Category: British Cinema

Private Peaceful (UK 2012)

Private-Peaceful-2

This was the latest film screened as part of the series WWI Through the Lens at the Hyde Park Picture House. On this occasion the University Students organising the series had arranged an exhibition before the film of WWI military equipment with explanatory notes. This included a soldier’s gas mask, later seen in one of the trench sequences in the film. There was also a short talk from the University Legacy Project. The speaker talked about two Leeds people involved in the WWI conflict. Horace enrolled in the army at 14 years and by 16 years was dead, killed on the Western Front. Mary was more fortunate; she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp, survived the war and benefited from a government-assisted passage to Canada.

The feature film told a story closer to that of Horace. Private Peaceful was adapted from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, who also wrote War Horse. This British feature was a long way from the adaptation of the latter novel by Stephen Spielberg. This film has a ring of authenticity, avoided over sentimentality, and enjoyed a rich roster of characters.

The two key protagonists are brothers, Tommo (George Mackay) and Charlie (Jack O’Connell, recruited again into the British army for the recent ’71). They are bought up in a rural setting in Devon, and when their father dies, by their strong minded mother Hazel (Maxine Peake). Later both enrol in the army and see service on the Western Front. It is here that the drama develops with a court-martial and subsequent execution. This is, of course, the territory of Paths of Glory (1957) and King and Country (1964).

The film opens in 1916 and then a series of flashbacks take us back to 1908. We see the experiences of the family suffering from economic deprivation and harsh landlords. Both personal disappointment and peer pressures lead to their enlistment. The film offers a rather sceptical representation of the patriotic values that were rife in the early stages of the conflict.

The picture of rural exploitation is entirely convincing as are the scenes of front line action that follow. Necessarily the plotting revisits situations and tropes familiar from other films set during this conflict. But the cinematographer, Jerzy Zielinski, does manage a distinctive palette for the scenes of wartime activity. This is partly due to the film including battle scenes set in Flanders from the early months of the war: many films focus on the later stages.

I did have one problem with the film, the plotting of the brothers’ experiences and the flashbacks. However, I checked out the novel and the film was faithfully following that in the book. I do not think it works as effectively on film though: in the book we read the voiced memories of Tommo. In the film these occupy the flashbacks and the literal depiction that one commonly gets in cinema made them seem [to me] rather contrived.

Morpurgo records in an afterword to the book that 290 British soldiers died by firing squad. The student notes for the film recorded that this was out of a total of about 3,000 court-martials. I am somewhat sceptical about the former figure. In Ken Loach’s memorable Days of Hope1916: Joining Up (BBC 1976) there is an example of the ‘informal’ style of execution practised by the British military. And the interesting television series The Monocled Mutineer (BBC 1986) recorded [without sufficient details] the violence inflicted on soldiers celebrating through rebellion the Great Soviet Revolution of 1917. There is an interesting sequence in Private Peaceful where the discussion of the ordinary soldiers pre-figures the type of ‘fragging’ that occurred during the US military aggression in Vietnam. But that feeds into an overall tone which is ant-military and anti-high command rather than critically opposing the whole rationale of the conflict. In the same way Charlie, before the war, expresses inchoate class antagonism to the landed gentry, but it does not achieve the coherence of the class and anti-war stance in Days of Hope.

The series is to continue with Oh What a Lovely War (1969 – in May): Paths of Glory (in June): and in July a film titled 120 (2008). The last is a Turkish film set during World War I on the Russian front alongside Armenia and what was then Persia.

Far From the Madding Crowd (UK 2015)

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba  with Gabriel Oak's dog

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba with Gabriel Oak’s dog

In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to watch the new version of Thomas Hardy’s famous story just a few days after seeing the restoration of the 1967 film. I spent too much time spotting all the events ditched from the script in the new version that runs 119 instead of 169 minutes. That’s quite a chunk of screen time gone. I’ll try to be objective in comparing the two.

The new version is puzzling as a production (from BBC Films and the long-standing UK production company DNA films). I’m guessing that the funding wasn’t there to make something on the epic scale of the original. It was a brave move to hire Thomas Vinterberg whose English language films have so far not matched his Danish successes. I expected something punchy from the director of The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2013) with the same cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Although the latter conjures up some remarkable visual sequences, this doesn’t feel like a project on which Vinterberg was totally free or properly engaged. I think that Carey Mulligan, cast as Bathsheba Everdene, had a fair amount of clout in choosing Matthias Schoenaerts as her co-star (playing the shepherd Gabriel Oak) and she and Schoenaerts offer the best performances in my view. The other strength is the costume design which is truly wonderful. I wasn’t that keen on Ms Mulligan’s hats but her riding gear and several of her dresses are breathtaking, especially a blue one with white decorative motifs that glow in the evening light. As I predicted, Mulligan matches Julie Christie in terms of performance. They present quite different characters so a direct comparison is not useful. Mulligan is a couple of years older than Christie was in 1967. She presents Bathsheba as more virginal, but also more stylish – still ‘girlish’ but with the strength of an ‘independent woman’. The film is worth seeing for Carey Mulligan alone.

Unfortunately much of the rest of the film is less sure about itself. It begins badly with a strange title suggesting that we are “200 miles from London”. Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in Dorset is more like 130 miles. It’s not important, but who thought it was a good idea? As I’ve noted there are some stunning visual sequences, mainly of landscapes in mists, or in ‘magic hour’ lighting etc. – but there are some quite ‘flat’ scenes and at least one dreadful edit. The harrowing sequence depicting Fanny Robbins on the way to the workhouse (which includes this edit) is almost thrown away. I think the main problem is a poor script by David Nicholls who was probably asked to aim for the impossible in trying to condense an eventful novel to produce a two-hour film. Michael Sheen as Boldwood and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy both seem like miscastings to me. They are both fine actors but they don’t have the starpower of their counterparts in the 1967 film, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp and the characters seem a little diminshed as a result. Sturridge in particular is severely hampered by the script which doesn’t give him enough time to explore the character’s complexities. In 1967, for many female audiences in the UK, Stamp was the sexiest man alive, apart, perhaps, for those who fancied Alan Bates (who played Gabriel Oak). What was particularly missing for Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy were key scenes with Fanny and the circus sequence for his return. Instead of being a cad, charming but a little dark, Sturridge’s Troy is reduced to being pretty but brutal.

I looked at a few reviews. Keith has already had a go at Thirza Wakefield in Sight and Sound for a different film and I was intrigued to read her review which on the whole is perceptive and interesting especially about Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as the ‘modern’ woman the script constructs, though she falls into the autuerist trap of referring to ‘Vinterberg’s camera’ (and its references to Victorian paintings), when surely it’s important that it’s the female perspective of Charlotte Brus Christensen. The ‘best’ review (i.e. the one that agrees with me!) is from Fionnuala Halligan in Screendaily – she’s very good on the production team.

In sum, this new adaptation is very good in parts and Carey Mulligan is excellent throughout. She makes a great romantic heroine, but the project lacks the scope of the novel and the scale of the 1967 adaptation. Nevertheless I hope we see more from Vinterberg and Christensen in a UK context. In the meantime, audiences not making thecomparison with the 1967 version will enjoy this adaptation.

Official US trailer (good for showing off the camerawork and Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba):

Far From the Madding Crowd (UK 1967)

The 4K digital restoration of John Schlesinger’s 1967 version of Thomas Hardy’s most popular novel has been in selected UK cinemas over the last few weeks leading up to the release of the new Thomas Vinterberg version on May 1st. I managed to catch the restoration at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House. I remembered only a couple of scenes from a first viewing a long time ago and I enjoyed every minute of the restoration (there are 168 minutes in all but it felt like 90 – I know many think the opposite).

This film provides another of those examples of storytelling that divide some critics from some audiences. I can’t understand some of the negative comments made on the film’s initial release. For me there are five reasons why the film works so well. First is Hardy’s story. OK, it doesn’t have the depth of Tess or Jude the Obscure but there are enough eventful sequences threaded through the everyday depiction of life for rural communities in 1860s ‘Wessex’ to drive the narrative towards its expected conclusion. If you don’t know the story, Julie Christie is Bathsheba Everdene the young woman who inherits her uncle’s extensive farm and who is wooed in turn by shepherd Gabriel Oak, gentleman farmer Boldwood and dashing Sergeant Troy (the cad!). Second is the representation of the English landscapes of Dorset and Wiltshire and the set pieces of an outdoor communal meal, the wedding night drinking and the travelling circus among others. Allied to this is the cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and the equally fine production and costume design, the film and sound editing and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score. Third is the starpower of the four leads. In 1967 Julie Christie was at the height of her fame after Darling (1965) for which she had won an Oscar and Doctor Zhivago (1965) – although she had also asserted her interest in less mainstream work such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) for François Truffaut (with Nic Roeg on camera). Peter Finch as Boldwood had been a stalwart of British Cinema as a leading man from the early 1950s, although his two biggest roles were arguably in the 1970s. Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy and Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak represented two of the strongest acting talents and star performers to emerge in the 1960s. It’s salutary to remember the diversity and high quality of UK film actors in this period. I’m expecting Vinterberg’s new film to be very different and to use its performers differently. Faced with the quartet here, Carey Mulligan and co. would have difficulty radiating the same starpower.

Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene in the scene where she has dismissed Gabriel Oak, but now feels that she needs him back.

Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene in the scene where she has dismissed Gabriel Oak, but now feels that she needs him back.

The fourth strength of the film is its supporting cast, who inhabit their period dress, wigs and facial hair with real relish. I recognised several character actors but I would have believed anyone who told me these were non-professionals acting as themselves. It’s partly this supporting cast that helps steer the film away from the BBC ‘costume drama’ and the later designation of ‘heritage film’. In many ways the film looks like an American Western set down in Dorset, giving off the same sense of earthy vitality. Finally, what brings all these elements together is the trio of John Schlesinger, Joseph Janni and Frederic Raphael. This trio of director, producer and writer had worked together on Darling and for Janni and Schlesinger it was their fourth collaboration. I think that everything works in the film and it feels like a complete and polished production. The best compliment I can pay it is to say that it is almost as good as Polanski’s stunning Tess made 12 years later. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the better novel and Polanski is a Champions League director compared to Schlesinger as a solid Premiership director, but the two films have things in common including a sense of landscape (even if Tess cheats by using Brittany).

Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak

Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak

I’m not sure what to make of the 4K restoration. Sitting close to the screen, what seemed like excessive grain was evident in the opening shot. Some scenes did seem very dark and I wasn’t sure if this was Roeg’s intention or whether it was a feature of the attempt to create true blacks in the digital print. I’m no expert on such things. On the cinematography generally I was surprised by the combination of what I would term a classical use of close-ups in the ‘Scope frame and several more innovatory devices. It would take two or three more viewings to fully appreciate Roeg’s work in terms of colours, framings and camera movements. The opening shots of the downs and the later sequence in which Sergeant Troy ‘ravishes’ Bathsheba with his sabre are stunning.

I’m looking forward to the new version of the story and especially Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba. Christie was the 1960s star of my teenage years and I realise that I was somewhat gushing about Mulligan’s role as the 1960s schoolgirl in An Education. I’ve found Ms Mulligan’s choice of roles since then to be a mix of the very interesting (Never Let Me Go and Shame) and those which I’ve no real wish to see (Wall Street and The Great Gatsby). She is clearly an intelligent actor and with Vinterberg she should be able to create something wonderful. Julie Christie seems at times too girlish and flighty to be Hardy’s Bathsheba – but she is still the star of the show. She dominates her scenes by the way she moves and uses her costumes. I never tire of watching her. I suspect that Carey Mulligan has the acting chops but that they will be deployed rather differently.

The Falling (UK 2014)

Female frustration

Female frustration

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) 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 . . .