The Long Arm (UK 1956)

One of the Rank posters that seems to be trying hard to signify ‘modernity’

A few weeks ago I posted on John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK-US 1957) and mentioned Ealing’s The Long Arm as a reference point. The Long Arm turned up on Talking Pictures TV a little while later and offered an opportunity to make a comparison. In this film Jack Hawkins, a regular Ealing player in the 1950s, plays a Scotland Yard Superintendent – as he does in Gideon’s Day. However, the two films are quite different. The Ealing production was made in black and white and broadcast in Academy (1.37:1). IMDb suggests that this was always the intended ratio, even if widescreen was established in the UK by 1956. Unlike the Ford film, with its multiple cases all solved in a 24 hour period, The Long Arm is essentially a narrative about a single investigation spread over several days, perhaps weeks. The common features of the two films are the presence of Jack Hawkins and the family melodrama elements of the Superintendent’s home life. In Gideon’s Day that element is foregrounded by the romance of Gideon’s daughter which is cleverly interwoven with the day’s police action. In The Long Arm Superintendent Halliday’s young son does inadvertently provide his father with a clue that helps the investigation but the theme of romance (and the difficult life of a police officer’s wife) is displaced onto Halliday’s new assistant, DS Ward (John Stratton).

Halliday can’t call on computers in 1956 so he turns to the next best thing – Chief Superintendent Jim Malcom (Geoffrey Keen, right) with his card system and his own encyclopaedic memory memory of crimes in London

I’ll focus on The Long Arm and return to the comparison later on. The narrative is based on a story by Robert Barr which he adapted with Janet Green for The Long Arm. Barr was a remarkable man who worked in newspapers, radio and then television. He was a radio features writer in 1946 who took the opportunities offered by the re-launched TV service, writing one of the first TV documentaries, a report on Germany under Allied Occupation. He then began to move between non-fiction and drama, focusing on police operations in the UK and becoming something of an expert on Scotland Yard. The Long Arm was the first appearance of his work on film but he was soon to be successful writing for popular TV crime fiction series, mostly police procedurals. He worked on both Z-Cars and its successor Softly, Softly in the 1960s and 70s. Scan down the credits for The Long Arm and you will find Stratford Johns as a Police Constable. Johns would eventually become one of the main stars of Z-Cars and then Softly, Softly. Barr’s collaborator on The Long Arm was Janet Green who had been an actor in the 1930s and subsequently a screenwriter and playwright, writing first for Rank on The Clouded Yellow (1950), an excellent chase thriller, and on another intriguing crime fiction, Eyewitness (also in 1956). She would become best-known for her later scripts for the Basil Dearden-Michael Relph partnership on films such as Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961). In 1966 Green would be one of the three writers on John Ford’s last feature,  7 Women. I mention these links partly to highlight Ealing’s role in providing blueprints for TV drama series, especially ‘cop shows’ and also the work of ex-Ealing staffers like Dearden and Relph after Ealing collapsed.

Following a suspect through Central London

The Long Arm was directed by Charles Frend, one of the central group of directors who made multiple films for Ealing. His thirteen films for Ealing comprise a diverse collection which includes major hits such as The Cruel Sea (1953), ‘prestige’ pictures such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and the children’s adventure The Magnet (1950). Frend’s reputation seems to have suffered a little since although he made some of Ealing’s best films he didn’t display the kinds of ‘personal vision’ beloved of the auteurists so he is not celebrated like Robert Hamer or Sandy Mackendrick.  Nor did he make any of the well-known Ealing comedies. His Ealing career ended with Barnacle Bill in 1957. This was in fact a comedy with Alec Guinness, but like his earlier comedy effort A Run For Your Money (1949), it is now largely forgotten. Instead, I would argue Frend’s most interesting films are San Demetrio London (1943) about an oil tanker miraculously surviving during the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea (1953) and Lease of Life (1954).

This Italian poster uses elements of the ‘arty’ British one but presents a more familiar scenario and includes the safe as an iconic image

The plot of The Long Arm pits Halliday against a clever criminal who manages to open the safes of various companies in Central London, the first of which is virtually under the noses of the police. The script is intelligent, though whether it is plausible is open to question. The investigation is thorough and eventually leads to a finale played out on the South Bank by the Royal Festival Hall, then only a few years old. More interesting for me was to see the British European Airways Terminal close by. In the 1950s both BEA and BOAC had check-in buildings in the centre of London and BEA used the ‘Waterloo Airline Terminal’ between 1953 and 1957. The Long Arm was Ealing’s second police-focused drama following The Blue Lamp (1950). That film featured ‘beat bobbies’ and exciting car chases in what was also a ‘social problem’ drama dealing with younger and more reckless criminals. Gordon Dines photographed both films, but The Long Arm features a more ‘opened out’ investigation which takes Halliday out of London, visiting North Wales, and as well as featuring familiar Central London streets it includes Halliday’s home in a quiet street in Bromley.

