Category: British Cinema

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (UK 2014)

A self-portait of Jane Bown from the 1970s (when she started using the Olympus-M1 camera)

(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)

Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.

One of Jane Bown’s best-known images. This portrait of Samuel Beckett was one of just three shots Bown was able to capture as he exited the stage door of the Royal Court in 1976.

Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.

The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown  was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)

A member of station staff at Earl’s Court station on the District Line, c.1960

Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.

Mill hands in Rochdale going to a byelection hustings in 1958

I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.

Björk in 1995

Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.

I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.

Robbery Under Arms (UK-Australia 1957)

In 1956 the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice was a big commercial and critical success. It starred Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch with Joseph Janni as producer and Jack Lee as director. Finch was a bankable name in Australia and in the UK, partly because of his well publicised drinking and affairs with female celebrity figures. Because the film had an Australian dimension involving the capture of Australian troops as well as British settlers in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Janni and Lee were eager to to make another film with Finch in Australia. They eventually decided on a new version of an already four-times adapted novel set in the late nineteenth century. They used the same pair of writers, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason plus an additional writer, Alexander Baron and two of the other cast members from the earlier film. The experienced Harry Waxman shot the new film mainly in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia as well as in the Pagewood Studios in Sydney and Pinewood in the UK. This adventurous production links the film to both the Australian genre of the ‘bushranger’ film and to the cycle of British-Australian films produced by Ealing Studios starting with The Overlanders (1946) and finishing with The Siege of Pinchgut (1959). Peter Finch was a supporting player in one of these, Eureka Stockade in 1949, and he starred in The Shiralee in 1957, immediately before working on Robbery Under Arms. Ealing had in fact tried to make their own adaptation of Robbery Under Arms at several points over the course of their Australian production period.

Peter Finch as Captain Starlight

Robbery Under Arms was written by the Australian author Thomas Alexander Browne using the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. It first appeared serialised in a Sydney magazine from 1882 and was then published in book form in 1888 and has remained in print ever since, becoming a classic of ‘Australian colonial fiction’. Originally used to refer to ‘transported’ men who escaped into the bush to evade the authorities, ‘bushranger’ became a descriptor for any criminals who carried out ‘robbery under arms’ as the official charge sheet put it. Film versions of the novel were among the first Australian films in the 1900s with further adaptations in 1911 and 1920 and a later TV movie in 1985 starring Sam Neill. The novel is long with several episodes. The 1957 version cuts several of these and presents a more linear narrative. It also sets the story slightly earlier in 1865. The most striking decision is the casting of Peter Finch as ‘Captain Starlight’, the rather glamorous and seemingly aristocratic leader of a bushranger outfit. Although Finch was appropriately cast as the character, Starlight isn’t the leading character in the narrative. Instead, the leads are two brothers Dick (Ronald Lewis) and Jim (David McCallum) Marston. Dick is the leader of the two and the narrative begins when, exhausted after a successful spell of sheep shearing, the pair decide to seek adventure. They find this when they discover that their ex-convict father is working with Starlight on a cattle drive of a thousand stolen head. It seems like exciting and lucrative work but they will find themselves always having to avoid the colonial police force as well as angry ranchers. Their involvement with a pair of sisters (Kate, played by Maureen Swanson and Jean, played by Jill Ireland) causes further complications. The main events in the narrative are familiar from Hollywood Westerns – a stage hold-up, saloon brawls etc.

A publicity still of Indigenous warriors (from the Network DVD gallery) The black & white publicity shots were standard at this time – although the film was in colour, most print publications were still monochrome in the UK

Indigenous Australians appear in the form of trackers, working with both Starlight’s gang and the colonial police, and warriors encountered in the bush. The resolution of the narrative is inevitable as a ‘posse’ of locals aids the colonial police to hunt down Starlight’s gang. He may be the ‘gentleman’ thief but some of his companions are more brutal. Mothers will lose young sons and settler culture in Australia does not come out well, apart from a local brother-sister combination who seem honourable. The Marstons might have followed their example but that would not fulfil the genre expectations.

