This is a film that I’ve known about for years but never before managed to see. Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV and their season of films compiled by the Imperial War Museum, I have – and it is certainly worth seeing. This is propaganda with real bite and I’m sure many audiences might have been quite shocked in 1942. Who knows how many lives it might have saved?
Originally intended as a military training film emphasising the danger of service personnel speaking carelessly about any aspects of their work, the commission was eventually developed by Ealing Studios (which increased the budget substantially) and an array of well known faces. Ealing’s work paid off and the film was a great success, both as propaganda and as a rather alarming form of entertainment. (But Ealing only covered its costs – the War Office took the profits.) It was a clear step forward from earlier propaganda efforts and morale-building war combat films, both in its production qualities and its approach to finding ways to achieve its objectives.
The plot involves an attack on a German U-boat base in a small French port which intelligence from a French military agent has discovered is only lightly guarded. An infantry brigade with appropriate training is identified and sent to a training area to practice the skills necessary for a night-time landing and the subsequent demolition of port facilities. A security officer is assigned to the brigade, but German intelligence soon begins to pick up clues that an attack is in preparation. A set of parallel narratives develops in which German spies attempt to discover the target and British intelligence attempts to stop them. In the final section of what is a comparatively long film for the time (102 minutes), the raid goes ahead but the Germans discover enough information through ‘careless talk’ and the ingenuity of German agents to identify ‘Norville’ as the target and to reinforce the local garrison. The final action sequence is very impressive. A well-planned and executed raid succeeds in its prime objective but loses many, many men killed, injured and presumably captured. The film’s title (it seems to exist with and without the ‘The’) is referred to in a voiceover that tells us “Next of kin will be informed”. The final scene sees the comedy pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in their familiar roles as bumbling middle-class English ‘chaps’ on a train talking ‘carelessly’ and being overheard by the film’s chief villain played by an unlikely Ealing favourite. As Charles Barr in his Ealing book suggests, instead of defusing the horror of the loss of life in the raid, this properly brings home how dangerous frivolous talk can be.
Next of Kin was written by familiar Ealing figures Angus MacPhail and John Dighton alongside contributions from director Thorold Dickinson and Basil Bartlett as military advisor. The key figure here is Dickinson, at the time heading the Army Kinematograph Service Film Unit, who really deserves an entire post to himself. If you want to know more about him I recommend Geoff Brown’s entry on Screenonline. Dickinson is another of the left-wing Oxbridge intellectuals who became interested in film in the late 1920s. Unlike Humphrey Jennings and others he didn’t focus on documentary but engaged in commercial cinema. I was struck by one scene in particular in the early part of the film when the soldiers in question all visit a local theatre to watch an extraordinary ‘classical striptease’ in which a dancer (Phyllis Stanley) gracefully descends a gothic staircase discarding layers of a diaphanous dress. Dickinson, DoP Ernest Palmer and art designer Tom Morahan use shadow and an enormous (and suggestive) silhouette of a static female figure to create a highly expressionist presentation. This looks as if it might have come from a later Michael Powell film with the set much too big to be accommodated on the stage of the theatre. The dancer is just one of the German agents, all depicted as shrewd and skilled, who wheedle information out of the soldiers. At the head of this post is an image of Nova Pilbeam, the fearless young woman from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (UK 1937) who is playing a Dutch refugee, forced to spy because the Nazis hold her parents. The dancer is a cocaine addict who is easily manipulated but others are ‘good Nazis’. None are the stiff Prussian types or buffoons of the earlier propaganda films. Although some of these spies are caught, others are successful.
Dickinson went on to make one of the most distinctive British films of the post-war period, Men of Two Worlds (1946), a Technicolor drama shot in East Africa for Two Cities focusing on the dilemmas faced by an educated African caught between the village culture of his people and the world of the coloniser. Like Dickinson’s later film for Ealing, Secret People (1952) about refugees in London in the 1930s and a plot to kill a dictator, Men of Two Worlds fell awkwardly between the ideals of Dickinson and his co-writer Joyce Cary (on both films) and the commercial imperatives of the time. I remember finding both films to be worth seeing. Dickinson finally became the UK’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School in 1967.
But in 1942, Next of Kin worked and it paved the way for an even more hard-fitting propaganda film by another unusual figure at Ealing – Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and released in December 1942. During 1942 there was a raid on the French coast when 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops landed at Dieppe. I don’t know of any claims that this was ‘leaked’ but the Germans were aware, possibly via French agents, that some kind of attack was planned. The raid was in many ways a complete disaster and many of the men, especially the Canadians, were killed, injured or captured. A great deal then seemed to be learned before D-Day in 1944 about how to prepare for a landing – and how to keep the target secret.
I tend to choose my films ‘blind’ at film festivals: i.e. I pack as many as I can in the time available. So I was a bit dismayed to see I’d chosen a mainstream film that will be in ‘cinemas everywhere’ in a couple of weeks. Add to that it is a period drama, not my favourite, and reliant on CGI for much of its running time, I could have been in for a stinker. I wasn’t.
There’s barely a film made without CGI (Bait is one) but the question is whether the audience notices it. It’s always been the case that there are two types of special effects: invisible and visible. The visible ones show us impossible scenes so Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (UK-US, 1963) are visible as are all the superheroes in Marvel movies. Invisible special effects are those that simulate what happens in the real world but are too expensive to stage – as such they are easily not perceived as special effects. One example of a ‘visible’ ‘invisible’ special effect would be the ‘in orbit’ location of Gravity because we know the actors were not filmed in space. The same is true of the brilliant staging of the balloon journey in The Aeronauts because we know that Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne could not be filmed in that location. I’m not arguing against visible special effects, only against films that rely upon them for their dramatic effect. There’s been a Twitter debate lately about whether Marvel films are cinema (Scorsese and Loach say ‘no’) and although The Aeronauts is CGI heavy the thrill of the narrative is such that it is very easy to forget that these special effects are visible.
The film is based on a ‘true story’, the highest balloon ascent to date in 1862, I’ve no idea the degree of truth contained in the narrative. That’s not the point of the film: it’s clear the gender politics, Jones is the action hero, are today’s. The narrative covers the 90 minute flight with numerous flashbacks to give context and it is the human drama, of Victorian adventurism and female repression, that roots the film in a believable world thus allowing us to truly care (well, I did) for the protagonists in peril.
Tom Harper directs the action sequences very well and credit is due to Michael Dawson and his team for the special effects. The suspension of disbelief is still required for the appreciation of film, I think, which is why most CGI-heavy movies leave me cold as I don’t believe them. It’s as because they look convincing, yes I can see the Hulk exists, that I don’t believe in them and they usually fail to engage me either intellectually or emotionally. In The Aeronauts I knew the actors were ‘green screening’ but was so engrossed I forgot.
In the last few years we’ve seen three films which build stories around the later careers of Hollywood stars visiting the UK and now we have a fourth. Judy‘s narrative deals with Judy Garland’s last singing engagement at The Talk of the Town in London in December 1968, a few months before her death aged 47. The film follows Stan & Ollie (UK 2018) and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK 2017) (the last days of Gloria Grahame). My Week With Marilyn (UK-US 2011) is perhaps slightly different, set in 1957 when Marilyn Monroe’s career still had four more years to run, but there are still some common elements. None of these films are biopics as such, focusing on distinct periods towards the end of a star’s career. Judy seems the oddest of the quartet, possibly because it is adapted from a West End play by Peter Quilter and also because it is even more focused on the star performer at its centre. I think it suffers because there is no one who is able to stand up against Renée Zellweger as Judy, whereas in the other three films there is either a second character (i.e. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy) or a key figure with whom the character has a ‘special’ relationship throughout the film. As Nick said as we came out of the cinema, “it wouldn’t be anything without Zellweger” (or words to that effect). This isn’t a criticism of Zellweger or the supporting cast, but rather a function of the script and the narrative structure. In practice that ‘second character role is split between an under-used Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn, the woman who is charged with making sure Judy is in a fit state to get on stage – and that she gets there – and Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans, Judy’s fifth husband. The script moves the wedding forward to make it happen during Judy’s run at The Talk of the Town. It actually took place a few weeks after Judy had been ‘stood down’ by Bernard Delfont. (See this ‘Flashback’ blog story.)
In 1968 Judy Garland was at a low ebb. She had no money (never able to deal with her own financial affairs, the millions she earned were mismanaged by various agents) and she was fighting for custody of her children with her third husband Sid Luft. She was also homeless. London had offered Garland salvation on previous occasions when she sold out the London Palladium both on her own in 1951 and for a 1964 recording with her daughter Liza Minnelli. Bernard Delfont’s ‘supper club’ venue offered good money and a potentially receptive audience. Judy follows the events of this ultimately tragic series of shows, although several details are changed. It also includes flashbacks to Judy’s early career at MGM in the late 1930s, suggesting that the trauma of her early stardom haunted her to the end. The film says virtually nothing about the intervening 30 years. How could it? There is too much to fit in to create a biopic. In any case, there are several Garland bios already (both documentary and fictionalised) on YouTube recordings of US TV material.
Renée Zellweger certainly gives the part everything she’s got. She doesn’t necessarily look or sound like Judy but she presents the star’s emotions and her psychological state very impressively. The film looks as if there wasn’t much spare cash in the budget. The Hackney Empire stands in for The Talk of the Town. In some ways it’s a good substitute but in other ways not (The Talk of the Town was completely converted to ‘dining’ as a supper club, but the Empire still has a circle of theatre seats and one sequence uses these seats). I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be in New York or LA in some American scenes and apart from some ‘tourist shots’ it didn’t feel like London for most parts of the narrative. Some surprising things about the events depicted turn out to be ‘true’ – Lonnie Donegan with his guitar was indeed a stand-in act for Judy when she didn’t show. Some of the changes don’t make much sense so Judy’s children with Sid Luft are left back in the US because they need to be in school. Lorna was 16 and her brother Joey 13 but the film represents them as much younger children, emphasising the pain felt by Judy forced to leave them with Sid. I think this particular change is meant to link to the flashback scenes when 16 year-old Judy is suffering what we would now call abuse from MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer during the production of The Wizard of Oz. The young Judy is played by Darci Shaw who I now realise is a young actor who first appeared in the TV drama series The Bay. I didn’t recognise her at all. She was 16 or 17 during the shoot but looked younger in the Oz period scenes.
Judy does represent Garland’s status as an icon for gay culture with the inclusion of a gay couple who are big fans of Judy. I thought this worked well. The other aspects of the legend – Judy’s reliance various forms of uppers, downers and sleeping pills plus alcohol is also covered and related back to her teen stardom, as is her problem with her self-image, especially her weight. Zelwegger appears half-starved in order to be convincing as Judy. Ironically Garland’s 1951 Palladium triumph was when she was considered overweight – it’s staggering to think that she was only 29 in 1951 and making a ‘comeback’.
I was engaged throughout by the film and I did get a little emotional at the end. It is hard not to respond to the tragedy of someone so talented with one of the great singing voices of the 20th century reduced to the state Judy Garland was in during the last few months of her life – and to know that the abuse meted out to her as a teenager was the cause. My main interest in the film is really in who the audience is and what they made of it. The small but enthusiastic audience in our tea-time screening on a Wednesday were mostly older and mostly women. I expect that this has often been one of the audience groups during its run. Should we expect gay men and younger women to be attracted to screenings? A quick glance at the box office returns suggests that the the film has attracted audiences of all kinds. It opened at No2 with The Joker opening at No1. Was this clever on behalf of distributor 20th Century Fox? Judy made over £2 million from a saturation release of 633 screens with a high screen average of £3,297. That fell 46% in Week 2, but Judy still held No 4 in the chart. Figures like these suggest a fairly standard trajectory but the mid-week figures reveal something else. After 10 days the film has made £4.7 million, but unusually £1.5 million came from the Monday-Thurs screenings suggesting that the audience does skew older. This was confirmed when the daily figures last Monday showed Judy back at No2 in the chart. Judy looks like joining that group of films buoyed by the over 50 audience. Unfortunately it is up against Downton Abbey that is still raking it in nearly £1 million on its 5th weekend. Still, Judy looks like being one of the biggest ‘UK only’ hits of the year.
I am intrigued to know what younger audiences made of Judy. I researched Judy Garland’s career just before the film came out and I learned a lot by reading across several sources. Without that research I might not have understood everything that happened in Judy, even though it was something that happened only a few hundred yards from where I was studying as a university student in 1968. My memories of the events are hazy at best.
I haven’t said anything about Judy in terms of its ‘look’. Director Rupert Goold and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland both have backgrounds in television as well as some key film titles. As I’ve indicated, I think the budget has possibly constrained any kind of expressionist devices being employed with the emphasis on Renée Zellweger (with a fetching Elvis-like outfit for the ‘Trolley Song’ number) rather than the theatrical backgrounds or the choreography of the performance. The costume design is probably the standout aspect of the film. I understand that Judy’s clothes were not ‘imitations’ as such but new creations using similar approaches. They worked well but I felt for Jessie Buckley with her underwritten part, no opportunity to use her great singing voice and one hideous suit I remember (though she looks good in the dress above). Music for a film like this is problematic I think. Gabriel Yared is an experienced film composer but because I haven’t heard Garland’s performances in the 1960s, I don’t know how the arrangements stand up. By the end I suspect Judy Garland could still express the emotion but not necessarily hit the notes as she wanted to.
I enjoyed writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting, and we’re in similar territory investigating the issue of diaspora identity. Though the protagonist (Henry Golding’s Kit), as in Lilting, is gay, unlike the first film the emphasise isn’t on sexuality but on his attempt to understand where he belongs. Kit is returning to Saigon, having left as a young child, and finds himself a stranger in the land that nurtured him. His dislocation is not presented in any way as dramatic, it is just something he tries to work though.
Like Lilting, Monsoon is a melodrama, but eschews extremes: there is no deluge of emotion. To criticise this would be unfair as it’s clearly not the intention of the film to engage in histrionics; I like my melodrama to be meaty. Although we all have crises in our lives they are usually played out in a low-key fashion, as is Kit’s.
Kit hooks up with Parker Sawyers’ Lewis, son of a Vietnam veteran. Lewis’ relationship with his adopted home is also conflicted as he’s obviously troubled by America’s role in the country. However, there’s no suggestion from the film about how to deal with this other than through an angry denial that he ‘isn’t one of those’ (gung-ho) Americans.
Typically of melodrama, mirrors proliferate and often disorientate as we’re not sure whether we’re seeing the character or his (women are marginal in the film) reflection. For me it was setting up interesting themes but never developing them; we never learn who is in the mirror. Of course there are no easy answers but I’d’ve liked the film to suggest some with which I could argue or agree. The widescreen compositions are immaculately framed.
Similarly melodramatic, is the manic traffic (which I’m told is absolutely Saigon) which makes it hard to think. So maybe that’s why there are no ‘answers’.
Clearly I’m lukewarm about the film for it was too cool for me. However, it is certainly worth seeing. In a world of shifting identities (one of the reasons why bigots like Farage and many Brexiteers crave for the certainty of Britain’s ‘great’ past) we need cinema to interrogate what it means to be who we are.