So what does this all add up to and how does it compare to Ford’s film a year later? Jack Hawkins gives a very strong performance in both films but The Long Arm suffers from weaker roles for women. Despite the modernist poster at the head of this blog post, The Long Arm feels tired and already old-fashioned next to Gideon’s Day. On the other hand it is a proper investigation and in some ways it does indeed resemble the later TV police procedurals. Some crime fiction film fans try to promote it as an example of ‘British noir‘, but I can’t accept that label. There are plenty of night-time scenes but little else that is recognisable as part of the noir crime film repertoire. It is an acceptable Ealing ‘entertainment’ and it points towards later TV cop shows.

First Cow (US 2019)

The woods of Oregon . . .

This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music  – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.

The opening sequence sees Alia Shawkat unearthing the skeletons

With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.

King-Lu and Cookie, the central characters

After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)

The cow arrives by boat

The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.

First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.

Toby Jones as the Chief Factor

Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European  women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.

I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!

Moving On (Nam-mae-wui yeo-reum-bam, South Korea 2019)

Grandad’s house and the family together

A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.

Dong-ju entertains the family

Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.

Byunggi and Mijung are siblings backin the family home thinking about care for their father

The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.

Ok-ju and Dong-ju in a taxi on a family mission

Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the YouTube clip below the trailer you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.

How to Be a Good Wife (La bonne épouse, France 2020)

The staff and students of the school. (all photos courtesy Memento Films ©) Carole Bethuel

Comedies are often the most difficult films to write about and foreign language comedies or even same language comedies from different cultures are more difficult still. This is certainly the case with How to Be a Good Wife. Cineuropa has labelled the film an ‘arthouse comedy’ which I find a little puzzling. This seems to me to be a mainstream film in terms of genre and narrative structure. The only things ‘arty’ about it are some of the cultural references for audiences outside France, including the concept of the farce. I can’t think of another film with quite the same mix of elements though the romcom/sports film Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) has some of the elements and is even photographed by Guillaume Schiffman who shot How to Be a Good Wife. I’ve also seen references to some of Francois Ozon’s work such as Potiche (France-Belgium 2010). But with Potiche we enter discussions about well-known auteurs and there are some reviews that suggest that How to Be a Good Wife is simply not in the same class and that Ozon or Pedro Almodóvar would do a better job.

Paulette fronts a TV report from the school

Here is the plot outline of How to Be a Good Wife which features Juliette Binoche, Yolande Moreau and Noémie Lvovsky – all excellent. It is the start of the school year in September 1967 and at a small private school for ‘young ladies’ in Alsace the three teachers are awaiting the somewhat reduced number of girls for the current session. This is one of the many such French institutions that taught girls to be fabulous homemakers and dutiful wives and mothers, but little else. The headteacher Paulette (Binoche) is married to the school’s owner who does little except spy on the girls, otherwise the couple’s relationship is not going well. His sister Gilberte (Moreau) is not married and pines for love. The hardest-working of the trio is Sister Marie-Thérèse. The film has two conventional themes. One is surviving as an institution and the other is the prospect of romance and liberation for Paulette and Gilberte – and for the 17 year-old students. For this, the timing is crucial because the school year will run through to May 1968 when an annual school trip to Paris is scheduled. Feminism is just beginning to creep into the mindset of the wider public in France and the film includes several direct references to the changes that are happening. It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy. This insertion of some ‘serious’ elements has been a factor for critics and reviewers to claim that the satire on political and social change is badly handled.

Gilberte and the girls cook a celebration meal

The film’s director is Martin Provost who co-wrote the script with Séverine Werba. Provost has built a reputation with four previous features each focusing on a woman as the central character. Seraphine (2008), Violette (2013) and The Midwife (2017) all made an impact but not in UK cinemas. Yolande Moreau played the painter at the centre of the biopic of Séraphine Louis, Emmanuelle Devois played the writer Violette Leduc and The Midwife featured Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. This use of well-known stars and star-actors attracted audiences in France. The current film was released in France in 2020 and the whole release, both domestic and international, has been somewhat curtailed by the pandemic.

Sister Marie-Thérèse is the comic figure who is in many ways the most capable – a familiar fenre figure

What to make of it? I enjoyed the film and in particular the three central performances. La Binoche has what seems like a lot of fun. There is a fourth character who offers Paulette romance. He is played, again with gusto, by Edouard Baer. The film is bookended by two set pieces. In the first, Paulette introduces the the new girls to the school’s curriculum which will teach them the important lessons of becoming a homemaker, wife and mother. She does this formally using a blackboard and teacher address. At the end of the film she repeats the procedure but in the form of a musical number which some have dubbed a ‘Jacques Demy’ take-off. I love Demy and I thought this was fun. I suppose the question is whether younger audiences who have no knowledge of the 1960s ‘liberation’ of women and young people generally, will respond to the ways in Provost stages many of the scenes. I don’t see why not. There are several important messages delivered quite cleverly. I’m sure it’s still a revelation that up to this period a woman couldn’t open a back account without a husband’s consent. The film did remind me in some ways of British boarding school comedies of the 1950s in the way that the context brings the students and teachers together. Schools like the ‘École Ménagère Van Der Beck’ (domestic science school) were still relatively numerous in France up to 1967, but none survived after 1968. 

Paulette and the bank manager enjoy a fling

This film is in a CinemaScope ratio and the bright colours show off 1960s ideas about fashion. The music score by Grégoire Hetzel seemed to work for me. I’m sure there were some contemporary songs played diegetically but I can’t find the titles. The girls in the school, with a handful picked out for brief narratives of their own, are well cast and believable as 60s young women. I would say that this is an enjoyable mainstream film but I recognise that for some it’s Marmite – something to love or to hate. I hope I’ve given you enough insight to make up your own mind. I don’t think the film has a UK distributor yet.

Here’s the Australian trailer (with more spoilers than given above):

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Laila aur satt geet, India 2020)

The beauty of Kashmir

Independent films set in Jammu and Kashmir seem to be appearing more often on the festival circuit. This is an unusual film that draws inspiration from various sources. It presents a folkloric tale in a modern context with a narrative divided into seven chapters, each titled with a song. The songs are from a variety of sources around the Himalayan region and the film is influenced by Sufism. The focus is on a community of shepherds who range across a wide area from Northern India and Kashmir and Ladakh to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now recognised as a ‘scheduled tribe’ in India, the Bakarwali are Muslims. As is common in South Asia, they are also seen as part of a bigger group that includes Gujjars, more associated with North Indian states such as Rajasthan. The writer-director of the film is Pushpendra Singh. He was born in Agra and attended FTII in Pune, initially training as an actor but later moving into direction and this is his fourth feature which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and was shown in festivals in Calcutta and Kerala before lockdown denied an expected run in PVR multiplexes. The director was able to introduce his film and to offer a Q&A at Borderlines.

The male shepherds bargain with the police inspector about the need for ID cards

He explains how the original idea came about:

I had read the folktale in 2010 and was fascinated that Vijaydan Detha [a well-known Marxist writer from Rajasthan] wrote a feminist story in the late 1960s which also dealt with desire and exploitation and how a woman in a conservative feudal society asserts herself and makes her own choices. The idea to adapt it to contemporary times was also a strong drive to choose the subject. (Quoted in a Variety piece by Naman Ramachandran, 26 November 2020)

Pushpendra Singh decided to rework the story in a contemporary political context by locating it in Kashmir and he also decided to take inspiration from the the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded.

Navjot Randhawa as Laila

The Barkarwali are nomadic shepherds and goatherds who practice annual transhumance, taking their flocks up into the Himalayas in the summer months and returning to bed down in the winter. Their traditions don’t recognise boundaries, but in the contested territory of Kashmir they find themselves being harried by Indian security officials who demand more stringent forms of identity. This is personalised when, during the summer move, the shepherd Tanvir finds a bride in the form of Laila. Tradition demands that he show his strength as a future husband and then ask for her hand. It is when the group return from the mountains that they realise how much has changed. Tanvir is accused of bringing a wife across the border illegally. The Barkarwali don’t recognise borders or ‘lines of control’ – or at least they pay them lip service – but the local police chief demands that they get proper ID cards. He also has designs on Laila. She will have none of it. Both the crossing borders and the potential ‘possession’ of Laila are metaphors for the control of Kashmir as well as male power directed towards women.

Tanvir demonstrates his strength . . . but he can’t control Laila

The narrative then moves into a kind of folklore farce. The police chief’s assistant Mushtaq assures his boss that he can ‘tame’ Laila and bring her to his chief. Or does he simply want her for himself? She is quite prepared to play a game, but only on her own terms and leads the men on, fooling her husband and frustrating Mushtaq. The Seven Songs take us through the stages of a kind of marital comedy. The folklore elements also produce moments of symbolism. A large tree bursts into flame from a gaping hole in the trunk as a sexual symbol. The end of the film makes a dramatic reference to the 14th century poet and the clear inference is that Laila will not accept the identities that men attempt to force upon her.

The film is very beautiful and I wish I knew more about the music. Navjot Randhawa gives a strong performance as Laila. Most of the other performers are local and non-professional apart from Shahnawaz Bhat who has appeared in other films. I’m not sure if the film has got UK distribution, but if it does appear it is recommended.

Charlatan (Czech Republic-Ireland-Slovakia-Poland 2020)

Jan Mikolásek analyses a sample, watched by Frantisek Panko

This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.

Frantisek goes out to the queue of people to make sure they are behaving in an orderly manner

The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the  communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.

The young Mikolásek meets a herbalist who can teach him the ropes

With the family background in horticulture, Mikolásek has a head start

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.

Mikolásek comes across as a severe figure

I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.

Mikolásek passes a diagnostic test set by the occupying Nazis

Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.

The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.