Dunkirk (UK 1958)

With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk due to open in the UK this week, I thought it might be interesting to re-visit this Ealing Studios film from 1958 – the only other film completely focused on the Dunkirk evacuation. Joe Wright’s Atonement (UK/France/US 2007) includes a long segment dealing with events during the retreat and evacuation, but these form only part of a complex narrative about the relationships between three characters. Nolan didn’t mention these films in his Sight & Sound interview with Nick James in the August issue, arguing that his film will ‘fill a gap’ in British storytelling on screen. (James does mention the 1958 film.)

The military catastrophe that saw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a significant part of the French Army trapped by German forces in a pocket around the port of Dunkirk in late May/early June of 1940 was turned into a propaganda victory with the successful evacuation of 338,000 British, French and other Allied troops taken off the beaches and brought back to the UK. Military historians still debate the reasons why the German forces failed to destroy/capture the Allied troops before they could leave. All the equipment, including military vehicles taken to France by the BEF was lost. In addition, many of the French troops rescued at Dunkirk were later returned to France to fight for the remainder of their country and were subsequently taken prisoner after France fell. More than 30,000 French troops in the ‘rearguard’ at Dunkirk were captured. Dunkirk was a defeat – virtually all Allied operations up to El Alamein in 1942 were defeats. The propaganda victory which established the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ was based on the contribution of the ‘Little Ships’ – the civilian boats that augmented the Royal Navy vessels in the evacuation fleet. Here was the image of ‘total war’ and of the British people with their backs to the wall.

John Mills as Cpl Binns with a wounded man in a publicity photo © StudioCanal

As I noted in an earlier posting on the recent British film Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk was not an appropriate film for propaganda purposes (i.e. visualising and representing the evacuation was not as effective as ‘spinning’ the story in more indirect ways) but some of the elements of the story did appear in fictionalised wartime narratives, including films made by Ealing Studios such as The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Johnny Frenchman (1945). In the 1950s Ealing did not join the other British producers in creating 1950s ‘heroic’ war films (e.g. The Dam Busters (1955) or Reach For the Sky (1956)). Instead, Ealing opted for more downbeat narratives such as The Cruel Sea (1953) in which one of the most memorable scenes sees Jack Hawkins, commander of a submarine-hunting corvette, risking the lives of torpedoed sailors in an attempt to destroy a U-boat. In The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), like The Cruel Sea from a Nicholas Monsatrat novel, three ex-Roal Navy men buy their wartime motor boat  and find themselves sucked into a smuggling racket to service the black market in ‘Austerity Britain’ of the late 1940s. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Ealing’s Dunkirk film was similarly downbeat. Its director Leslie Norman had been the producer on The Cruel Sea.

Shooting in the tank at Borehamwood © StudioCanal

In 1958 Ealing Studios was in its last incarnation having moved out of the Rank film empire and re-located to MGM’s British operation at Borehamwood. Leslie Norman had spent much of his career working on Ealing’s ‘overseas productions’ and had just returned from directing The Shiralee in Australia. For Dunkirk he had his DoP and editor from the Australian shoot, Paul Beeson and Gordon Stone. The script was based on several sources including an Elleston Trevor novel and two non-fiction books by military men. The screenplay was written by another veteran of Australian and African productions William Liscomb (with a younger writer, David Divine). Dunkirk is one of Ealing’s ‘small-scale epics’ with a long running-time (134 minutes). The plot sees the parallel stories of a group of small boat owners on the Thames and a small group of British soldiers separated from their regiment in Northern France. The two groups are destined to meet on the beaches of Dunkirk and the narrative cuts between them until those final scenes. We also briefly visit press conferences in Central London and Royal Navy bases in Dover and Sheerness plus General Gort’s HQ in France. Other than that, the top brass are kept out of it, only seen in newsreels watched by the troops. The film had a budget of £400,000 and Norman claimed to come in under budget. (For comparison, the first three or four Carry On films over the next few years were budgeted at less than £100,000 each. Ealing’s films were usually more expensive than the norm.) Dunkirk was expensive and a gamble for Ealing. MGM’s distribution muscle promised overseas sales and the film did go into profit, although the North American response was relatively weak. Surprisingly perhaps, the film only boasted two star names alongside a host of familiar character actors. John Mills as Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns leads the group of Tommies and Richard Attenborough plays Holden, a rather reluctant boat-owner who needs a lot of persuading and shaming to make the trip. In many ways, the key figure in the film is Charles Foreman, a journalist who is also a boat-owner, played by Bernard Lee, a very familiar face but not considered a star. (He would later gain fame as M in the Bond films.)

Despite its commercial success, Dunkirk failed to inspire critics and scholars. Two of the chroniclers of Ealing Studios, Charles Barr and George Perry, are dismissive of the film. Both find it dull. Barr is particularly damning though he seems more concerned with equating its story of a defeat with Ealing’s own demise as a studio. David Quinlan suggests that it is “routinely exciting, but disappointing”. It seems to me that Michael Balcon as Ealing’s hands-on leader had embarked on a nearly impossible task – to make a commercial picture about a defeat and a propaganda ‘miracle’. Dunkirk comes across as ‘realistic’ in its attempts to include as a many different facets of the actual events as possible. There are attempts to create analysis through the juxtaposition of newsreel footage and scripted dialogue, but mostly the intent seems to have been to represent the events as fully as possible. I suspect its success was mainly with audiences who already knew about the events but who wanted to see them ‘documented’ in this way. In that sense, Balcon was justified. I found the film interesting rather than exciting, but it did make me think about how I might have felt thrust into such a situation.

Bernard Lee (centre) as Foreman with John Mills and Sean Barrett as Frankie

The Bernard Lee character is clearly meant to be the representative of the ‘ordinary’ (middle-class) British man. And it is a very male film – virtually the only women in the film are the boat-owner’s wives. Foreman (Lee) is a journalist, although he never files any copy and we don’t find out who he works for. He clearly has clout as he knows all the foreign correspondents in London and he attends Ministry of Information briefings. It’s through him that we hear the grumbling about the lack of real information about what is happening in France and despair about complacency during the ‘Phoney War’ (the title given to the first seven months of the war before the German invasion of Denmark/Norway and then Holland/Belgium and France). Tubby and his men watch propaganda newsreels in France and in the UK, the women in Holden’s factory listen to Lord Haw-Haw on the wireless. Tubby (presumably a veteran soldier – Mills was nearly 50 at the time) finds the men in his group are sometimes whingeing. Having established this sense of a nation that doesn’t really know what is happening – in the armed forces or on the Home Front – Dunkirk closes with a voiceover that is actually quite balanced. It remembers the dead and the captured soldiers, sailors and civilians left in France and clearly states that it was a defeat, but then asserts that the evacuated men “dazed and resentful” returned to a nation that had learned that it now stood alone but ‘undivided’. The UK was a nation made whole. The very last scene shows a parade ground on which Tubby and his closest mate from Dunkirk are part of a larger squad being drilled by a CSM who warns them that Dunkirk was a defeat and not a victory and they need to work hard (and quickly) to become an effective fighting force. Tubby gives his mate a knowing look.

Dunkirk‘s producers were able to use an array of military equipment that was still in working order. The film was made on Camber Sands and in the Port of Rye in East Sussex, on the Thames and at Borehamwood. Even so they needed model shots and stock footage to convey the scope of military action. Christopher Nolan has advanced technologies and a huge budget. He promises something much more immersive but still aims for the personal stories of soldiers, sailors and civilians – and adds an airman. Nolan only has 106 minutes and he has talked about preferring the suspense thriller mode to that of the war film. It sounds like he will be less interested in the mythologising impact of the evacuation. It will be fascinating to see what kinds of meanings his film produces – and what it leaves out – and how audiences respond.

Ealing’s Dunkirk is re-released to cinemas in September in a restored version which will also be available on DVD/Blu-ray from StudioCanal. Here’s the Australian trailer from 1958:

References

Barr, Charles (1977) Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, Newton Abbot: David & Charles

Perry, George (1981) Forever Ealing, London: Michael Joseph

Quinlan, David (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years, 1928-1959, London: Batsford

After the Storm (Japan 2016)

The family briefly back together – on a train (this is Japan!). Ryota (Abe Hiroshi), Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô) and Kyoko (Maki Yoko).

