This film, written by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson, is one of the best films from (what is sometimes called) The British New Wave.
Partly filmed in West Yorkshire the film has a splendid performance by Richard Harris as Rugby League star Frank Machin. And opposite him is Rachel Roberts, equally fine as widow Margaret Hammond. The film is about about Machin’s career in a Yorkshire League club but also his doomed relationship with Margaret. The fine screenplay and acting is ably supported by the black and white cinematography of Robert Gerhard and (especially good) the editing by Peter Taylor.
Lindsay Anderson was a key member of the new-style cinema in the 1960s. He was also an influential writer and mentor. His film output never quite matched his talents, but with this film and the better-known If… (1968) he left two memorable films.
Karel Reisz, who produced the film, commented that it was
“the most completely achieved of the “new wave” films, because the most passionately felt and ambitious.” (In Never Apologise The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, edited by Paul Ryan, Plexus 2004).
The ambition is apparent in the radical style of the film, most noticeable in the editing: the timeframe and structure of the narration approach the avant-garde. This is a film that shows most clearly the influence of the nouvelle vague on British film at this time.
There is a fine supporting cast, including Alan Badel, William Hartnell, Colin Blakely and Vanda Godsell. Whilst the film’s techniques are impressive, the drama is absorbing and moving. So the good news is that Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening it as part of their ‘reel films’ in 35mm on Saturday June 4th. The last time I saw the print it looked good (in 1.66:1), certainly better than the recent DCP transfer which did not serve the cinematography well, and which made some back projection fairly obvious.
This film was screened at the Hebden Bridge Picture House in their ‘reel film’ series. The cinema now has a new set of custom-built seats in the auditoriums, replacing those damaged during the ravages of the floods in the area. These new seats are comfortable, well designed and roomy. So the cinema can now seat nearly 500 patrons. There were not quite that many for this screening, but it was an appreciative audience. The 35mm print was good quality with both the colour and definition looking fine. There was a little emergency with the projector just before the feature and there was not time to reset the shutter. So we had some occasional ‘ghosting’ but this was not realty noticeable.
The film is an acting vehicle with a fine company of experienced British actors. It is adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood which is a study of the important [but now almost defunct] actor-manager tradition of British repertory theatre. The main character is modelled on the real-life Sir Donald Wolfit: if you ever saw him on stage or film, or indeed heard him on radio, then this characterisation by Albert Finney is instantly recognisable. In fact, the writer Ronald Harwood worked with Wolfit for a number of years.
The film is set in Yorkshire during World War II. The original play was set in Plymouth, which made more sense of an air aid which occurs during one performance. The film uses locations in Halifax and Bradford, including Branford’s Alhambra Theatre. These are very well done and give the film a sense of realism rather separate from the artificial world of the theatre. The latter show us both backstage and front-of-house. The former is an inventory of stagecraft and offers a variety of cameos. Meanwhile the packed audiences are of a varied composition, with both working class and middle class members and members of the armed forces. This reminded me of the centrality of wartime culture that one finds in the films of Humphrey Jennings.
In one way the film is dominated by the performance of Albert Finney as the ‘Sir’ – star and manager of the company. But the title role is his personal dresser, played by Tom Courtenay, who also starred in the original stage production. Both are excellent, displaying all their crafts to characterise both the larger-than-life actor/manager and his devoted but rather camp valet. The performances, as with the theatrical sequences, show the tenor of the original theatrical origins of the story. However, there is a low-key and nicely underplayed performance by Eileen Atkins as the troupe’s stage manager. Between them the film and the performances offer humour, drama, irony and finally a certain sadness.
The film opens with the closing scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. The bulk of the film is a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. And there are references or even dialogue from ‘As You Like It’, ‘Hamlet’ ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Richard III’. More than this, the plot is modelled partly on ‘King Lear’ with interpolations from the other plays. These variations on the Bard’s works are very effective. This was a good start to Shakespeare’s anniversary.
Sadly Alan Rickman ended his career last month. He was one of the most interesting actors in British cinema in recent decades. His prime acting focus was the theatre and he bought to film the craft skills common among thespians trained for this medium. Among the accolades awarded him was ’46th best villain in film history’. A notable achievement when measured against the like of Jules Berry, James Cagney, Robert Ryan or Ann Savage.
He attracted notice first on film as a villain: Hans Gruber in the original Die Hard(1988). The sheer aplomb of his follow-up to a demand to release terrorists in jail, ‘I read about them in Time magazine’ makes it stand out in the film’s dialogue. His film follow-up as the Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991) was equally memorable. Who would not vote for a politician with a policy to ‘Abolish Christmas’. Rickman himself is quoted as saying ” I don’t play villains, I play very interesting people.” His villains were certainly were more interesting than the heroes they combated. Rickman had that assurance, found amongst really fine actors, of being able to pitch over the top and be effective.
He was also voted among the ‘sexiest screen actors’ in another poll. One thinks of his Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995), who has so much more oomph than the character in the Austen novel: indeed more oomph than his film rival John Willoughby (Greg Wise). He was also good at very serious drama. He and Juliet Stevenson were memorable in the very fine Truly, Madly Deeply from BBC’s Screen 2 in 1990. And in a totally different vein he was the passing stranger/Samaritan with Sigourney Weaver in the Canadian Snow Cake 2006. The same year saw him as the angst father, Richis, in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
Since I only saw the first of the Harry Potter film adaptations I missed his Severus Snape in the several episodes of the chronicle. However, I really enjoyed his Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest (1999) – I can actually watch Star Trek now with a quiet smile.
Happily the Hebden Bridge Picture House is offering a tribute with a screening of Blow Dry (2001) in which Rickman plays the hairdresser competing in a major Championship. A plus, the film is set in Keighley, seemingly a popular location for British films. This is one of those comedies with its own distinctive British flavour: scripted by Simon Beaufoy of The Full Monty (1997) success. And Rickman plays opposite another lost British actor, Natasha Richardson. Moreover, on this occasion the film is screening in its original 35mm format.
Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.
The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.
Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.
A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.
On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.