I recommend going to see this film even though I was ultimately disappointed by it and there’s plenty of spoilers following so beware.
A film about females is a rare event in our Oedipal-riddled world and so The Falling immediately has novelty going for it; it is written and directed by Carol Morley and brilliantly shot by Agnes Godard. It draws upon a true story of fainting girls in a school in the late 1960s; nothing was found to be wrong with them. I experienced similar ‘fits’ in my first year of teaching when up to three lasses would keel over in the middle of my English class. Being male I didn’t attribute this to my teaching.
Morley indirectly diagnoses their complaint to be patriarchy; of course it didn’t need the late ’60s setting for females to be suffering from that disease however things were worse then. It focuses on the friendship between Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, on the left above) and Lydia (Maisie Williams familiar from Game of Thrones); the former’s sexual experiences unsettle their relationship. They are at a girls’ school full of repression, exemplified by Greta Scacchi’s Miss Mantel; a great piece of casting as Scacchi was known for libidinous roles earlier in her career. The acting is fabulous throughout the film.
Morley’s previous feature was the effective dramadoc Dreams of a Life (UK-Ireland 2011) which recreated the life of a woman whose body was found years after it had expired in a London flat. The Falling is extremely ambitious and there is so much to like: its obtuse take on nature, the brooding tree and autumnal pond; the inclusion of rapidly edited ‘subliminal’ montages that might be flashbacks; the male voice of the therapist questioning the girls is mixed to feel as though it’s emanating from your own head (emphasising the hegemony of patriarchy); Maxine Peake, who plays Lydia’s mother, barely has a line but conveys pent-up frustration with the quivering fag in her fingers. All this is brilliant but . . .
For me it didn’t hang together. It could be the film needs a second viewing but I think the incest was pointless and detracted from the representation of repressed females through sensationalism and pathologising the protagonist. I’ve tagged the film as horror though it’s certainly not conventionally horrific; it’s only toward the end the genre makes its presence felt. It might have been better if horror iconography had been introduced earlier. Incidentally, the credit sequence at the end is terrifically designed.
As I said, it is a film that needs seeing because it deals with female experience and too many of western narratives (and those of other cultures) assume the male experience is paramount. Hopefully Morley will get to make another film soon; too many of our great female directors (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold for example) struggle to get their films made. Maybe in the next one Morley will be able to more successfully integrate form and content. If this sounds critical then I am being unfair as it is far from shameful to ‘fail’ (if that’s what she has done) when aiming so high. I’m interested in what female viewers make of the film . . .
Woman in Gold is a film version of a ‘true story’ that has, as one reviewer put it, been ‘Weinsteined’ to within an inch of its life. This means that it is quite difficult to discuss without dealing with all the opprobrium that producer Harvey Weinstein in particular attracts. The Weinstein touch means that what would otherwise be a mainstream, middlebrow film stuffed with good performances has been accused of all kinds of terrible crimes against history and the representation of arguments about ‘art restitution’ that might be expected from a sober art picture. If we ignore the hot air created by the most violent attacks, this is a crowd-pleasing film marred for some audiences by misjudged action sequences and cartoon villains. At its centre is another striking performance by Helen Mirren that will no doubt attract admirers. However, although her exaggerated Austrian-accented English might be justified by the script, she does create a character that is probably too much like some of her other well-known portrayals.
Mirren plays Maria Altman, a woman who we later learn escaped the Holocaust, literally running from the SS in Vienna in 1938. The narrative begins in 1998 when she hires a lawyer to attempt to get back a painting of her aunt stolen by the Nazis and now hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. (The events of 1938 are represented through detailed flashbacks at various points of the narrative.) The lawyer she chooses is ‘Randy’ (Randol), the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg (who left Vienna for the US at the same time as Maria). Played by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds as a tall, intelligent but also rather nervous/vulnerable young man with wire-rimmed spectacles, Randy kept reminding me of Jimmy Stewart playing the lead in The Glenn Miller Story. When I looked later the resemblance isn’t that close but he certainly has some of that tension between hesitancy and forcefulness that Stewart used so effectively in similar kinds of roles. The film is in effect a two-hander and Reynolds does well to hold his own with Mirren. (I hadn’t seen Reynolds before and his performance seems to have been a surprise for those who know him from action films such as Green Lantern (2011) or X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).)
