Category: British Cinema

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.

Sid and Nancy (UK 1986)

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This film has been re-released on a reasonably good digital transfer for its 30th anniversary. The writer (with Abbe Woole) and director Alex Cox commented in a S&S interview:

“All that explains a sort of misunderstanding in the UK, where it was taken to be a film about the punk scene. The reception in America (USA), where it was viewed as a horrific love story, was closer to our intentions.” (August 2016 issue).

Cox also makes the point that to see films about punk watch those of Julien Temple: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) covers some of the ground found in this film.

However, the punk scene of the late 1970s is an essential setting to this unconventional romance. The movement was raw, often simplistic, but avowedly rebellious and an example of the glorious bad taste representative of the 1970s: think Ken Russell and his best films.

In this world of style, music and gratuitous misbehaviour, often both sadistic and masochistic, bloomed the self-destructive relationship between Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). One of the aspects that really makes the film worth watching are the performances by the lead couple, especially Oldman. And there are some key supporting characterisations, like David Hayman as Malcolm McLaren.

Moreover, whilst the film captures the key settings and quite a few of the key moments with convincing naturalism, this is essentially not a realist portrait. So some of the best moments are dream-like, almost surrealist. There is a great sequence in Paris where Sid imagines a performance on a giant staircase. And there are several New York sequences where alternative moments provide a strongly reflexive commentary.

Much of the film was filmed in actual locations. So one can happily recognise places in London, Paris and New York. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins in one of his early features, is excellent. There are shots of the New York skyline which are ethereal. And there is a magnificent road sequence, set in Georgia though shot in California, of the Sex Pistols’ convoy, escorted by bikers with a helicopter bussing overhead like a busy bee. And the music score, including some classic numbers, is great.

The rest of the production support this. it is a treat to watch though also at time disturbing. So this re-release has an 18 certificate. But at other points it is funny and then tragic. Cox seems vaguely dissatisfied with the film in his interview: but I think it is the most interesting film he has made. Oddly the prime focus in S&S is US punk, even though the British scene came first. It would have been good for a commentary on the Temple film.  Julien Temple also directed Vigo: A Passion for Life (1988). I could see why someone with a punk sensibility would rate this earlier filmmaker. There are faint but intriguing parallels.

The Confession: Living the War on Terror (UK 2016)

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I saw this film at the Hyde Park Picture House: there was also a Q&A with the subject of the film, Moazzam Begg, and the director, Ashish Ghadiali, following the screening. The film centres on a long interview with Moazzam Begg as he recounts his experiences: radicalised by events in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s: harassed by the British Security Services and a move to Afghanistan; with the US invasion he moved with his family to Pakistan; and then the kidnapping and imprisonment at the US air base at Bagram and whisked away (illegally) to the Guantánamo base in occupied Cuba. There he was interrogated and tortured in the company of hundreds of other illegally detained men under the euphemism of ”enemy combatants’. Finally released Moazzam Begg has become an active Moslem and an activist in anti-imperial struggles. So predictably the UK government attempted to charge him again in 2014: and as with much on the so-called ‘war on terror’ pursued this incompetently.

The interview is absorbing and Begg is fluent and clearly has considered his experiences carefully and intelligently. The interview is well filmed by Director of Cinematography Keidrych Wasley: for much of the time we watch Begg and his reflection in a darkened mirror, occasionally changing to a large close-up for emphasis. The interview is supplemented by found footage, some of related people and places, some other interviews and much television and film footage of the events in which Begg has been involved. Some of the media footage is well judged, illuminating the topic or being illuminated by Begg’s voice over. Some of it feels like the visual padding that is so common on television news. There were a couple of over familiar sequences of Bush and Blair where I almost groaned out loud.

All of this is edited together in a predominately linear narrative which develops its themes and commentary into a coherent overview. The Film Editors Nsé Asuquo and Simon Barker have done this in excellent fashion. The sound is effective and there is frequent commentative music by Nitin Sawhney, well composed but at times a little intrusive.

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The Q&A that followed was interesting, especially the added comments by Moazzam Begg. And Ashish Ghadiali added some background to the film. But we then had several questions taken together before any response, which did not make for clarity. I had a couple of queries which I did not get an opportunity to put to the filmmaker. One was concerning the opening titles which included one that noted that Moazzam Begg and been imprisoned in ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and Britain’. This is not really correct and is misleading: The Guantánamo Detention Centre is in a part of Cuba occupied by the USA. A point that one would hope an independent film offered clarity on. Of more concern  to me was the use in the film of two unidentified interviewers, one heard briefly with Moazzam Begg’s father, but the other (or perhaps the same person) on several occasions with Begg himself. We do not actually see him but it did not seem to be the director in this role. But it was clear that the style of questioning determined to a great degree how Begg presented his experiences and therefore on the form of the film itself. What we saw and heard was rather similar to the approach one finds on the BBC (who were part of the production), requiring Begg and his supporters to justify their position. It should be obvious especially with the critical volume from bourgeois critics, that the justification lies entirely with the US and UK Governments and security services.

This produced a strong reservation for me about how effective this approach is. I certainly think the film and Moazzam Begg deserve full attention. But it needs to be supplemented by a more radical approach. I thought that The Road to Guantánamo (2006) had that. It seems that the screenings of Confession with an accompanying Q&A have finished but the film is still screening nationwide.

Barry Lyndon (UK-US 1975)

The opening shot of Barry Lyndon presenting Redmond Barry's father's death in long shot

The opening shot of ‘Barry Lyndon’ presenting Redmond Barry’s father’s death in long shot

The BFI’s release of a 4K restoration print of Barry Lyndon is now doing the rounds of UK specialised screens. After my recent viewing of the new Blu-ray of Novecento/1900, I wondered how Stanley Kubrick would measure up to Bertolucci with a similarly long and meticulously created historical drama. I didn’t see Barry Lyndon on its 1975-6 UK release but I vaguely remember its poor reception by critics and its lack of commercial success (i.e. compared to Clockwork Orange in 1971-2). Since that first release Barry Lyndon‘s stock has risen considerably and now it is taken by some critics to be Kubrick’s masterpiece. Intrigued by this change of heart I went back to the extended review article by Penelope Houston in Sight and Sound, Spring 1976. She sets out what reads now as a calm and measured view on the film and one which seems ‘spot on’ to me. Sight and Sound gave the film a 3 star (out of 4) rating. I also checked Monthly Film Bulletin in which Richard Combs also gives a positive/constructive review, so the critical reception was not all negative. Houston does quote some of the negative comments by UK and US press reviewers and says that she herself was puzzled by the film, but then uses the space available to her (as the editor of Sight and Sound) to produce a more measured response.

Background to the production

Barry Lyndon is argued to be the eventual outcome of Kubrick’s frustrated attempt to make a film set during the Napoleonic Wars. After a lukewarm response from Warner Bros. he turned instead to an early work by Thackeray, first published as a serial in 1844 and later re-issued as a novel. Set in the second half of the 18th century, the story (based on a real biography) involves a young Irish ‘gentleman’ named Redmond Barry with limited prospects who seeks to better himself and who, after adventures in Prussia and across Europe, marries a wealthy widow, Lady Lyndon, with land and a small son (who inherits his birth father’s title). Barry becomes ‘Barry Lyndon’ but ultimately fails to establish himself as a member of the aristocracy and is effectively defeated by his own stepson. The story is in some ways a precursor to Thackeray’s much more well-known Vanity Fair (1847) with Becky Sharp as its protagonist. Kubrick appears to have altered significant aspects of the narrative of Barry Lyndon, including changing the narrator from Barry himself to an unseen ‘omniscient’ narrator voiced by Michael Hordern. The suggestion is that Kubrick loses something of Thackeray’s comedy and changes the nature of his satire. For some audiences this means it is more difficult to understand what it is that Kubrick wants to say about 18th century British life or about the aristocracy of Europe. The two charges against the film are therefore that it is ‘cold’, ‘distant’ and ‘static’ and that Kubrick’s intention is difficult to define.

One of Alcott's interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son's tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

One of Alcott’s interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son’s tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

The outcome of the film’s Oscar nominations seems to have been influenced by these charges so that its four Oscar wins were all ‘technical’ – Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Music Scoring. Kubrick himself was nominated in three categories – Best Picture, Direction and Adapted Screenplay – but didn’t win for any of these. I’m not sure about the music (an acknowledged strength of Kubrick’s productions) – it is certainly noticeable and there are some excellent choices but sometimes it seems heavy-handed. The other three awards are richly deserved. Cinematographer John Alcott worked with Kubrick to produce interiors lit only with candles and the long shots of landscapes and several of the interiors evoke the fine art painting of the 18th century masters. It’s hard to deny that the film is wondrous to behold on screen. But what does it all mean?

Analysis

Kubrick followed the (eminently sensible) roadshow convention of inserting an intermission so there is a part 1 of 102 mins and a Part 2 of 82 minutes. Part 1 is the picaresque adventure and Part 2 is the failed attempt to become an aristo. Richard Combs argues that by removing Barry’s ironic narration and presenting the action in such a distanced way Kubrick creates a character who is first passive and then compliant as an agent in the cold, harsh world of 18th century Europe. He sees a connection to Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory and he argues that Ryan O’Neal as Barry is “not perverse casting against type, but essential to the way Kubrick has revised the character of Thackeray’s swashbuckling braggart”. Combs goes on to carefully sketch out how this works. He may well be right but I’m afraid I’m still stuck with O’Neal as miscasting.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry's fall.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry’s fall.

Ryan O’Neal was undoubtedly a star in the early 1970s with lead roles in Love Story, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon – films which did very well at the box office, pleased many critics and won awards. In most of these roles O’Neal is the romantic/passive/idealist figure. I certainly see these elements of his star persona in Barry Lyndon but the role also demands cunning/deceit and a form of courage which is less in evidence for me. I’m not suggesting that this is ‘bad acting’ but rather that O’Neal brings ‘star baggage’ that works against the other performances, mostly by British character actors. Leonard Rossiter offers one of his gurning comic turns but generally the rest of the cast fits Combs’ overall description of the world Kubrick creates. I wondered how Barry might have come across played by Malcolm McDowell. I was thinking not only of Clockwork Orange but also of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). Penelope Houston points out that McDowell also appeared as an early 19th century scoundrel/cad in Royal Flash (1975) and argues that he might have portrayed Thackeray’s original Barry – but not Kubrick’s revised version. I think the point here is simply to recognise that in ‘reading’ Kubrick’s film it is too constricting to take it as either an auteurist project or a literary adaptation. The approach to cinematography, set design and costumes places the film in relation to a long history of attempts to represent British landscapes and rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was reminded of Chris Menges’ work on Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) (set in Yorkshire in the 1750s) and in my post on that film I discuss many of the other titles to which Kubrick’s film alludes, if only tangentially, via its concern with landscape and forms of realism.

I’m pleased to have seen Barry Lyndon. I think that what I most enjoyed was the array of British character actors as well as the sheer beauty of the film. I did feel distanced from the narrative but I think with a second viewing I would fully appreciate the Houston/Combs readings and understand Kubrick’s project. But I don’t think I would be moved by it. I’d like now to go back to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), a film I did enjoy at the time despite its generally poor critical reception and indifferent box office. Both Nair and Kubrick represent attempts to use Hollywood money to make ‘international films’ based on British literary texts by the same author. Their very different approaches are worth exploring.

Barry Lyndon new 2016 trailer: