Category: British Cinema

Edie (UK 2017)

Sheila Hancock as Edie

Edie is an independent British film distributed by Arrow Films. It has been treated rather dismissively by some of the London critics. It has flaws and weaknesses certainly, but plenty of plus points too. Perhaps most importantly it offers a narrative focusing on an 83 year-old woman finally freed to be active – something she has missed doing for far too long (almost since she was a ‘wild child’). And that’s pretty rare isn’t it? Edie is played, beautifully and movingly, by Sheila Hancock who actually did go up a 2,400 feet ‘Munro’ in Sutherland in the far North West of Scotland.

Edie has been caring for her husband for many years since he had a stroke. When he dies she is ‘free’ but threatened by the prospect of moving to a care home where her daughter wants to place her. Edie has other ideas and remembers a childhood pledge she received from her father to climb Suilven, a mountain in a remote part of North West Scotland. She sets off for Inverness where a chance encounter introduces Jonny (Kevin Guthrie, best known for Sunshine on Leith and Sunset Song, the manager of an ‘outdoor’ shop close to the mountain in question. So far, so predictable. What follows is also predictable, but it is well played by the two leads. Guthrie offers a believable character who begins a relationship with Edie as a somewhat cynical young man who then responds to the realism of Hancock’s performance as Edie. Will he help her get to the summit of Suilven? What do you think?

Edie with Jonny (Kevin Guthrie)

The makers of this film (Simon Hunter, Edward Lynden-Bell, Elizabeth O’Halloran) are relatively inexperienced, a least in making a film like this. I wonder how they came across the idea for the story?  Their inexperience shows in different ways and I wish someone older and wiser could have given them advice. Perhaps they did and it was ignored. There are several culprits here. The music was definitely distracting – so much so I missed the impact of some of the better musical ideas towards the end. Similarly, the cinematography has some fabulous landscapes to explore but soon falls in love with what I assume are drones or helicopter shots of the mountain, too many of which leave the audience with no real sense of what it means to be on the mountain. Finally, I think the script misses another ‘mature’ voice – someone for Edie to talk to who might understand how she feels. There is nothing much wrong with the sub-plot which Involves Jonny and his young friends in the remote community (the film was shot entirely in Lochinver and on Suilven) but I felt that the big questions Edie faced needed another voice.

Despite these weaknesses, I would still recommend Edie for Hancock’s and Guthrie’s performances and the glories of the landscape. This isn’t a generic comedy like the Exotic Marigold Hotel films. It does have something worthwhile and genuinely moving to say. There are a couple of almost ‘magic realist’ moments in Edie’s climb. I could possibly have taken more of these. I fear some of those London critics have never climbed a remote mountain and experienced the joy and wonder of some of the UK’s remote regions. Edie gives you an inkling if you are prepared to go with it.

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Nothing Like a Dame (UK 2018)

The four dames (from left) Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench

This shortish documentary (84 mins) received some cinema screenings in the UK before being broadcast on BBC2 at the start of June. It also has a planned release in Australia (under the title Tea With the Dames) and IFC has it for the US. The idea for the film couldn’t be simpler. The four surviving ‘grand dames’ of British theatre, film and television meet at Joan Plowright’s country house in Sussex – something they have done regularly in the past, but this time it is a ‘choreographed’ meeting with cameras present and proceedings under the control of director Roger Michell who asks questions off-screen.

Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were all born in 1934. Joan Plowright is a few years older and she is now visually impaired. The film has several jokes about hearing aids which most of the four appear to need. Judi Dench possibly has the highest public profile of the four, regularly appearing on chat shows and telling her anecdotes. Maggie Smith also has a high public profile, here and abroad because of Downton Abbey. Both Judi and Maggie have gained many fans from working on film franchises such as James Bond and Harry Potter respectively. All four women know each other very well, primarily because they met in West End productions as young women and all have a background with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. One of the experiences they share is working with Laurence Olivier – and Joan Plowright married him in 1961 when he was considerably older. They tell stories about Olivier which only strengthen my idea of him as an unpleasant man (and I never really enjoyed his acting either). Much of this discussion is about playing Shakespeare on the stage and therefore something I know little about.

The most enjoyable parts of the film are concerned with finding out about the early lives of the women and how they got into the business. Some photographs of Eileen Atkins as a young teenager dancing in workingmen’s clubs in relatively skimpy outfits might raise a few eyebrows today, but much about her beginnings reminded me of earlier British actors like Ida Lupino and Margaret Lockwood except that Atkins eventually more involved in theatre than cinema. Of all the four, I feel that it is Maggie Smith that made the most impression on me in the 1960s and 1970s, partly through her marriage to Robert Stephens. I think I did see their stage performance together in Coward’s Private Lives in 1972. Judi Dench is a great sport and I’d seen her telling some of the anecdotes that she repeats in this film on earlier chat shows. It was nice to be reminded though of her TV sitcom success in A Fine Romance (1981-4) with her real-life husband Michael Williams. I wish I had learned a bit more about Joan Plowright since apart from The Entertainer (1960) I don’t know her work at all. Eileen Atkins is slightly different because I have seen her in quite a few films, but not necessarily in lead roles.

Since I mainly study films and now never get to West End Theatre any more, my sense of the four great actors is limited, but by bringing the four of them together like this the producers of this film (Sally Angel and Karen Steyn) raise two important issues. One is, why were these four made ‘Dames’? It occurred to me that there are at least three other women of a similar age and breadth of career – Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Sheila Hancock. I don’t know whether they would accept being made a dame (Redgrave is reported as turning one down in 1999 and I imagine that the other two would think twice about it). My point is that it does seem to be an establishment thing. I’m not arguing that Dench and co don’t deserve all their awards, only that some performances seem to have more ‘worth’ in terms of cultural kudos than others (Judi Dench has also worked extensively in the charities sector). Vanessa Redgrave is acting royalty but also politically a supporter of causes not welcomed by the establishment. She and Glenda Jackson outscore the others in terms of film rather than stage or TV work I think. Following on from this point, I think it would be interesting to contrast the seven UK actors I’ve listed above with leading actors in Europe, especially in France. It’s difficult to do this, but my impression is that the well-known stage actors in the UK tend to end up in much more mainstream fare on screen. This week I saw mention of Isabelle Huppert reading two stories from the Marquis de Sade on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Huppert seems capable and willing to do anything that interests her artistically. Would any of our four great dames do something similar? What would audiences think if they did? (If they have done similar things, forgive me, but I think you understand my drift.) Huppert is twenty years younger, but I’m sure Delphine Seyrig (born 1932, died aged 58) would have been game. In the latest honours list, the establishment skipped a generation to make Emma Thompson a fifth dame. She has a strong film background, but again mainly in middlebrow or prestige productions. The British actors who take on the widest variety of roles, such as Tilda Swinton or the late Billie Whitelaw (known for her work with Beckett) tend to get overlooked – they get the next award down, a CBE. Eventually I found this Wikipedia list of ‘dames’ and there are far more actors (stage, film and TV) than I ever imagined (but how could I have forgotten Dame Thora Hird?). My point still stands though – damehood is granted for the things you do that appeal widely to the public.

Nothing Like a Dame is entertaining and part of the BBC’s arts programming. But it’s time we had some serious programming about film culture back on BBC television.

The Good Die Young (UK 1954)

Was my view of ’50s British cinema formed by the selection of films screened on television during the ’70s? I don’t know obviously but it’s possible that such hard-hitting thrillers as The Good Die Young didn’t get the exposure that more insipid films did (the titles of which I don’t remember). Certainly my impression of ‘British cinema’ used to agree with Truffaut’s contention that it was an oxymoron. Maybe films like The Good Die Young were screened but the only place to see them now on TV in the UK is on the Talking Pictures channel.

This was the 10th feature film by director Lewis Gilbert, who died aged 97 earlier this year, and an efficient job he does; he went on to direct a number of war films in the ’50s and three Bond movies. There’s even an expressionist scene when Stanley Baker’s ex-boxer finds his £1000 savings have been frittered on his feckless brother-in-law. The boxing match is superbly done, particularly in the editing.

