Search results for: sunshine

Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013)

Sunshine on Leith is a “jukebox musical” (a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score) based on the songs of The Proclaimers (Craig and Charlie Reid who do a Hitchcockian-style walk-on early in the film). As a sub-genre the jukebox musical has been around for a long time and has produced some pretty mixed results. Often, I feel, the filmmakers try to squeeze too many numbers into the allotted time or else the narrative is shaped crudely to the demands of the best-known songs. Both dangers were largely avoided in Sunshine on Leith and, while I have a few quibbles (see below), I enjoyed the film very much.

Spoilers– but no more than in the UK Trailer (see below)

The film was based on a 2007 stage play by Stephen Greenhorn for the Dundee Rep which toured successfully throughout the UK. I saw it and, as far as I can remember, the film script, also by Stephen Greenhorn, sticks pretty closely to the original. The story is shaped around six characters (grouped into three couples). Davy (George McKay) and Ally  (Kevin Guthrie) are two squaddies making the difficult return to civilian life after a tour of duty in Afghanistan (where the film begins). Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Joan Horrocks) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They live in the eponymous Leith (the port area of Edinburgh) with their daughter Liz (Freya Mavor), a nurse who resumes her relationship with Ally when he comes back home.  She arranges a date with her brother and her best friend Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), a fellow nurse.  Ally does not have parents to go back to and his sister allows him (reluctantly) to share a bunk in the bedroom of her young son, Brendan (John Spencer).

At first, all three relationships seem to be going swimmingly but problems emerge. Rab learns that he has a daughter he didn’t know about, conceived in the early stages of his marriage to Jean with an ex-girlfriend, now deceased. Liz is fond of Ally but has ambitions to travel rather than settling down, while Ally is desperate to establish the family he never had as soon as possible. The problems all come to a head at the mid-point of the film at Rab and Jean’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration (held at Leith Dockers Social Club, a venue that will be familiar to readers of Irvine Welsh’s fiction). Jean discovers about Rab’s daughter. And Ally makes a cringe-making public proposal of marriage which doesn’t go down too well with Liz. The rest of the film is given over to resolving the problems of the three couples.

While the plot is hardly original, I thought it worked well as a whole – apart from the strand involving Davy and Yvonne which I felt was awkwardly contrived. For the sake of symmetry, their relationship had to be confronted with difficulties like the other two couples. Yvonne is given a backstory explaining how she ended up in Edinburgh. She was in a relation with a Scotsman who sounds as if he was from the ready-made stock of Scottish stereotypes, a boozer who could only talk about feelings when sufficiently inebriated. This sets in motion a doubt that the (ultra-sensitive) Davy could, despite appearances, be from the same stock. A fight breaks out at the anniversary party as someone makes a joke at Ally’s expense, Davy tries to stop it but ends up defending his pal and almost hits Yvonne by mistake, making her doubt his true nature. They get over this hurdle but it is when she questions his commitment to her, asking if he would leave Edinburgh with her if she had to go back to England. He is annoyed that he is being manipulated and he says he wouldn’t and she heads for the station for the London train. (London is, of course, about 500 miles – give or take – from Edinburgh so it’s one of the few occasions, when a song is “telegraphed”). On the plus side, it does pave the way for one of the most enjoyable sequences of the film.

Another aspect of this plot strand that I felt was weak was Davy’s reaction when, before the blind date with Yvonne, Ally tells him “this one’s different . . . She’s English”. “English!” he responds with a mixture of shock and disgust. This is played for laughs (see the trailer) but let’s try a little commutation test. Yvonne is played by a black woman and if we substitute “Black” for “English”, we get a very different tone. This is especially unfortunate as, while Craig and Charlie Reid (the Proclaimers) have long campaigned for independence (and many other causes), they are not known for their Anglo- (or any other) phobia. Being English, Yvonne is automatically referred to as “posh” and of course lives in the “select” district of Morningside. It’s all so passé. I don’t recall if these aspects come from the original stage production; if so, it should have been dropped from the film.

Any musical will live or die by the music and the performances of it. I’m more of a “greatest hits” person than a hardcore Proclaimers fan but I felt that the music worked very well, both as sung and as orchestrated on the instrumental sound track. The songs rarely feel crowbarred into the narrative bur arise naturally out of it. The film starts off strongly as a group of soldiers in an armoured personnel vehicle in Afghanistan do a visceral a capella version of “Sky Takes the Soul”, the music and the words fitting the scene perfectly:

It could be tomorrow or it could be today

When the sky takes the soul

The earth takes the clay

The scene ends in a roadside explosion which deprives one of the soldiers of his legs and another of his life.

Next, Ally and Davy arrive back home in Edinburgh (“I’m On My Way”). A double date at the pub showcases “Over and Done With”, a jaunty number I wasn’t familiar with (and which also serves as the background to the end credits). I felt “Let’s Get Married” was one of the weaker numbers but was given a raucous rendition in a pub with the Hibs-Hearts derby on TV in the background. One of the most familiar Proclaimers songs is “Letter From America”, a song linking the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century with the industrial sabotage by the Thatcher regime in the industrial heartlands of twentieth century Scotland. However, in the context of the film, it had a more personal approach with one of the characters considering emigration. (Despite the film’s contemporary setting, the song was, of course, written before the days of text, Skype and email).

Of course the performance of the songs is of paramount importance and there is the perennial problem of singer-who-can-act or actor-who-can sing. I thought Les Miserables was spoiled by too many of its leading roles going to non-singers (as well as the decision to record the singers as they were actually acting as opposed to playback) but Sunshine  on Leith works extremely well with the former. Sometimes (I’m thinking in particular of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You), non-singers who are good actors and can convey honest and simple emotion do the most effective renditions of songs and this is largely the case with Sunshine on Leith. (The exception is Antonia Thomas who plays Yvonne; she comes from a musical theatre background and has an excellent singing voice). Perhaps the biggest revelation was Peter Mullan who, with Jane Horrocks, was no doubt taken on to give the cast of largely unknowns extra acting heft. In his rendition of “Oh Jean” he growls his way through the song and convinces through sheer determination and he is ok in the ensemble pieces. I don’t really like Jane Horrocks as an actor. She oozes with tweeness, and overdoes the cute little comic “faces” she makes. However, her performance became stronger as the film becomes sadder and more serious and her rendition of “Sunshine on Leith” was quite excellent. It is a song we tend to associate with hordes of football fans on the Easter Road terraces but she invests it with a plaintive dignity.

This blog has occasionally referred to British actors in French films being given (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) or not (Charlotte Rampling) a narrative rationale for the fact that their (rather good) French accents are not exactly like a native speaker’s. Of the six central characters in Sunshine on Leith, three are played by English actors, although one plays an English character. (George McKay, despite his name, is a Londoner). So how are the accents of the two who are playing Scots? George McKay managed quite well and although his accent wasn’t Edinburgh working class but vaguely middle-class and non-geographically specific, it was at least as authentic as Ewan McGregor’s in Trainspotting. The only character given narrative support for a non-Edinburgh accent was Peter Mullan and his character comes from Glasgow. Jane Horrocks’ accent, although you could tell it was meant to be Scottish, didn’t come from any recognisable location in the actually existing Scotland (think Willie the janitor in “The Simpsons”). Some actors can do it and some can’t (Sean Connery!) It would have been better if she had used her own Lancashire accent. It’s not as if Scots don’t marry English women – half of Glasgow used to decamp to Blackpool in July when I was young. But I doubt if these matters will cause too many problems for audiences furth of the British Isles where the producers hope to sell the film, hence the premier at the Toronto Film Festival.

The film was directed by Dexter Fletcher, well known for his work as an actor in such productions as Bugsy Malone, Caravaggio, Lock Stock and Two  Smoking Barrels and Band of Brothers. Sunshine on Leith is his second film as a director, the first being Wild Bill in 2011 (which I haven’t seen).  I have seen some criticism of his direction. Variety, for example, referred to it as “televisual”, which I find a lazy criticism unless it is justified by specific shots and sequences. I wasn’t aware of excessive use of the close-up, for example, and his fondness for the use of rack-focus in shot/reverse shots is not particularly televisual. He drives a relentless pace and gets his actors to derive the maximum juice from each song (and occasionally dance) routine.  Fletcher (with his cinematographer George Richmond) shows Edinburgh at its best – strikingly picturesque and not just the posh bits but Leith as well (although must of it was actually shot in Glasgow which has a better studio set-up and is apparently 20% cheaper). “Auld Reekie” with her skirts on is a wondrous site – especially as the mess they’ve made of the city centre in the ludicrous trams enterprise is kept from view.  Suitably edited, Sunshine on Leith would make a very effective commercial for the Scottish Tourist Board.

The film ended on a high note with, inevitably, “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles). The song is so ubiquitous now in Scotland that if the independence referendum opts for a ‘yes’ vote and they need a new national anthem, there’s a ready-made one (and preferable to songs about mists, hills, heather and tattie scones or battles long ago). Its very familiarity presented Fletcher and his colleagues (particularly choreographer Rosie Grey) with a problem of how to stage it. It was done as a reconciliation song of the estranged lovers in the open air, on the Mound, outside the National Gallery of Scotland. The scene starts off as an argument between the couple with an audience listening in judgment, a trope familiar in American rom-coms (not to mention Richard Curtis nearer home). And after using the song by cutting back and force between the other four characters in a sort of pre-finale, it leads to one of the few all-out song and dance numbers, with Davie and Yvonne making up. Half of Edinburgh seems to be part of the number, including some joyful police officers, on the Mound. (I’ve seen cops in musical before, eg Singing in the Rain, Une Chambre En Ville, but this is the first time I’ve seen them cavorting ecstatically). The choreography is a bit on the primitive side but I’ve always felt that the camera  (with the editing suite) is the most important element in film (as opposed to stage) choreography.  If not all the actors are natural singers, the same can be said for dancers – and  George McKay gamely does his best. The film got round this problem by skilfully mixing ‘real’ dancers with baffled actors who were neither wholly in nor wholly out of the dance routine. One of the actors said in an interview that it was impossible to completely block off the area to passers-by but I think that this works in the film’s favour. There is a short extract below.

I would have liked a bit more reflection on some of the social issues which could have arisen in the film. The Peter Mullan character says that Scots have always had to leave to find work, “always have and always will”. And the effects of the war (at least on the British soldiers) are shown by the soldier – played by Paul Brennan, star of Loach’s The Angels Share – having no legs. Certainly, on of the saddest moments in the film occurs when Ally decides to sign up again. When Davy reminds him how close to death they were, he admits that he’s going back “because they wanted me” – he is not only unhappy in love but unable to get a decent job and a place of his own to stay. But such references are few. Perhaps I expect too much of what is after all a feel-good musical and in that category it certainly delivers.

Now for Filth, representing the ‘other’ Edinburgh.

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Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus, 2010)

Painstaking dedication

What can you say about a film when you admire its message and dislike its way of telling? It’s both good and bad, I suppose. This terrific story about a social worker who discovers that 130,000 children were deported illegally, with governments’ connivance, from Britain to Australia and attempts to reunite them with their… well, it always seems to be mothers, but they must have had dads too. Therein lies one of the problems: the lack of detail.

The film suggests that, as in The Magdalene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002), the children are the produce of ‘fallen women’ but I guess the destitute (as shown in the director’s dad’s Cathy Come Home, BBC, 1966) weren’t spared. There’s a great tale of class prejudice and exploitation here, the children were treated like slaves in Australia, but this is the story of Margaret Humphreys, the amazing woman who brought the injustice to light. Could you tell her tale and the political chicanery behind it? Possibly only via a documentary.

What we’re given is a blur of events; a massive sense of injustice; deep admiration for Humphreys and her long-suffering family. That’s a lot but, for me, it wasn’t enough. I think what the film lacks is a joining of the dots behind the events; however, as Humphreys’ story the film stands as an admirable testament. The deportations only ended in 1970, some of  the people involved will still be alive and they should be DONE for what they did.

