hardship and a vulnerability in regards to women. Paul is both mature for his age and capable of childish rages. But when he has been interviewed, Desplechin has talked about very different inspirations – on the one hand he has mentioned Catcher in the Rye and Coppola’s The Outsiders and on the other he has acknowledged Bergman and Fanny and Alexander – but also Summer With Monika (1953), one of the few Bergman films I like and one of the films featured in Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959). The important point is that Desplechin seems to be adept about capturing something about being 19 and how certain relationships might stay with us. Esther is a remarkable character and is wonderfully played here. In the earlier film (the ‘sequel’) the grown up Esther is played by the equally wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

The Roubaix gang from left: Paul, Bob, Mehdi, Ivan and Kolvaki

My Golden Days has been very well received by the majority of critics who seem to appreciate Desplechin’s skill with the story which is not strong on narrative drive and might seem to meander but is always kept together by Dolmaire’s Paul and his love for Esther. For me, the Roubaix scenes work very well, offering a contrast to Paul’s attempts to survive and prosper in Paris. Roubaix is only around 140 miles from Paris but it seems several years behind with the decline of its textile industries, its cobbles and nineteenth century streets of warehouses and workers dwellings. Virtually on the Belgium border, Roubaix perhaps has more in common with the Dardenne Brothers’ world of similar industrial decline in Seraing in the Meuse valley.

I’m not sure how My Golden Days will work with UK audiences, but I enjoyed the film and I’ve thought a lot about it since the screening. This week it is only playing at the Showroom in Sheffield and the Ciné Lumière in London (where it carries on for a second week). Get along to see it if you can – it’s worth the visit.

Official trailer:

There is a useful review of the film by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, April 2018.

Room for Let (Kashima ari, Japan1959)

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in TohoScope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby (A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors, 2008) notes,

Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Kawashima Yūzō is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. Room for Let is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and (I suspect) a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

. . . a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house . . . [Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe  Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. And, as far as I could tell, despite being exactly opposite the University with its Film Studies and Film Production courses, there was a sad absence of academics and students. Equally unfortunate was that the closest this came to West Yorkshire was Sheffield. The Programme Notes list the venues hosting the Touring Programme. This includes towns like Colchester, Kendal and Lewes, all far smaller than Leeds. I read Roy’s comments (in his Glasgow Film Festival overview) about the absence of Asian films  in exhibition. I wonder how we can persuade our local exhibitors to support this excellent provision. I have seen a number of films in recent years in the Touring Programmes and they have all been worth the trip to Sheffield.

Reflections on Glasgow Film Festival 2018

This was my third visit to Glasgow Film Festival as a punter. It’s an ambitious festival with a strong local-global feel. It appeals to its local audience with a diverse range of events and activities, often linked to screenings of well-loved Hollywood films. There is also a focus on Scottish filmmakers – writers, directors, stars and their films and in the last couple of years a new ‘Industry’ strand supporting Scottish filmmaking. But it also celebrates the heritage of Glasgow Film Theatre with a similarly diverse range of foreign language films with directors and stars offering Q&As for some events. It’s this last strand that tends to be the focus for this blog.

Festival co-directors Allison Gardner and Alan Hunter work hard to find films at other international festivals and via their networks and contacts. I’m conscious this year that the range of films on offer felt different but I know that often this is dependent on what is picked up by sales agents or major distributors and then what is selected for Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. I usually hope to visit for three or four days, seeing between two and four films a day so any kind of overview is more about reading the brochure than what I’ve actually seen.

This year, the same sad trends are in evidence across the festival programme as I’ve noted at Leeds and London in recent years – the gradual shrinkage of the range of films available from Africa and Asia. I couldn’t find a single African or Indian film. Glasgow is one of the centres for the Africa in Motion festival later in the year, but the Indian cinema problem is I think as much to do with the failure of the distributors of Indian independent films to get involved in international distribution. This year, Glasgow did highlight Irish films and ‘Baltic’ films in two of its strands as well as casting a wide night for other strands such as Documentary, FrightFest and ‘Pioneer’ (first-time directors).

My usual 3/4 days expanded to six this year because of the weather which prevented me leaving by train. Unfortunately the snow was so bad that parts of the festival closed down completely and I was faced with only a limited programme on my extra couple of days. I must praise the staff at GFT for re-opening on the Thursday 1st March after struggling to get in to work. As co-director Allan Hunter quipped, the Blitz spirit was abroad on Rose Street.I think I ended up seeing more films than usual that have already or are soon about to open on general release. I also probably saw more archive prints. My highlights of the festival were therefore Sweet Country and Zama and, a revelation, the three films I managed from the Ida Lupino retrospective. I hope to be back in Glasgow next year – perhaps better prepared for ‘Red’ snow warnings!

The Shape of Water (US 2017)

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) cleaners in the creature’s prison. Does the design of the equipment suggest Metropolis and other science fiction/horror films?

When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.

The suburban kitchen of Richard Strickland’s family

I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.

Elisa with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins)

The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.

The creature (Doug Jones)

My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.

Strickland interviews the scientist ‘Bob’ Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg)

I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.

I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.

The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.

GFF18 #16: Sweet Country (Australia 2017)

Sam (Hamilton Morris) knows the desert . . .

I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk

Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.

Fred (Sam Neill) takes Sam’s niece Lucy to town – to keep her out of harm’s way

The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.

Lizzie finds water . . .

Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)

Dergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is responsible for finding Sam

Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.

Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.

The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.

Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.

My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)

I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.


Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), the mixed race boy at the centre of the initial incident

I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.

The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):

GFF18 #15: A Gentle Creature (Krotkaya, France-Germany-Russia-Ukraine-Netherlands-Lithuania 2017)

The ‘gentle creature’ (Vasilina Makovtseva) at one of the several bureaucratic ‘windows’ where she will fail to proceed with her quest

As if to prove that Glasgow’s programme offered real diversity, the last film I saw was also the most difficult to read (but also at times quite beautiful in its construction). This is the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa who has now become a Cannes regular. I’m guessing that Loznitsa’s best-known film is Maidan (2014), a documentary about the civil protests in Ukraine in 2013/2014. I was intrigued by that title as I’ve always associated ‘maidan‘ with India as a public space but it turns out to be a Persian word. Loznitsa turns out to be a prolific filmmaker and I’m glad I got the opportunity to see one of his films for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Sergey Loznitsa is a Ukranian but has recently lived in Russia and now Germany, which might help to explain the wide range of funders for his latest film. A Gentle Creature is an adaptation – a ‘creative’ one – of a short story by Dosteyevsky. The story dates from 1876 and has had several film adaptations, the most notable perhaps by Robert Bresson as Une femme douce in 1969 and Nazar by Mani Kaul in 1991. There have also been other versions in Russia, Poland, Vietnam, the US and Sri Lanka. Having read an outline of the Dostoyevsky story, I’m at a loss to relate it directly to the new film but it may be that it is a thematic adaptation rather than a ‘faithful’ one.

The joys of bus travel . . .

The film begins with a long shot of a country road. A young woman alights and sets off across the fields. The photography is by Oleg Mutu, The Romanian master whose work I saw most recently in the Polish film United States of Love (2016). The young woman is ‘the gentle creature’ of the title who, like many of the characters in the film, is not given a personal name, and is played by Vasilina Makovtseva. Next we see the woman visiting the post office to retrieve a parcel (actually a box of food, clothes and cigarettes etc.) that has been returned to her by the prison where her husband is incarcerated. Why has this parcel been returned? Her only option is to visit the prison, many miles away, in person and try to deliver it. At this point we begin to realise that we are again in a Kafkaesque narrative where every move to resolve an issue will result in a block or a refusal to act. Our hero is constantly thwarted and thrown into danger as various unreliable characters offer her assistance. The cinematography and some of the elements of the mise en scène suggest that the setting for the journey to the prison could be Soviet Russia before 1990, but other clues confirm it is 2012. It doesn’t seem to matter and as several reviewers have pointed out, the Russian penal system (like the American one?) has been a source of despair from the time of the Tsars until the present. There are suggestions that the prison in the film might be in Siberia and the woman travels by train. The long distances which relatives must travel just adds to the despair.

At one point our hero is tricked into lodging at a brothel where she will be humiliated

On the train and at the prison itself, the woman is surrounded by a variety of Russian character types with much drinking and singing of songs. Stoically she walks to and fro carrying her box. We fear that her naïvety will lead her into some kind of forced sex work but somehow she evades her fate. Finally, she falls asleep and in her dreams experiences a kind of show trial and then wakes from a nightmare – only for it to appear as if the real nightmare is about to begin . . . A Gentle Creature is a long film (143 minutes) but for the most part I was fully engaged trying to work out what was happening and what it might mean. It was only the last sequence of the dream that seemed to drag, not because of the dream/fantasy itself but that similar ‘testimonies’ are made by virtually every character the hero has met on her journey. It felt as if we had to hear each one for the narrative to be ‘complete’. I thought I’d got the point after the first two or three but I suspect I wasn’t getting the point at all.

Falling asleep at the station and dreaming . . .

So much talent and effort has gone into the film, supported by so many different organisations from different European countries that I want to support the film myself even if I don’t understand it that well. The performances are all very good, especially the lead. The cinematography and design features are also very good and if the whole mammoth enterprise was achieved with a budget of €2million (IMDb) both the producer Marianne Slot and director Loznitsa are miracle workers. According to the festival programme, the film has been taken up by Arrow Films in the UK, though whether it will get a cinema release remains to be seen. I hope it does find its audience because anyone with better knowledge than me about Russian history and culture will find plenty to get their teeth into.