The drama in the story depends on two aspects of the painting (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907) – one is the ‘personal’, involving the portrait of a beloved aunt and the trigger to remember those left behind during the attacks on Jewish families that followed the Anschluss of 1938. The other is the fact that the painting, one of five commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and painted by Gustav Klimt, was already worth around $100 million in 1998 and was considered a ‘national treasure’ of Austria. The designation ‘Woman in Gold’ was used by the Nazis to describe the painting. These factors underpin the determination of Maria and the Austrian gallery curators to fight a bitter battle through various courts to establish ownership. Unfortunately, the Austrian characters are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner and the merits of their case (i.e. the other issues in the arguments about ‘art restitution’) are lost in the general feelgood tenor of the campaign as conducted by Maria and Randy.
The film ‘works’ for its target audience (the over 50s?) and it is driven by its casting. Director Simon West is a very experienced producer/director in UK film and television and this is a co-production with BBC films. The supporting cast includes cameos from Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce and Charles Dance while the 1938 sequences include performances by Henry Goodman and Allan Corduner. Three prominent German actors appear. Tom Schilling and Moritz Bleibtreu are seen only briefly but Daniel Brühl has a bigger role as Hubertus, a local journalist who supports Maria’s cause. Brühl is a strong actor in German cinema but now seems to pop up in ‘international’ productions in a predictable way. Here he is rather wasted I fear.
In genre terms the film is primarily, I think, a melodrama – which may be one of the reasons it has been traduced by reviewers who want it to be a Holocaust story or an investigative narrative. The focus is on Maria ‘now’ and the family as it was in 1938 (the starting point of the narrative is the death in Los Angeles of Maria’s sister). There is an attempt to draw some kind of parallel with Randy’s family ‘now’ – he takes risks with his career and his marriage to support Maria. I’m not sure this works. There is a melodrama score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer and I have to confess that my eyes were moist for much of the film. I’m a sucker for Hollywood sentimentality and my critical faculties didn’t kick in until the film ended. Some audiences have drawn parallels with Philomena (UK 2013). This didn’t occur to me but in retrospect I can see the links. Visually Woman in Gold depends on a distinction between the sunny present in Vienna and Southern California and the depiction of 1938 – still bright but with more sepia tones. The ‘escape’ of the young Maria seemed ludicrous to me. However I was impressed by the playing of young Maria by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian actress making a name for herself in the TV series Orphan Black.
This film has a current IMDb rating of 7.5 indicating a strongly favourable audience response but the critics really didn’t like it. I’ve noted what I think are the weaknesses here but I understand why so many have enjoyed the film. One further point, I’ve called it a ‘Hollywood film’. This is mainly because of Harvey Weinstein’s influence. But even then it would be technically an American independent. In fact this is essentially a British film, with Harvey Weinstein as an executive producer. I’m not really sure why it is listed as a US production. Perhaps the Weinstein Company paid for distribution rights ‘up front’ and effectively co-financed the film?
The new DCP of the digital restoration of The Tales of Hoffman was the final matinee screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester before the move to HOME. The post-screening discussion was led by Andrew Moor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew wrote a piece on the film for Criterion’s website and also co-edited a book on Powell and Pressburger’s films with Ian Christie. The discussion was dominated by the audience members who were primarily music/ballet/opera fans. Since I know little about any of these art forms I found this illuminating but slightly frustrating and here I want to focus on the film as an Archers production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The Tales of Hoffman is interesting for several reasons. It represents in some ways the fruition of Michael Powell’s long-held desire to make the ultimate ‘composed film’ – to marry music, dance, theatre and film as a single coherent work. But to do this Powell had to work quickly and cheaply at Shepperton in order to comply with the Archers’ contract with Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film was really Powell and Pressburger’s last attempt to deal with Korda and after this production they bought themselves out of the contract and took three years off – a long ‘rest’ for such an active partnership.