Kore-eda Hirokazu is a Japanese auteur in the original sense of that term. In his films you can rely on recurring faces in the cast list, recurring themes and styles – all with a sense of a director’s ‘personal vision’ honed over twenty years of auteur production. Very occasionally, Kore-eda throws a curve ball, such as in his film Air Doll in which one character is a blow-up sex toy which comes to life, but even so the film has recognisable elements. After the Storm does have a slightly different feel in the character written by Kore-eda for one of his regulars Abe Hiroshimi, but overall the narrative is familiar and has a direct relationship to Kore-eda’s 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, sharing both Abe and Kirin Kiki as his mother in both films.

Whenever a Kore-eda film appears, there are reviews that reference the Japanese master Ozu Yasijuro and in After the Storm there are several scenes featuring Japanese sporting/cultural pursuits such as cycle racing, baseball, pachinko and lottery tickets – the kind of activities that Ozu’s characters sometimes engage with. However, the way in which these activities form part of the narrative reminded me more of Kitano Takeshi or some of the Japanese New Wave films of the early 1960s. The ‘master’ Kore-eda usually refers to is Naruse Mikio and in an interview with Mark Schilling for the Japan Times, he does so again in discussing After the Storm. Naruse’s characters tend to come from the next social class below those of Ozu – they are in Kore-eda’s words ” . . . living with their backs bent. They aren’t standing straight and tall”. This is the shomin-geki in Japanese cinema, the film about ‘ordinary people’ (the lower middle-class/upper working-class).

Ryota brings a cake for his mother (Kirin Kiki)

The film’s narrative is based on Kore-eda’s own background. He wrote the script himself and its central location is the public housing complex or danchi where Kore-eda himself grew up. The film opens in the flat of Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), where she and her adult daughter Chinatsu (Kobayashi Satomi) are writing ‘thank you’ cards after the funeral of Yoshiko’s husband. A little later her adult son Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) visits his mother’s flat, bringing her a cake but hoping to rummage around and find anything valuable his father may have hidden. Ryota is a familiar figure in many films – the ‘man-child’ who has never quite grown up and who now in his early 50s is always broke and scrounging for whatever he can find. He once wrote a novel and won a prize but now his only source of income is as a seedy private detective following adulterous wives and husbands or looking for lost cats. Even in this job Ryota has to ‘play’ the system and in effect syphon off some of the client fees which he won’t declare to his employer. He needs the money partly to support a gambling addiction inherited from his father. All of this makes Ryota a slightly different character from Kore-eda’s recent family drama personnel. He allows the introduction of jokes and comic scenes as well as the wiff of something possibly dangerous.

Ryota and his younger partner are private detectives spying on couples (including Ryota’s ex-wife and new partner)

Ryota’s other problem is that his ‘failure’ to earn money has led to divorce by his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and only monthly access to his son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô). The scenes away from mum’s flat see Ryota working with a junior partner and then spying on Kyoko when she is with with Shingo and her new partner. Ryota then meets his son for their monthly outing before father and son visit his mother’s flat and Kyoko (still waiting for her child support payment from Ryota) is persuaded to join them. The final section of the film then presents the three generations together for the night as Typhoon #24 of the summer is unleashed.

One perceptive reviewer remarked that in Kore-eda’s films it often feels as if nothing has happened until you realise that everything has happened. I agree. What is also surprising is that the more ‘Japanese’ the film gets, the more universal it feels. At one point grandma points out that the best meals improve if the food is left overnight to allow the flavour to develop. As all good cooks know this is absolutely correct. The focus on (home-cooked) food is another link to Still Walking. The other point I’d like to make is how well I think Abe Hiroshimi plays his role. It’s not easy for the very handsome 6″ 4′ Abe to play the seedy failure but somehow he manages to be a klutz but also very likeable. His pairing with 5″ 1′ Maki Yoko is also quite something. She is very beautiful and the family together is a winning contribution. Kirin Kiki is wonderful – as she always is.

Kore-eda Hirozaku is now, for me, the most reliable auteur filmmaker in contemporary cinema. Every one of his films has been a winner. There have been several reports of Spielberg attempting to remake Kore-eda films. I fervently hope this never happens. Let’s just enjoy Kore-eda’s films as they are – perfection.

My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette, France-Switzerland 2016)

A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.

There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.

The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.

A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.

Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”

The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.

A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).

If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.

As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.

The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)

We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.

Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.

Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.

The Good Lie (US-Canada-Kenya-India 2014)

The children when they first leave the village

The Good Lie is an intriguing film – a Hollywood-funded production distributed by Warner Bros featuring Reese Witherspoon, executive-produced by Ron Howard and directed by the Québecois auteur Philippe Falardeau, an Oscar nominee for Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011). It defies easy assumptions in its negotiation of the idea of a ‘feelgood film’. On IMDb it rates a 7.4 user score with many highly enthusiastic user reviews. Yet Warner Bros. released it in North America on less than 500 screens. In the UK, Canadian mini-major eOne opened the film in just 23 cinemas – this tiny release passed me by and I should certainly have sought out the film in cinemas in 2015. In retrospect this reluctance by the major distributors should have warned us what to expect for the release of Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016).

Several years older, Jeremiah, Amere and Abital celebrate their selection for travel to the US from their Kenyan refugee camp

The link between Queen of Katwe and The Good Lie is American overseas aid/charities in Kenya. The Good Lie tells the story of a small group of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ – the children of villages in southern Sudan who fled when their homes were attacked and their parents killed by soldiers from the north during the civil war in the 1980s.  These children and young teenagers walked several hundred miles before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya and then had to wait a further dozen years or so before being offered refugee status in the US in 2000. Two important family issues arise for the small group and the narrative drive of the film develops two separate strands – how the refugees struggle to come to terms with life in the US and how these two family issues are resolved. The film’s resolution is certainly upbeat, but it isn’t a typical Hollywood ending.

With a major star like Reese Witherspoon attached to the project The Good Lie certainly had the profile to attract audiences, but the obvious worry would be how the Sudanese actors (most of whom are themselves refugees from the conflict) would perform alongside Ms Witherspoon. I think that they all do a good job in individual scenes. The main problem is that there isn’t really enough screen time to allow Witherspoon’s character (initially professionally distanced as an employment consultant) to develop a real emotional attachment to the success of the refugees’ settlement in the Mid-West. She seems to switch almost instantaneously and to become involved in the solving of a refugee family problem. However, the narrative’s main concern is the progress of the refugee narrative and that is how it should be.

Mamere (Arnold Oceng) alongside Carrie (Reese Witherspoon)

I was a little taken aback by some of the events following the arrival of the refugees in Kansas and the actions of the immigration officials seemed outrageous in one respect. At one point I found the jokes about the unfamiliarity of aspects of American culture just seemed to go too far but overall I guess Falardeau and scriptwriter Margaret Nagle keep the ‘strangeness’ theme in check. I have to admit that watching films about refugees from Africa and parts of Asia in the US from a European perspective is quite odd. Both refugees and their Mid-West hosts seem almost entirely clueless about each other’s culture. In the UK, it often seems as if refugees who make it this far (i.e. often travelling through Europe) are much more aware of what to expect when they arrive and most host cities know what to expect when welcoming them. However, this particular narrative which flies young adults straight from a Kenya camp to an American city with presumably much less experience of refugees is significantly different. I don’t want to spoil the narrative resolution but the writer Margaret Nagle (best known for acting in and writing TV dramas) and Falardeau manage a satisfactory bittersweet ending which undermines any sugary sense of feelgood. One of the family stories works out but the other is negotiated. The title gives a clue to one aspect of the story and derives from a passage in Huckleberry Finn. It’s also worth pointing out that the early scenes in the film are violent and upsetting.

Reading some of the US reviews and background, it seems that Margaret Nagle did a considerable amount of research, interviewing refugees and those responsible for their placement in the US. In addition two of the producers had direct experience of taking in refugees or visiting some of the Kenyan locations. I get the impression that some of the push behind the film may have come from Christian groups in the US. I’ve seen some questionable activities by missionary charities in documentaries in Sudan, but in this film it seems to be humanitarian charity that brings the refugees to the US.

The Good Lie is certainly a global production with infrastructure in Africa being supplied/accessed via South Africa. Director Falardeau (experienced in shooting around the world) also took with him his cinematographer Roland Plante and editor Richard Comeau from Québéc. The Indian connection comes via Reliance, the Indian media major which has invested heavily in Hollywood productions for several years now.

The Good Lie is certainly worth seeking out as a particular kind of film about migration. It might be interesting to compare it with the rather different migration of Palestinians to the US in Amreeka (US-Canada-Kuwait 2009).

Lease of Life (UK 1954)

Robert Donat as the Rev. Thorne and Adrienne Corri as his daughter Susan

Ealing Studios as a brand has become so associated in the public mind with the comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s that many of its most interesting productions are barely seen or discussed. Fortunately, the ‘Ealing Rarities’ collections of DVDs, first published in 2013, have made several titles available for the first time on disc. The series runs to 14 volumes, each of which comprises a 2-disc set with two features on each disc. The four titles are a mix of films from the whole of the period 1930-1959. This makes sense as a way of selling the older titles but punters can benefit too, picking up unknown gems from the 1930s. The volumes were on a limited sales offer this week and I bought three volumes for £4 to £5 each.

I was most excited by the prospect of watching Lease for Life from 1954. This drama in Eastman Colour offers the major star Robert Donat in his only Ealing role, supported by a fine cast. With a screenplay by Eric Ambler, direction by Ealing regular Charles Frend and cinematography by Douglas Slocombe it promised to be a fascinating watch – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s worth emphasising that Donat was arguably the major male romantic star of the 1930s in the UK, a man loved by millions who spurned Hollywood and preferred to work in the UK (sometimes on American-financed films). Because of ill-health (chronic asthma) he made only 21 films and died in 1958 in his early 50s. In Lease of Life he plays a country vicar in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He was only 49 at the time but looks much older, possibly because of make-up and greying hair. He hadn’t made a film for three years and he would make only one more after it, so part of his appearance may be down to his own state of health. The plot involves his character being told that he only has a year to live, but if this makes the film sound grim, Donat’s performance soon alters such a view. He’s magnificent.

The vicar attends the dying man, Mr Sproatly (Beckett Bould) watched by a stern-faced Mrs Sproatly (Vida Hope)

The plot is very simple (so I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative pleasure by outlining it in some detail). Ambler gives the vicar (Rev. William Thorne) two problems to worry about (and then lands him with the news that he is going to die in about a year’s time). First he is asked by a dying parishioner to be his executor and to keep the will and a sizeable sum of money away from the man’s younger wife (Ealing regular Vida Hope) – the money is to go to the man’s son, still missing after the war. Reluctantly, the vicar agrees, knowing it is his duty to do so. He’s a kindly but not very inspiring vicar and he hasn’t saved any money. His second problem is that his talented daughter Susan (the fabulous Adrienne Corri who so graces Jean Renoir’s The River, 1950) wants to go to a music school in London, but he can’t afford to support her. A possible solution to his worries is that the local public school wants a new chaplain and the Dean of the cathedral in ‘Gilchester’ suggests Thorne. Thorne himself doesn’t realise why he has been invited to give the sermon at the school’s Founder’s Day service (but his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) realises that it is a kind of test of suitability). The chaplaincy would be a considerable step up in terms of income. The sermon comes halfway through the film and Thorne, in a moment of inspiration, tears up his prepared sermon and delivers an impassioned call to the boys to live their lives without the fear of breaking rules and to simply go out and fulfil themselves in finding God in life. Thorne is ‘re-born’, he has a new ‘lease of life’. The school’s headmaster is not enthusiastic about Thorne’s reference to a ‘Headmaster God’ as the wrong concept of religion for boys to have.

In the final third of the film the two problems prove difficult for Thorne to resolve in a satisfactory way and Ambler complicates things to create a climax. What is important too is that both June and Vera become active in their own right rather than just supporting Thorne. The other main character is June’s music teacher, the young organist at the cathedral, handsome (and quite cruel) as played by Denholm Elliott.

A parishioner calls on the vicar, concerned about the newspaper coverage of the sermon

The main attraction of the film is Robert Donat’s performance. In the pulpit delivering his sermon to the school he is transformed and energised but it is his voice and trademark delivery that stands out. I think mellifluous is the adjective often used to describe Donat’s voice. Here it sounds both soft and melodious, but also strong – and a big change from the character’s usually mild demeanour. So, in narrative terms it works to give the vicar in ailing health the energy to continue and to overcome the obstacles that lie before him. One interesting aspect of the film is the media interest generated by the sermon which gets everybody talking. In the early 1950s Ealing made films satirising the rise of television and, like this one, using the media as agencies in moral debates.

The other interesting aspect of the film is the use of location shooting to create ‘authenticity’ of setting and a feature of many Ealing films during and after the war. I was reminded of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), also directed by Charles Frend and set on the Romney Marshes. That was a black and white film and here the same cinematographer creates a rural landscape using Eastman Colour. The shoot was located in what was then the East Riding of Yorkshire with Beverley’s Minster standing in for the cathedral (Wikipedia suggests that the Minster is larger than many English cathedrals) and the village of Lund a few miles away acting as the vicar’s parish. The film is a transport enthusiast’s treat with footage of the town centre including the specially adapted buses needed to pass beneath the 15th century ‘Bar gate’. Railway scenes were filmed at Eton and Windsor and there is a scene featuring Susan’s arrival in London in a train hauled by Britannia Pacific 70020, only built in 1951 as a BR standard locomotive. Overall the Eastman Colour on the Network DVD is OK, but I did wonder about the make-up and how it appears in HD on a TV set.

The DVD set includes a slide gallery (see the images above with a lobby card and publicity stills). It also includes a Press Book from the period and I would recommend this for any student of British cinema history. The Press Book includes the kinds of ads to appear in local newspaper display listings as well as competitions and other ways of attracting audiences. It also features interviews and articles on the stars. The piece on Kay Walsh is interesting, pointing out how this ‘glamorous star’ of 1930s and 1940s cinema was prepared to be made-up as the older and ‘dowdy’ vicar’s wife in order to play opposite Robert Donat. There is also coverage of the outfits worn by Adrienne Corri, an important ‘tie-in’ feature for films of the period.

I’m pleased to have been able to view this film and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Ealing back catalogue in the Network DVDs.

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen, Finland-Germany 2017)

Khaled and Wikström

I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman.  We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.

The sushi restaurant crew . . .

I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.

Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make a film in the UK. We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.

Don’s Party (Australia 1976)

Don (John Hargreaves) is nearest to the camera, in the middle ground are Mack, Jody and Cooley and in the background Kath and Mal

Don’s Party is another example of the 1970s ‘New Australian Cinema’ or an ‘AFC’ film as Australian film studies now terms such films, referring to public funding via the Australian Film Commission and similar state funding schemes. The film is an adaptation of David Williamson’s 1971 stage play by the writer himself and it is directed by Bruce Beresford. It’s one of Williamson’s early plays. He went on to write many more and to complete several film scripts for major Australian films. Beresford began in the 1960s making short films in Australia and in the UK before directing two comedies starring Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. After Don’s Party his films became more likely to appeal to specialised audiences and eventually his critical reputation helped him move to the US where Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his performance in Beresford’s Tender Mercies in 1983.

The party, given by Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan) in their home in the North Sydney suburbs is meant to celebrate the victory of the Labour Party in the October 1969 General Election. Labour is ahead in some of the polls and Don hopes to see the end of the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’ in UK terms) government of John Gorton that in coalition with the Country Party has held power since 1949. (Ironically in the five years between the stage play and the film, Labour did get in, but then the Liberals got back in.) In 1969 Labour actually polled the most votes but the Liberals got the most seats. During the 1970s the parties were neck and neck. I think this is important as context and might explain the overall sense of frustration. This is also the period of Australian involvement in Vietnam. Two of the cast of Don’s Party are also in The Odd Angry Shot, the Vietnam film set just a few years earlier.

Although the film begins with Don and Kath voting and TV footage covering the results service, it soon becomes apparent that the election is important context but not directly part of the narrative. Much more important is the set of relationships between the guests at the party and in particular the four male friends at its centre. It is a skilfully written play/film reminiscent in some way of the plays on UK TV in the same period and I thought of Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn in terms of the embarrassment factor inherent in much of the behaviour. The film didn’t get a UK release until 1979 and I didn’t find Monthly Film Bulletin‘s review very helpful. I suspect that audience interest now is likely to be directed at the depiction of ‘useless’ Australian males. The women in the film are represented as much more sensible/serious than the men, though their behaviour is sometimes equally ‘bad’. Is this a satire on Australian masculinity? Williamson and Beresford seem most interested in the men and it is the male actors who, I think, are generally better known. Ray Barrett had a long career in the UK, mainly on TV from the 1950s, before returning to Australia in the mid 1970s. He was the older ‘mentor’ figure for Don at university, but both have ‘failed’ to live up to their dreams. Don is a teacher and an unpublished novelist. John Hargreaves is one of the two actors who later appeared in The Odd Angry Shot and the other is Graham Kennedy who plays Mack, the single man at the party having split up with his wife. Kennedy’s performance poses a problem for non-Australian viewers since although largely unknown  he was a well-known ‘personality presenter’ on Australian TV from 1959 until 1991 and sometimes called the ‘King of Australian TV’. He made two films based on David Williamson scripts – the second was The Club in 1980. In a Senses of Cinema essay, Susan Bye argues that Kennedy was such a strong TV presence that his films set up a debate about the authenticity of the characters he played. She quotes him as refuting the suggestion that he was ‘really’ the the personality he appeared to be on TV. Instead, he argued that he always played a part. That part was seemingly informed by the typed figure of the ‘larrikin’, that peculiarly Australian character of the working-class rebel. In Don’s Party, the type is doubly presented by Kennedy’s character and by the character played by Harold Hopkins, Cooley, the fourth of the central male quartet. Cooley is a womaniser and sexual athlete, a smooth lawyer who at one point refers to his Irish Catholic background. The larrikin moment for Mack is caught in his comic story (with actions) about a duck hunt. He carries his pewter beer tankard on a chain around his neck.

Mack (Graham Kennedy) tries chatting up Kerry (Candy Raymond)

The other two men are a repressed dentist and an accountant (the only man who admits to voting for the Liberals). These two men both leave the party – and leave their wives to be propositioned by Mack and Cooley. It’s not clear to me what Williamson wanted to say about the women. Ironically, the most sympathetic character in the whole narrative is Jody, the accountant’s wife played by the British-born actor Veronica Lang. She happily admits to being a Liberal, but also turns out to be the most sociable and a ‘good sport’. If there is a satire about the sexual mores of the partygoers, it’s mainly expressed through male bravado – countered by the women who meet the challenges (which are often then withdrawn). There is a fair degree of nudity, both male and female and I would argue that the film is quite confused about how it represents gender and sexual mores. What in turn this means for the representation of political ideas and social class is equally unclear. The thumbnail review in Sight and Sound (Summer 1979) suggests that it shows the ‘failure of socialism’. This seems a silly statement since there hasn’t been a socialist party in power. The characters are certainly aware of social class and political issues. Perhaps the saddest symbol of Don’s frustration is that at the end of the film he finds the sapling that he had planted in his garden the night before has been trampled down during the drunken rousing of the night before.

Overall I enjoyed watching Don’s Party. Despite the conventional nature of the drunken squabbles, much of it rings true. It carried me along and I didn’t worry too much about its stage origins.

The Graduate (US 1967)

The 50th Anniversary (actually Christmas 2017 in North America) release of The Graduate is an odd anniversary for me. I now discover that the film is deemed a classic and it has received the same 5 star reviews that all ‘classics’ seem to receive automatically. I’ll have to wait until I watch it again in a cinema to see what this means in practice. For now I want to try to remember the first time I watched it during 1968. The circumstances are memorable since it was a preview screening several weeks before the UK release (which was several months after the US release date). My university Student Union received a large number of tickets for a late night screening (i.e. after the last house) at the London Pavilion, the large cinema still standing but no longer showing films, on Piccadilly Circus. I don’t remember how we got back to our digs in Streatham at 2 a.m. in the morning but I assume we got the night bus. I think I must have enjoyed the film and I think we followed the distributor’s plan by talking about it to friends several weeks before its London release in August 1968.

My main recollection of the film is that I was taken by Paul Simon’s songs more than the film itself. I think I already knew ‘The Sound of Silence’ and ‘April Come She Will’, but ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’ were possibly new to me. I enjoyed the film which I found very funny but I’m not sure what kind of lasting impression it made on me apart from the music. The soundtrack was certainly innovative and predated Easy Rider (1969), Mean Streets (1973) and American Graffiti (1973) – the most frequently quoted music soundtrack ‘breakthrough’ films. Pop music had often been used in Hollywood films in the 1950s and 1960s before The Graduate but never so carefully integrated in the narrative and certainly not in a film that wasn’t ostensibly about musicians or the music industry. The one odd aspect that occurs to me now is that Paul Simon’s songs and Simon & Garfunkel as a duo were very strongly connected with New York and I’d forgotten that The Graduate is an LA movie.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

Listening to an item on the re-release on Radio 4’s The Film Programme and reading some of the print reviews, I was surprised at several of the comments. Reviewers now seem to focus on the older woman, younger man aspect of Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, though they know that in fact Bancroft was playing much older than her ‘real’ 36 and was only in fact six years older than Hoffman. I don’t remember being ‘bothered’ by the relationship. It makes me think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) with his mother played by Jessie Royce who was only eight years his senior. I think that this shows that The Graduate was a film still tied to ‘old Hollywood’ in 1967. It surely isn’t a ‘New Hollywood’ film. I suspect that Mike Nichols is now seen as more of an innovator than he was considered at the time. Yes, he did win the Best Director Oscar for the film, but wasn’t that an indication of how skilfully he made a film in the tradition? Nichols was well-known first as a comedian in partnership with Elaine May and then as a highly-successful director on Broadway. His first three films were all adaptations – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) from Edward Albee’s play, The Graduate from Charles Webb’s novel and Catch-22 (1970), my favourite of the three, from Joseph Heller’s novel. Aged 19 in 1968, I wasn’t a cinephile, so I didn’t make critical judgements about The Graduate. I remember the unusual ending better than anything else. For me, at that time, Dustin Hoffman didn’t represent a young graduate. He wasn’t much like the American grad students I came across in London. It was probably not until Midnight Cowboy in 1969 that I began to think about Hoffman. Similarly, Katherine Ross made more impression on me in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both also in 1969. Having said that, the notes in my film diary suggest that it was Ms Ross, alongside the music, that caught my attention.

It’s important, I think, that in the late 1960s, it often took Hollywood films a good six months to arrive in the UK. The Graduate took eight. Its American success set up its UK opening – it was the biggest US box office film of 1968. The truth was that it was one of the very few witty adult Hollywood films of the 1960s to attract a mass audience (it had an ‘X’ certificate in the UK, making it out of the reach of those under 16). (The script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry must take plenty of credit.) In the UK, the 1960s, for my circle of friends, was remembered mainly in terms of British films. The American box office film of 1968 that made the biggest impression on me was probably Polanski’s first Hollywood film (after he left the UK), Rosemary’s Baby, which I actually saw a couple of years later in a Paramount double bill with Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (a 1969 UK release).

Here’s part of the ‘Scarborough Fair’ sequence from The Graduate – at least, I think it is, there are so many YouTube clips! I think this represents what I thought was new at the time. Watching it again, it’s the combination of the music with the camerawork by the veteran Robert Surtees that seems important. It’s interesting to read some of the contemporary reviews from 1967. Bosley Crowther in the NY Times was coming to the end of a glittering career as a critic in 1967 when he panned Bonnie and Clyde but praised The Graduate as a throwback to Preston Sturges. Roger Ebert liked the film but loathed the music and the ‘arty camerawork’ shown below. Interestingly, he saw the same vitality in the film that he saw in the British films that had done so well in the US in the 1960s (he was thinking of Tom Jones and The Knack among others). Thirty years later he downgraded his rating and decided that the film had dated and that Mrs Robinson was actually the most interesting character.