Pleasure Island is an interesting example of a film from an almost invisible sector of British filmmaking, producing films that don’t often get a theatrical profile. IMDB suggests that Pleasure Island had a budget of around £800,000 – which is in line with the bulk of British films that now often cost less to produce than high-end TV drama (defined as costing over £1 million per hour). Many UK films are actually micro-budget productions below £500,000. It’s only the Hollywood co-productions and those films backed by BBC/BFI/Channel 4 that manage a higher budget and a significant UK cinema release. Pleasure Island, independently produced by Achilles Entertainment (the company set up by the lead actor and his producer-partner), achieved a screening slot at the East End Film Festival in London in July 2015. It had already been picked up for distribution by Metrodome, one of the leading independent UK distributors, and it showed for a couple of weeks on a single cinema screen in August. The first week included a ‘local premiere’ at the Parkway Cinema in the seaside town of Cleethorpes where the story is set and the film was shot. Out on DVD and VOD at more or less the same time, the film did generate reviews in the UK press and online. Whether this will have helped the video sales is a moot point, but it shows that the current distribution model can just about accommodate films of this kind.
The film’s title refers to a local amusement park in Cleethorpes on the Lincolnshire coast. Dean (Ian Sharp) returns to his home town after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the details of his service are kept sketchy). He gets a less than enthusiastic reception from his singleton father (mother isn’t mentioned) and an initial brush-off from the young woman he seeks out – Jess (Gina Bramhill). Later we realise that Dean’s best mate Adam has been killed in Afghanistan and that Dean needs to tell Jess and her small son what happened to him. Dean’s only support appears to be another old mate, Nathan, who runs an amusement arcade. Both Dean’s father and Jess seem to be involved in some way with a local crime operation involving drugs and the sex trade. It seems inevitable that Dean is going to have to attempt to extricate them in some way.
The mainstream critics such as Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and Hannah McGill in Sight & Sound were negative in their responses but the online reviewers were more positive – which perhaps says more about the tastes and interests of the two sets of reviewers than it does about the film itself. I found the film quite difficult to place. It starts as an almost social realist drama, strives at times for an expressive use of landscape and eventually morphs into a more generic crime fiction story. I don’t mean to suggest that it is incoherent. In fact it’s well put together, technically accomplished and the performances are strong. It could be tightened up in the editing and the female roles are limited – which is especially sad since Gina Bramhill obviously has the potential to offer much more.
The strength of the film is the setting and this comes across in the DVD extras which are unusually useful in explaining the background. Many of the creative team and the lead actors are from the region. They found shooting in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, towns not often used in UK film and TV, very straightforward and there is a genuine sense of this being a ‘local film’ despite director Mike Doxford having come up from London. The last film I remember that shot in Grimsby was Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2006) with its debutant young star Thomas Turgoose as Grimsby’s new celebrity. The Shane Meadows connection prompts two observations. This Is England‘s story was set in the outskirts of Nottingham but scenes were shot in Grimsby to qualify for funding from Screen Yorkshire. I wonder why Achilles Entertainment didn’t seek regional public funding? Perhaps they did but didn’t get it for some reason? Pleasure Island also has some similarities with another Meadows film, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) with Paddy Considine as an ex-serviceman returning and dispensing ‘justice’. I think the seaside setting makes enough ‘difference’ in relation to the generic tropes of returning soldier etc. and it’s remarkable how similar some of the elements of Pleasure Island are to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (UK 2000). Cleethorpes and ‘Pleasure Island’ instead of Margate and ‘Dreamland’, young mother and son, involvement with the sex trade, the amusement arcade as a focus etc. The two films are actually very different but Doxford does capture something of the sadness of seaside towns in modern Britain. The director is himself a cinematographer and one of the production decisions was to use a number of helicopter shots to show the coastline. This reminded me of Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995) with its aerial views of Blackpool. On relatively low-budget films these occasional aerial shots can literally ‘lift’ the visual style and bring vitality to the narrative.
There has been an interest in crime narratives and seaside settings in British films since at least Brighton Rock (1949) and they were revived considerably by scenes from Mona Lisa (1986). Seaside settings also turn up in several horror and mystery films. I think that perhaps the problem with Pleasure Island is that the settings aren’t used enough and that the narrative possibilities offered by the coastal community and its characters are similarly not exploited enough. For instance Grimsby Docks features at one point, offering a location with great potential and while the East European connections to the sex trade are mentioned, again the potential for intrigue is not followed up. The final action sequence could really have taken place anywhere. The distribution company emphasises the violence in the film (see the trailer below) but the narrative is much more than that. It’s a difficult task to create a British independent genre feature. Everyone involved in Pleasure Island has put the effort in to make this feature but in the end I think the story needed another element. (The rather eccentric mode of smuggling drugs into the country is apparently based on a real incident – it is a nice touch but overall the film still falls just short.)
Yes, it is welcome opportunities to see films in their proper format, 35mm. The Hebden Bridge Picture House is starting a regular slot on the first Saturday of the month. And the next feature is the 1961 film, Whistle Down the Wind. This is a fine drama, with location filming in Lancashire by Arthur Ibbetson. Most famously it is one of the films that established Hayley Mills as a star. It was also the first film feature for Alan Bates, the start of an illustrious career on celluloid. There is [as usual in British films] a strong supporting cast and fine music by Malcolm Arnold.
This was one of the production efforts of Richard Attenborough when he was [with colleagues like Bryan Forbes] producing interesting and distinctive British films. It is a children’s story and a parable, very much offering their point-of-view on the adult world. As is often the case, including in a series of British films, this point-of-view asks questions about how adults regard their world. It is a definitely a film to be seen on the big screen.
Then the Hyde Park Picture House have the highly praised Carol on 35mm. This is on the same Saturday as Whistle Down the Wind, but fortunately it is also on the Sunday as well. Carol has been praised for the acting of the two leads, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. But it also has a fine supporting cast and excellent production design by Judy Becker. What should be particularly well served by 35mm is the cinematography of Edward Lachman, who shot the film on Super 16 Kodak film. The adaptation follows closely the very fine novel by Patricia Highsmith, (for me, a fan, possibly her finest) but also adds a couple of significant variations. These serve the cinematic rendering of the story extremely well.
If perchance you miss the latter it is also screening at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on March 23rd. The bad news so far is that there is no sign of The Hateful Eight on either 70mm or 35mm around West Yorkshire.
Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).
One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.
The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.
I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.
The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.
I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.
Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:
This is the new film by Menelik Shabazz [BBFC certificate 15]. Rather like his last feature, The Story of Lovers’ Rock (2011) this is a documentary study. On this occasion instead of revisiting Afro-Caribbean and music history this film has a contemporary focus:
‘It is a film about love and relationships between man and woman in the 21st century. Why are there so many single people of all ages out there? What is love? How do we keep a good relationship going? We all need love but why do we sabotage the very thing we need? What is the backdrop to our often dysfunctional behaviour and what does mum and dad have to do with it? I am going in real deep on this one, taking people to places many have never been before or rarely visit- in mind, body and soul. I have got interviews with people who are single, in relationships, psychologists, relationships coaches, spoken word artists all giving real talk about the thing that really matters in our life. It’s not all serious we got a number of interviews with comedians (Kojo, Eddie Kadi, Slim, Andi Osho, Mr Cee, and Donna Spence) which I guarantee you will have you in stitches.’
Like the earlier film this promises to be a fascinating but also entertaining film discussion. There is a screening tonight [January 15th at 7.45 p.m. at the Seven Arts Centre in Chapel Allerton. And Menelik will be there for a Q&A following the film. Definitely worth a trek up to North Leeds.