Category: British Cinema

Rare 4K treats!

The Sight & Sound letter page in the March issue had a good letter from Adam MacDonald raising the issue of identifying 4K releases into cinemas. He suggested that this was something that the magazine could offer readers. Unfortunately the only response printed to date is from Patrick Fahy who supervises the ‘Credits’ for the magazine. He suggests asking at cinemas: what is called ‘passing the buck’.

In Leeds Vue used to have a little box on their Online pages which gave this information. That has disappeared and now if you ask at the desk they have to try and find someone who actually knows about this. On my one visit to The Everyman they thought I was asking about the sound! Other multiplexes with 4K projectors offer a similar ‘service’.

The one venue with 4K projectors who do provide the information is Picturehouse at the Science + Media Museum in Bradford. The Picturehouse CityScreen in York also has a 4K projector but they do not seem to offer similar information. So good news. This coming week there are, not one, but two films on DCP in 4 K. Over the whole of last year I only counted ten releases in 4K, so this is a feast.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a joint USA/British production. It is an adaptation of the novel by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. This title is in colour, standard widescreen and has 7.1 sound.  It was directed by Mike Newell.

Custody / Jusqu’à la garde, a French film from 2017 scripted and directed by Xavier Legrand. This is in colour and 2.39:1 ratio with English sub-titles.

Of course, you need to attend a screening in the Pictureville auditorium which actually has the 4K projector,. Note, Custody seems to only have one screening in Pictureville on Wednesday April 25th: the rest are in Cubby Broccoli which only has a 2K projector.

Is this a positive portent for the future or just one isolated highlight?

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The Silent Child (UK 2017)

Libby (Maisie Sly) and Joanne (Rachel Shenton)

It’s great to be able to comment on this Oscar-winning short film that has received two screenings on BBC1 over Easter and is currently on iPlayer (UK only?). Overseas it also seems to be available via Amazon and iTunes. The film gained an international promotional platform with its Oscar win as Best Live Action Short a few weeks ago.

The Silent Child is a 20 minute short presenting the story of Libby (played by the deaf actor Maisie Sly), a pre-school child who is profoundly deaf and who seems withdrawn and miserable living in a busy and middle-class household in an isolated house in rural England. In a last attempt to do something for Libby before she faces the daunting experience of starting school without the ability to communicate with other children (or her teachers), her mother Sue hires Joanne as a one-to-one tutor. When both parents and their teenage son and daughter go off to work, Joanne, played by the film’s writer Rachel Shenton, sets to make contact with Libby and gradually over the next few days and weeks teaches her the basics of BSL (British Sign Language). Libby’s world and her outlook on it is changed dramatically. But as the school start date draws near, Joanne learns that Sue has decided to stop the tuition. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative but by this stage many audiences will be in tears and shouting at the screen in frustration. The film ends with some on-screen text that presents the film’s underlying argument in five short statements.

Libby is fascinated by seeing two people signing in a café

For me, this film works very well in presenting its argument in the form of a beautifully-made narrative. The performances are very good and Maisie Sly is phenomenal. I was intrigued to look at the IMDb entry. It hadn’t occurred to me that all the nominated shorts would be reviewed before the Oscars. Some clearly gave the film no chance because the other ‘issues’ struck them as more gripping for (US?) audiences. Some objected to seeing a PSA (public service announcement) film there at all and trotted out the common prejudice about being ‘preached at’. The ‘User comments’ on the other hand are often from viewers who have experienced the issue themselves as parents, teachers or as deaf people. Many give the film 9/10 or 10/10.

Long shots are well used in creating location and the sense of isolation

I’ve written before about short films and the difficulties that the format creates for writers and directors. There is little point reviewing a 20 minute film as if it was simply a shorter version of a feature film. There isn’t the ‘narrative time’ to introduce and develop characters nor the kind of budget to create the ‘narrative space’ in which to set an expansive story. Instead, filmmakers have to think carefully about what kind of narrative they can create and how to make a strong impact given the constraints. The team which made this film are not very experienced as feature filmmakers, though for young ‘creatives’ they have extensive experience of television series as actors. Rachel Shenton experienced her father’s rapid onset of deafness and she has become a signer and an activist in the deaf community. Her partner Craig Overton is a first-time director. I was impressed by the CinemaScope cinematography by Ali Farahani, who also has limited feature film experience but a strong background in a diverse range of other film productions. The Silent Child is actually quite complex in terms of the ‘narrative data’ it offers audiences and the presentation of the narrative is in one sense quite conventional but makes good use of familiar visual language and symbolism. This may be dismissed as ‘melodrama’ by some, especially in the closing scenes in which music, cinematography and mise en scène combine to ‘express’ the isolation that Libby experiences. It worked very well for me.

The film was shot in winter in rural Staffordshire and the long-shot cinematography makes excellent use of mists/fog, the bare spiky trees and wet country roads. It would be a different film made in summer. The rural location is important – there are no other children of Libby’s age to play with close by. Small rural primary schools might be less stressful in some ways but are also less likely to have the funds to support deaf children and may need to mix children of different ages to make reasonable class sizes. Children start formal school, i.e. not nursery school, early in the UK. In England most children will enter school at the start of the term before they become 5 and join a reception class.

Libby is isolated in the classroom . . .

The family in the film is middle-class and this too is important. Middle-class parents might be expected to be more concerned about educational opportunities and to have the wealth and the social status/ work experience which helps them to argue for support of their children. The script of The Silent Child suggests that Libby’s family has its own internal frictions that perhaps negates some of these advantages. One aspect I did like was that the teenage son who develops a crush on Joanne also learns some sign language. I thought this was done with some subtlety. In some ways the film is also about Joanne. Shenton hasn’t given her own character any real identifying features except that she is energetic, cheerful, personable and has both the knowledge and skills to be a successful teacher. I notice some reviewers (and the film’s official website) refer to her as a social worker or a ‘carer’, neither of which are supported by what happens in the film. Is she self-employed? Does she work for a charity or a publicly-funded service? Either way she could be helpful in negotiating with the primary school.

After her son has identified that Libby is signing, Sue passes a glass of orange juice to her. Libby’s swift signing is subtitled in yellow

As someone working with students and public audiences in cinemas I’ve experienced being asked to work with signers and to be aware of lip readers and hearing loop systems. I’ve always been glad to do so but I remember from my schooling how little we learned (it was a long time ago!) about deafness and how poorly deaf students were supported. The Silent Child has two specific devices to bring home to audiences what it might mean to have hearing loss. At one point during a busy, noisy scene the sound is turned off almost completely – just a few seemingly distant bumps of sound as Libby is cut out of the conversation. The other device is to subtitle Libby’s own signing in yellow to distinguish it from all the other dialogue in the film which is subtitled in white. Most audiences will react to the first time we see Libby try out her new skill. If you haven’t seen the film yet, give it a go. And perhaps watch it a few times? It’s a rich text. Here’s the trailer:

Ghost Stories (UK 2017)

This is a new title directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman which they have adapted from their original stage play. Andy Nyman also stars in the film as ‘Professor’ Goodman. He is actually an investigator with his own television show. His investigations are into fake spiritualist. His guru in this activity is Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) who apparently disappeared some years earlier. But Cameron re-appears and asks Goodman to look into three claims of mystery sighting of ghosts or equivalents. The three investigations occupy much of the film so it operates a little like a portmanteau film.

The BBFC advised that it was ‘strong horror [and] language’. In fact there were only a couple of serious shocks/surprises and the only amount of schlock is right at the end of the film. In between we see Goodman investigate by interviewing the subjects of these ghostly events. The witnesses never complete their stories as we face an abrupt cut at a moment of high tension. The third event is completed verbally after a similar cut.

Such ambiguities are deliberate because the way the narrative works leads up to an unexpected ending. In fact the publicity poster or the film requests audiences not to reveal the ‘secret’ of the ending. What I can note is that the film opens with Goodman’s voice-over narrating flashbacks to his childhood. And one of the aspects of the film is the way that experiences in childhood and at school haunt adults later in life.