Powell commissioned a new English libretto for the opera. Emeric Pressburger had less to do on the script this time – although unlike Powell he had actually ‘experienced’ the opera, playing “second fiddle in the orchestra in a production in Prague”. Powell’s plan was to record an opera performance conducted by Thomas Beecham (the originator of the project) and then to ‘compose’ the film on a silent stage with actors miming to the playback. He thus created one of the earliest forms of ‘music video’. This approach also helped him to use ‘real’ ballet dancers, ‘real’ singers and ‘real’ actors. Only two of the cast, the Americans Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, were both singers and actors in the narrative.
The Tales of Hoffman was the only opera written by Jacques Offenbach (who mainly produced operettas) and he died a few months before the completed work was first performed in 1881. The story is based on three tales written by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1818. The opera uses a fictionalised version of Hoffman himself as the hero of each story with the framing device of the ‘telling’ of the tales in a tavern. For the film the Archers added a ballet sequence at the beginning and the end, placing the tavern sequence as a potential meeting place for Hoffman and the ballerina. There are many descriptions and analyses of the opera and the BFI website features an extensive look at the restoration with images from the film and other materials (which they don’t want to offer for download – the images on this blog were obtained from other sources).
The great coup for the production was to persuade Moira Shearer to dance in two sequences. Made into a star by The Red Shoes, Shearer was sought by many film producers but refused them all, only agreeing to work with Powell. Alongside her the Archers were able to cast many leading figures from the ballet world. Just as important for the production was the creative team of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson in production design and art direction, Reginald Mills as editor and Chris Challis as DoP with Freddie Francis as operator.
I think this screening completed my ‘set’ of Powell and Pressburger films. Although I can’t really appreciate the music or the dances, I can admire the cinematic ‘composition’ that the Archers created and especially the genius of the set design, performances and camerawork/editing. In a sense the film takes us back to Powell’s early experience with Rex Ingrams in Nice in the 1920s and to Pressburger’s early career in Germany. What is most fascinating for me is to see all the links to the Archers’ early Technicolor successes. The final tale is set on a Greek island and the designs reminded me to some extent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the Western Front battlefield) the prologue also reminds us of the meeting of British and German officers in the bar café at the early part of Blimp. Elsewhere we had overhead shots and a staircase reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death and the whole film referred constantly to techniques developed for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The casting too includes many of the ballet stars from The Red Shoes (Shearer, Tcherina, Helpmann and Massine) plus the third of Powell’s great loves of the period, Pamela Browne as Niklaus, Hoffman’s companion (a male part usually played by a woman in the opera).
Perhaps the most important outcome of watching The Tales of Hoffman for me was that it sent me back to reading the second part of Michael Powell’s long autobiography Million Dollar Movie. I first read it on publication in 1992 and I had forgotten many of the stories. He gives rare insights into the production process and the battles with Korda. All lovers of P&P’s work must have mixed feelings about The Tales of Hoffman. In one sense it represents the peak of their achievements in ‘composed’ films. Powell himself rates it as a ‘bulls-eye’ for The Archers in their four Korda productions of 1949-50. I think I prefer A Small Back Room (1949). Hoffman does not have the same glorious melodrama feel of The Red Shoes and it did seem to me that the camera felt slightly more constrained in its movements during the ballet scenes. Sadly the last three Archers films though all interesting and entertaining did not raise the spirits in quite the same way as their 1940s’ films. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see digital restorations of Oh Rosalinda! (1955 in ‘Scope), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – the last two both in VistaVision.
Here’s the trailer for the Hoffman restoration. Even if you don’t know opera or ballet, it’s a real treat for the eyes:
This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the writer and director, Rob Brown. Unfortunately there was a relatively small audience for what was [I believe] a rare screening. We started a little late as there were problems getting the HD version to screen correctly. My friend Cheryl asked wishfully if the team had not ‘bought their cans with then’. (i.e. 35mm) The film runs for eighty minutes and is in colour and the New Academy ratio.
The events in the film run over a period of three days. The central character is Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva). Just coming up to his sixteenth birthday, Jumah lives with his adoptive mother Laura (Rachel Stirling) in West London on a housing estate. He goes to a local comprehensive school and has a girlfriend there, Chloe (Rosie Day). What marks out Jumah is that he comes from the Congo, and his earlier years have left him marked physically and psychologically by the ravages of the continuing neo-colonial wars there. He has a problem with what is nowadays called ‘anger management’. Other important characters are his friend Alex (Deon Williams) and a school colleague Josh (Fady Elsayed) who is involved with a local drug dealer, Liam (Sam Spruel).
It is the violence associated with this criminality that creates the problems of the story. The film works well: it looks good, and the cast offer a convincing portrayal of the milieu and the characters. The audience was overwhelmingly positive when we came to talk about the film. A number were affected by the film’s sense of realism: i.e. by presenting recognisable characters and situations whilst managing to create a dramatic story. Wendy Cook from the Hyde Park introduced Rob Brown and asked him to talk about the making of the film. Impressively the overall budget was only sixty thousand pounds, though the film looks far more expensive. It also had a long gestation period, though the actual shoot took only 18 days. The length of the process can be seen in the production date being in 2013, when it featured at the London Film Festival.
It is Rob’s first feature though he has already directed six short films, some of which have featured in the Leeds International Film Festival. Rob talked about how he developed his idea into the film. He said he starts with a character and then he adds the issues and events that occur in the film’s plot. One item that fed into his imaginings was a photograph from Rwanda (alongside and involved in the conflicts in the Congo). He also said that he deliberately made aspects of the film sketchy, for example, the characters are not provided with clear ‘back stories’. He wanted audiences to respond and interpret the characters and events as the story developed. For the same reason he avoided flashbacks. Members of the audience ask questions and commented on this. There was praise for the way the film develops the central character and the conflicts that he faces. One issue that came up was the ending, which is relatively positive. Rob referred to an earlier independent UK film with a black protagonists, Bullet Boy, which has a very downbeat ending. He said he wanted to offer something that was more refreshing. One of my reservations about the film was the ending. Not the decisions and actions of the characters but the way it was plotted. I found this far more conventional than most of the film. Rob remarked that one of the films that impressed him was Boyhood (2014), and I had a similar feeling regarding the ending of that film, which in other ways was extremely impressive. I felt the scripting for Sixteen was very strong on character and developments – the penultimate sequence is very effective. I was not so happy with the dialogue, which I found somewhat conventional: some scenes lacked conviction. In his comments Rob stressed that even working with another writer he wanted to make the work ‘mine’. This is the emphasis on a personal vision so fondly held in auteur commentaries. I tend to think that many fine films work well with an interaction of visions; certainly like many other recent films I thought the writing could be developed. One intriguing aspect of the main character is his interest in hairdressing, clearly unconventional for a boy. I failed to ask Rob about this. But it occurred to me later that this is a motif that develops interesting aspects on the characters in the film. One scene that particularly struck me was set at evening as Jumah cuts Chloe’s hair. The film also had two stylistic tropes which I felt were unhelpful. One was the frequent use of hand-held camera. This is rapidly becoming de rigueur for ‘realists’ films, but I was not convinced that it served a function here. The other trope was more intrusive, the use of noticeable music/sound accompaniment at particular moments of intensity. I felt this distracted from the generally naturalistic feel of the film. Though a friend said she did not particularly notice this. Even with those reservations this is a strong and effective drama. It is one that addresses serious issues and offers these through really interesting characters. I am not sure how easy it will be to catch the film at a cinema. Rob and his team are ‘self-distributing’ the film. Jake Hume, Nic Jeune – producers. Music by John Bowen. Cinematography by Justin Brown: Arri Ariflex. Film Editing by Barry Moen. Production Design by Jonathan Brann. BBFC Certificate 15.