A Change in the Weather (UK 2017)

This is a new film from the husband and wife team of Jon Sanders and Anna Mottram. There previous three films known as ‘the Kent trilogy’ were low key features, with rather downbeat stories. The plots of the films however seem not to be the prime focus. That is very much character, relationships and a sense of a particular time of life: one that mirrors their own.

I saw this title at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum (renamed ‘Science + Media) and introduced by Bill Lawrence of ‘Reel Solutions’ who have been promoting the film.

The film is in colour, an anamorphic format of 2.35:1 and runs 99 minutes. It is an ambiguous and elusive film. It takes time to identify the characters and to understand the story it tells. The film is set in the ‘Cathar’ region of southern France. The action takes place over a week, though that information only surfaced well into the film. A small group of people are involved in a workshop as a prelude to a written play.

The writer is Dan (Bob Goody) who also plays a writer, Bernard, in the drama they are working on. His wife Lydia (Anna Mottram) is one of three actors who play Elsa [Bernard’s wife] in the workshop, in older age, The other being Kalle (Meret Becker) who plays the youngest manifestation of Elsa;  and Monica (Maxime Finch) who plays Elsa in her thirties, In addition Lydia’s daughter Debbie (Seonaid Goody) is there with her baby daughter Constance: Debbie is a puppeteer. James (Stephen Lowe) is a widowed friend.  His dead wife Bea (Tanya Myers) appears as a ghost, but only appears to Lydia and the viewers. And Jo (Emma Garden) is a friend of Lydia with whom she talks via Skype on her laptop. There is Aidan (Douglas Finch) who I assume is the pianist that we see and hear. And there is an unnamed sound recordist in some of the workshop scenes.

The film opens with a single woman sitting in a chair in front of a painted backcloth: we realise later that this is Lydia playing the character of Elsa. Off-screen several people fire questions at her. She answers these for a while then rises and walks off the stage: the camera continues on the empty chair.

There follows a scene in a bathroom, with Dan lying naked in the bathtub whilst Lydia studies her face in the mirror. This is one of several conversations between the pair. It is always uncertain to what degree the characters portrayed are Dan and Lydia or Bernard and Elsa.

A fairly short exterior sequence follows. The exteriors tend to be shorter than the interiors though there are several which include conversations. At this stage of the film the light suggests autumnal sunshine.

Now we see one of several sequences where a character playing Elsa dances with a puppet. We start with Lydia but eventually we will see all three characters playing Elsa in a dance routine with the puppet. Debbie controls the puppet here by hand, later she moves the puppet by the control bar.

We see two conversations between Lydia and Jo on her laptop. She talks to Jo in order to gain support. There is an evening of what seems to be entertainment, Kalle performs a rendition of ‘Melancholy Baby’ with Aiden at the piano and joining in the second chorus. And Bea appears mysteriously sitting amongst the spectators.

As the film develops the relationships between characters emerge to a degree. Dan and Lydia’s marriage has unexpressed tensions. Kalle has a long-term friendship with the couple and she is the only (apparently) non-English member of the workshop. Monica is possibly flirting with Dan. James would seem to be still mourning Bea. Bea appears to Lydia a number of times, though what causes her appearances – Lydia’s need or some other factor – is not explained. And Aidan only appears as a pianist.

At the end of the film a couple of characters leave. Debbie leaves because her work is finished. Lydia leaves because of the tensions in the marriage, only partly explained by a long discussion between her and Dan. We assume that the other participants leave as the week appears to have run its course. Bea makes a final appearance overlooking the buildings but not apparently seen by anyone except the audience.

The film relies extensively on long takes. And there are a number of pans over the cast. Early in the film the camera offers a restricted view; later pans present the audience with more of the set and characters. Thus in the opening shot the camera sticks to a fix position even when Lydia walks off-camera. Later in the film, in similar settings, a pan will reveal the characters who are watching or listening or questioning. The camera tends to a mid-height angle, but there are occasional high and low-angle shots. And there are some tracks in the exteriors. In line with the developing narrative there are more exterior long shots later in the film so that viewers start to acquire a sense of the settings and the buildings.

The music, of which there is a substantial amount, is predominately played on the piano, but there are at least two sequences where the accompaniment is on a harmonium. I suspected the change of instrument signified something about those sequences but I am not sure what?

The film’s opening sequences appear to be in autumnal sunshine. There are also a few evening or night-times scenes with chiaroscuro. As the film and the relationships develop the sunshine diminishes and the sky becomes clouded. In the later stages the sound of wind is audible on the soundtrack and there is an evening storm at one point.

It will be clear that I found that the film required close attention and a lot of input by myself. This was clearly part of the strategy embodied in the film. As the characters acquired identities I found I could start to comprehend the relationships. Interestingly the character easiest to place was Bea as a ghost, because she disappears mysteriously at the end of her first appearance.

It was equally so with what one might term the plot. It took time to work out about the workshop and its point. And it took time to see what sort of situations the developing relationships were creating. There were themes that i found suggested rather than fully realised. One was the relationship between the sexes. At one point Bernard abruptly changes the focus in a ‘hot seating’ session, possibly because of what the answers to question suggest about him. And there is an unexpressed question: why is only the female character played by more than one actor? It was probably just me, but when I saw the shot of Dan naked in the bath I was irresistibly reminded of Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday.

However I felt that the film repaid this care and attention. By the end of the film the resolution illuminated the themes that seemed to be embodied in the story. The cast are excellent. When I worked out the main points in the film their performances fitted exactly. The settings were well chosen and the music was appropriate and enjoyable. The cinematography in  particular was excellent and I was happy to sit there watching the settings and the performers.

Lydia with Bea

After the screening Jon Sanders and Amma Mottram talked about the film and answered questions. Jon Sanders has worked as a sound engineer and editor as well as directing films. Anna Mottram has worked extensively as an actor and has three screenwriting credits on their joint films. Bill Lawrence started by filling in some background and then asked them about their approach to filming and how they made the film.

Jon Sanders explained that their first film, Painted Angels (1998) a UK/German co-production set in a Western ‘bordello’ and filmed in Canada, was not a success. It had a limited release and only made it onto video in the USA. So they gave some thought to alternative ways of making film that were relatively cheap and quick. involving small casts, inexpensive production  values and avoiding the logistical requirements of mainstream film,.

They have made four films in twelve years. The approach involves long takes, filmed quickly and relying on a degree of improvisation by the actors. For this film they worked out the characters and a bare bones plot, written out on 32 cards, one for each scene. The credit reads ‘devised by . . . ‘. Friends offered the use of a rural house with a barn in France for a location. The devised story included an ending but much in between depended on the improvisation of the actors. The film was then shot chronologically.

The cast and crew had worked with the filmmakers before and some were personal friends, which is mirrored in the story. Merit Becker had met the filmmakers years before as an exchange student, which is also mirrored in the plot., Since then she had become an established actor in the German film industry and wanted to work on one of their films.

Anna Mottram explained how the improvisation worked in the creative process. So the opening scene was an example of ‘hot seating’, [Hot-seating is a way of developing (or deepening) character. If you are in the hot-seat you answer questions from others in the group while you are ‘in role’.] And the acting also worked on the ambiguities, as scenes where it was unclear which character actors were performing. Jon Sanders explained the directors main task was to keep the actors to ‘the sub-text’.

I asked about the way the technical crew worked with improvised scenes. Jon stated that how it worked varied, some scenes were completed in one take, ‘Melancholy Baby’ actually took nine takes. For the cinematography they relied on the camera work of David Scott and his grip Glyn Fielding. Scott had experience in documentary filmmaking which stood him in good stead with this approach. As an example Jon cited the scene where an actor danced with a puppet. Scott was given the start and end positions for the shot and then followed the action ensuring these were achieved. For sound they used two boom microphones which served well. And, as noted, the sound recordist is part of the plotting, and seen in scenes where recording takes place: I think this is Mike Duffield. Jon also noted that as the filming progressed some planned scenes were left out, seeming unnecessary.

A this point they asked the audience about their responses to the film, which were generally positive. I had noticed that two or three people left during the screening, presumably not taken with the film. But the remainder appeared to have enjoy it.

I asked the filmmakers about themes in the film, noting that stories about older couples reaching a crises point in their relationship seemed a frequent issue recently. Jon responded that probably this was ‘something in the air’ these days. But he also explained that their approach lent itself to domestic dramas and that ‘marriage, love and death’ were central themes in life.

Another audience member asked about the ghost, Bea. Anna talking about the first scene in which Bea appears. She suggested that Bea could be seen as a way of Lydia ‘talking to herself’; i.e., working through the tensions that appeared in the story.

I had to leave before the end to catch a train. As I left Jon was referring to the ghost and his admiration of Mizoguchi Kenji, the great Japanese director: his film Ugetsu Monogatari‘ had two ghosts and an ending that might be described as transcendental. A Change in the Weather is not a melodrama like that film, it is more mundane and downbeat but well executed. And the title, which is part of the visual narrative, also offers metaphor. It is a quote from a poem by W. H. Auden.

“Will love come and surprise him, knock on his door, step on his feet, or turn up like the weather, mildly or roughly?”

This struck me, like the film, as a very English approach. And whilst filmed in France the film really carries that sort of cultural character. It definitely stands out among recent releases produced in the UK. The film m is slightly challenging but repays the effort. To date there have been four screenings and it certainly deserves far more outings,. If you have a local independent cinema it would be worth asking them to feature the film. I, for one, would watch it again.

A Change in the Weather

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

Irrfan Khan as the proud Umber Singh celebrating with his son

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

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

Anup Singh working with Irrfan Khan and Tillotama Shome

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

Kanwar and Neeli together

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

Tisca Chopra as Mehar

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

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

Apple Tree Yard (UK 2017)

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Yvonne (Emily Watson) emerges from the holding cells at The Old Bailey

Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.

I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.

I  was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.

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Mark (Ben Chaplin) and Yvonne (Emily Watson)

Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.

As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.

Mustang (Turkey/France/Germany/Qatar 2015)

The five sisters together

The five sisters together

In a Turkish village on the Black Sea coast, five orphaned sisters celebrate finishing school for the summer by splashing in the sea with boys – only to be incarcerated by their grandmother and uncle who view their behaviour as unseemly and provocative. Instead of summer holidays they begin lessons at home in preparation for future marriage. Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour and directed as a début feature by Ergüven, the film has been welcomed as a film by women about sisterhood and growing up under the restrictions of a conservative society. Deniz Gamze Ergüven is part Turkish and part French and the film is a co-production.

Mustang is a stunning film and it’s no surprise that it has been celebrated by film festivals in Europe and North America and nominated for an Oscar in a very competitive competition. (But I’m intrigued about how it will fare in Asia.) In the UK the film is the second title selected for the BFI’s new distribution support scheme and it has been widely seen and discussed by enthusiastic audiences. Many of the reviews have made a reference to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (US 1999) – especially in the US. Certainly there are obvious similarities, but the film also uses ideas shared with other films in its universal story about families, conservative communities and girls’ adolescence in the face of the modernising impact of globalisation. One important difference to The Virgin Suicides is that it is narrated from the girls’ point of view. One sequence in particular reminds me of Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran 2006), with the struggles of young female supporters to watch men’s football in perhaps the most joyful sequence in the film. The depiction of rural weddings also makes me think of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) as well as several weddings featured in Palestinian films.

The film’s title refers to the term for a wild horse in North America and Ergüven intended her young women to have the same romantic appeal as the mustangs of folk songs and Western movies. In the production notes for the film she tells us that the mustang symbolises:

my five spirited and untamable heroines. Visually, even, their hair is like a mane and, in the village, they’re like a herd of mustangs coming through. And the story moves fast, galloping forward, and that energy is at the heart of the picture, just like the mustang that gave it its name.

Ergüven goes on to refer to other ways that the five sisters are symbolic:

The film expresses things much more sensitively and powerfully than I ever could. I see it as a fairy tale with mythological motifs, such as the Minotaur, the labyrinth, the Lernaean Hydra – the girl’s five-headed body – and a ball that is signified here by the soccer match that the girls long to attend.

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most 'modern'?

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most ‘modern’?

These two statements are key to the specific form of representation used in the film. This is not a neo-realist or social realist account of girls in a rural community. The five young women were found in various ways through the casting process. One had previous acting experience – Elit Iscan (Ece) was one of the children in Times and Winds (Turkey 2006) by Reha Erdem and again in his 2008 film My Only Sunshine. Tuğba Sunguroğlu (Selma) was spotted on a Paris-Istanbul flight and the other three were found via auditions in France and Turkey. The film’s plot does suggest that originally the girls came from Istanbul, so the sense that they are already ‘modernised’/’westernised’ is given narrative authenticity. It’s also important that the youngest sister, Lale, is the narrator and that by definition she is the most ‘modern’ – and therefore the one most likely to resist confinement. (She’s the one who supports the football team.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I was rooting for the girls all the way through, but even so I was surprised that I began to cry during the last scene which I did feel was a little too neat in its resolution – but clearly my emotional responses told me differently. Taking a more distanced view, I recognise the director’s argument (she also co-wrote the film with Alice Wincour) that the story uses symbolism rather than social realism. Even so, I think it might have been even more powerful if the five sisters had been represented a little more in social realist style. There are quite a lot of shots of the girls stretching in the sunlight streaming in through the windows of their room/prison with their graceful movements, beautiful legs and luxuriant hair. Are these shots designed for a ‘female gaze’?  A debate about the aesthetic choices in the film would be good. I should note that the music in the film passed me by, but I understand that it is important. Whatever my reservations, this is a film that should be widely seen – it would be good if it developed the status of a La haine in its appeal to a youth audience and its questioning of assumptions. What’s happening in Turkey is both shocking and sad. The irony is that throughout the Arab world, in that strange way that ex-colonial ties work, it is Turkish film and TV which is bringing about the seeds of a social revolution in Muslim countries.

There is an ongoing discussion about the film on ‘Conversations About Cinema‘.

Sunset Song – A Second View

Chris (Agyness Deyn) risesin the field of barley in the opening shot of Sunset Song

Chris (Agyness Deyn) risesin the field of barley in the opening shot of Sunset Song

Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).

One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.

The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.

Hammershøi

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1908 (oil on canvas, 79 x 66 cm) Photograph: Ole Hein Pedersen/PR (from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2008/jun/25/art.denmark)

Chris in the wash-house

Chris in the wash-house

I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:

Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.

Shooting in New Zealand (from the ARRI Rental website)

Shooting in New Zealand (from the ARRI Rental website)

Agyness Deyn as Chris and Peter Mullan as her father. This promotional image presumably is from the Scottish shoot.

Agyness Deyn as Chris and Peter Mullan as her father. This promotional image is presumably from the Scottish shoot.

Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.

The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.

Chris and Ewan meet in the village square before their banns are read.

Chris and Ewan meet in the village square before their banns are read.

I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.

Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:

 

Steve Jobs (US-UK 2015)

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Screen 1 at Curzon Soho was not full for the first evening screening of Steve Jobs (on the night of the Paris attacks). This doesn’t augur well for a film that has been designated a ‘flop’ in North America. It’s a shame that this production isn’t succeeding commercially, though given its relatively modest – by Hollywood standards – budget of $30 million it won’t be the disaster some commentators seem to be gleefully anticipating. All involved in the film will be comforted by the high levels of critical acclaim that the film has generated so far and in the group that I was part of, all of us were impressed by the script, performances, direction and technical contributions.

Inevitably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs has been compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network, especially since Fincher reportedly turned down the chance to direct Steve Jobs because the fee offered was too low. I was not a fan of The Social Network but it was well made. However, it cost $50 million and I think Danny Boyle did a better job on a smaller budget. Aaron Sorkin wrote both films – with Steve Jobs heavily dependent on the biography of Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Neither film is a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, both focusing on the founding myths and early years of the two companies (Facebook and Apple).  Steve Jobs covers three moments of Jobs ‘presenting’ aspects of his ‘work’ (or perhaps his ‘vision’). The Social Network sometimes feels like a thriller/legal investigation into who did what, whereas Steve Jobs is more like a relationship drama with Jobs ranged against five different individuals, most of whom have positive reasons to love/admire him as well as genuine anger about what he has done.