I saw the film at a Picturehouse preview. It is fairly well done. The ghostly sequences are effective and not especially scary. The film uses the 2.35:1 frame and there are some well photographed exteriors. The sound adds to the atmosphere with both effects, noises and music. And there is a popular song which emphasises the resolution of the film. The cast also offer an effective representation of characters and events. Jeremy Dyson is from Leeds and there are a number of Yorkshire locations in the production.

The presentation was preceded by a publicity poster on-screen. The film does not quite justify the hype here. But what was slightly odd was that it contained deliberate misspellings [that are not in the standard poster] with reverse lettering and exchanged letters in some of the text. I could not figure how this related to the film. I had also seen the trailer earlier which contained one character who claimed the events were ‘unexplainable’. I found this inexplicable.

The Weaker Sex (UK 1948)

Cecil Parker as Commander Radcliffe and Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane during the lead-up to D-Day

This is another gem from Talking Pictures TV that I’d never heard of before. It’s an intriguing film given the year of its release and its narrative that covers the period from a few days before D-Day in 1944 to the time of the film’s release in 1948. It’s therefore a ‘Home Front’ film covering both the last years of the war and the first three years of peace – and austerity. The continuous theme is about dealing with rationing and attempts to run a home. Not surprising then, the central character is Martha Crane, a middle-class woman in her 40s, widowed and living in her large family house on the south coast near Portsmouth with her two grown-up daughters, both Wrens. Their young brother is in the Navy, serving in the same ship as his older sister’s husband. The spare rooms in the house are occupied by a shore-based naval commander and a young army sergeant (who has quickly developed a relationship with the younger sister). The film opens with the arrival of an agency ‘Mrs Mopp’ hired to relieve Martha of some of the housework. As this character list suggests, the story is based on a stage play by Esther McCracken with the title No Medals.

The playwright Esther McCracken.

I’m surprised that this film does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention. (It’s not mentioned in Robert Murphy’s book about British films and the Second World War.) The film’s title is clearly ironic and in that sense is a nod towards The Gentle Sex (1943), the comedy drama about young women coming forward for various kinds of military service. It also sits alongside Millions Like Us (1943) and This Happy Breed (1944) with its focus on families moving from peace-time into war – though it is the only film of its kind, that I know of, moving from wartime into peace. The film, like the original play before it, seems to have been popular at the box office and given the interest of feminist film scholars in the woman’s picture and home front melodramas of the 1940s, I can only conclude that the film has been unavailable. Now it is free to watch on Bfi Player (only in the UK). The film is also interesting in terms of British film history. It is a ‘Two Cities’ production made at D&P studios (Pinewood). Two Cities was one of the production companies operating under the Rank funding umbrella. It was one of the companies generally expected to provide the ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ productions with the genre films left to Gainsborough and, t0  lesser extent, Ealing. But this function of Two Cities was usually covered by Filippo Del Giudice, the company’s founder. The Weaker Sex is produced by Paul Soskin, a Russian-born producer. It doesn’t appear to have had a particularly large budget, but the cast is strong with Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane and Cecil Parker as the naval commander. Thora Hird is the Mrs Mopp character, Mrs Gaye (‘Mrs Mopp’ was a character in the radio comedy programme ITMA and soon became a popular way to refer to ‘cleaning ladies’). Lana Morris, who would go on to become a familiar face in British films of the 1950s is the younger daughter. Rank contract players such as Bill Owen and Gladys Henson also appear and I spotted Eleanor Summerfield as a bus conductor. The film was the second directed by Roy Baker and it was photographed by Erwin Hillier, already with a high reputation after his work with Powell and Pressburger on A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).

Back to days on the beach after the war

Cecil Parker is excellent as the Commander, offering that seemingly bumbling exterior beneath which a sharp mind and a calm authority can ‘get on with the job’. Ursula Jeans was married to Roger Livesey and the couple appeared together in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). In The Weaker Sex she plays a role that Celia Johnson might have played if the film had been directed by David Lean. The film’s title is ironic and Martha has real strength that no doubt added to the appeal of the film at the UK box office. The focus on Martha (and her daughters) is also important in pointing towards the pressure they feel to contribute to the war effort. Martha feels she hasn’t done enough but the film’s narrative demonstrates the importance of her wartime role on the ‘Home Front’. Whether the audience felt the same about her struggles with rationing after the war was over is another question. I must try to find other films like this.

You Were Never Really Here (UK-France-US 2017)

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe

For just her fourth feature in eighteen years, Lynne Ramsay has again opted for a literary adaptation after Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). She has worked on several other projects in between her finished features but has walked out or been pushed out of many of her starts – she is a woman who knows what she wants and won’t be coerced into anything she doesn’t want to do. You Were Never Really Here won the screenplay prize at Cannes and the best actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix, despite Ramsay’s contention that the film was not ‘completed’. The film now on release is 90 minutes long and the Cannes cut was 85 minutes.

It’s ironic that a ‘visual director’ like Ramsay (who trained first as a photographer) should be interested in stories first published as novels or novellas/short stories such as You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. But then perhaps Lynne Ramsay is interested in finding a visual world to convey what I imagine to be the inner world of the protagonist Joe as presented in the original. If so she has certainly achieved her aim along with her collaborators – principally Thomas Townend as her cinematographer, Joe Bini as editor and Jonny Greenwood as music composer. All three were also with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin (Townend was the DoP for the Spanish shoot on that film).

Joe with his mother (played by Judith Roberts)

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe as a shambling hulk whose heavy beard and unkempt appearance belies his abilities as an enforcer/protector. His body carries the scars which perhaps represent his internal sufferings. He has just finished a job in Cincinatti and when he returns to New York the first clues to a possible unravelling of his business appear. Joe suffers flashbacks which reveal traumas from his time in the Army in the Gulf and in the FBI as well as earlier memories of abuse by his father. All the traumas involve memories of children or teenagers who have been killed or damaged. We are in no doubt that Joe’s next job, to find and rescue the teenage daughter of a politician believed to have been taken to act as a young prostitute in a brothel, is something he will be committed to completing successfully. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to observe that Joe has to deal with a spiralling chaos of events. This is a very violent film – many people are killed. But Lynne Ramsay is not interested in the acts of violence as such, more their effect on Joe himself. His weapon of choice is usually a ball-pein hammer. Townend’s camera is often close to Joe, framing parts of his body. Shallow focus blurs the lights of the night-time city. We cannot be distant observers because we are often dragged into the fray. If you are squeamish like me, you may find the explorations of Joe’s punished body too painful to watch. The young Russian-American actor Ekaterina Samsonov is excellent as the young woman Joe rescues.

Joe with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov)

Several critics have made references to the film as a modern take on Scorsese/Schrader’s classic Taxi Driver (US 1976). It’s not hard to see why. Martin Scorsese, his cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Bernard Herrmann produced a film that was as aesthetically powerful as that of Ramsay/Townend/Greenwood trio. In addition both films feature an army veteran, a young prostitute and a politician in New York City. But the films are actually quite different in terms of both aesthetics and plot even if they have a similar impact on audiences. Ramsay’s use of flashbacks and fantasy/dream sequences creates a different tone to that of Taxi Driver.

Lynne Ramsay on set with Joaquin Phoenix

You Were Never Really Here is such a ‘rich text’ in terms of camerawork, sound, mise en scène and performance that I need to see it again before making other comments. I’d like to congratulate Film 4, BFI and the French company Why Not Productions for having faith in Lynne Ramsay, one of the UK’s most talented and committed filmmakers. I hope she gets another worthwhile project underway whenever she’s ready to commit herself again.

Here’s Lynne Ramsay talking about the film on Film 4:

GFF18 #9: Arcadia (UK 2017)

Look closely at this image to discover ideas about the ‘pastoral’

‘Arcadia’ is a term full of meanings for cultural work. In one definition on Wikipedia it is seen as “a lost, Edenic form of life, contrasting to the progressive nature of Utopian desires”. The name derives from a region of Greece, so that it is through classical studies that is known in the UK. The GFF Brochure describes the film Arcadia as:

A provocative and poetic exploration of Britain’s relationship with its own land  . . . a dense and elegiac essay of wonder, hope, horror and decay.

This shortish documentary feature (78 minutes) was put together by Paul Wright, the director best known for his fiction feature For Those at Peril (UK 2013) about the impact of the deaths of several fishermen on a remote Scottish fishing community. Original music was composed by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. The film was produced by Hopscotch Films, one of the leading Scottish film production companies and supported by the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland.

Flooding is still a hazard perhaps because of lack of abuse of building and planning regulations?

Ears of corn as symbolic?

The film is divided into various chapters and there is a narrative of sorts that reflects the seasons. I have problems writing about these kinds of ‘poetic’ documentaries, especially when the subject matter is so diffuse and difficult to pin down. I find my concentration wanders when there is not a pithy argument to follow. In this case I did recognise some of the ‘found footage’ taken from various film archives as well as extracts from named documentaries and, I think, possibly from some fiction features. The festival blurb for the film suggests that we are:

following an unnamed protagonist from the future as she travels through metaphorical ‘seasons’; from spring’s romantic agricultural idyll to winter’s political turmoil, as nature reacts with violent storms.

I couldn’t make much sense of this.

The big house, a folkloric festival?

What is the relationship between people(s) in the UK and the landscapes of these islands? It’s certainly mixed. For some it’s about the ‘pastoral’ and the concept of living close to nature and some kind of innocence. For others it’s about superstition and inward-looking cultures and for some it’s the ‘folk horror’ of The Wicker Man (UK 1973). Although this film is produced within a Scottish context, many of the ideas in the film seem to come from a rural ‘English’ culture (and are often seen from the perspective of the middle-class – UK archives carry a lot of footage taken by amateur filmmakers, most of whom were middle-class). There is also input of material from the rather disparagingly termed ‘Celtic ‘ and ‘Nordic’ ‘fringes’ – there are several events from Padstow and the Up Helly Aa day from Lerwick. At the beginning of the film I remembered John Major’s famous misuse of Orwell and the “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. We were watching a seemingly timeless scene of an English village coming alive in the morning. I feel that sometimes these images can be a pernicious form of nostalgia. They mask so many political realities across rural England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (North and South). The one extraordinary element I remember from Arcadia was the amount of ‘naturist’ footage. Who on earth shot all of this footage? Is it from a naturist archive? Nubile young women did form more of the naked figures on display, though to be fair there were some naked males as well. What was the point of including this footage? Is it as simple as ‘naturism’ and ‘nature’?

A daring image from an early film in the archives

You might be getting the impression that I was not as enthralled by this film as perhaps I should have been and you would be right. I’m interested in both industrial history and social/cultural history but not the ‘pastoral’ so much. Having said that, Arcadia did remind me of the great film directors who have attempted to use the British landscape. I’m thinking primarily of Michael Powell in The Edge of the World (1937), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Gone to Earth (1950). Powell was a ‘High Tory’ and with Pressburger he was interested in passion expressed through landscapes. I’d love to see a documentary collage of the use of landscapes in British cinema. It would also be interesting to compare Arcadia with Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (UK 1942) as a poetic documentary representation of Britain during the early part of the Second World War. This last year has also seen the release of three successful small independent films dealing with the loneliness of small farming families: God’s Own Country (2017) and Dark River (2017) set in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire respectively and The Levelling (2017) set in Somerset. Arcadia certainly has a subject to explore but perhaps not in the way it worked out. I’ve been rather hampered in writing this review as I haven’t found a full crew list (who edited all the clips – was it Paul Wright himself?) and I struggled to find images, even on the Hopscotch Films site. I’m not sure how Hopscotch Films are going to follow up this festival screening (and previously London and Leeds with Borderlines to come) with a cinema, download or DVD release, but I think they need better promotional materials. The images from the film that I did find were from the website of another production partner Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity with some interesting projects. This film is worth seeing but probably with an introduction and a discussion. It might even work best in a gallery installation. And that reminds me to recommend John Akomfrah’s work, especially The Nine Muses (UK 2010) if this kind of film interests you.

Welcome to Britain (UK 1943)

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Cuppa tea is the key

This documentary made to familiarise American troops with British mores is more than a historical curiosity for two reasons. Firstly it’s an example of a ‘self reflexive’ documentary that draws attention to the making of itself. Bill Nichols, who theorised about different modes of documentary, saw this as a late development; for example he cites Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line (US, 1988). So Welcome to Britain was well ahead of its time. In it the narrator, and co-director with Anthony Asquith, Burgess Meredith discusses with two generals, who are greeting arriving troops, what to say in the film. We see Meredith directing the camera and marshalling the sound. It’s works well as a folksy technique that’s designed to get soldiers to listen to friendly advice.

The rest of documentary eschews the self-reflexive, though Meredith continues to chat to camera. Suitably enough he starts in the pub, a key location in Britain. What follows is pedestrian by today’s standards though there are some good jokes: Meredith asks a guy if he’s been living in his cottage ‘all his life’? The reply: “Not yet.” Bob Hope has a cameo and his huckster persona is put to good effect.

The second reason this is an interesting document is when a ‘nice old lady’ invites a, what the documentary terms, ‘niggra’ (negro) soldier and Meredith to tea. The latter explains to camera that this sort of thing happens here because the British are less prejudiced. In his excellent Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga relates how a white soldier attacked a black one when he found they’d both been invited to tea. Apparently the British liked black soldiers more because they were polite; no doubt because they had learned to tread on eggshells, particularly when talking to white women. The brazen admittance of prejudice is quite shocking to see but at least it is honest.

Asquith went on to have a long career in film and Meredith became best known as ‘the Penguin’ in the 1960s Batman television series.

Dark River (UK 2017)

dark river

Ruth Wilson in Clio Barnard’s ‘Dark River’ (2017)

As a local, I had always slightly resisted the name-change that accompanied Cornerhouse Manchester’s location move, even though it was to a fantastic and purpose-built modern venue, integrating theatre, cinema and art gallery.  Increasingly, however, I’ve had to admit that even the cinema alone has a right to call itself HOME, justified by the range of films showing and their frequent special events; they make me, happily, more of a stranger in my own.

The latest addition to these experiences was a screening, on Friday night, of Clio Barnard’s new film, Dark River (2017).  The film was accompanied by a Q&A, chaired by Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View, with Barnard and her producer (on this and for The Selfish Giant (2013)), Lila Rawlings.

The film itself is a portrayal of a sibling relationship, one existing under the shadow of traumatic past events.  Avoiding any more detail, it is enough to say that this is a powerful story of the effects on those who survive abuse and of the complex legacy of secrecy, complicity and passivity that all of those involved are forced to carry with them.  And, also, without attempting a detailed piece of writing on Barnard and her previous films (her work deserves greater contemplation) this is a call to encourage anyone reading to see this film.

Barnard’s first feature, The Arbor (2010), about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, was a blend of documentary footage and drama. The film layered real places and people, featuring the Arbor estate in Bradford where Dunbar lived; stylistically, this footage constantly intertwined with staged performance.  Professionals acted out excerpts of her plays on the estate and actors lip-synched to audio-interviews with Dunbar’s friends and family, recalling her struggles and her troubled life. Despite its apparent artificiality and the strange dislocation of words and the person speaking them, or really because of it, those experiences were communicated in powerful, emotional terms. Mark Kermode, in introducing the film for the BFI Player, also commented on the ‘truth’ about memory that emerges through its innovation.

Dark River revolves around traumatic memory and represents it sensitively, sparingly and with great emotional power. The Q&A at HOME raised interesting questions which were answered thoughtfully by Barnard and Rawlings, both passionately engaged with the subject matter as well as the perennial challenges of low-budget filming in Britain. Barnard talked about the experience of working with such intuitive and professional actors in Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. Their ability to convey much about a relationship, one which has become wordless through the repression of intolerable feelings, gave her the luxury of being able to strip back the dialogue constantly through the filming. It is a very silent film; Lila Rawlings made a connection the siblings lack of communication and of working within a landscape depicting boundaries. It constructs an unsentimental portrait of this part of the world; Barnard emphasised her commitment to ‘rural realism’ – of her films as engaging with the realities for those who live in these places which can be romanticised in British (English) culture. Place works symbolically in this film, without ever losing touch. Filmed near Skipton, North Yorkshire and around Malham, Barnard, with Adriano Goldman as cinematographer, shoots it spare, rugged and visceral as if seen through its protagonists’ eyes.  Janet’s Foss provided the filming location as the place where Alice can immerse herself under the water – literally and metaphorically. Dark River is part of a disparate, impromptu trilogy, through release timing, with The Levelling (2016) – about a girl returning to her family farm – and God’s Own Country (2017), a love story set in Yorkshire, which represents the countryside as a real world. However, each film has its own very specific qualities onscreen and in the narrative, a validation of the processes at work on each of them and their separate interpretations of ‘rural realism’.

In terms of representing the world of the farming community, I couldn’t help thinking of Far from the Madding Crowd – not just because of the sheep, but because of one point in relation to Thomas Hardy’s stories that I hope Barnard would find sympathetic.  Hardy’s world is a difficult one, of people like Barnard’s characters – struggling, suffering, earning little and understanding their connection to the land in the most difficult way, not just through a superficial love of its beauty. Whilst Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass (2010) directly provided the point of inspiration for this film, it is Bathsheba Everdene who haunts it in the farming scenes at least. Alice (Ruth Wilson) has ambition and competence in what is still a man’s world.  Interesting to place it next to director Thomas Vinterberg’s luxuriant 2015 adaptation of Hardy’s novel of a woman struggling, played very strongly by Carey Mulligan but set in glorious, colour-saturated countryside.[i] Hardy would approve of Barnard’s film, I believe.

This is, though, first and foremost about the central relationships, both those present and non-present, with Sean Bean playing the lost father. It was a lively Q&A (many thanks to Mia Bays) with questions and responses to the film including the soundtrack, the implications of the ending, the representation of the land. Christine Bottomley, who worked with Barnard on The Arbor, was in the audience and commented on the ‘calm space’ that Barnard could create that allowed actors the safety to explore all emotional possibilities. A quality of silence, then, informs her practice as well as her films.  This is certainly visible in the deeply-observed relationships in Dark River. Lila Rawlings – when asked – gave up one key word to characterise Barnard’s work – ‘empathy.’

See here for Tony Earnshaw’s detailed report and interview on the set of the film.

Bird’s Eye View are piloting a scheme to recruit ‘influencers’ (‘BEVIs’) – people willing to champion female-centric films and spread the word, locally and online. The scheme is centred, at first, on HOME (Manchester), Genesis/Curzon Soho/PictureHouse Central (London), Tyneside Cinema (Newcastle), Plymouth Arts Centre.  Influencers will receive free tickets to event screenings, DVDs, subscriptions and money-off codes.  Anyone interested should contact BEV: mail@birds-eye-view.co.uk with the heading ‘BEVI’.

[i] In thinking about realism, this is the same Vinterberg who emerged in the Dogme film movement of the 1990s, with its manifesto establishing rules of aesthetic restraint, and who recently made the excoriating drama The Hunt (2012). His Hardy film, a beautiful adaptation with some strong performances, may be recent but it is arguably less innovative than John Schlesinger’s 1966 treatment of Hardy’s novel, which had Nicholas Roeg as cinematographer.