Frantz (France-Germany 2016)

Adrien (Pierre Niney) at the Hoffmeisters’ house with Anna (Paula Beer), Frau Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber) and Doktor Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner)

Frantz is a very beautiful and deeply moving film that is likely to be one of my films of the year. It’s another film that doesn’t seem to be destined for a long run in cinemas in the UK. That’s a shame because the film demands a big screen in a cinema rather than a TV set at home. Director François Ozon is remarkably prolific in the context of contemporary cinema. Frantz was screened at Venice in September 2016 and his new film is in competition at Cannes later this week. I didn’t follow his early work in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2000 he has managed just less than one film a year on average. He has ranged across genres and film aesthetics and featured an array of interesting European stars, so in one sense it isn’t surprising to discover that Frantz is something different.

Frantz is an ‘extension’ of a story (a play?) written in 1925 by Maurice Rostand. The title of this work gives away a crucial plot point of Frantz which could spoil the film narrative for some viewers so I won’t reveal it. Rostand’s work was then adapted for a film by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932, titled Broken Lullaby and featuring Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have extended the story and, I think, significantly altered its perspective by making the woman and not the man the central character. The film begins in the small town of Quedlinburg in the centre of Germany in 1919. (The ‘old town’ I now learn is a World Heritage site.) Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman tending the grave of Frantz, her fiancé killed in 1918 during the fighting on the Western Front. She is surprised to discover fresh flowers on the grave. Meanwhile her would be father-in-law Doktor Hoffmeister turns away a young man from his surgery when he learns that he is French – the old man can’t deal with a meeting so soon after his son’s death. Anna now lives with the Hoffmeisters and eventually she and the couple she refers to as her ‘parents’ will finally meet the young man who is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). He tells them that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war and after their initial caution the Hoffmeisters are pleased to hear his stories. Adrien and Anna begin a delicate relationship based on their mutual affection for Frantz. All this takes place amidst the mutterings of many of the townsfolk, including the group of men with whom Doktor Hoffmeister used to meet in the local inn (where Adrien is staying). Eventually, the truth must out. Frantz tells Anna the truth but there are also lies in this difficult dialogue. Ozon and Piazzo then extend the story by sending Adrien back to Paris and exploring what happens when Anna follows him several months later.

It sounds a very simple story that in the 1920s would have had great resonance. It still raises questions about war and reconciliation in 2017 but also now has the added sense of a message about European unity. The new French President Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel just a few days ago expressing the co-operation of the two countries as leaders of the EU while the UK undergoes a ‘Brexit election’. Unfortunately, I don’t suppose many Brexiteers will be in the audience for the film. However, it’s also possible to remove the discourse about war and focus just on the central set of relationships and the age-old problem of telling lies (even for the best of intentions) when those involved are in fragile emotional states. Frantz is a very particular kind of melodrama that is expressed through music, camerawork and mise en scène as well as sensational performances. Ozon decided that the camerawork of Pascal Marti should be presented mainly in black and white with brief passages in colour. I’m not sure if there is a consistent logic to when the changes to colour happen but some of the transitions are truly magical. I suppose the most likely reason is to enhance the moments of great emotion. Philippe Rombi looks after the music (both he and Marti have worked with Ozon before) providing an extensive score and there are also moments of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

Anna and Adrien outside town

The combination of music and the well-chosen locations creates the perfect backdrop for the difficult conversations between Anna and Adrien. It’s difficult to describe how everything fits together, except to say that it’s perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is presented in 2.39:1 with the clarity of modern lenses, it would closely resemble the melodramas of early 1930s Germany. For Lubitsch the original film was something of an anomaly (most of his films were comedies) so I think my point of reference is Max Ophuls. Because of Pierre Niney’s pencil moustache, however, I did also think of Truffaut’s black and white ‘Scope presentation of the same period in Jules et Jim (in which Henri Serre wears the ‘tache). The narrative of Jules et Jim does have some similarities as well. The small German town with its old centre and the hills and lakes just outside  occupies the first part of a narrative that is contrasted with the modernity and sophistication of Paris. I was impressed by the preserved railways on show.

This ‘portrait’ of Paula Beer as Anna takes my breath away – it seems to convey the period, the sadness of the situation and the constrained vision of youth all in a single facial expression.

But, finally I have to confess that what really engaged me was Paula Beer’s performance. For such a young actor (21 when she made Frantz) with relatively little experience, this must have been a very difficult role, requiring fluent French.  Yet she remains calm and still without being wooden or passive, exuding intelligence and also hinting at the passion beneath the exterior. I had seen the excellent trailer for Frantz and was determined to see the film. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As the final credits rolled I saw that in the acknowledgements, François Ozon thanked the German director Christian Petzold. Petzold is my favourite current German director and I immediately wondered whether he would want to use Paula Beer in a future project. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Ms Beer has two ‘forthcoming projects’, the first for Florian Henckel von Donnersmark and then in 2018 for Christian Petzold. I’m looking forward to them already. I should also say that I enjoyed Pierre Niney’s performance very much too – Frantz is blessed by excellent casting all round.

Here’s the UK trailer from Curzon (quite mischievous in not showing any colour scenes and the way it plays with the possibilities of the narrative):

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand 2016)

Hec (Sam Neill) and Ricky (Julian Dennison) hiding out in the mountains.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a big hit last year. In New Zealand it made over US$8million – which would mean 1 in 6 of the cinema audience saw it. It had success in Australia and healthy returns in both North America and the UK as well. So, what is the attraction? It’s not difficult to understand. Here is a family comedy with a rebellious streak that stars a likeable young teenage boy and a star actor familiar to all. It also helps that it was shot in the mountains and forests of various parts of North Island, New Zealand – and, yes, there is a Lord of the Rings joke.

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a 12 year-old boy abandoned by his single-parent mother and now has a petty crime record that drives his social worker to her last resort for foster carers. They are Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), a seemingly unlikely couple living on a remote farmstead. Bella is a ‘warm earth mother’ and a rescuer of waifs and strays, but Heck is a cantankerous old bastard who accepts Ricky only to please Bella. Ricky quickly sees that Bella is someone who might actually care for him, but when something bad happens, he and Heck have to team up and go on the run in the ‘bush’.

Rima Te Wiata as Bella

It doesn’t seem much of a story, unless it is going to be an epic struggle against the elements and the dangers of the ‘wild’. But for all his faults, Heck is a sensible man of the mountains and forests. The pair could survive for many weeks, even with the authorities, led by Paula (Rachel House) the dragon-like social worker, in constant pursuit. Director Taika Waititi has had plenty of success in recent years, headed by Boy (2010), one of the biggest ever films at the New Zealand box office. He knows exactly what he is doing and expertly builds the ‘odd couple’ relationship between Ricky and Hec that becomes the focus of the film.

I realised quite quickly that the central idea of the film was very familiar and that elements of Pork Pie (New Zealand 2017) were beginning to crop up at regular intervals. Pork Pie (like its predecessor, Goodbye Pork Pie, 1981) is an adult road movie with a young Maori tearaway and an older white guy racing through New Zealand with a massive police hunt and a social media campaign attempting to find the duo. This is what Hunt for the Wilderpeople becomes in its third section. The difference between the two films, apart from the age differential, comes from the origins of Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress by the comedy writer Barry Crump. Crump himself is presumably the model for Hec. He was famously an archetypal ‘outdoorsman’ whose adventures formed the basis for a string of comedy novels and a big celebrity status.

Ricky reluctantly poses with TK (Troy Kingi) one of the people he meets in a remote house in the bush.

My knowledge of New Zealand ethnic identities is not great, but clues in the dialogue suggest that Ricky has a Maori identity. Rather than the heavy social typing (he has been abandoned by his mother and is in care with a social worker) I noted the scene where he reads the police ‘Wanted’ notice and comments about the description of Hec as Caucasian – “They’ve got that wrong since you are obviously white”. Ricky names his dog ‘Tupac’ and sees himself as having ‘rapper’ potential. Not much, I know, but the point is that this is almost a ‘colour-blind’ film made by New Zealand’s most successful Maori filmmaker. It’s the kind of film that would be difficult to make in the UK, US and probably Australia. Most of the cast are Maori and it doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Taika Waititi presumably doesn’t feel the ‘burden’ of representing Maori identity in contemporary New Zealand, in the way that some UK directors from African-Caribbean or South Asian communities feel the pressure to represent a ‘community’. It’s difficult from outside New Zealand to be sure how a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople is understood in terms of identity. For instance, in the image above, Ricky is reluctant to pose for a selfie with TK who sticks out his tongue in what I take to be a gesture from Maori warrior traditions. I’m not sure which aspect of all this makes Ricky embarrassed. I’m happy to be informed by anyone who knows how to read this!

