Category: British Cinema

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

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Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in The Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteer are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some an analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this films refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 Television drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.

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.