Danny Boyle is a theatre director as well as a renowned film director and he seems like the perfect choice for a film which is heavily biased towards long dialogue scenes in enclosed spaces. Boyle rehearsed his cast for two weeks before shooting each of the film’s three sections and the result is a series of dialogue exchanges which really zing and hum with intensity (and quite a few laughs). But despite the restrictions, Boyle finds ways to make the film narrative genuinely cinematic in feel. I’m at a loss as to why some critics (and film scholars) disparage Danny Boyle. He makes films that are always interesting to watch – and he seems like a genuinely nice bloke (and a genuine supporter of working-class popular culture as part of film and theatre). He is often innovative in his approach to the visual style of his films and here he turns again to Alwin H. Küchler (who previously photographed Boyle’s Sunshine in 2007). Küchler has been one of the best UK-based cinematographers since the 1990s (he trained at the UK National Film School) and first worked for Lynne Ramsay and then Michael Winterbottom. The three sections of Steve Jobs are set in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh, 1988 with Jobs’ presentation of his NeXT cube and 1998 with the iMac launch. These are photographed in 16mm, 35 mm and HD with interesting ‘bridging’ moments. It would require a second viewing to see if the sections are also framed differently or if there are other distinctive features.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Kate Winslet is a revelation in her role as Jobs’ Marketing Manager and Michael Fassbender is as terrific as Jobs as we all expected. Jeff Daniels is the CEO who battles Jobs and Michael Stuhlbarg is the engineer in a similar position. Seth Rogen and Katherine Waterston draw the short straws as Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple with Jobs) and the mother of Jobs’ daughter – two roles that are restricted to being angry about Jobs’ behaviour. The real question, as another friend suggested to me is: “Why would anyone buy a ticket to see this film?”. Despite the great script, terrific performances etc.  the truth is that the film almost deliberately thwarts the expectations of at least two communities. Apple devotees interested in the history of the computers get only a partial story that stops in 1998. Anyone who sees Steve Jobs as some kind of visionary figure (the film begins with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke ‘predicting’ the coming of the personal computer) may well find his treatment of his closest colleagues and collaborators repellent. And those who actually enjoy the ‘warts and all’ story are likely to be dismayed by the last (unnecessary) 10 minutes which become very sentimental. The truth is that in the early days of Apple, the computers were venerated by relatively small groups of people who struggled to convince others in a world dominated by Microsoft. And it’s true that the machines were expensive and actually not very useful outside certain DTP and Design applications until the appearance of the G3 range in 1997. This is more or less when Steve Jobs ends with the announcement of the iMac. Unlike Facebook which the majority of the audience know something about, Jobs and Apple’s story is obscure for most of the audience who know Apple through its ‘phones and tablets.

In some ways the script refers back to those Warner Bros. biopics of the 1930s – about the great men and women who did something unique. But Jobs’ achievements are not as easily defined as those of Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. To really understand some of his ‘vision’ requires a great deal of context about computer design and the history of the industry which can’t be contained in a feature like this. Sorkin’s script relies on the marketing/promotional spiel at the launches of new products (were these his unique contributions?). Little is heard about Microsoft (or the Amiga and Atari – both as important as Apple in the 1980s). When the breakthrough comes with the iMac in 1998, there is no mention of Jony Ive who designed it. Ive has spoken about Jobs as having “bold” and “magnificent” ideas, but he is the one who puts them into practice like Steve Wozniak did earlier, only to be ditched by Jobs.

Steve Jobs will endure as a film to be studied, I think, and it represents another chapter in Danny Boyle’s interesting directing career, even if it doesn’t do the expected business at the box office.

Here’s the ‘featurette’ that tries to explain what the film is about: