Category: Biopic

Mary Shelley (UK-Luxembourg-Ireland 2018)

Elle Fanning as Mary, writing in her secret place – by her mother’s grave

This year celebrating women in cinema has many anniversaries to promote. One of the most important is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley. This film was surely conceived as a celebration of the bi-centenary. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of a promotional push for it. Or perhaps there has – perhaps in women’s magazines and websites/social media? It’s certainly an interesting second feature for director Haifaa Al-Mansour, following Wadjda in 2013, especially as 2018 is the year in which Saudi women have got the legal right to apply for a driving licence for the first time and cinemas are finally being opened in the Kingdom. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which is commemorated in Mike Leigh’s new film and which brings us to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband and a radical poet who wrote a long poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ after hearing about the massacre. His inspirational words “Ye are many – they are few”, are still quoted today. Unfortunately, Peterloo and other events such as the Napoleonic Wars are not mentioned in the film, but it’s necessary to be aware of Percy’s radicalism alongside Mary’s amazing creativity. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), died a few days after her daughter was born and her story hangs heavy over Mary.

This is an independent film with funding from three countries. In practical terms, some of location work was in Luxembourg and much of the studio work and post-production was in Ireland. The BFI had a lesser role I suppose but the cast is primarily British apart from Elle Fanning as Mary. The history of the production begins with debutant Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen who received funding support from Screen NSW and Screen Australia and whose agent sold the project to an American producer, who in turn attached Al-Mansour (who had studied in Sydney). Elle Fanning was cast early and then HanWay (the UK company led by Jeremy Thomas) took over as producer and international sales agent.

Mary with her step-sister Claire (Bel Powley)

What kind of costume/heritage/historical biopic (as well as ‘romance’) does Mary Shelley turn out to be? It could be one of those traditional Hollywood studio biopics – except this isn’t a studio pic as such. Could it be one of those BBC-style costume pics or something more radical and modernist? For me, Elle Fanning does rather push it towards Hollywood, though the overall look and feel of the film make it appear more realist in the mode of BBC adaptations of 19th century novels. As Mary, Fanning is perhaps too tall, too healthy and too attractive. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but she stands out as a ‘star actor’. I’m assuming that the initial producer thought getting her on board would make finding financial backing easier and that’s probably correct. I am not criticising Ms Fanning who is undoubtedly a talented actor, but there are many young British actors – Florence Pugh for instance – who might have been considered. As it is, Pugh’s co-star in The Falling (UK 2014), Maisie Williams, is rather wasted in a minor role in Mary Shelley – her status as a star of Game of Thrones came too late perhaps? I think that one possible pointer to what kind of film Mary Shelley might have become is offered by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (France-Australia-UK 2009) about the young John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a similar pairing of two ‘creative’ young lovers at roughly the same ‘moment’ in history as Mary and Percy. It’s an unfair comparison because Jane Campion, Ben Whishart and Abbie Cornish have more experience. It’s interesting though because both films originated in Australia. Campion chose a title that didn’t immediately suggest the costume biopic and Mary Shelley in fact began with the title A Storm In the Stars – there are at least two scenes in the film in which gazing at the night sky features prominently.

If Bright Star was set in rural Hampstead with flowers and butterflies and cottage gardens, Mary Shelley is signed as ‘gothic romance’ from the get-go. The beginnings of the industrial age are in the background (and so is the not-mentioned war). The key London locations are dark and gloomy St. Pancras and upper-class Bloomsbury, the former partly a studio construction, the latter a Dublin street? The film’s plot gives no indication of specific dates. I found this odd since these were two ‘real lives’ lived at a time when sudden death was not unusual. But perhaps it is just me who wants the clear historical context? As far as I can work out, the narrative begins in 1813, Mary meets Percy in 1814. In 1816 they spend the summer by Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori and the short story idea for Frankenstein is first developed. The novel is published in 1818 and the narrative ends around 1819.

Mary and Claire with Shelley (Douglas Booth) are welcomed to the chateau by Lake Geneva by Byron (Tom Sturridge)

Elsa Lanchester as Mary with Douglas Walton as Shelley and Gavin Gordon as Byron in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’

The film is presented as a romance and as an introduction to the origins of the Frankenstein story – thus the gothic romance. It should be a very dark and passionate story – and a very sexy one. I’m trying to imagine the production meetings and the arguments about how much to ‘push’ the more salacious possibilities of the story and how important a sense of repression/restraiint might be. Although I enjoyed the film I do think it feels rather stifled in its attempts to reach its potential. The script is in tune with the current campaigns around ‘MeToo’ and sexual abuse and with the suppression of the true authors (Mary and Polidori) of stories passed off as the work of Shelley and Byron. That’s all fine but it loses some of its impact when Shelley (Douglas Booth) and Byron (Tom Sturridge) are poorly developed characters with no real substance. They came across to me like a pair of public school boys – privileged and cruel but not displaying any real talent. (By contrast, Stephen Dillane as Godwin, Mary’s father, seems just right.) The whole Lake Geneva sequence cried out for something like the appearance of Elsa Lanchester as Mary in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. 1816 was the ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in which crops failed and the skies were dark with rain – I don’t think enough of this is made in the film. I’m guessing that the budget limitations were partly to blame. Overall though I think the narrative just doesn’t have enough ‘passion’ and ‘wildness’, the key features of Romanticism.

The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx, France-Belgium-Germany 2017)

A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx. The 200th anniversary of his birthday fell on May 5th 2018. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European (and now the world) bourgeoisie. That is perhaps the reason why the film had such a limited showing in Britain. The title is distributed on a DCP by the ICA Cinema, who frequently provide good service for film fans starved of quality cinema.. Unfortunately it seems that only nine exhibitors took up the offer. In Leeds/Bradford it was zero. You could have travelled over to the Hebden Bridge Picture House in West Yorkshire for an evening screening. For South Yorkshire there was a week of screenings at the Sheffield Showroom. And Lancastrians could have seen it at the HOME in Manchester. Leeds, which in decades gone by had an active Communist Party Branch, seems to have it in for Marxists. The Great October Socialist Revolution passed with only a solitary screening of The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga 1927 ) and that was part of a National Tour. The Leeds International Film Festival in November managed not a single film for the commemoration. Yet again the Hebden Bridge Picture House, the Sheffield Showroom and HOME surpassed Leeds/Bradford.

The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Karl Marx (August Diehl ) and Friedrich Engel (Stefan Konarske), the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns (Hannah Steele ).

Over this period Marx was writing for Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News); Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals); Vorwärts! (Forward!), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Marx and Engels jointly published The Holy Family (1845). Marx followed up with The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Note, The German Ideology (Die deutsche Ideologie), beloved of British academics, is a set of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts from 1846. Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League (previously The League of the Just) The Communist Manifesto. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when Das Kapital (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly (Ivan Franek). More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet). Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer).

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work. Intriguingly we see Karl and Jenny making love but not Friedrich and Mary.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins’ La Commune Paris 1871 (2000) which runs for 345 minutes, would have enabled a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis, what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker (Jean-Luc Godard?) might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and the voice of Marx explaining the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre, the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The dialogue is in German, French and English with subtitles. The cinematography is generally well done and offers both black and white and colour in a ratio of 2.35:1. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to Das Kapital. Apparently, in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have “nothing to lose but their chains!”.

¡Viva! Festival 2018: Los adioses (Mexico 2017)

Karina Gidi as the ‘adult’ Rosario

Rosario Castellanos was a major figure in twentieth century Mexican literature. Born in 1925, she became one of the leading members of the so-called ‘1950 Generation’ who became highly influential. Rosario was a socialist feminist and produced volumes of poetry, essays and three semi-autobiographical novels. In 1971 she was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel on the basis of her importance as a writer and activist. She died tragically as the result of a domestic accident in Tel Aviv in 1974. Some claimed her death was suicide and there have been attempts to place her alongside Sylvia Plath as a feminist writer.

Tessa Ia as the young Rosario

‘Los adioses’ translates literally as ‘The Goodbyes’ but has been given the English title ‘Eternal Feminine’. I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fits film marketing ideas. The film is a partial biopic focusing on two distinct periods in Rosario’s life – her ’emergence’ in the early 1950s and the period around the birth of her son in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The film narrative distorts the time periods slightly and offers two sets of actors playing the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) in 1950 and an older version (Karina Gidi) roughly ten years later. At a student meeting, the young Rosario is challenged in a student meeting by Ricardo Guerra (Pedro De Tavira). Although he is attracted to her and makes a play for her, he marries someone else and it is not until 1958 that an older Ricardo (the Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho – soon to appear on UK screens in Zama), having divorced his wife, now marries an older Rosario. The director Natalia Beristáin had only directed one complete feature and an episode in a portmanteau film before she took on Los adioses and she takes some brave decisions. The film opens with some ‘out of focus’ footage behind the titles that eventually becomes clear as a close-up of two bodies intertwined. We don’t yet know if this is the younger or older pair of actors but the aesthetic of close-ups and shallow focus has been established. Most of the film is set indoors in various apartments and rooms of the federal university in Mexico. I think the only trip away is back to the southern state of Chiapas where Rosario grew up as a small child. This time she goes back to receive an award – and Ricardo behaves badly.

An example pf the close-up style of the film

I was a little surprised that more isn’t made of Rosario’s childhood. Her family originally owned land in Chiapas, the most southerly state with the greatest variety of indigenous peoples. Rosario was sympathetic to the plight of the Mayan people who worked on the land and, perhaps because the state bordered Guatemala she was also interested in Pan-Latin American ideas. Probably this history would have complicated the narrative too much so it is referenced obliquely in only a couple of scenes apart from the return visit. Instead the focus is on Rosario as a woman who is a writer, a teacher and an advocate of women’s rights who struggles in a patriarchal society. Ricardo is a Professor of Philosophy. My understanding from the film is that he was excited and challenged by Rosario’s talents but then became jealous of her success. Eventually he became the kind of husband who in the 1950s forced Rosario to choose her work or her child. The film narrative sees him develop from a lover to the worst kind of man for a woman like Rosario. The final sequence juxtaposes Rosario’s lectures to her students about patriarchy and the real battle that she faces in her home and in the university staffroom.

This trailer with English subs suggests that Los adioses is going to get a release over the border in the US, as it definitely should. There are large Hispanic speaking potential audiences there and there are certainly audiences for both female directors and stories like this about feminists who tried to make a difference. The trailer also usefully presents both the visual aesthetic of close-ups and shallow/deliberately blurred focus and the back and forth editing style. (The film is also going to get a release in France, so when will it come to the UK?)

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK 2017)

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening on a vintage tube train in 1979

I’m not sure Gloria Grahame ever got top billing in a film (except in the long-forgotten Prisoners of the Casbah (1953)), but she was undoubtedly a real Hollywood star for roughly a decade from 1947-59. I remember the book, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool being published in the late 1980s. Peter Turner told the true story of how as a young actor he met Grahame in London, became her lover and friend and then two years later took the dying actor home to his family in Liverpool. I haven’t read the book, but according to readers and what Turner himself says, the new film keeps the main elements of the story and its nonlinear structure – moving backwards and forwards in time and place, sometimes seamlessly so that a dreamlike tone is achieved. The real events took place between 1979 and 1981 and it is has taken some thirty years to put the story on screen since David Puttnam took the first option on the rights. Apart from cinephiles and Golden Age film fans, most contemporary cinemagoers won’t necessarily know much about her films and Turner himself admits that he saw her films on DVD after her death. There were seven people in the audience for the screening we attended on a wet Sunday night. That’s a shame because it is a good film about an iconic figure.

Ms Grahame became trapped within a persona which was read by audiences as a sexy young woman who circumstances placed in unfortunate situations. There was an intelligence associated with the character, a skill with dialogue delivered in an unmistakeable voice and there was both a cheeky stance and an edge to her performances in several classic films noirs. In her best performance, in In a Lonely Place (1950), she matched Humphrey Bogart stride for stride. This was the role in which the reality of life in Hollywood seeped into the film’s narrative in several ways. Bogart’s company produced the film and Grahame was cast because Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall couldn’t be released from her studio contract. Grahame was then directed by Nick Ray, the husband she was in the process of divorcing. Ironically in today’s febrile climate, that film was about male abuse of women and Gloria Grahame certainly knew about what that could mean in Hollywood. Contracted to RKO, she feared Howard Hughes as the studio boss and felt that because of him she lost the opportunity to appear in Born Yesterday, the film that made Judy Holliday a star. It was another two years before she made her Oscar-winning performance in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (as Best Supporting Actor). She appeared in several major films including the terrific Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959 with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan (the villain from Crossfire in 1947 in which her film noir persona was first developed). After that, the good roles dried up for an attractive woman and an accomplished actor who was only 36. But Gloria was a trained actor and she could move into TV and back to the stage. She had made two films in the UK in the 1950s and it was during a small-scale theatrical run that she met the jobbing actor Peter Turner in London in 1979.

The story goes that Annette Bening was asked by Stephen Frears, director of The Grifters (1990), to look at Gloria Grahame’s performances in her films noirs in preparation for her own role in a neo-noir. Now Bening is the same age as Grahame was in 1979-81 and she can play her for real. And she is very good indeed, not in the sense of mimicry, but in representing Gloria Grahame as she may well have been in later life. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Peter Turner. It’s a difficult role to play in order to make the romance and friendship work. It isn’t just a difference in age that marks the relationship but also the differences in social class and celebrity. Bell negotiates all of this believably. Some of the other casting decisions seemed a little more questionable to me. Peter Turner came from a large Liverpool family which in the film is represented mainly by brother Joe (Stephen Graham) and mum (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham). All three are well-known faces in the UK (less so in the US, perhaps). Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is not a realist film but I found the trio distracting. Graham, a genuine Scouser, sports what appears to be a comedy wig, recalling jokes about bubble perms for Liverpool footballers in 1981. Walters too appears to have a rather prominent wig. Both Graham and Walters are great performers but didn’t work for me here. By contrast, in a California sequence, we see Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother (a teacher of actors) and Frances Barber as her sister Joy (once married to Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, John). This made sense.

I’m a big Gloria Grahame fan and I liked the film very much and yes, the tears came at the end. But what intrigued me about it most of all was the look and tone of the film. At its most extreme this was apparent in the California sequence in which Gloria takes Peter to her home by the beach in a spacious trailer. The whole of this sequence, including a drive down an ocean road that might have come from In a Lonely Place, was shot on a Pinewood stage where director Paul McGuigan was able to use the largest film screen ever built for a back projection exercise. The images were created by multiple digital projectors and the results can be seen in the clip below:

The intention was to evoke the style of the films noirs in which Gloria made her name. It certainly worked for me and I found the same sense of slight surrealism in many of the location shot sequences back in the UK. Liverpool in 1981 was characterised by ‘uprisings’ in Toxteth and a certain amount of desolation as industry collapsed and housing was not ‘regenerated’. Many parts of the city have changed considerably over the last twenty years. I kept thinking about the autobiographical films of Terence Davies such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). These invoked the Liverpool streets of the 1950s. Paul McGuigan’s film is probably quite different and I’d see this if I put them side by side, but the tone took me back to these representations of an earlier period. The ‘head-on’ image of Peter and his Dad in the local pub, with all the Labour posters on the wall works very well.

Kenneth Cranham as Dad with Jamie Bell as Pete Turner in their local

Director Paul McGuigan has had a career of ups and downs in cinema features with some high profile TV work to keep him busy. I hope this film at least pushes him back towards the limelight. It’s also a useful credit for Matt Greenhalgh who stuttered with The Look of Love after a strong beginning with Control and Nowhere Boy. He’s got back some of his Lancashire credentials for me. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Urszula Pontikos and the production design of Eve Stewart (assuming she wasn’t directly responsible for those wigs!).

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate and I’m not sure of what to make of their decisions about its release. The film opened on 150 sites with a screen average of £1,500 and No. 6 in the Top 10. However, after the second weekend and a drop of 54%, the longevity of the film in cinemas is in doubt. It hasn’t done badly and Lionsgate might be correct in thinking their strategy has maximised its potential. Still, it’s an odd approach in the current climate – neither a ‘wide’ mainstream release or a limited specialised release. The film has had plenty of coverage on Radio 4 and in the broadsheets and I think it is aiming for an older audience. It might do well on DVD. It’s the kind of film that perhaps doesn’t fit the current Picturehouse/Curzon audience (though they have probably sold the most tickets for it). Distribution in the UK is in such a state of flux that I guess ‘nobody really knows what to do with a film like this. My recommendation is to go and see it if it appears near you. The BFI have also re-released In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat, but only on a handful of screens. These are the two best films that Gloria Grahame appeared in (and two of her best performances). See them first, if you can, then this film. Ms Grahame was a great Hollywood star who deserves to be remembered. There is a Sight and Sound essay by Serena Bramble in the December 2017 issue and a video essay here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/in-her-eyes-notes-gloria-grahame

Here are trailers for The Big Heat (1953) and In a Lonely Place (1950):

The BFI’s Gloria Grahame season continues on the South Bank until 30 December.