The sensationalism (for the time) of the film is evident in the poster as is the excellent cast. The Americans Grahame, Basehart (Joe) and Ireland were no doubt included to try to appeal to the American market but they are seamlessly integrated into the plot where three ‘down on their luck’ ordinary guys are seduced by a Playboy (Laurence Harvey) into a robbery. I’ve never seen Harvey better, he plays the upper class slime-ball perfectly and the scene when he asks his estranged father (Robert Morley) for money is brilliantly done. Never have I seen such loathing in a ‘gentleman’s club’ before. And that’s the key to the success of the film: the upper middle class, so often, as I remember, lauded by British cinema are shown for the shallow fakers they are.

Grahame’s role is interesting as although she is once again playing a ‘loose woman’ there’s no sense she’s a ‘tart with a heart’. Her treatment of her husband (Ireland) is entirely heartless. Joan Collins, as Joe’s sweet wife (Mary), was appearing in her 9th feature; 25 years later she was reinvigorating her career as a nymphomaniac in The Stud (UK, 1978) – an analogue for the history of British cinema during this time?

The film has elements of noir, the aforementioned expressionist scene and the grim narrative; the climax goes fully Gothic in a churchyard at night with rats scurrying. Mention also needs making of Freda Jackson playing the clinging mother of Mary. She oozes hatred of husband Joe and is merciless in her intention to keep Mary to herself.

Saloon Bar (UK 1940)

Someone’s come into the bar and caused consternation. From left: Jim (Gordon James), Sally (Joyce Barbour) Ivy (Anna Kostam), Wickers (Mervyn Johns) and Joe (Gordon Harker)

Saloon Bar is available on another of Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ DVDs, this time Vol 10. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. Michael Balcon had returned to ATP and had changed the studio’s brand to ‘Ealing Studios’ from November 1938. Saloon Bar was released in October 1940 as the 14th ‘Ealing’ film. The film is generally dismissed by both George Perry and Charles Barr, though its IMDb entry suggests that it works quite well for modern viewers and David Quinlan scores it highly. Barr situates Saloon Bar as “the last Ealing film to belong completely, in both form and content, to the old order, an unambitious stage adaptation . . .” Perry argues it suffers from a “verbose script and a pedestrian pace”. One score I can agree with Barr – the film doesn’t seem in any way connected to the Ealing films that respond to wartime Britain even though the war was over a year old and the previous two films, George Formby’s Let George Do It and Pen Tennyson’s Convoy are both set in wartime. In that sense it seems out of place, set as it is in December 1938 according to the Execution Order. On the other hand, the stage play by Frank Harvey Jr. was adapted by Angus McPhail and John Dighton, who would go on to write many of the better-known Ealing films of later years. Saloon Bar is photographed by Ronald Neame who had worked at ATP before Balcon’s return and would become a successful director, writer and producer during the 1950s. It is directed by Walter Forde who had a long history with Balcon and made four Ealing pictures before leaving for America. One of these was Cheer Boys, Cheer (1939) which Charles Barr identifies as a ‘proto Ealing comedy’ – prefiguring the set up of the late 1940s comedies.

Queenie (Elizabeth Allan) is the senior barmaid and the fiancée of the condemned man. Here she is comforted in a show of sisterly support by Sally and Ivy

The Perry criticism doesn’t stand up in my view. Yes, there is a lot of dialogue but is generally snappily delivered and I didn’t find the pace pedestrian at all. The film is only 76 mins long with a hectic finale. The main plot idea is that a young man is falsely accused of murdering his landlady and is then convicted. Despite a petition to the Home Secretary, the minister refuses a stay of execution and the young man is due to hang early next morning. The pub (in Soho?) where the young man’s fiancée is a barmaid, bemoans his fate, but one regular, a bookmaker (a ‘turf accountant’) returning from a tour of racetracks, decides to do some sleuthing of his own. Can he find out the truth in time to stop the execution? This character, Joe, is played by Gordon Harker, a well-known figure in 1930s British Cinema who often played in comedy thrillers, exploiting his cockney charm. He had previously played the role on stage. Other well-known names in the cast include Mervyn Johns, Felix Aylmer and Cyril Raymond. This is a traditional crime thriller/whodunit with comedy elements. It also features flashbacks for the events leading up to the crime.

A noirish shot of the surrounding streets as the chase is about to get underway

The story is set just before Christmas and the landlord of the pub is an expectant father. His wife, never seen, is upstairs, close to delivering number seven. This is the comedy sub-plot which also provides the ‘humanity’ of the Christmas story – a young man might hang at the same time that a child is born. The other Christmas touches include a gaggle of children carol singing and a couple in the bar sat by the window, oblivious to anything else but each other. The stage origins are obvious since most of the action takes place in the bar itself. But the streets outside do figure at various points and Ronald Neame provides some interesting expressionist shots of alleyways in a style which later would be called film noir. For American viewers I should point out that the ‘Saloon’ was the more salubrious of the various rooms of large pubs in England at the time, where middle-class patrons gathered – and where a waiter might bring drinks to your table. The ‘Public’ tended to be rowdier and the ‘Snug’ was usually the haunt of those who didn’t want to ‘mingle’ (particularly women) and were willing to pay higher prices. The pub in question is a traditional ‘local’ which is emphasised when an ‘outsider’ comes up to the bar and is ‘frozen out’ because everyone else is busy discussing the murder. At one point, Joe goes to the pub’s rival establishment, a place that has been tarted up with chrome and art deco interiors. This modernity means in Ealing terms we should be suspicious about it. One of the pub regulars is Sally, a woman who is ‘mother’ to the chorus girls in the theatre across the road – which may be a reference to the Windmill Theatre where static nudes were a big hit in the late 1930s.

The narrative’s unlikely hero, Joe. (Screengrab by ‘Rank and File: A British Cinema Blog’) Note that Wickers hasn’t moved from his perch.

Barr and others tend to suggest that 1930s British films featured older men and occasional younger women, a mainly middle-class milieu and a general sense of tradition triumphing over any sense of modernity. Saloon Bar certainly features many of these elements, but it also has, for me, a vitality that prepares us for the Ealing films to come over the next few years during the war. Keith Johnson from UEA offers an interesting analysis of the film as part of his trawl through Ealing’s entire output. The pub is remarkable as a studio set. For those of a certain age, the ‘Watneys’ brand of beer will cause a sharp intake of breath. In the late 1960s this was the brewery which seemed hell-bent on destroying ‘real ale’ with its keg beer ‘Red Barrel’. I was intrigued that the bar boasted a pinball machine. I only remember pinball machines in cafés, coffee bars and arcades – though they were quite common in Student Union bars! (Intriguingly there are two pinball machines in the rival, ‘modern’ pub.)The other intriguing cultural reference is to cycle-racing at Herne Hill velodrome. Joe claims that cycling there gave him powerful legs and he shows them off in the bar. The ensemble cast is very good with a nice turn by Mervyn Johns as Wickers, the owner of a ‘wireless shop’ (he sells radios). Wickers perches on his special seat by the bar, never moving and downing glasses of ‘Special Ale’. He talks using exaggerated language delivered deadpan and confusing for barmaid Ivy. These touches reveal an attempt to represent a recognisable ‘local’, albeit in the centre of London and the film ends with everyone coming together to celebrate the freed man, the new baby and Christmas round the corner – with a ‘lock-in’ which includes the local bobby.

Asunder (UK 2016)

This is a compilation film which offers a distinctive representation of the North-East during World War I. The film’s centre is the Battle of the Somme which provided the key to funding. The première was held in the Sunderland Empire Theatre in July 2016, one hundred years on from the battle. This included live music and [I assume] live commentary. The film marries archive and contemporary film footage with a narration composed of both individual records and media reports.

The film was directed by Esther Johnson, whose work crosses between art and documentary. The film was written by Bob Stanley, a musician, journalist and film-maker. The archive film was researched ait the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum and at smaller archives in the North East. The voices of the film are diaries, letters and oral records by a number of individuals during and after the war, living in the North East in or around Sunderland and Newcastle on Tyne. These were read on the soundtrack by Kate Adie. The media reports, from the ‘Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette’, are read by Alun Armstrong. These are arranged mainly in chronological order but at certain points the film changes to contemporary footage and voices.

I liked the film and found the interwoven stories fascinating. I was pleased that the film, in both black and white and colour, was in 1.33:1 so that the archive film footage was in its proper ratio. The contemporary footage, filmed digitally, is in the same ratio. The sound commentary by the two readers works well, interweaving official and public comments and reports with the personal and subjective.

The characters whose stories are woven into this chronicle include several woman, a suffragist and a conscientious objector. Thus whilst there is a certain amount of valorisation of the war there are also critical voices.

The editing for much of the film is excellent. There is cross-cutting between the official record and the subjective experience. And at certain points edits provide shock, pathos but also irony.

However there are also weaknesses in the way the film material has been used. Understandably there is little or no film of the ordinary people whose voices provide the narration. For much of the film the makers use ‘generic ‘ footage which fits the voices. Some of this is familiar from other compilations or from screenings of the actual titles; some of it is new and fresh. However, in the later stages there are a number of combined image and sounds which I thought a little anachronistic.

And there are two odd sequences in the centre of the film. Whilst we are watching and hearing the material on The Battle of the Somme there is a cut to several minutes of contemporary colour footage accompanied by a song. I think this is meant as a poetic counter-point but It seemed to me confusing. And shortly before this there was a sequence of shots which were repeated from earlier in the film and which [again] did not fit the narration. It was if a sequence had been transposed incorrectly, which may be to do with a transfer to DCP.

For most of the film the music is appropriate and works well. The performers include the Royal Northern Sinfonia and two musical duos from the North East, Filed Music and Warm Digits. The musical interlude during the Somme is sung by the Cornished Sisters. They all perform very well.

The Webpages for the film list screenings across the country; I saw it at the Hyde Park Picture House. The director was there for a Q&A, but I missed some of this so I am not sure if she discussed the form of the film. On November 11th, the anniversary of the Armistice Day at the end of the war, there is another screening at the Sage in Gateshead with live musical accompaniment. This will likely be the best way of experiencing the art work but it is worth seeing in the DCP version if that is accessible.

Funny Cow (UK 2018)

 

Funny Cow is a difficult film to write about. Maxine Peake is the star of the film and its executive producer and my admiration for her commitment to her craft and to working-class socialist politics is boundless. Add to that the filming in Saltaire and elsewhere in Bradford and Leeds and I’m certainly compromised. In some ways, I think that the most interesting aspect of the film, apart from Maxine Peake’s wonderful performance, is the range of positions adopted by various critics and commentators about the film and its depictions of Northern working-class life from the 1950s through to the 1980s.

Funny Cow is a fictional biopic of a female stand-up comedian, presented almost as a kind of arthouse ‘essay film’ about working-class life. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards during the life of the unnamed central character who is shown as a child (‘Funny Calf’) in the 1950s (played by Macy Shackleton), (very) briefly as a young wife in the 1960s (Hebe Beardsall) and finally as ‘Funny Cow’ in the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the fourth wall is broken and Maxine as Funny Cow talks to the camera. At other times she visits her old haunts and meets her younger self. Individual sequences are introduced with inter-titles. Throughout the narrative, Funny Calf/Cow wears bright shades of red, culminating in a red Triumph Stag car as her chariot – thus subverting the chauvinistic symbolic identity of the car (second only to the E-type in signifying macho posturing?). ‘Funny Cow’ is never given a first name. I assume that the nickname is meant to signify that process by which in the North of England (and other communities, I guess) derogatory names are given to best friends, almost as endearments – “stop it, you daft bugger!” etc.

Paddy Considine and Maxine Peake

The genesis of the project appears to have come from the meeting of the writer Tony Pitts and the actors Maxine Peake and Paddy Considine on the production of Red Riding: 1980, the second in the trilogy of TV films from 2009 based on the books by David Peace. All three were actors then and Pitts wrote Funny Cow, presumably with Peake in mind. I heard Peake discussing the production on radio and I think she said that convincing Considine to act in Funny Cow made it viable for financiers because he has a ‘known’ profile in the cinema. Much as I really like Paddy Considine, he is decidedly miscast in Funny Cow. Or perhaps it’s just a badly-written part? Either way it is a shame, because I thought his scenes were the only ones that just didn’t work. I couldn’t believe that under a wig and behind a pair of glasses was a great actor. I couldn’t believe in his character at all. He’s supposed to be an effete ‘intellectual’ running an enormous bookshop (without any discernible customers or staff) and living in a mansion decorated with artworks. Funny Cow starts a relationship with him, seemingly to get away from her abusive husband – or possibly hoping for an Educating Rita scenario? I did also wonder if this was a conscious role-reversal of the relationship between Joe Lampton and the industrialist’s daughter in Room at the Top (1958). It’s interesting that each scene in Funny Cow conjures up these memories. I think it’s a function of the episodic narrative.

Among the other familiar faces for UK audiences Alun Armstrong excels as a stand-up comedian in the pubs and clubs coming to the end of his career. It’s painful to watch but utterly convincing. He finds himself acting as Funny Cow’s mentor, not necessarily by choice. Other well-known names and faces appear in bit parts throughout the film.

Apart from a miscast Considine, the other weaknesses in the film hinge on the difficulty of representing the North of England of the 1950s-80s in 2018. It’s ironic that the streets of back-to-back houses depicted in the film are actually located in the World Heritage site of Saltaire – artisan’s dwellings in the model town built by Titus Salt. In at least one shot you can see Baildon Moor on the other side of the Aire Valley. They certainly confused Mary Beard on the BBC2’s ‘Front Row Late’ who thought that the National Trust had ‘sanitised’ them in Manchester. But she’s got a point. It’s impossible to recreate the Ripper Years of the late 1970s in Bradford and Leeds (although Red Riding made a valiant attempt). Everywhere is now a lot cleaner, partly because there are few dirty industries left and partly because many of the terraces have been replaced by modern housing. The other problem, for historical dramas is that representations of the working-class North of England in the 1970s (or 1960s) have become reified (i.e. made concrete, permanent) by a relatively limited number of successful films. Films like East is East (1999) for 1970s Salford/Bradford or Billy Elliot (2000) for 1980s Co. Durham, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) for Nottingham in the late 1950s or A Taste of Honey (1961) for Salford in the late 1950s and Charlie Bubbles (1969) for the devastation of old housing torn down in Manchester. TV has never really had the same problem since TV drama has very often been made in the North – in fact I’d argue that it is as familiar as London as a location.

But if we step away from the location issues, the real question is, “What is the film about?” or “What is it for?”. It isn’t simply a comedy. And it isn’t a faux biopic about a real female comedy performer (though Marti Caine has been widely touted as an inspiration for Peake’s character). If anything, the film is a satire on male chauvinism which has a terrible ending in which Funny Cow finally succeeds by adopting the homophobic racist gags of the Bernard Manning type of performer in order to put down an oafish, sexist man in the audience. I hated myself for laughing at what was an undoubtedly funny but ultimately degrading scene. This is where I fail. I never went to a ‘working man’s club’. As a lower middle-class grammar school boy in a town without heavy industry those clubs were very exotic for me in the 1960s and 1970s. I did watch the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on Granada as well as The Comedians in the 1970s. These shows were certainly sexist and racist but on TV comedians couldn’t be ‘blue’. I watched some of the shows again on YouTube and there is enough humanity in them to mean that they are still funny to me despite my winces at the social attitudes. Is the kind of performance in Funny Cow with its prolific use of the ‘c’ word more ‘authentic’? Is it somehow empowering for a female performer? I don’t know.

A few weeks before I saw Funny Cow I watched a biopic of the Irish comedian Dave Allen on BBC2. The final section of Funny Cow, which depicts a successful comedian being interviewed on TV, reminded me very much of the Dave Allen bio. Partly it was the incessant smoking but also the melancholy. Part of that melancholy is the situation in which Funny Cow finds herself abandoned in different ways by her brother (Stephen Graham, who also plays her father in the 1950s) and her mother (Lindsey Coulson). I wish I could remember what Funny Cow actually says in those later scenes, but I don’t think she comes over as a woman who has succeeded. Perhaps in the end Funny Cow is a kind of salutary lesson about what women had to endure in Northern working-class communities? I haven’t read any commentaries on the film that fully make sense of it and I’m still struggling. In the ‘Front Row Late’ discussion referenced above, the three critics generally disagreed about what they’d seen in the film. Paul Morley argued strongly for the film as illustrating the thesis that it was difficult to extricate yourself from your roots in Northern working-class communities without then being corrupted and compromised when you join the middle-classes. The only response is to turn back. But this too is impossible. This was the basis for the Albert Finney film Charlie Bubbles back in 1969 – that feeling that you are caught between two different social classes and that you don’t really belong in either.

Maxine Peake is magnifique in Funny Cow, but I think I’d rather have seen a film based on her play about Beryl Burton.

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?

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: