Category: British Cinema

Mary Queen of Scots (UK 2018)

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) with Darnley (Jack Lowden) centre and her brother Moray (James McCardle) on the right

This is the third female-led major release of early 2019 in the UK and for me it is the most interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed Colette but was underwhelmed by The Favourite (although I recognise the three outstanding performances by the female leads and Sandy Powell’s costumes). But Saoirse Ronan as Mary tops all the others. Margot Robbie is also very good and we are blessed with such an array of powerful female stars in contemporary cinema. At one point in Mary Queen of Scots, Ms Ronan managed to invoke both Deborah Kerr and Maureen O’Hara as an auburn-haired Scots-Irish woman and I can’t think of a better recommendation.

It may be because I have only the faintest remembrance of the Mary story from the history books of my childhood that I found this the most engaging of the three narratives about female figures in specific historical contexts. Perhaps right now it is because it speaks to my desperation in Brexit England and a strong feeling that I would rather be in Ireland or Scotland. Mary’s story is about both the Catholic-Protestant struggle in the British Isles and the ‘Auld Alliance’ between France and Scotland, two countries concerned by the nascent imperialist visions of England (though the French angle is dropped too early I think). All of this comes down to the confrontation between the cousins Mary and Elizabeth and the former’s belief that she has the prior claim to be queen in both Scotland and England. It is a story that has been told many times, sometimes by unlikely story-tellers. I’ve tried in the past to watch John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936) with Katharine Hepburn as Mary. Ford’s Irish Catholicism naturally backs Mary and by all accounts he was entranced by Hepburn who was well able to spar with him. I’d like to see that again now. There have since been many TV offerings of Mary’s story and at least three more feature films before the current release. In 1940 the biggest star in Nazi cinema, Zarah Leander, played Mary in a German film. In 1971 Vanessa Redgrave was Mary opposite Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in Charles Jarrot’s film Mary, Queen of Scots and in 2013 Camille Rutherford appeared as Mary in a French-Swiss version of the story.

Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and her lover Dudley (Joe Alwyn)

It’s not difficult to see the attraction of the story of an intelligent and passionate woman who finds herself Queen in such difficult circumstances- and sometimes makes unwise decisions. Mary attracts the more romantically-inclined narratives while Elizabeth has often become the focus for the stories of adventure and strength in building up English naval and mercantilist power (though famously also the romantic adventures of Elizabeth and Essex (US 1939)). The two Elizabeth films starring Cate Blanchett in 1998 and 2007 portray Elizabeth in terms of creating the myths of British power. The script for the new film by the American writer Beau Gallimon is based on John Guy’s prizewinning biography My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots published in 2004. Guy is a highly-respected historian but this was a book which attempted to dismantle the mythology surrounding Mary and it had its critics. I’m not sure how closely Gallimon sticks to Guy’s ideas, but the film has also been criticised. I’m sure that there are the usual condensings of characters and time-lines but at heart the film tries to stick to historical events apart from its fictional meeting between Elizabeth and Mary.

Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph, Ambassador to Scotland

I think there are several interesting elements in this production. I was struck by the use of landscape. Scotland and the North of England are characterised by sweeping long shots of mountains and glens through which Mary and her entourage travel. (See Scottish locations used here.) By contrast, Elizabeth is seen only in her palace in London. John Mathieson as cinematographer has long experience of productions like this, working on Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood for Ridley Scott among several other similar titles. Director Josie Rourke making her first film is a celebrated stage director and I was interested in the settings for Mary’s Holyrood court which seemed to me more intriguing than the stiffness and formality of Elizabeth’s English court. I suspect that Alexandra Byrne’s costumes also work to distinguish the two court settings. Again I felt drawn to the Scots locations rather than Elizabeth’s. The distinction also arises in relation to the question of casting. Several prominent Scots actors are depicted in Holyrood with Martin Compston as Bothwell, James McCardle as Moray, Jack Lowden as Darnley and David Tennant almost unrecognisable as John Knox. Researching this I discovered that the distinction carries through to the more controversial aspect of the casting. At last we have a British film with a significant number of BAME actors in a major historical drama. Some of these are prominent roles such as Adrian Lester as Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Scotland and Gemma Chan as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Others are in smaller roles and here I found the Scottish-Asian actor Kal Sabir. This approach has sadly produced an array of ‘outraged’ IMDb User Comments. Some of these are clearly racist but others suggest a lack of knowledge of British history. There have been ‘people of colour’ living in the UK since at least Roman times. But anyway it doesn’t really matter whether the casting is historically accurate. It’s no longer an issue for someone like Adrian Lester to play classical (e.g. Shakespearean) roles on stage so why should it matter on screen?

Gemma Chan stars as Bess of Hardwick
Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

But how has this film gone down in Scotland you might ask? I’m not sure, but checking out the reviews in The Scotsman and the Herald, I found the first lukewarm but the second complimentary and I came across at least one piece wondering why an Irish woman was playing Mary. More intriguing as I thumbed through several reviews was that most of the negative reviews came from men and most of the positive ones came from women. Has Josie Rourke managed to make a film in which women (not just a solitary woman) have significant roles in the history of the British Isles? I’d say yes. I’m hesitant in arguing that Rourke shows aspects of the two monarchs from a clearly female perspective, but it is certainly true that I thought quite a lot about what being a female monarch in the 16th century actually meant and how child-bearing and questions of fertility were so important in the legal/constitutional wrangles over claims to the thrones of England and Scotland during this period. I’ve been a fervent anti-monarchist for as long as I can remember, but thanks to Saoirse Ronan and Josie Rourke this production made me feel for Mary’s predicament.

No Highway (UK-US 1951)

Theodore Honey (James Stewart) is the unworldly scientist unused to visitors like his new boss (Jack Hawkins)

Films about airliners in peril are a staple of commercial cinema, but few of them are adapted from a novel by a qualified aeronautical engineer who also happens to be one of the most accomplished story-tellers of the mid-20th century. Nevil Shute wrote many novels and three of them became ‘major motion pictures’. No Highway is the first, followed by A Town Like Alice (US 1955) and On the Beach (US 1959). I’ve always admired Shute as a storyteller even if he was an anti-socialist Brit who eventually emigrated to Australia. In many other ways he was a staunch liberal and very strong on exposing racism. No Highway the novel came out in 1948 and the film in 1951 appeared just as the post-war British aviation industry was a world leader in both military and civil aircraft but also when worries about the safety of new aircraft were very much in people’s minds. The first jetliner, the Comet, flew as a prototype in 1949 and entered service in 1952. Major accidents were a feature of its operational life, especially in 1954. In 1952 David Lean’s film The Sound Barrier focused on the risks taken by test pilots in pushing prototypes to fly faster. No Highway was so close to the ‘cutting edge’ that some reviewers considered it as almost a documentary drama. The Reindeer aircraft depicted in the film is an unusual design with two sets of tail fins. The special effects photography and model work works well to convey to convey how a new aircraft might look.

The tail section of the Reindeer undergoing stress testing in Honey’s lab (screengrab by dvdbeaver.com)

Plot Outline (No spoilers)

Theodore Honey (James Stewart) is an American mathematician and scientist employed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough where he is exploring a hypothesis about fatigue in new metal-bodied aircraft. In particular he is working on a new turboprop airliner the Reindeer, recently put into service with a transatlantic airline. Honey is convinced that after 1,420 hours of service, the whole tail section of the aircraft will break away. His new boss (Jack Hawkins) agrees to send him to Labrador to investigate the crash site of the first Reindeer in service, the accident assumed to be an example of pilot error. When Honey flies out on a Reindeer he discovers to his dismay that the aircraft has already flown 1400 hours. What can he do to prevent a disaster? On the flight he befriends the senior steward Marjorie (Glynis Johns) and Monica Teasdale a Hollywood star played by Marlene Dietrich. Both women become concerned about Honey, a man they quickly recognise is very much wrapped up in his own world and who lacks the emotional intelligence to deal with the situation he finds himself in. It has already been revealed that Honey is a widower and that his very bright 12 year-old daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) acts as his housekeeper and companion and is perhaps missing out on her childhood. When Honey’s concerns are transmitted to the aircraft’s pilot, how will he react and what will the airline bosses and the RAE do?

Honey explains aeronautics to the actress Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich)

Steward Marjorie Corder tries to make Honey comfortable on his Reindeer flight

Hollywood UK

No Highway (a.k.a. No Highway in the Sky in North America) is an example of Hollywood production in the UK, something very common now and equally so at various times over the last nearly 100 years. Twentieth Century Fox made several films in the UK around the late 1940s/early 1950s. MGM operated a studio in Borehamwood. Disney was active in the early 1950s. No Highway was made at Denham, the studio built by Korda and by 1950 part of the Rank empire. Henry Koster was a German exile in Hollywood and had worked with James Stewart on his previous film Harvey (US 1950). This pair with Marlene Dietrich make up the Hollywood contingent, everything else about the film is British and especially the remainder of the cast which is full of character actors and at least two stars of the future –Kenneth More as the co-pilot of the aircraft and Janette Scott (daughter of Thora Hird) as Elspeth.

Elspeth Honey (screengrab by dvdbeaver.com)

The scriptwriters Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel were British and Australian respectively and both had experience of British and American productions. I note that the script misses out the religious/spiritual elements of Shute’s work but that was probably inevitable in this kind of film. The result is that the narrative develops a well-balanced triple focus which connects three worlds – Honey’s work in his laboratory at RAE, the drama aboard the aircraft and the domestic world of Elspeth. There is also a parallel developed between the possible fragility of the aircraft and that of Theodore Honey himself. It’s interesting that the two women on the flight respond to Honey’s mixture of earnest practicality and scientific rationalism – but also to the stories about his lost wife and his daughter at home.

It’s heartening to see that IMDb’s ‘Users’ comments recognise the film’s qualities, although many of the American comments fail to comprehend the complex relationship between the UK government, the private airline and the RAE. As I’ve tried to indicate, those relationships and the fourth element, the aircraft manufacturing companies themselves, were essential for the rapid development of aircraft design in the UK in the period 1945-50. It’s unfortunately rare now to see engineering narratives taken so seriously in mainstream cinema and so carefully interwoven with human emotional stories. As some of those ‘User comments’ suggest, it’s a shame there weren’t more film adaptations of Nevil Shute’s work.

Thanks as usual to Talking Pictures TV.

The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965)

Film titling sometimes proves difficult. When this film appeared in 1965 I wasn’t able to see it, but I do remember being baffled by the title. I didn’t know then that Telemark was a region of Norway and I don’t think I recognised that this was a Second World War film. It’s now on BBC iPlayer in the UK in what seems to be roughly the correct ratio and I’m glad I caught up with it as there are several intriguing aspects of the production.

Today many people outside Norway are likely to be aware that Telemark is an important tourist destination in Southern Norway for both sightseeing and walking/ski-ing holidays in the ancient upland region. The town of Rjukan where the film is set has been a tourist destination for a long time but in the 1930s it was best known for its fertiliser production and its hydro-electric power station. Norwegian scientists and engineers produced ‘heavy water’ as part of the power plant’s operation and this became an important part of the development of atomic weapons in World War Two. When the Nazis invaded Norway and took control of the plant in 1940 it became imperative for the Allies to prevent that heavy water production from enabling German military scientists to produce an atomic bomb. Several different acts of sabotage by Norwegian resistance fighters and bombing and commando raids from the UK achieved the Allies’ aims between 1940 and 1943. This film condenses these different military operations into a single sustained action. In this sense, the narrative fits the ‘based on real events’ type of film production. On a trivia note, Telemark was also the home region of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who collaborated and became puppet leader of Occupied Norway between 1942 and 1945. ‘Quisling’ later became a general term for any kind of collaborator. There are several collaborator figures in the film, at least one of whom is called a ‘quisling’.

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas as the leaders of the saboteurs

Watching the film in 2019 it now appears in the context of the range of relatively recent local film productions in countries that experienced Occupation, and therefore both ‘Resistance’ and ‘Collaboration’, after 1939. We’ve been interested in these films on this blog, not least because several of them have were major productions attracting large local audiences. The key film here is Max Manus (Norway-Den-Ger 2008) which deals with a group of Norwegian Resistance fighters who sabotage shipping. It’s helpful to use this film as a benchmark to consider how The Heroes of Telemark stands up. The later film is named after the real-life hero of a group of fighters. The central character of The Heroes of Telemark, at least initially, is ‘Knut Strand’ played by Richard Harris. Strand may be based on the historical figure Knut Haukelid, born in New York to Norwegian parents, but back in Norway as an infant from 1914. Haukelid wrote his biography in 1947 and then appeared in a 1948 Norwegian-French film Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water, which was a major success in France (and presumably Norway). Haukelid played himself in what was a drama-documentary. He was a military hero and, like Max Manus, a member of the ‘Norwegian Independent Company’, Norwegians who trained with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in Scotland and returned to Norway to undertake sabotage. There was a second Knut in the group, Knut Haugland, born in Rjukan and later part of the Kon-Tiki expedition with Thor Heyerdahl. The two Knuts were involved in separate missions, both of which were ‘rolled up’ into the single narrative of the film. Rather than a recent feature film production, the various sabotage activities became the basis for a six part TV series in 2015 produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation as a co-production with Danish and British partners and titled The Saboteurs in the UK where it was shown on More4 and is now available on DVD. Knut Haughland also appears in a UK television documentary film The Real Heroes of Telemark (2003) made by the BBC. I don’t think Haughland was impressed by the 1965 film.

The Heroes of Telemark is one of several bigger budget Second World War films produced in the mid-1960s (following on from the major success of The Guns of Navarone (1961)) and IMDb suggests that in some territories it was blown up from its 35mm ‘Scope (Panavision) print to a 1:2.20 presentation in 70mm (but only Mono sound). It is sometimes described as an ‘epic’ and the Hollywood director Anthony Mann had previously directed El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The main puzzle about the film is the production company ‘Benton Film Productions’. I can’t find anything about this company which only seems to be mentioned in relation to this film. Did Rank stump up all the money? Did much of it come from Hollywood? The film was made on location in Norway and at Pinewood. Rank distributed it in major European territories and Columbia in North America. With a budget of $US5.6 million the production needed international stars so Harris was joined by Kirk Douglas as a Norwegian University Professor who is persuaded by Harris to join the group. The professor then turns out to be an ‘action hero’ and gradually takes over the lead position. The rest of the cast mainly comprises well-known British character actors with the exception of Michael Redgrave and the Swedish star Ulla Jacobsson. The film was shot by Robert Krasker with music by Malcolm Arnold, so it’s a quality production.

Composition and lighting pick out Kirk Douglas who seems to ‘command’ the narrative

In his book on British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000), Robert Murphy suggests that Douglas is initially an ‘irritating character’ but that he provides a focus for the narrative drive. I think Murphy makes a reasonable argument. Kirk Douglas as a professor is indeed irritating but his star presence and dynamism can’t be denied. He does pull us through the various scenes and the 120 mins plus speeds by. Having said that, he wears a blue anorak which makes him immediately visible and recognisable, unlike the other saboteurs, and he is older than the others. Richard Harris is relatively subdued by comparison. The Douglas casting seems to me to identify the dilemma for an international ‘epic’ rather than a local feature. Although a film like Max Manus has a central heroic figure, we remember the other characters as well – partly because they were boyhood friends. What is also missing in the 1965 film is any kind of training sequence in the UK. Such sequences often help to introduce the members of the team. Instead, Douglas emerges as the leader, although he has no training at all. The Norwegian Company comprised SOE-trained operatives – the Douglas character should be just the scientific adviser. The script is by Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman, two experienced Hollywood writers with many credits including well-known large-scale films. Both men were of the left with Moffat from a distinguished British artistic family and Barzman a Canadian who left Hollywood during the HUAC/McCarthy period alongside Joe Losey. He had a long working relationship with Anthony Mann, working on both the El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. The IMDb credits suggest that the books Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid and But for These Men (1962) by John Drummond provided source material.

The real Norwegian SOE saboteurs back in the UK after their Telemark raids, the figure top right is Birger Stromsheim, the oldest member of the team at 31. He was one of the last survivors when he died in 2012.

The film benefits enormously from being filmed in the real location and the ski chases are spectacular. In 70mm on a big screen I think it would be very entertaining. On TV it is diminished but still worth watching. Telemark is definitely a tourist destination I will consider (assuming the pound sterling will buy any very expensive kroner after Brexit). I realise that I haven’t said anything about Anthony Mann. Mann’s status within film scholarship was based on his early thrillers and particularly his ‘psychological Westerns’ in the 1950s starring James Stewart. In his 1969 book Horizons West, Jim Kitses begins his section on Anthony Mann’s films by arguing that Mann’s ‘personal’ films all focus on an individual who feels compelled to take on insurmountable odds as if he is driven by forces inside himself that he cannot control. Kitses’ second point is that Mann was an early pioneer of location work on Hollywood pictures in the 1940s and that this carried on into his Westerns. It could be argued that the same interest in ‘driven’ heroic characters carried on into the 1960s ‘epics’. Certainly there are elements of Mann’s personal approach in The Heroes of Telemark and these make the film into a successful conventional narrative film. But perhaps something is also lost about the group/community resistance work?

¡Nae pasaran! (Scotland 2018)

I missed this film when it premiered at the end of the Glasgow Film Festival last year. It is now slowly making its way around the UK and if it comes it appears anywhere near you, please make an effort to see it. You won’t be disappointed. On a wet windy evening in Hebden Bridge it was a rare treat to be confronted with a queue outside the Picture House – and applause at the end of the screening. It is showing again in West Yorkshire at the Shipley Community Cinema on 18th January (other venues for the ‘rolling’ distribution are listed on the website).

The film’s title neatly encapsulates its political and comradely subject matter. ‘¡Nae pasaran!’ has become familiar with resistance to fascism across the Hispanic world. The slogan, “They shall not pass!” was associated with the Basque Republican fighter La pasionaria (Dolores Ibárruri) during the Battle of Madrid in 1936. In its current context it refers to the actions of Scottish engineering workers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride who ‘blacked’ the Avon aero engines sent to the factory for overhaul in 1974 after the military coup in Chile in September 1973. This action meant that the workers (in a totally unionised plant) refused to work on engines that the Pinochet regime in Chile might use in their Hawker Hunter aircraft to suppress any opposition to the new fascist dictatorship. The action was prompted by one of the workers appointed as an ‘inspector’ of the engines. Eight engines were placed outside the factory where they slowly deteriorated until four of them were ‘spirited away’ one night using blackleg transport. The story may have remained an ‘anecdote’ but for the investigative work of the filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra, the son of an exiled Chilean journalist in Belgium who first made a successful short film and then expanded it into this feature-length documentary.

Sierra interviewed the surviving workers involved in the strike/boycott and then went to find witnesses in Chile. I think he began the project in 2013 (the first of the Chilean interviewees died in 2014 according to the closing credits). The worker who began the action, Bob Fulton, is I think 90 when we see him in the film. It’s impossible to watch this true working-class hero (and his two colleagues) without welling up. Sierra has found some truly shocking footage to illustrate the horrors of the coup. I’ve seen the two Patricio Guzmán documentaries in recent years, Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) both of which explore the horrors of the dictatorship but I’m still shocked with the ferocity and inhumanity of what happened on September 11th 1973. Some of the footage in Nae Pasaran was new to me. I think the shots of the nun who waited by the river to fish out the floating corpses of workers and activists murdered in the night will remain with me.

Sierra discovers some of the Chileans who survived incarceration, possibly as a result of the Scottish workers’ action which was part of an international campaign of solidarity. Labour returned to power in the UK in 1974 and the new ministers, Judith Hart and Alex Lyon both helped to make the UK a possible place of exile for Chileans. Even so they ran up against civil servants and military chiefs who made it difficult to clear the exiles and to grant refugee status. The British military would seemingly still rather listen to the CIA, who allegedly helped Pinochet mount the coup against a democratically elected government, than to refugees who had witnessed murder and torture. A credit at the end of the film tells us that Rolls Royce and the RAF were not prepared to make statements to the filmmaker. Sierra also interviews some of those who worked for the junta, including a retired Air Force General who still seems incapable of remorse.

The three workers honoured by the current Chilean government

Most of all though, many audiences will be moved by the humanity and solidarity expressed through the contacts between the East Kilbride workers and the Chilean survivors. Felipe Bustos Sierra is based in Edinburgh and he has an easy rapport with the retired workers in the pub, showing them his interviewees in Chile expressing their gratitude for the solidarity of the Scottish workers and explaining what it meant to them. Some were convinced that it helped them be released and travel to Europe. The film ends with a public presentation of honours granted to the three leaders of the strike action in 1974. Go and see this film. It is well-made and tells its story powerfully. It will make you feel better and remind you of what solidarity means – and why trades unions are an essential part of any democracy. I certainly feel humbled and wished I had done more to help in 1974-5.

Colette (UK-Hungary-US 2018)

Bouyed by the success of her first novel, Gabrielle (Keira Knightley) and ‘Willy’ (Dominic West) stroll in the countryside outside Paris

Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.

Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.

The young Gabrielle with braids – her story is told through changes in her hair and costumes as much as the dialogue

Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.

Gabrielle has her palm read by Willy’s friend Gaston (Jake Graf)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.

Gabrielle towards the end of the narrative when she is touring as a performer and creating an identity not connected to Willy. (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.

Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.

Lost (UK 1956)

The nanny (Anne Paige) panics when she finds baby and pram have gone.

Lost is an interesting 1950s British film for several reasons. Perhaps the most interesting for me is that it is written by Janet Green. She began her film writing career with The Clouded Yellow, an excellent thriller with Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons in 1950. In the mid-1950s she wrote for various Rank productions and I realise that I described her career in more detail in my post on Eyewitness (1956). Lost comes from earlier in the same year and shares one of the actors, the American, David Knight. The film is in some ways a pre-cursor of Green’s three scripts for the crime thriller/social problem films she wrote for Michael Relph and Basil Dearden.

The film’s title refers to Simon, a baby in his pram taken from outside a chemist’s shop opposite Kensington Gardens. (The American title for the 1957 release by Republic Pictures was Tears for Simon.) The distraught parents are an American couple, Lee Cochrane (David Knight) and his German-born wife Sue (the Austrian actress Julia Arnall, recently signed by Rank). He works in the US embassy, she’s a designer and the child was in the care of a nanny. The investigating police officer is DI Craig played by David Farrar. Farrar had spent the previous few years on Hollywood ‘runaway’ productions in various parts of the world, playing second leads. Lost saw him back on a British production with top billing. The character doesn’t offer him much scope but he’s a solid presence and he does the grouchy, sardonic old pro very well. In the climax of the film he has a not very dignified action sequence to navigate.

The Cochranes, Lee (David Knight) and Sue (Julia Arnall) go searching for their baby.

One of Craig’s first tasks is to try to calm down the Americans, explaining that kidnapping babies is not a common occurrence in the UK. But despite warnings Cochrane and his wife are bent on following up leads themselves with predictable results. Green’s script goes whole-heartedly for the police procedural with Craig painstakingly exploring every possible clue, no matter how slight. This makes the film into a genuine ensemble piece with so many police officers and possible witnesses. There are familiar faces everywhere, both well-loved character actors and young players making early appearances in minor roles. Thora Hird is a landlady, Dandy Nichols is a shopkeeper, Joan Sims sells ice cream in the park (and flirts with Craig/Farrar), Barbara Windsor is trying different nail varnishes in the chemist’s shop, frustrating the chemist Joan Hickson. Shirley Anne Field appears in a garage. The most important supporting player is possibly Eleanor Summerfield playing a plain-clothes police sergeant who hints at a liking for Craig. Summerfield was a RADA-trained actor at home on the stage, TV, films and radio, but never in the major parts that she deserved. Perhaps it was the conservatism and sexism of a period in which filmmakers were nonplussed by relatively tall (5′ 6″) attractive women who could be both serious actors and comediennes.

DI Craig (David Farrar) checks in with his team

As one IMDb reviewer has noted, Lost is unusual as a major crime drama shot in Eastmancolor in mid 1950s British cinema. This was only director Guy Green’s third film in that role and previously he had been a distinguished DoP. Here, with Harry Waxman behind the camera, the pair take their shoot all over London and into the Home Counties, offering an attractive and intriguing vision of the region at the time. It might be interesting to compare the London of Lost with Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much which opened nearly six months later in 1956. That film also features a kidnapping of a child in London and Hitchcock used the Albert Hall and street locations in Brixton and Camden, though he was certainly less interested in the kinds of realism found in much of 1950s British cinema. I did think of this Hitchcock film though, mainly in terms of Doris Day’s performance. There are aspects of Julia Arnall’s appearance that reminded me of Doris Day and even more of Grace Kelly in her three Hitchcock films (many others have made this connection). Ms Arnall didn’t have the acting skills or experience but she was beautiful and quite striking and it seems strange that Rank dropped her quite quickly after a further Guy Green film, before she could really develop her career.

Lost is solid entertainment and worth watching for David Farrar, one of my favourite British actors, and Eleanor Summerfield’s brief appearances as well as its fascinating views of London in the 1950s. I’m also interested now to go back to Sapphire (1959), Janet Green’s crime and racism story. I wonder what it would have been like if David Farrar had played the Nigel Patrick role? The film will no doubt re-appear soon on Talking Pictures TV. Unfortunately it’s cropped to Academy from the original 1:1.66 ratio.

The Favourite (UK-Ireland-US 2018)

Emma Stone as Abigail schemes to become ‘the favourite’

The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?

I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.

Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill the current incumbent as ‘favourite’

The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.

Olivia Colman is Queen Anne

The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.

I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.

The men are important only because they are useful to the women in the narrative. This is Joe Alwyn as Masham

The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?

The Tory Front Bench with Nicholas Hoult (centre) as Lord Harley, leader of the Opposition – do they resemble the Tories now?

Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).

Everyone suffers indignity in this ‘romp’

The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.

Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.

The Blue Lamp (UK 1950)

Jack Warner (left) band Jimmy Hanley as the two ‘beat bobbies’

The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).

The ‘problem’ – Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) with Diana (Peggy Evans)

George Dixon brings Andy home to meet Mrs Dixon – Em. This scene could be from any wartime Ealing picture

Bernard Lee and Robert Flemyng act as the CID team in the station

In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.

Robbing the cinema cashier

The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951)(DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.

The Humber Super Snipe – various Humber models were often used as police cars in the period. The spectacular car chases are along roads often free of traffic.

But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.

The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.