This tableau composition of the Marston family is a publicity still presenting Marjorie Anderson as the mother with her sons Dick (back left), Jim and daughter Eileen (Dudy Nimmo)

As with other British productions in Commonwealth/Empire territories, the appeal of the film is found in the Eastmancolor images of the mountains and plains that present the action. One of the odd aspects of the production is the IMDb suggestion that the film was shot in ‘open matte’ Academy ratio (1.33:1) but intended to be projected with masking to create a widescreen (1.75:1) image. I watched the Network Region 2 DVD in Academy and that seems to be the format for other DVDs as well. I think the amount of cropping/masking for a widescreen image would destroy many compositions so that suggestion sounds unlikely to me. There is also a discrepancy in the running times listed for the UK, US and Australia. The Region 2 DVD runs 95 minutes which with PAL speed-up is closest to the UK cinema running time of 99 minutes. Australia seemingly got 5 minutes more but the US 16 mins less.

A major release by Rank

The film received a mixed response from critics but was certainly a box office hit in Australia and seems to have got a wide release in the UK. The two main criticisms seem to have been about the quality of the performances and the poor script. Personally, I found all the performances to be fine. There is some criticism of the mix of speech patterns by the British actors as leads and Australians as support but this probably matches some of the interchanges of the 1860s. For the critics in the 1950s the script was on the one hand filled with passages, especially in the opening scenes, when the pace was too slow but overall included two many ‘action scenes’ and didn’t develop the relationships between characters. I think it likely that the film was seen as both very similar to American Westerns but also vastly inferior. This seems to miss the film’s genuine interest in its Australian story and I’ve written about it here in preparation for work on other Australian Westerns. Australian film history begins with such films but production declined during the 1930s and didn’t fully revive until the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s. The British productions in Australia between 1946 and 1959 at least helped to keep local production alive during the lean years.

David McCallum with Jill Ireland as Jean

Two repercussions for the actors involved in the Robbery Under Arms production were that David McCallum and Jill Ireland married during the production, having met on Hell Drivers which was released in the UK earlier in 1957. They later migrated to Hollywood where McCallum starred in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Maureen Swanson, who shares second billing on the UK poster above with McCallum, was a rising star at this point and she had featured in A Town Like Alice and other Rank productions, including a second billing in a Norman Wisdom comedy, Up in the World (1956). As Ronald Bergan points out in her obituary (she died in 2011), Swanson didn’t fit into the group of ‘Charm School starlets’ as she had trained as a ballet dancer but she was also not one of the young ‘sex bomb’ types such as Diana Dors or Joan Collins. Yet after Robbery Under Arms, in which the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer says she gives a “Rhonda Fleming-like performance”, she moves into UK TV and then retires in 1961 after marrying into the aristocracy. Her performance as Kate reveals an actor with passion and Rank lost a potential major star.

A publicity shot of Maureen Swanson as Kate in Robbery Under Arms

Robbery Under Arms is a film with flaws certainly but I don’t think it deserved the critical reaction it received. I enjoyed the film and particularly the cinematography and the performances by Maureen Swanson and David McCallum (both initially from Glasgow). This is an interesting introduction to Australian stories on screen before the emergence of the 1970s New Cinema. As well as on the Network DVD, the film has also appeared on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

The Edge (UK 2019)

The Edge is a sports documentary about the England Test cricket team. Released in cinemas in July 2019 soon after England won the Cricket World Cup (50 Over white ball game) it is now available on DVD and digital download and is free in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks. Presented in ‘Scope format with some spectacular footage and voiceovers by Toby Jones, the documentary does have the feel of a cinema feature and follows Warriors (UK 2015) the earlier film by Barney Douglas. That told the story of a cricket team from the Masai in Kenya who came to Lords in London, the home of English cricket. As well as presenting the ‘feelgood’ journey for the team, that documentary also featured a discourse about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) still an issue in the Masai community. The Edge has a similar overall approach. While it has a conventional sports documentary structure about the rise (and fall) of a team that reached a peak of No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is also about the mental stress of top level sport and the personal stories of specific players.

The crucial question about the documentary is whether it can appeal to a wider audience than simply cricket fans (although there are many such fans around the world). How much do you need to know about cricket to appreciate the highs and lows that the players and coaches experience? The film does work as a compelling narrative about a group of young men, presenting the drama of their encounters at major Test venues but it doesn’t attempt to explain how the game works or to offer any basic facts  – the individual and team scores in the most significant games. This could be frustrating for both fans and the wider audience. Like its American equivalent, baseball, cricket is a game in which statistics are important for fans and players alike.