I realise that I haven’t emphasised just how funny many parts of the film are. There are some good movie quote jokes and the relationship between Ricky and Hec works equally well as comedy and genuine emotion. We’ve seen this kind of relationship in several well-known films and it depends on getting the mix right between the experienced adult actor and the relatively inexperienced younger actor. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are both excellent and we believe in the relationship as it develops. Waititi provides a quartet of oddball characters, including a loopy priest played by himself. The redneck hunters and ‘psycho loner’ seem more heavily typed as do the social worker and her police side-kick. Only the young girl on a horse makes a connection with the emotional drama, everything else is played for laughs. I’m not sure that Hunt for the Wilderpeople would stand up to intense scrutiny as a narrative but as a comedy with a heart that races along with plenty of laughs on the way, it’s hard to beat.

Jean-Pierre Melville in New York

I was recently visiting a friend in New York and by happy chance the Film Forum multi-screen in ‘the Village’ was running a retrospective of this ‘cool auteur’, as one plug commented. Melville was born on 20.10.1917 and the programme celebrated his centenary. His films nearly always centre on crime or gangster stories, known as ‘polar’.

The Film Forum started up in the 1970 and moved to its present location in Houston Street in 1989. It has three screens and its programme offers

“two distinct, complementary film programs – NYC theatrical premieres of American independents and foreign art films, programmed by Cooper and Mike Maggiore; and, since 1987, repertory selections including foreign and American classics, genre works, festivals and directors’ retrospectives, programmed by Bruce Goldstein. Our third screen is dedicated to extended runs of popular selections from both programs, as well as new films for longer engagements.”

It is a compact but well designed cinema. I only saw one auditorium, seating about a hundred, with a reasonably large screen and proper masking. The rake was shallow so one had to judge one’s seat when films involved sub-titles. The cinema has a policy of offering 35mm prints whenever possible and I enjoyed three films there on reasonably good prints. The adverts are only promos for the cinema followed by trailers, impressed.

The earliest was a rare film, [which I had not encountered before] Quand tu liras cette letter  (When You Read This Letter, 1953). The print had been loaned for the retrospective by

‘the people of France’

via Rialto, the distribution company related to Criterion. This was in black and white and Academy ratio. This was an atypical Melville offering, being essentially a melodrama. The film centred on a Parisian Lothario, Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire)  working for the summer in Cannes. His targets included a rich divorcee  Irène Faugeret  (Yvonne Sanson); several dancers at the local hotel cum night-spot; a young naive teenager, Denise Voise (Irène Galter); and her older sister Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco). Thérèse was the key character in the film. She had left the convent where she was a novice when her parents were killed in an accident. She acted as guardian to Denise and managed the Voise shop, a stationers. As the film progressed the narrative became darker and the sunlight of Cannes changed to the chiaroscuro of night. As one would expect the film’s resolution involved a violent death. In fact the film involved another trope we saw in all the Melville films, the violent death of a woman in a motorcar – by design. The film closed at the Convent followed by slow pan across Marseilles harbour: so that water and the seaside were central motifs in the film.

The print had no subtitles so Film Forum had commissioned a set of English sub-titles which were projected digitally onto the frame [rather than below] in white with a blue tint: this was very effective.

The second film was Le Doulos (1962) in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio and with English sub-titles. This film enjoyed a UK release in 2008. It was a proper ‘polar’ and fairly typical of Melville’s crime thrillers.  The main credit was for Jean-Paul Belmondo who played Silien but what impressed me most was Serge Reggiani as Maurice Faugel. He opened the film in a run-down and ‘noir’ location which set the tone for the whole film. The cinematography was by Nicolas Hayer and the chiaroscuro of many settings reflected the troubled and ambiguous lives of the protagonists.

The French title refers to a ‘hat’ but is also slang for a police informant. Whilst the atmosphere was great I felt the plotting was over-complicated and that the motivations were opaque. This was partly because the film wished to offer a violent, unexpected and almost tragic resolution. Like much of Melville the women characters were subordinate and pawns in the masculine chess-like manoeuvres. So Monique Hennessy as Thérèse came off badly. She did though, fit the comment made by Melville on the film:

“all characters are two-faced, all characters are false”

The third film was Le deuxiéme souffle (1966), also in black and white, a ratio of 1.66:1 and with English subtitles. it was also the longest film running for 144 minutes, It did not seem that long because this was the best and most absorbing of the three titles. This was partly because of a splendid cast led by Lino Ventura (Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda) and Paul Meurisse ( Commissaire Blot); both in Melville’s masterwork Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969). Ventura brought his air of fatalism to the film whilst Meurisse imbued his cop with an impassive but relentless pursuit of his quarry.

The film opened as ‘Gu’ escaped from prison, a familiar trope. The film quickly established his violent character but also his circle of supportive friends in the underworld and the competing gangs. There were some great scenes in a Parisian night-club, journeys and crime on the road, and a slow and final violent denouement in Marseilles. The film offered a relatively strong woman character, Christine Faberega played Simone – also called ‘Manouche’, ‘Gu’s sister. The gangsters in the film  constantly plotted and double-crossed. ‘Gu’ was a relatively straightforward criminal and there existed a professional respect between him and Blot. The film ended with violence and failure.

Melville, adapting the film from ‘Le deuxiéme souffle’ by Jose Giovanni, not only examined the ruthless nature of criminality but that of the Marseilles police as well. The settings and locations reflected the urban milieu favoured by the gangsters and their actions outside this territory in empty roads and deserted places suggested their alienation from society.

The retrospective also included The Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres) and Le cercle rouge (1970, released in the UK in 2003 and then alongside Le Doulos in 2008). Léon Morin, prêtre (1970) was scheduled for a week long run. A dozen film in all plus À bout de souffle (1960) in which Melville has a role as a writer, Parvulesco. The three 35mm prints that I saw definitely added to my stay in New York. I expect that there will be a UK retrospective for Melville later this year: let us hope they get a national distribution as well as screenings in the metropolis: and 35mm  prints.

 

The Odd Angry Shot (Australia 1979)

Clearing a Viet Cong machine gun pit in The Odd Angry Shot

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I’d been researching Australian Cinema and, zapping through the channels on TV, I stumbled across this key film on Sony’s ‘Movies 4 Men’ channel about to start. I’ve always known there was a Vietnam War film from Australia and I thought I’d seen it back in the 1970s, but couldn’t remember anything about it. The Odd Angry Shot was made in 1979 and was based on a novel by William L. Nagle who served in Vietnam as a cook in the later 1960s. The film was written and directed by Tom Jeffrey. Australia became involved in the Vietnam War under the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’) government of Robert Menzies, whereas the UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to bow to American pressure. Vietnam became a signifier of the shift of Australia into the American sphere of influence and away from the UK. The war would eventually become the focus for protest movements in Australia, especially after conscripted men started to be sent to Vietnam after 1966.

The Odd Angry Shot belongs to what seems now to be known as the ‘AFC period’ of production in the 1970s. The Australian Film Commission and the funding agencies of the individual states provided a big boost for Australian production in the second half of the 1970s and it was these films that became known in the UK as the ‘New Australian Cinema’ or ‘Australian New Wave’. Several got mainstream theatrical distribution in the UK and others appeared on UK TV. The Odd Angry Shot didn’t make it to the UK until a 1988 video, but it did get a simultaneous Australian and US cinema release in 1979, presumably because of the subject matter.

The ‘mates’ walking through the camp.

The film begins with a combined 21st Birthday/’Going Away’ party for Bill (John Jarratt) who soon finds himself on a chartered Quantas flight to Vietnam. He’s the rookie in an SAS Unit led by Harry, an experienced corporal played by Graham Kennedy. Bryan Brown (‘Rogers’) and John Hargreaves (‘Bung’) make up the quartet who we follow throughout the film. In one sense, The Odd Angry Shot is an unusual ‘war combat’ picture. We don’t get any of the training period for young conscripts – I don’t think we know how Bill gets there. Is he a recruit or a conscript? Does he already know the ropes? Soon we are on patrol and the narrative switches between brief snatches of action – when the ‘odd angry shot’ is fired (and the odd squaddie is killed or badly injured) – and longer periods back in the makeshift tented base camp. This latter is familiar from M.A.S.H (1970) and the TV series that followed. There is a brief R&R visit to Saigon, but mostly the film is about that Australian sense of ‘mateship’. The four central characters are also ‘larrikins’ – that uniquely Australian term for the unruly, whose disdain for authority and search for fun is received with affection by many. There are only a few scenes in which officers appear and they are depicted as quite sensible, the big confrontation comes when the four mates meet a Sgt-Major who tries to be officious and Harry gives him a mouthful. Harry has clearly seen it all before and an officer arrives and backs him up.

The Odd Angry Shot found generally very appreciative audience in cinemas. Reading through the IMDb comments it’s clear that the Australian and US Vietnam vets recognise the accuracy of the film in terms of the preparation for patrols, the quiet and methodical way of advancing on suspected Viet Cong positions and the boredom and attempts to relieve it in the camp. Because of the tiny budget (it was shot in Northern Australia, utilising a military training area in Queensland, for around A$600k) there are no doubt mistakes in the right kinds of helicopters and weapons, but that doesn’t really matter. As several commentators note, it gives a much more realistic depiction of fighting in Vietnam than most of the Hollywood films of the period (the film followed Apocalypse Now and Coming Home but preceded Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. The importance of the film, however, is best articulated in its closing section when Harry and Bill return to Sydney at the end of their tour. There is no triumphant or heroic ending – nothing ‘gung-ho’. They go to a bar (in dress uniform) and answer “No” when the barman asks if they have just come back from Vietnam. They take their beers and sit back with a view across the bay. Earlier, in one of the few ‘speeches’ in the film Harry expresses his world-weary view about being in a dangerous place in Vietnam. ‘We all have to be somewhere, and we’re here.” In this useful review of the DVD, there are quotes from the DVD commentary suggesting that some critics thought the film wasn’t sufficiently ‘anti-war’, but I think that misses the point. The film never attempts to ‘explain the war’, only to present the soldiers’ experiences.

Here’s the trailer for the 2016 restoration of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The entry on the NFSA website is also useful.

Their Finest (UK 2016)

Catrin (Gemma Arterton) and Tom (Sam Claflin)

Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes  a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband

Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.

Gemma Arterton’s costumes work very well for me. The hats especially seem to suit her.

Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.

Lone Scherfig on set in Pinewood with Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton

Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x” narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.

Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard and Helen McRory as his agent Sophie at the premiere of the film ‘The Nancy Starling’

The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder and Gordan Jackson as British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.

Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.

Pembrokeshire stands in for Dunkirk on set for ‘The Nancy Starling’

Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.

Lady Macbeth (UK 2016)

Florence Pugh as Katherine

Lady Macbeth is a remarkable film – and not just because of the stunning central performance by Florence Pugh (previously seen by us in Carole Morley’s The Falling (2014). Fortunately, I’d seen enough very positive comments from festivals to be clear that this wasn’t a Shakespeare text of any kind, otherwise I might have avoided it. I do still wonder at the wisdom of using the title but the strong box office figures suggest that it works. The film is an adaptation of the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, first published in 1865. The reference to Shakespeare’s character is simply because Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a woman who murders men who threaten her position and she does so by involving other (reluctant/submissive) partners. As far as I can see (from Wikipedia’s outline of the novella), the script by Alice Birch for the film adaptation deals with the first two-thirds of the story. Apart from changing the setting from Western Russia to the North of England (Durham/Northumberland), the details are kept more or less intact (including the names of the characters and the mid-Victorian period).

Katherine is approached by Boris, her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank)

Katherine is a woman bought for marriage (along with a small piece of land of poor quality). She is a young woman, expected to produce an heir for her older husband Alexander and treated as little more than a paid employee by her father-in-law. In turn she is the mistress of Anna, her maid, and the other servants in the country house. When both her husband and her father-in-law are away on business (her husband has trouble at the mine), Katherine seizes the opportunity to leave the house and walk on the moors and to develop a sexual relationship with the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Things escalate from there.

While the cat’s away . . . Katherine flaunts her affair with the groom, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) in front of her maid Anna (Naomie Ackie)

This is a low-budget film relying mainly on public funding (Creative England, BFI, BBC) but the quality control is high. Filmed at Lambton Castle and in what looks like the North Pennines, director William Oldroyd and DoP Ari Wegner present a harsh but beautiful landscape and an austere house – lacking the rich décor of many similar houses in conventional British costume dramas. The presentation of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights comes to mind, but Oldroyd (a theatre director working on his first feature film) presents his version of the landscape in CinemaScope rather than Academy ratio. There is another link to Arnold’s film in the casting of BAME actors playing Anna (Naomi Ackie) and later in the narrative Alexander’s ‘ward’, a young boy, and Agnes his grandmother (Golda Rosheuvel). Sebastian too has dark skin. Oldroyd and Wegner make very good use of just four principal locations – house interiors, the outbuildings and the woods and moorland around the house. I’m grateful to Stephen Morgan for his link to the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Danish painter I remember writing about in relation to Terence Davies’ Sunset Song. His interiors, though 40 years later seem to project the same austerity and cold tone.

Vilhelm Hammershøi’s ‘The Athenaeum Interior’, Frederiksberg, 1900

Katherine looks from her bedroom window . . .

. . . and plays truant on the moor

I once had a foolish view that theatre directors might not have the visual sense of ‘real’ film directors. That was until I realised that many of my favourite directors actually came from theatre backgrounds (Sirk, Ophüls, Nick Ray etc.). William Oldroyd proves my original position wrong in spades. It may be that his cinematographer Ari Wegner composed and lit the shots, but Oldroyd certainly knows how to use his narrative space and how to place and move his actors. This film has a lot going for it and it’s a feast for the eyes. It may not offer much in terms of plot or sociological commentary but it says a great deal about oppression, boredom and lust and about a sense of foreboding.  It also shows that it’s possible to bring 19th century life to the screen in modern and vibrant ways – if only more literary adaptations of costume dramas were as effective.  I especially enjoyed Black actors offering strong Geordie/North Eastern accents. There is a rather interesting cat too. Amazingly Lady Macbeth made No 11 in the UK chart on its opening – audiences are discerning and can be trusted. Following The Handmaiden, this is another gorgeous adaptation that is sexy but also brutal. I don’t think those corsets are quite strong enough to restrain Ms Pugh. If you get the chance, go see it – and remember the name Florence Pugh!

The Handmaiden (South Korea 2016)

The ‘count’ (Ha Jung-woo) and the maid Sookee (Kim Tae-ri)

The Handmaiden had a very successful launch in the UK in April – more successful than I expected given the supposed difficulty of attracting audiences to East Asian films on cinema screens. There might be several reasons for the film’s success as a draw. First, it is clear that there is an audience for East Asian films in the UK that was developed via DVD labels such as Tartan and to some extent Film 4 – and that director Park Chan-wook is perhaps the best known name, especially for his so-called ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ which includes his most-discussed film Old Boy (2003). Second, it doesn’t do to forget the attraction of classy smut – a genre of cinema that almost seems to have disappeared in the UK, but which with this film has been given an imprimatur of respectability. Third, there is an audience/readership for the work of Sarah Waters, both in novels and TV adaptations, eager to see her work on a big screen. Fourth, Ms Waters herself and several other lesbian commentators have expressed satisfaction with the film and may well have helped convince doubting audiences worried by the controversies surrounding the previous high-profile art film featuring a lesbian relationship, Blue is the Warmest Colour (France 2013). At the end of April The Handmaiden passed £1 million at the UK box office, a major achievement for a stunning film.

The maid and her mistress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) in the gardens

I should declare that I’m a great admirer of Sarah Waters’ novels and South Korean cinema (but I’ve steered clear of some of Park’s titles, including Old Boy). I thoroughly enjoyed The Handmaiden which is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen and one of the most deliciously erotic. It does have a couple of ‘shocking’ moments, but these are part of the narrative and you can always look away if they offend or make you queasy. It’s rare to find a film so long (143 mins) that whizzes by despite many slow-moving scenes. I was simply enthralled by the beauty and the artistry, including the terrific performances. A longer ‘Director’s Cut’ (167 mins) has also been available in some UK cinemas. I’m not sure what distributor Curzon/Artificial Eye’s intention was or what is in the other 20 minutes – which are not mentioned in Sight and Sound‘s review (May 2017).

Park and his writing partner Chung Seo-kyung moved the action in Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from mid-Victorian England to Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s. The new setting enabled Park to retain the maid-mistress relationship in a country house with a reclusive collector as the master of the house. The outline plot sees an attempt by a Korean confidence trickster masquerading as a Japanese count to work his way into the affections of an unhappy young Japanese woman who he aims to marry and then place in an asylum in order to steal her fortune. He is aided in this enterprise by a young woman from a den of trained crooks who will act as the lady’s maid and inveigle her into appropriate actions to help the con-man’s plans. The unforeseen element is that the lady and the maid will form a strong relationship that threatens to undermine those plans.

Erotic readings by his wife (Moon So-ri) for the master, Kouzouki (Cho Jin-woong)

The initial setting is virtually a character itself – a magnificent house mixing English Gothic with classical Japanese. When in an early scene we see the car bringing the new maid to the house the road by the cliffs conjures up Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the house at Manderley. The house in Korea is similarly dark with secrets – especially what is in the basement – and is surrounded by exquisite Japanese gardens. As Francine Stock suggested on Radio 4’s The Film Programme, there is a sense of ‘garden porn’ to complement the erotica inside the house. There are certainly UK audiences who would love to see the gardens – but I’m not sure what they would make of the house itself. The owner of the house – and the uncle of Hideko, the ‘target’ for the Count – is a collector of ‘erotica’, the books and woodblock prints from Japan, the equivalent of French pornographic literature in the West. He invites ‘connoisseurs’ and potential buyers to his house to hear readings from these works by a young woman – now Hideko, previously her aunt.

The narrative structure of The Handmaiden is taken from the book, even if some aspects of the plot are changed. This means that ‘Part 1’ which offers Sookee’s arrival at the house and the elopement of Hideko and the count is followed by Part 2 in which the same events are seen from a different perspective and then in Part 3, a new set of events (i.e. different to those in the novel) derive from the twist in the narrative.

When I think back to what immediately struck me about the ‘new’ South Korean cinema that emerged in the late 1990s (which I now remember was introduced to me via Park Chan-wook’s JSA (Joint Security Area) from 2000), it was primarily the production design, cinematography and performances. I was impressed by the beauty and high technical standards of mainstream films which seemed elevated above those of other film-producing nations. The Handmaiden evokes the same response from me seventeen years later. I would happily sit through the film again just to revel in colour, costumes, decor, gardens etc. What I think pleases me most is the way Park seems to blend Japanese classical cinema with British gothic melodrama/horror. It’s as if a Japanese adaptation of a Tanizaki Junichiro novel had been melded with an adaptation of a Wilkie Collins sensation novel in a film co-directed by Ichikawa Kon and Terence Fisher, but still in a recognisably South Korean style. If you haven’t seen The Handmaiden yet, seek it out and enjoy!

Blackthorn ( Spain-France-Bolivia-UK 2011)

The chasing posse (whose identity is unclear at first)

I missed this in cinemas but caught it through my HDD Recorder on (very) late night TV. Blackthorn is an excellent Western with an interesting background. Shot entirely in Bolivia with Spanish, French and UK inputs, the film was directed by Mateo Gil, best known perhaps as the writer of four films for Alejandro Amenábar (including Mar Adentro and Agora discussed on this blog). It was written by Miguel Barros and photographed by Juan Ruiz-Anchía (born in Bilbao, but long in the US). The cast includes leads who are American, Spanish, Irish, Danish and Peruvian. This is certainly a ‘global film’ as well as a Latin-American Western from the a region between Mexico and Argentina, the more usual locations for the genre.

Sam Shepard as the grizzled Blackthorn

Magaly Solier as Blackthorn’s lover

The genealogy of the narrative is however pure Hollywood as it offers a third episode to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). There had already been a ‘prequel’ to the 1969 story in 1979 and since they were historical characters, the Butch and Sundance appear in other Western films and TV series. Blackthorn argues that Butch, Sundance and Etta Place survived a battle with Bolivian police in 1908 but Etta and Sundance then returned to the US while Butch Cassidy changed his name to James Blackthorn and retired to a small house in the hills to rear horses. The film begins in 1928 (when Butch/Blackthorn is 62 and played by a grizzled Sam Shepard). Etta has died and Blackthorn decides to return to the US to find Etta’s son (Blackthorn may be his father but he writes to him as ‘nephew’). Blackthorn sells his horses to pay for the trip but the money is then lost and Blackthorn finds himself on the run again, but this time with a Spanish mining engineer (played by Eduardo Noriega, another Amenábar film alumni). Much of the film is a chase narrative which will eventually lead to Blackthorn being discovered by his old foe Mackinley (Stephen Rea), once a Pinkerton detective, now an ‘honorary consul’ and town drunk. Intercut with this chase are short flashback sequences which show Butch (the younger version played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Pádraic Delaney) and Etta back in 1908. From these plot elements and castings it is clear that this is a ‘twilight Western’ with other inflections.

In the film’s press notes Gil:

One of the things that I like most about the Western is that it’s a truly moral genre. The characters face life and death, and other very important matters (freedom, commitment and loyalty, courage, treachery, ownership and money, justice, friendship and even love) in very pure and simple terms. The decisions they make are not only very dramatic, but set examples. What more can you ask from a film? From any dramatic work? It’s a genre that helps us look at our own life and find a way to face it.

But Gil disrupts this purity:

By facing these matters from a modern point of view (conscious of the fact that the legendary American outlaw will end up as just another extra in Hollywood Westerns).

His innovation is to introduce the Noriega character as an unreliable character. This has another dimension as well. The engineer is a Spanish adventurer, a representative of the ex-colonial power and as one IMDb user commented “a Madrileño in a film produced by Catalans” – so, clearly a bad guy.

A composition that emphasises the landscape and the distance between hunter and hunted

The other intriguing statement by Gil refers to the ‘look’ of the film and its tone:

Blackthorn would not be a film made up by grandiose images and ‘traditional aesthetic’, of slow camera movements and tall crane shots; but of closer images, near to the characters, that allow us to see the landscape through their eyes as they reveal the most intimate side of their dramatic voyage. The deep-seated feelings our main character feels for the land that has sheltered him; his feelings about the past and how they are reawakened by the appearance of his new comrade; his feelings towards the woman with whom he spends his afternoons, although the passion of love is absent, affection, respect and carnality are all present; his feelings toward a young man he has never met but who could very well be his son, to whom he writes and directs every last effort; how he feels about the small things that surround him, his clean but simple home, his horses, what he chooses to take with him on this last trek, where he chooses to sleep each night as they advance . . .

This is a thoughtful film, under-appreciated by critics but appealing to fans of Westerns, I think. Gil’s ideas about the camerawork are put into practice by Ruiz-Anchía and I wish I’d seen this on a giant screen. We see the two hunted men traversing the high salt flat plateaux and then we see their PoV as across the staggeringly beautiful landscapes the tiny figures of their hunters race towards them. By contrast, the camera loves the craggy, weatherbeaten face of Sam Shepard. It’s an iconic image and Shepard seems to become the image of all ageing cowboys (he even sings four popular folk songs on the soundtrack, including ‘Wayfaring Stranger’).

Gil’s comments ring true in the simplicity and realism of his vision. This is one of the most beautiful, but also the harshest Westerns I’ve seen. It’s slow and pensive despite various shoot-outs. It has little to do with most Italian Westerns that I’ve seen, though the use of Irish actors – Etta is played by Dominique McElligott in the flashback sequences – did remind me of Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria with their Irish characters. In the classic twilight Western, the two central characters are usually two men of the same age with different views on how to deal with the death of the West. Here, Blackthorn tries to reconcile his past with a still possible future whereas the Noriega character is a younger man and a pragmatist. The other difference here is the role of the indigenous people of Bolivia who are not typed in the same way as Mexicans or Native Americans. They make up the group of hunters but they are ‘personalised’ in the character of Blackthorn’s lover played Yana played by the Peruvian actor with a growing presence in international cinema, Magaly Solier (see Magallanes, Peru 2015).

Blackthorn has some Spanish dialogue but is mainly in English. It’s well worth seeing.