Search results for: sunshine

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur, France-Belgium 2017)

Juliette Binoche as Isabelle on the film’s Cannes poster

Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.

Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.

. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.

There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.

Isabelle with her actor lover (Nicolas Duvauchelle)

Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.

The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.

Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.

Isabelle dances to Etta James.

When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.

I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:

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.

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.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China 2018)

This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.

To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.

The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.

If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.

The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.

Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.

This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.

The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.

This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.

The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.

Touch and Go (UK 1955)

Touch and Go is an Ealing film I knew nothing about before I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, though most of the cast and crew were familiar. When I looked the title up in Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios book I discovered that it is one of the prime exhibits in his condemnation of the ‘End’ of Ealing in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue against Barr’s analysis of what the film represents in terms of a studio that appeared to have lost its way and indeed its purpose by 1955-6. To emphasise his argument Barr contrasts the film with The Ladykillers, one of the few successful films from the same period. It’s a legitimate comparison in the sense that both films are shot in Technicolor and located in specific districts of London – and both were written by William Rose. But one has great vitality and a real cutting edge while the other is ‘suffocating’ and ‘stodgy’. My own preference is to try to find something of interest in everything I watch and Touch and Go reveals some aspects of British culture in the 1950s, even if the overall effect is indeed ‘deadening’.

The film’s plot is very simple. Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins) is a furniture designer who stomps off from his job because the firm’s head man (James Hayter) refuses to consider expanding production of Jim’s modernist furniture. This is a classic Ealing set-up of traditional v. modern written by Ealing stalwart Rose from an idea conceived by himself and his wife Tania. Jim decides that his family should emigrate to Australia – his wife Helen (Margaret Johnston) and 18 year-old daughter Peggy (June Thorburn) having little chance to object. The main section of the narrative then concerns the last few days before departure from Tilbury. The second ‘inciting incident’ is provoked by the family’s ageing black cat, a cunning brute named Heathcliff, who causes Peggy to meet a young engineering student Richard (John Fraser) and very quickly fall in love with time running out before ship sails. Will they actually get on board? Well, what do you think?

Technically, there is little wrong with a film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe and though it may have been Michael Truman’s first directorial credit he had been an editor on many of the Ealing classics of the late 1940s and a producer on similarly well-known films in the early 1950s. This film is edited by Peter Tanner, also a very experienced Ealing hand. The cast too are fine with Hawkins turning his contrasting avuncular charm and rages towards domestic struggles and occasional comic interludes with his neighbour, Reg (Roland Culver). The plotting includes some important details such as Jim’s recognition that Richard will be facing National Service, a concept most audiences under 70 will probably have forgotten about. Richard also wants to be an engineer and seems enthusiastic about something that was once a British strength. By contrast, the script does nothing with Jim’s designer skills, his role as a designer is a plot point and not much else. Heathcliff is actually the most interesting character.

Richard (John Fraser) and Peggy (June Thorburn) fall quickly for each other, but their passion is represented by a meeting in an ice cream parlour.

The film’s setting is the Fletcher home in a Chelsea house with a basement kitchen. The house is part of a studio set with a pub handy across the road. It’s very quiet and Jim and Reg can stand in the middle of the road in the late evening, drunkenly talking and larking about. A few yards from the set is the ‘real’ London of the Albert Bridge and the Embankment – which is actually quite well-used as the setting for the romance.  Barr’s comparison with The Ladykillers is valid, but the more revealing comparison is with John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK 1958). This odd excursion for Ford is a mix of police procedural and family melodrama, filmed in Technicolor with Hawkins as Inspector Gideon and also paterfamilias with a lively daughter played with pizzaz by Anna Massey, a music student who becomes involved with a bright young police constable. Ironically, Ford’s film was co-scripted by the Ealing writer ‘Tibby’ Clarke (writer of Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob). The script is full of comic moments amongst some rather grisly crime stories. My focus in the comparison with Touch and Go is the contrasting characterisation of the daughters. June Thorburn as Peggy is lovely and convincing in her role but she seems a young 18 (she was actually 24) and the script has her attending what appears to be a secretarial school for middle-class girls. The mothers in these films seem to be stay at home housewives even though their children are independent young women. Anna Massey’s music student has the banter of an arts student and the drive and the wit. Peggy looks beautiful on the dancefloor in her rather formal gown, even though the music is trad jazz with a trumpet solo played by Richard’s fellow student. Bill Rose’s script is so timid that the potential in the characters rarely develops into anything. Charles Barr makes the point that the Ealing films in his ‘End’ phase seem almost primed to become TV sitcoms, soaps and dramas. At the end of 1955 the Ealing Studios lot was actually sold to the BBC and, breaking with Rank, Ealing moved to the MGM British lot in Borehamwood in 1957. The Ealing site would now become the production centre for ‘cop shows’. Jack Hawkins made The Long Arm for Ealing in 1956, a ‘police procedural’ film in some ways looking forward to Z-Cars on TV. Pat Jackson’s Ealing film about nurses in training, The Feminine Touch (1956) could also be seen as the precursor for hospital soaps. Following ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), the BBC created Angels (1975-83) focusing on student nurses.

The potential of Touch and Go to tap into the migration narrative of the post-war period seems to have been deliberately ignored and this seems strange given Ealing’s ventures into Australian productions. Between 1945 and 1972, Australia funded an assisted passage scheme whereby migrants could travel to Australia from the UK for just £10. This was part of the ‘White Australia’ policy and was also linked to the movement of children in care, the focus of Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus 2010). Alongside these dubious policies, Australia also encouraged migration from Ireland and several other European countries. Michael Powell eventually made a film about an Italian migrant, They’re a Weird Mob (1962). I do wonder why Ealing chose to develop drama/action pictures in Australia rather than comedies, especially in 1955? The comedy Geordie (UK 1955) in which Bill Travers plays a Scottish highlander who competes in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 attempted to make use of the interest in the games. But perhaps by this stage, Ealing was unprepared to do anything too different? (Ironically Margaret Johnston was born in Australia – and June Thorburn in Karachi). Touch and Go is at best gentle comedy. I laughed out loud just the once.

Puzzle (US 2018)

Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert outside the ‘puzzle shop’

Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.

Agnes completes her first puzzle

Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.

The family at the dinner table, from left Louie (David Denman), Gabe (Austin Abrams), Gabe’s girlfriend Nikki (Liv Hewson), Agnes and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler)

She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)

Out of the house and walking across Manhattan

What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.

Agnes at the cabin by the lake

The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.

Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.

The Guardians (Les gardiennes, France-Switzerland 2017)

This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.

Hortense (Nathalie Baye) and daughter Solange (Laura Smet)

Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Paridier (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the younger sister of Clovis? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.

Francine (Iris Bry) does much of the heavy work on the farm

Hortense says goodbye to her son Constant (Nicolas Giraud) watched by her brother Henri (Gilbert Bonneau)

Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.

The harvest in 1915 when the women work together

Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.

Iris Bry has an open and attractive face as Francine

Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.

I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (UK-US 2018)

1979 – Donna (Lily James, centre), Rosie (Alexa Davies, right) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn, left) photos courtesy Universal

It was the Friday of the second week of Mamma Mia 2 and our local cinema had to shift the screening upstairs to its 95 seat cinema since it was opening the latest Mission Impossible movie in Screen 1. I suggested we went early to get a good seat. I was proved right as the audience arrived en masse before even the ads started. There were a handful of older men in the audience, otherwise it was entirely female ranging from around 10 years-old to 80 plus. Usually when the ads play, they are loud and audiences speak quietly to each other. On this occasion I couldn’t hear the ads at all – the chatter, shrieks and laughter in anticipation of the film drowned out all the sound from the screen. When the ‘Intermission’ sign went up after the trailers I did wonder if there would be a riot at the prospect of waiting a further 10 minutes for the film to start. But the audience just chatted on and the projectionist seemingly found a way to start the feature earlier than usual. The audience quietened immediately and behaved impeccably (laughing, groaning and cheering appropriately) from then on.

I mention all this because professional film reviewers seldom see films with audiences and it certainly affects a reading when audience participation is part of the show. I should declare my own snobbery here. If I’d remembered that Richard Curtis was involved with the storyline of the film, I might have avoided it altogether. But I forgot and therefore enjoyed the experience like everyone else.

Donna leads a break-out from her graduation ceremony

Following on from Mamma Mia! (2008), the sequel is in many ways actually a prequel. Amanda Seyfried as Sophie is ten years into her marriage. She’s pregnant but her husband is now in New York learning more about the hotel business. She plans a re-opening of the ‘bijou’ hotel she inherited from her mother Donna and invites all the characters from the first film to the opening. But this is also a time of introspection and the first of many flashbacks introduces Lily James as Donna back in 1979 graduating from university and heading to the Greek Islands. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time towards a finale when all the characters are together. The distributors tease the audience with expectations that both Meryl Streep and Cher are in the film. The former has some brief moments and the latter a little bit longer and the chance to sing ‘Fernando’ with a barely recognisable (by me, anyway!) Andy Garcia.

Back to the present. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) with Christine Baranski as Tanya (left) and Julie Walters as Rosie (right)

What to make of this $75 million ‘juke-box’ musical? Well, you can’t go wrong with Adriatic sunshine (Vis, Croatia), Abba songs and some excellent troupers. There is one moment of comedy genius from Julie Walters, Cher is worth her one song and the new younger cast members have plenty of energy. I felt a bit sorry for Amanda Seyfried who I think is up-staged by Lily James (who gets the better songs/production numbers). I remember being impressed by Ms James in The Darkest Hour in a very different role. Overall, however, I don’t think the narrative holds much interest and I couldn’t detect any sub-text. It also doesn’t make much sense. If Sophie was conceived in 1979 she would have been nearly 30 when she married in 2008 and nearly 40 now – or is this film set in 2009? It is indeed a juke-box musical. You pays your money and you get the songs. I didn’t feel short-changed. As the golden age musicals had it ‘That’s Entertainment!’

I feel that this second film is a bit more bland than the first and possibly a bit slicker and more ‘Americanised’. It’s still essentially a British-Swedish production but presumably there is more American money behind it. (I note that Wikipedia calls the two films ‘American musicals’, which is a bit rich.) The second film has so far followed the first in making much more at the box-office outside North America compared to the Hollywood ‘domestic’ market. The director is Ol Parker, best-known for the ‘Marigold Hotel’ films and Catherine Johnson, the original writer of the stage musical is still involved. But what happened to the original director Phyllida Lloyd? Will the dilution of the Streep role harm the second film’s ‘legs’ at the box-office? We’ll see. I’m assuming that the first film’s audience skewed older and female.