If you don’t know cricket and cricket culture I think some of subtexts in the film are difficult to grasp. Test cricket is the ‘highest’ and most demanding form of the game, played by national teams in a series of 5-day games. Cricket expanded from its English base, first to Australia and then to many other parts of the British Empire from the early 20th century. There are now ten Test teams recognised by the International Cricket Council with several more ‘Associate Members’. Because of the Imperial background there are issues about race and class in the history of cricket which still have an impact today and events in The Edge do in some respects refer to this history.

The narrative begins at the point in 2009 when England were at rock bottom. Zimbabwean Andy Flower, already associated with England as a coach, was appointed as full-time director of the England Test team. Flower is presented as a tough coach and a man who had left Zimbabwe after criticising the undemocratic policies of President Robert Mugabe. He was actually born in Apartheid South Africa and in the England team when he took over there were four players who had been born in South Africa. Captain Andrew Strauss and wicket-keeper Matt Prior came to the UK as children, but batsmen Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen came as adults, gaining qualification status to play for England. The squad of 13 featured in the film comprised five young men educated at private schools (which often have cricketing facilities) and six who came from state schools (plus the two schooled in South Africa). Monty Panesar, the second spin bowler in the team, was the first Sikh to play for England and the only non-white player in the squad. I mention these distinctions simply because they represent references to the colonial history of cricket and the different cultures associated with private and state schooling. Up until the 1960s English cricket teams often comprised ‘gentlemen amateurs’ and professional ‘players’ with the distinction clearly marked in terms of status. Unlike the England football team, most of whom are likely to share a similar educational background, the cricket team has potential divisions which can be damaging, especially on tour. Perhaps because of this, Flower chose to take the team squad on a rigorous team-building course in a Bavarian forest devised by the German military. They were a talented group of players and this exercise arguably helped them to become much more effective as a team.

Cricket is as much in the head as out in the middle

The trajectory of the narrative is over the next few years during which time the team won several Test series and were eventually seen as the No. 1 team in world cricket. The apogee of their journey was a 3-1 defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11. But it would also be in Australia three years later that the team would finally fall apart. What fascinates followers of élite team sports is as much the implosion of a team as its rise to pre-eminence. Cricket, as the documentary shows, is an unusual sport in that it is all about the cohesion of the team but also the capability of each individual to cope with the pressure of performing in their individual role to the highest possible standard. All professional cricketers are highly skilled at playing the game of cricket, but only a few have the mental strength to play a 5-day Test on a consistent basis. As a batter or a bowler or a specialist fielder each player has a lone battle on the pitch. To captain the side, especially when things go wrong, is also onerous and for a variety of reasons the successful captain Andrew Strauss in this case was under great pressure.

Each of the thirteen players speaks in the ‘talking heads mode’ of the conventional documentary but some are singled out to enable the narrative to be clearer. Strauss the captain trying to keep things under control, Graeme Swann the joker, Steven Finn as the youngest feeling the media interest or Tim Bresnan as perhaps the most bemused by the whole set-up of the team and the tour and Monty Panesar seemingly as the outsider in the squad all feature. But the biggest stories concern Kevin Pietersen, considered the best batter but also a controversial ‘celebrity’ figure and Jonathan Trott as the mild-mannered player most visibly affected by the mental health issues associated with cricket. These two are at the centre of the story and James (‘Jimmy’) Anderson is presented as the contrast, a calm figure who seems able to deal with it all. An early sequence in the film includes an extreme long-shot of Jimmy running along the sands of a river estuary, heading for a large post in the distance. Like a similar sequence later in the film of Jonathan Trott walking in his cricket gear across a crop field these kinds of ‘creative’ images contrast with the interviews, archive footage and clips of the players’ own video footage. There is a music score by Felix White of the Maccabees which works to stitch the different types of material together. ‘The Edge’ has several meanings. It refers to that sense that all élite players have that something extra that makes them Test players but it also warns us that they are often on the ‘edge’ of their self control and the stress can push them too far. But in cricket, the ‘edge’ also refers to the moment when a bowler induces the batter into a false shot and the ball makes the slightest of contacts with the bat and is edged into the hands of the waiting wicket-keeper or slip fielder. It is these tiny margins that separate the winners and losers in Test cricket.

Test cricket is only available on Pay TV in the UK and the live games are expensive with tickets difficult to come by for certain games so I haven’t watched much since the 1970s but this documentary kept me engaged throughout. Barney Douglas and co-writer Gabriel Clarke (a sports doc specialist) have crafted an entertaining documentary well worth catching.

The Souvenir (UK 2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (UK 2021)

Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.

Julie and Anthony in the Knightsbridge flat

These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.

Camerawork and mise en scène present the difficult relationship between Julie and Anthony

Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne  had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.

Anthony introduces the idea of fantasy rather than realism to Julie in this awful location. Those Union Jack ‘drapes’!

Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.

Julie and Anthony visiter her parents (she’s here with her mother played by Tilda Swinton). This could be a landscape from a Michael Powell English country scene.

At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.

The older men who are Julie’s tutors at the film school played by Steve Gough and Dick Fontaine

Julie on set in Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.

One of the long shots from Souvenir

I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.

L’amant (The Lover, France-UK 1992)

My French Film Festival is back online with around a dozen features available for minimum cost. There is usually at least one archive film included and this year it is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’amant in a restored print from 2014. I didn’t make any effort to see this film on release. It was hyped I think and I assumed that it would not interest me as a vapid combination of heritage film and soft porn extravaganza. In 2022 it looks controversial primarily for the casting of the central character as a young teenage girl in an illicit relationship. What surprised me most about watching it now was the split in 1992 between leading critics whom I generally respect. Some were prepared to defend the film and others trashed it. These days I try to comment on what I see, how I think a film has been put together and what it might mean. So here goes.

The girl and the Chinese man meet on the ferry

L’amant is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel with the same title by Marguerite Duras published in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt. An earlier novel drawing on her adolescent years in Indochina was published in 1950 and that was made into two films, one ‘international’ and the other a later French production in 2008 with Isabelle Huppert as the mother struggling to hold back the sea’s incursion into the land she had been fooled into acquiring. Known as The Sea Wall in English, elements of this story appear in L’amant. It is perhaps significant that Duras herself was not involved in the scripting of L’amant and that she wrote a second version of the story, published as L’amant de la Chine du Nord in 1991. The Duras connection might have been a stumbling block for some reviewers and one American reviewer claimed that L’amant was full of ‘arthouse banalities’. I’m not sure I understand that but it does say something about what happens when a French literary adaptation arrives in the US as a big budget English language film distributed by MGM.

Jean-Jacques Annaud (born 1943) is a French director who trained at IDHEC but who began his career in advertising before developing a portfolio of ‘big pictures’ mostly as English-language productions set in various spectacular locations. Claude Berri who produced L’amant was one of the major figures in French cinema as a producer, director, writer and actor. His biggest success as a director was the pair of Maurice Pagnol adaptations, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources in 1986. In industry terms, these were two names to be trusted with a big budget film shot mainly in Vietnam.

The couple’s first intimate encounter in the car

The Duras story sees a young teenage girl, known only as ‘The Girl’ who is heading back to Saigon to a large hostel for girls where she stays in order to attend a lycée in the city. She leaves behind her mother and two brothers in the town of Sa Đéc in the Mekong Delta. On the ferry she meets a wealthy and attractive ‘Chinese man’, who is also unnamed in the story. He offers her a ride in his chauffeur-driven car. There is an attraction between them and eventually over the next few weeks he will persuade her to visit his ‘bachelor room’ where they begin a physical affair. The man is close to an arranged marriage and the affair with the girl is a taboo for him as well as for the girl. But the story will not end with the girl’s eventual return to Paris as there is a brief coda. As the film begins the year is 1929 (when Duras was 15). When she gets into the car, the girl says she is 17. The man says he is 32 (which would have been Tony Leung Ka Fai’s actual age when he made the film). Annaud searched extensively in casting for the girl. Jane March had started modelling work at 15 in England. She was 17 when Annaud found her and she turned 18 at the start of the film shoot. The script included many scenes in which she would be naked and despite the use of body doubles she would later claim that Annaud had exploited her. Tony Leung was already a star in Hong Kong cinema in 1991 (a year when eleven of his films were released). Jane would have had the support of her mother (who had some Vietnamese-Chinese ancestry according to IMDb) but I don’t know if she was in Paris where the bedroom scenes were filmed or in Vietnam for the location shoot. Tony Leung’s time on set may have been limited because of his other films in production. IMDb suggests that Annaud spread rumours about ‘real’ sex on set to generate news stories. It looks like a potential case for investigation in the current circumstances. I haven’t seen anything else about the case so I can’t comment. The film was heavily cut in the US to get an R classification. In the UK it received an ’18’ rating with fewer cuts (or perhaps the submitted film was shorter). The version I watched online was a few minutes longer than the UK DVD releases. I’m not sure the cuts are that important. The early 1990s were a time when soft porn in mainstream cinema was still part of the offer. We live in a different world now where presentation of sex in the mainstream cinema is perhaps less common but much more explicit. What is presented in The Lover didn’t strike me as pornographic and I note that in France it has a certificate for ‘Tous public’. The debate about pornography v. eroticism is interesting, but I’m going to focus on other aspects.

The girl is a good student and destined to be a writer

What kind of film is it? The romance dominates the narrative but since both families are to some extent involved in the romance, this is also a form of family melodrama. It’s also a colonial melodrama, complicated by issues of race and class, though it involves a wealthy Chinese family rather than the directly colonised Vietnamese. It is also a form of ‘heritage’ picture, the French genre similar to the British idea of a heritage drama – wrapped up in nostalgia, costumes, beautiful houses etc. Finally it’s a literary adaptation and specifically a narrative associated with Marguerite Duras, a then still living figure associated with high culture. That’s a complicated mixture, largely ignored by most critics and reviewers. Berri and Annaud insisted on shooting in Vietnam, despite the cost of importing equipment and facilities. There is some use of matte work I think? Special effects work is not my forte and I’m not sure about how it’s done but there are several uses of long shots/aerial shots of the Mekong with steamships from France that maintain the colonial communities, otherwise Indochina is represented by street scenes, a dancehall, the Chinese district (Cholon), the lycée and the boarding house and towards the end of the film, a Chinese wedding. Vietnamese characters feature only as servants, stall-holders, waiters etc.

Walking through Cholon

The colonial melodrama is to a certain extent stifled or deflected by the main focus on the French-Chinese couple. Tony Leung gives a sensitive performance. His character puts up with the casual racism displayed by the girl and he doesn’t really become enraged until he meets the family and particularly her older brother. That anger is transferred to a rough sex scene with the girl but she in turn uses it as part of her fantasy exploring how it must feel for prostitutes. The sexual relationship between man and girl is intelligently explored and involves the possibility of love, the strength of tradition and the exploration of adolescence. My disappointment with the film is more concerned with the missed opportunity to deal with the colonial imagination of the girl and her family (which is seriously affected by the economic position of the mother and the events which make up the main narrative in The Sea Wall). We do learn something about the Chinese family, though only really via the dialogue. The Chinese man explains how the family migrated from China, selling their property and business to the Japanese in Manchuria. The historical background of this narrative seems to look forward to the collapse of the French influence in the region twenty years later and the complicated Chinese-Vietnamese relationships during the same period.

The couple visit the abadoned land the mother couldn’t protect from the sea

Overall, I did enjoy the film and I don’t think it deserves the critical mauling it got in both the US and UK, especially using the charge of ‘bad acting’ – I thought that both March with her brief background experience in modelling and Leung with his already celebrated career triumphs in Hong Kong were very good. I realise that when the film came out my knowledge of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema was still fairly limited but I hope I might have recognised the performance skills of ‘Big Tony’ (to distinguish him from Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who is probably better known in the US/UK because of his work in arthouse and major international productions). I was impressed by Big Tony’s English accent. I suppose, however, that it is a little odd to see a relationship between a young French girl and a Chinese man in Indochina conducted in British English and perhaps it does distance the relationship from its French colonial setting? The film was scripted by Annaud’s regular collaborator Gérard Brach. The music is by Gabriel Yared and the cinematography by Robert Fraisse. And I almost forgot that there is narration by Jeanne Moreau, presenting the the thoughts of the novelist, i.e. ‘the girl’ thinking back as the older woman in her Parisian writer’s room. Voiceover narration is always divisive for critics but it worked for me. Here’s a short clip from the film, when the couple meet and share the car ride to Saigon.

Train of Events (UK 1949)

Railways are featured in several Ealing films, but in the case of Train of Events the studio went the whole hog and and approached the newly formed London Midland region of British Railways to provide access to the engine sheds and mainline trains working out of Euston station. The resulting production is a good example of a film that misses several targets and has generally left critics cold, but for anybody interested in railways or representations of aspects of life in London in 1949 it offers a range of pleasures. This is one of Ealing’s ‘portmanteau’ or anthology/compendium films. The best known of these is Dead of Night (1945), which like The Halfway House (1944), goes for individual stories told because of a meeting of different groups of people around whom the segments of the narrative are organised. Each of these films has a slightly different narrative structure and a different feel in terms of genre. Train of Events deals with four separate stories which eventually converge on the 3.45 pm Liverpool express from London Euston. What happens to the train is revealed immediately after the credits and the four stories are told in flashback before a final sequence in the present.

Miles Malleson as the clerk issuing job sheets at the engine shed

There are three directors, four writers and two cinematographers involved and the large cast required the round-up of actors from other Rank partners as well as early roles for actors who would become well-known in the 1950s, such as Peter Finch, John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Leslie Phillips. There are a host of familiar players who will have you scrambling for reference books. The first story, directed by Sidney Cole, focuses on the railway itself and the family of a senior locoman played by Jack Warner. Gladys Henson and Susan Shaw are his wife and daughter. Warner and Shaw were well-known to audiences at the time as key members of the Huggett Family films made by Gainsborough. In 1950, Warner and Henson were reunited in the police procedural, The Blue Lamp. This railway story offers us access to the engine shed at Camden and the streets around Somers Town, the district just to the North of the three mainline railway stations of Euston, St. Pancras and King’s Cross. The few minutes of documentary footage promise a fascinating story that isn’t really followed through completely. Cole was the least experienced of the three directors but the very experienced actors and camera crews carry the story segment. It’s the only time in my viewing experience that I’ve had the same thrill of a railway drama that could match Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (France 1938), if only for a few moments. Currently, there are hundreds of historical railway films on YouTube, many made by the railway companies or British Transport films, but few of them with the professional crews of a studio like Ealing. Having said that, I don’t think Ealing’s crew members were very aware of which locos they were filming and how to ensure they had enough coverage of the loco on the 3.45 express. Still, 1949 was particularly interesting for transport historians as the railways had just been formally nationalised in 1948. Some of the locomotives on shed have the new numbering system and livery, others are still identifiable as London Midland and Scottish Railway engines.

Valerie Hobson and John Clements in ‘The Composer’ story

The narrative structure means that the stories are not presented separately and instead there is some cutting between stories that takes us to different parts of London and includes some more documentary-style location shooting. It’s good to see trams crossing Westminster Bridge and buses around the West End. One story is set partly in the BBC television studio at Alexandra Palace and partly in Covent Garden. It features a conductor/composer (John Clements) and his music: a piece about one man and two women which in turn points to a comic drama about the two women in his life, his wife (Valeria Hobson) and the prima donna pianist (Irina Baronova). John Gregson plays a priggish young man interviewed in the studio about the ‘immoral music composition’. Directed by Charles Crichton, this is the weakest of the four stories for me. In parts it felt like it was borrowing from The Archers’ The Red Shoes (1948) but without the sure-footedness of Powell and Pressburger.

Patric Doonan as the railwayman boyfriend to Susan Shaw (with her back to the camera)

The other two stories are the responsibility of Basil Dearden. One is a different kind of arts/theatre story in which a young actor (Peter Finch) is rehearsing a part in the West End in a play about to go on tour. He is disturbed by the sudden appearance of his estranged wife who he hasn’t seen for some time. This story includes some night time street footage which is distinctly noirish. The fourth story involves a young woman who has fallen for a German POW who has possibly eluded the authorities for whatever reasons (repatriation or settlement of POWs was not completed until late 1948). Either way, the couple are on the run and the Liverpool train offers the chance of access to a boat leaving the UK. Both these stories have real possibilities and offer real drama rooted in the London of the time. They reminded me of Dearden’s 1947 film Frieda, one of my favourite Ealing pictures. One of the main problems with Train of Events is the shifting tone between the four stories with two stories including comedy and the other two tragedy. I think the problem lies with Michael Balcon as the studio head. It would have been better for me if the railway worker’s family story had had more bite, perhaps along the lines of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) which as well as some noir railway footage includes both Warner and Shaw in its cast. I would have left out the ‘composer’ story altogether and developed each of the other stories. I would also have avoided the underlying message of the film which seems to suggest that the outcome of each story is based on the ‘moral behaviour’ of the central characters.