Category: British Cinema

Suffragette (UK 2015)

(Left to right in the centre ground) Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter

(Left to right in the centre ground) Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter

Suffragette is doing OK in UK cinemas. In my local cinema it was in the smaller screen with the Bond movie downstairs in the larger screen but there was still a healthy audience and I lost my preferred seat. My impression is that UK critics have been kinder to the film than those in North America (some of which have been very strange – though as Meryl Streep pointed out at the LFF Press Conference, many Americans won’t know what the title means). A note of caution however, the film was given a saturation release on over 500 screens and it fell 56% in its second week, suggesting that it might not have the ‘legs’ for a long run. The figures for the third weekend will be interesting. Suffragette has already made £5.8 million in the UK so does the box office trend mean much?

The positive about Suffragette is that audiences have the opportunity to see it all over the UK (and Ireland). For younger audiences it may prove to be an important history lesson at a time when there appears to be a feminist revival but the dreadful state of the UK school curriculum means that rates of political literacy are low and the events leading up to partial suffrage for women in the UK in 1918 are not necessarily widely known. The film has been well-promoted and overall it delivers. The central idea of constructing the narrative around the gradual consciousness-raising and politicisation of a single working-class character in an East London works well. Carey Mulligan as Maud is totally convincing. It’s great to have seen her in two British films this year and she is now perhaps the leading star actor of her generation in the UK. It’s also good to see all the creative opportunities for the likes of writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and the many women in the crew as well as Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Natalie Press as fellow activists.

I’ve not heard too many people say that they ‘enjoyed’ Suffragette, although several have said how impressive it is, how worthwhile, even how inspiring. I did find it impressive up to the final act that we knew was coming – Emily Davidson’s fatal attempt to catch hold of the King’s horse in the Epsom Derby of 1913. Whereas the earlier scenes seemed manageable in terms of the film’s chosen aesthetic – a muted palette of greys and blues for Eduard Grau’s camera and relatively tight framing of small scenes of action – Epsom in summer sun and the toffs in colourful clothes didn’t seem to work. It felt as though the budget couldn’t stretch to a full-scale crowded racetrack and I wondered if something more abstract might not have worked better – a slow motion sequence perhaps. Afterwards I wondered whether a different event such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus painting in 1914 might not have been a better bet as a climactic event. As it is the funeral of Emily Davidson is represented by carefully presented ‘topical’ footage reframed from archive material. Maud is a fictional creation so it doesn’t matter what she witnessed. The other characters are mainly either ‘historical’ or based on historical characters.

This trio appeared on many posters. It doesn't represent the importance of the characters in the narrative – Anne-Marie Duff should replace Meryl Streep

This trio appeared on many posters. It doesn’t represent the importance of the characters in the narrative – Anne-Marie Duff should replace Meryl Streep as a working-class mother with a daughter.

I’m surprised that Meryl Streep allowed her image to be used so blatantly in the film’s promotion. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst but has only a few minutes of screen time. There are many other actors who could have performed the role and who would not have been displayed on the poster, displacing Anne-Marie Duff. The point here is that this is not a film about the middle-class suffragettes but about the foot soldiers of the movement (see Sarah Gavron’s statements in the clip below). I hope that there will be discussions about which stories appear in the film. I’ve seen North American reviews that claim that the film focuses on the middle-class activists and that this is a kind of ‘heritage film’ – but neither charge is justified. Politically, one of the most interesting aspects of the script is the links that are made to Irish independence struggles (in which women also played important roles). I’m not sure about the surveillance cameras that are used in the film (presumably this was researched?) but the presence of Brendan Gleeson as an Irish police Inspector who utilises the same methods in investigating suffragette activity as he had previously used with ‘Fenian’ activists seems an astute point. I hope that audiences make the connections between the ways in which the British state historically treated suffragettes and Irish republicans. The British state seemed to learn nothing from the treatment of hunger strikers in 1913 when it came to the treatment of internees such as Bobby Sands in 1981.

Of all the reviews I’ve seen, the best is by Graham Fuller on I realise that we independently came to similar conclusions but he expresses them more eloquently – though he also describes the plot in some detail, so beware. The Film 4 featurette below is an excellent resource with Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan and Anne-Marie Duff and clips from the film. I’m still staggered by the lack of historical knowledge shown by these three (and Carey Mulligan in other interviews) before they started work on the project. I’m sure this was on our school syllabuses in the 1960s, but perhaps I read it all somewhere else? What I certainly didn’t know was that the police surveillance files of the period became available to the public in 2002. But really we shouldn’t be surprised by what the state would do to confront any form of democratic challenge. This is an important film that everyone should see.

Life (Ger-UK-Australia-Can-US 2015)

Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) about to take the iconic image of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in Times Square in 1955.

Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) about to take the iconic image of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in Times Square in 1955.

Life is an unusual film for several reasons, not least its global credentials. Written by an Australian, directed by a Nederlander, photographed by a Dane and starring a Brit it tells us about an encounter with a Hollywood icon. Oh, and most of it was filmed in Canada. The focal point of the narrative is a single iconic image – that of a young James Dean walking in Times Square, New York on a rainy March morning a few days before the première of his first film East of Eden in 1955. The star of Life is the contemporary matinee idol Robert Pattinson here playing freelance photographer Dennis Stock, whose image of the ‘moment’ appeared in a Life magazine spread, helping to create Dean’s star image and boosting Stock’s fledgling career at the Magnum photo agency. James Dean in the film is played by Dane DeHaan. Stock’s book, Fifty Years Ago, recounting the shoot was published in 2005.

The cover of Dennis Stock's book

The cover of Dennis Stock’s book

James Dean at the local high school's Sweethearts Ball on St. Valentine's Day in Fairmount, Indiana, 1955. (Photo by Dennis Stock from the Time-Life website)

James Dean at the local high school’s Sweethearts Ball on St. Valentine’s Day in Fairmount, Indiana, 1955. This scene is reproduced in the film. (Photo by Dennis Stock from the Time-Life website.)

Director Anton Corbijn is himself a photographer, best known for his work for UK music magazines photographing late 1970s and 1980s New Wave artists which in turn informed his first film-directing venture, Control (UK 2007) about the tragic life and musical career of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division in the late 1970s. Knowing this and then avoiding the assumption that Corbijn is more interested in Stock’s story than Dean’s is quite difficult – especially when Corbijn has said as much himself.

The production has some distinguished backers including the former head of film at Channel 4, Tessa Ross and See-Saw Films, the UK-Australian company behind The King’s Speech and earlier Control with Corbijn. For Life they were able to put together a budget of between $10 and $15 million, small by US standards but considerable for a European film. It’s strange then that Life had only a limited release on 48 screens in the UK in September 2015 and will not open in North America until December. The opening was not a success and the UK distributors seem to have had little faith in the film. It is all too easy to lose a film in the current UK super abundance of new releases each week. Perhaps Life will find a more comfortable home on UK television’s Film 4 in a few months time? After its Berlin opening and the restrained critical response, the US market possibilities are not that encouraging.

Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock shoots Dane DeHaan as James Dean in 'Life' (Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg)

Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock shoots Dane DeHaan as James Dean in ‘Life’ (Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg)

Part of the problem for audiences is that the film depicts events of 60 years ago and because those events feature numerous famous names and faces, a modern audience without detailed knowledge of the period might not grasp exactly what is going on in several scenes. I know all the historical figures but they are not played by ‘doubles’ so it sometimes took me a few minutes to recognise that I was watching Nick Ray or Raymond Massey on screen portrayed by actors who had some of the same physical characteristics but obviously not all. All of this is relatively minor however, compared to the film’s big challenge in presenting a believable James Dean. Dane DeHaan is a highly-regarded young actor and his performance succeeds in getting across aspects of Dean’s personality alongside some of his mannerisms. It doesn’t matter that DeHaan is not a ‘double’ for Dean but it’s a tall order to play someone so distinctive and to my eyes so beautiful. DeHaan’s face is just a little pudgy and I found that did bother me. The hairstyle he has been given seems too exaggerated (compare the images above). On the other hand, studying portrait photos of Dean it’s clear that the make-up artists and costume designers have tried to replicate the photos and to a large extent they succeed. Photos from the original Life magazine shoot and the published magazine spread can be found on the Time-Life website and many of these are staged in the film.

The main interest in the film should perhaps be Robert Pattinson who has been choosing independent films now for a few years and he has a good go at bringing to life (ouch!) Dennis Stock – a not very likeable character in some ways according to the script. I enjoyed the visit to the farm home in Fairmont. It is Dean who is at ease here and Stock who becomes agitated. You do wonder how much he wanted to understand Dean. If you are a Dean fan you might find these rural scenes the most affecting.

Life got some poor reviews. Peter Bradshaw called the film “a laborious, lugubrious movie maintained at a somnolent cool-jazz tempo – a waxworky piece of American icon worship”. I’ll agree that the film is slow but that’s not a problem. Bradshaw also makes the more interesting comment that as far as Dean’s sexual identity is concerned the film “. . . keeps its tense hints at the subject largely in a heavy closet of its own making”. That’s a fair point. The script and Corbijn’s interpretation of it seem to be caught between several possible narratives. In some ways the film seems more interested in the machinations of Warner Bros. and its studio publicity machine than in the taking of the Life magazine photos. So we see Dean having a fling with Pier Angeli who had just finished filming Silver Chalice with Paul Newman (who could be seen as Dean’s rival for young male leads at the studio). The script shifts her marriage to Vic Damone back a few months to make this work. On the other hand we don’t get much about the photographic process Stock used. My viewing companion, a keen amateur photographer, complained that the sound of the shutter on Stock’s Leica was far too loud – indeed the 1950s Leica was noted for its quiet operation. The film soundtrack emphasises the sound of the shutter so that Stock’s obtrusive shooting is more obvious. I don’t think that the script actually mentioned Magnum as the agency – but surely it was as well-known as Life magazine itself?

I found Life absorbing and puzzling. I think I learned something about James Dean as a person but I don’t think I learned much about Dennis Stock or about his form of portraiture or magazine feature photography. I’ll certainly look closely at James Dean’s three films again.

Australian trailer:

The Black Panther (UK 1977)

Sumpter is a convincing psychopath

Sumpter is a convincing psychopath

I’d never heard of this film, a reconstruction of ‘black panther’ serial killer Dennis Nielsen’s grim crimes, despite the fact it apparently stimulated a mini moral panic on its release. John Patterson’s excellent article fills in the background so I’ll limit my comments to a few observations.

The first thing that surprised me was the credits that announced this was ‘A film by Ian Merrick’; I thought that habit started later – perhaps a reader could comment. Merrick had some justification, unlike most of today’s director’s, for this ownership as he also produced. The film recreates, it says as accurately as possible and I have no reason to disbelief, how Nielsen moved from petty theft to murder and finally kidnapping. I certainly remember Lesley Whittle, his victim, 40 years later; no doubt due to the coverage the case received at the time. The film shows that the press, in search of a story, interfered with the ransom pay-off, possibly with fatal consequences. Of course the press wouldn’t do that now… News of the World hacked the abducted Milly Dowler’s phone not so long ago so they probably would.

The film has the authentic drabness of the ’70s, though it only seems like that in retrospect, at the time (as a teenager) it seemed fine to me. They were turbulent times in the UK: the electricity cuts caused by the 3-Day working week; IMF bail out; numerous strikes; the enthronement of Thatcher as PM. The last event, of course, was the worst as it has had a lasting effect through the neoliberal policies that have become the received wisdom of economics. Donald Sumpter is good in the role of Nielsen and Debbie Farrington is affectingly ‘innocent’ as his final victim. The ending, presumably based on fact, is truly bonkers: Nielsen is finally apprehended in a fight in front of a bemused group of people outside a chippy. It’s good that the BFI have brought this film out of the wilderness.

A Taste of Honey at the National Media Museum

Taste of Honey

This screening was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.

The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.

The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her perspective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.

What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.

The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.

The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.

After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: