Category: British Cinema

The Dresser (UK 1983)

The Dresser

This film was screened at the Hebden Bridge Picture House in their ‘reel film’ series. The cinema now has a new set of custom-built seats in the auditoriums, replacing those damaged during the ravages of the floods in the area. These new seats are comfortable, well designed and roomy. So the cinema can now seat nearly 500 patrons. There were not quite that many for this screening, but it was an appreciative audience. The 35mm print was good quality with both the colour and definition looking fine. There was a little emergency with the projector just before the feature and there was not time to reset the shutter. So we had some occasional ‘ghosting’ but this was not realty noticeable.

The film is an acting vehicle with a fine company of experienced British actors. It is adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood which is a study of the important [but now almost defunct] actor-manager tradition of British repertory theatre. The main character is modelled on the real-life Sir Donald Wolfit: if you ever saw him on stage or film, or indeed heard him on radio, then this characterisation by Albert Finney is instantly recognisable. In fact, the writer Ronald Harwood worked with Wolfit for a number of years.

The film is set in Yorkshire during World War II. The original play was set in Plymouth, which made more sense of an air aid which occurs during one performance. The film uses locations in Halifax and Bradford, including Branford’s Alhambra Theatre. These are very well done and give the film a sense of realism rather separate from the artificial world of the theatre. The latter show us both backstage and front-of-house. The former is an inventory of stagecraft and offers a variety of cameos. Meanwhile the packed audiences are of a varied composition, with both working class and middle class members and members of the armed forces. This reminded me of the centrality of wartime culture that one finds in the films of Humphrey Jennings.

In one way the film is dominated by the performance of Albert Finney as the ‘Sir’ – star and manager of the company. But the title role is his personal dresser, played by Tom Courtenay, who also starred in the original stage production. Both are excellent, displaying all their crafts to characterise both the larger-than-life actor/manager and his devoted but rather camp valet. The performances, as with the theatrical sequences, show the tenor of the original theatrical origins of the story. However, there is a low-key and nicely underplayed performance by Eileen Atkins as the troupe’s stage manager. Between them the film and the performances offer humour, drama, irony and finally a certain sadness.

The film opens with the closing scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. The bulk of the film is a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. And there are references or even dialogue from ‘As You Like It’, ‘Hamlet’ ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Richard III’. More than this, the plot is modelled partly on ‘King Lear’ with interpolations from the other plays. These variations on the Bard’s works are very effective. This was a good start to Shakespeare’s anniversary.

Alan Rickman 1946 to 2016

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Sadly Alan Rickman ended his career last month. He was one of the most interesting actors in British cinema in recent decades. His prime acting focus was the theatre and he bought to film the craft skills common among thespians trained for this medium. Among the accolades awarded him was ’46th best villain in film history’. A notable achievement when measured against the like of Jules Berry, James Cagney, Robert Ryan or Ann Savage.

He attracted notice first on film as a villain: Hans Gruber in the original Die Hard(1988). The sheer aplomb of his follow-up to a demand to release terrorists in jail, ‘I read about them in Time magazine’ makes it stand out in the film’s dialogue. His film follow-up as the Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991) was equally memorable. Who would not vote for a politician with a policy to  ‘Abolish Christmas’. Rickman himself is quoted as saying ” I don’t play villains, I play very interesting people.” His villains were certainly were more interesting than the heroes they combated. Rickman had that assurance, found amongst really fine actors, of being able to pitch over the top and be effective.

He was also voted among the ‘sexiest screen actors’ in another poll. One thinks of his Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995), who has so much more oomph than the character in the Austen novel: indeed more oomph than his film rival John Willoughby (Greg Wise). He was also good at very serious drama. He and Juliet Stevenson were memorable in the very fine Truly, Madly Deeply from BBC’s Screen 2 in 1990. And in a  totally different vein he was the passing stranger/Samaritan with Sigourney Weaver in the Canadian Snow Cake 2006. The same year saw him as the angst father, Richis, in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Since I only saw the first of the Harry Potter film adaptations I missed his Severus Snape in the several episodes of the chronicle. However, I really enjoyed his Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest (1999) – I can actually watch Star Trek now with a quiet smile.

Happily the Hebden Bridge Picture House is offering a tribute with a screening of Blow Dry (2001) in which Rickman plays the hairdresser competing in a major Championship. A plus, the film is set in Keighley, seemingly a popular location for British films. This is one of those comedies with its own distinctive British flavour: scripted by Simon Beaufoy of The Full Monty (1997) success. And Rickman plays opposite another lost British actor, Natasha Richardson. Moreover, on this occasion the film is screening in its original 35mm format.

GFF16 #5: Urban Hymn (UK 2015)

Jamie (Letitia Wright) performing as a music student

Jamie (Letitia Wright) performing as a music student

Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.

Kate (Shirley Henderson, centre) in the community choir

Kate (Shirley Henderson, centre) in the community choir

The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.

prison warders control Leanne (Isabella Laughland)

Prison warders control Leanne (Isabella Laughland)

Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.

A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.

On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.

Victim (UK 1961)

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This is a seminal film from the 1960s, partly because it was a trail blazer in addressing issues around sexual orientation. When the film appeared homosexuality was illegal and gay people were constantly victimised, especially by the police. What makes this more impressive is that two major British stars lead the film, Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr and Sylvia Syms as his wife Laura. This is very much Bogarde’s film, but Syms is excellent and there is one powerful scene between the couple when they have to confront the question of same sex attraction. There is also a very goods supporting cast with actors like Peter McEnery, Dennis Price and Derren Nesbitt.

The film was produced by Allied Filmmakers, whose other productions of the period included Whistle Down the Wind (1961). The key figures in this film would appear to be the team of Michael Relph [Producer] and Basil Dearden [Director]. They made a series of important social problem films in the 1950s and early 1960s. Two of their really interesting films are Pool of London (1951) which addresses inter-racial romance and Violent Playground (1958) dealing with police and crime in Manchester. One aspect of their work is the use of location filming and a consequent sense of realism. Their films tend to appear somewhat conventional today as they have to operate within the conventions of popular film of the time. So there is always a sense that something is held back: neither Pool of London or Victim go the whole way in showing explicit physical contact either between a black man and a white woman or between two men.

However, when one take into account the censorship of the time by the British Board of Film Censors this is understandable. Victim received an X certificate when it was released and had to be cut by about ten minutes. Intriguingly over the years the certification has gone down: 15, 12 and then PG. So credit should also go to the writers, Janet Green and John McCormick. As so frequently was the case the film subject has been wrapped up in a genre plot, in this case a thriller concerning blackmail. The film actually has a strong noir feel, much of this due to the cinematography of Otto Heller, who had a tendency to expressionist camera work. [He also worked on the then infamous, now famous Peeping Tom (1960)].

The version screening on Sunday at The Hyde Park Picture House appears to be a full length version, 101 minutes. Equally good news, it is screening in a pristine 35mm print. This is definitely a key popular artwork from the 1960s, that decade that dramatised nearly all of the major contradictions in British society. It is also a very entertaining film, and much better seen on the big screen.