Category: British Cinema

Breathe (UK 2017)

A breath of fresh air visits the institution.

This film is one of those rare beasts, a title distributed in Britain on a 4K DCP. The film is distributed by STX International. It was produced by The Imaginarium Studios with support both from BBC Films and the British Film Institute. Imaginarium is run by Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the real-life character who is the protagonist in this film. It was shot digitally (Codex), in colour and (oddly I thought) in Ultra-Panavision which gives an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, (remember The Hateful Eight, 2015).

In the 1950s Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was struck down with polio. In that period the illness meant hospitalisation, reliance on a ventilator and a short life-span. Robin, clearly a strong-minded character, with his equally strong-minded wife Diana (Claire Foy), contested the prescribed treatment and set about giving the invalid something approaching a normal, as opposed to institutionalised, life. Successful, he became an advocate and pioneer for improved treatment of polio victims. He and his wife were assisted by a bevy of friends including amateur inventor Teddy Hall, (Hugh Bonneville). There was also an infant son, Jonathan (Dallon Brewer, Deacon Brewer, Jack Madigan, Frank Madigan, Harry Marcus, Dean-Charles Chapman at different ages) conceived before the onset of the illness. And, inevitably, there is a terrier, Bengy (Pixie), who gets an important scene.

The film appears to treat the main aspects of the story fairly accurately. However, there also appear to be quite a few lacunae. We do not in the film learn anything about the company set up with Government assistant to manufacture the invention, Littlemore Scientific Engineering. In fact, the whole economic aspect is scantily presented. Early in the film Diana is almost penniless, relying on unpaid support from her own childhood nanny. Then she spends £7,000 in cash on a small mansion with substantial grounds. Later Robin remarks that his shares have been profitable: all rather mysterious. I suspected that Cavendish had an army career prior to his civilian life but this is omitted as is his atheism. I am uncertain about the accuracy of all of the dates.

The film is well produced and the visual and aural qualities are excellent. The cast are uniformly good and Andrew Garfield gives an impressive performance as the immobilised patient whilst Claire Foy is excellent as the devoted wife. The Ultra-Panavision does seem odd because most of the film is small-scale with some occasional vistas of Kenya and Spain (both filmed in South Africa and the latter obviously so.).

The treatment is mainly upbeat. I felt the film presented this story almost in the mode of a romcom: and Hugh Bonneville in particular adds to this. There are a couple of slightly shocking moments: the BBFC decided 12A with

“infrequent bloody images”.

This is so typical, in fact there are two. More shocking is a visit to a German institution in the 1980s where the polio-stricken patients appear in a setting redolent of Britannia Hospital (1982). I was slightly uneasy at this almost stereotypical depiction of a German institution: I wondered how accurate it was. I also found the sequences referring to Kenya problematic, there were  couple of brief references to the Mau-Mau independence struggle, something British cinema has never properly addressed.

The film runs just under two hours and whilst I found it always interesting I also found the rather one-dimensional treatment wearing towards the end. I saw the film at Picturehouse in Bradford’s Pictureville auditorium with 4K projection. So I got the full benefit of the 4K quality, though because of the 2.76:1 ratio we had black/gray bars above and below the frame. If you go to see it check and try and see it in 4K: several multiplexes now have 4K projectors but do not necessarily use 4K DCPs.

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The Party (UK 2017)

Bill (Tim Spall) with vinyl and red wine

Why did Sally Potter make The Party? Here’s a film that reached cinemas as a 71 minute black & white drama shot in just two weeks on, I assume, a low budget – though there are quite a few well-known pieces of music and a starry cast to pay for. Apart from the fact that images are composed in ‘Scope, the most ‘cinematic’ ratio, there is little to distinguish The Party from a TV play or a West End play. I’ve not been tempted so far to watch one of the ‘live’ filmed plays beamed into cinemas, but I wonder whether they are very different? To be fair, The Party is shot by Aleksei Rodionov a Russian cinematographer with a very varied list of credits from the sublime (including Potter’s Orlando (1992)) to the much less so. In this case he glides the camera between four parts of a London townhouse and its carefully shielded backyard and provides some startling close-ups, neither of which would work on stage.

I suppose the answer to my question is provided by Sophie Mayer in her Sight and Sound piece. She describes the work as a “brisk, coruscatingly witty farce”. Mayer goes on to see the film as: “. . . a comedy that bites because it is utterly and urgently of our moment”. The subhead to suggests that “Sally Potter probes liberty and the state of Europe’s left”. I’m dubious about these claims.

April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) are clearly estranged

Let’s start with an outline of the plot. ‘The party’ concerns Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has today been appointed to Shadow Minister of Health and she’s giving a drinks party. The only reason to mention the ‘European left’ is that one of her guests is German – Gottfried, an elderly man (played by a sprightly Bruno Ganz) who has become ‘New Age’ in his old age. A practical (and positive) point to make about Potter’s script is that she has provided four female parts and only three for males. Janet’s husband, retired academic Bill (Tim Spall) is seemingly ‘far away’, listening to his music collection with a large glass of red and a puzzled and rather forlorn expression. The other man is Tom (Cillian Murphy) – a young ‘wanker-banker’ as someone refers to him. The women include a lesbian married couple, Martha (Cherry Jones), former colleague of Bill, and pregnant Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and April (Patricia Clarkson) the partner of Gottfried (and long-time friend of Janet). There is also someone still to arrive – Tom’s wife Marianne (who is also Janet’s assistant/advisor). We find out what ails Bill and what drives the manic Tom – and these revelations lead to the whole set of relationships being challenged and recriminations being carried out. Formally, the play is a farce.

April and Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas)

The major problem for Mayer’s argument (and everyone else who sees this as some kind of political satire) is that it is already out of date. Sally Potter is supposed to have written the script in 2015, presumably before or during the General Election campaign. The Labour Party that has emerged since Jeremy Corbyn became leader would be unlikely to include a character like Janet as Shadow Health Minister. Indeed a quick scan through the Shadow Cabinet today shows a significant shift to Northern, often working-class, women rather than the southern middle-class typified by Janet. Sally Potter couldn’t know how these changes would work out and the Labour Party is never named – but the dialogue about health issues makes it difficult to see Janet as anything other than a Labour MP. It felt to me that this was actually quite an old-fashioned play, but that may be as much to do with the form as with the characters. I can see the links to Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Beckett (waiting for the arrival of Marianne) and Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party?).

Unsurprisingly, the film/play is well acted. A friend queried whether I had laughed (on the basis that it was a middle-class play and perhaps you had to know this world to laugh?). Well, I did laugh on several occasions but I also got bored and in the end it didn’t add up to much for me. Bill’s music, an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, reggae, Cuban and tango was very welcome as a distraction – and I don’t think I really considered it as a commentary on the absence of issues of colonial history and exploitation in the script as suggested by Sophie Mayer.

Heritage Day at the Hyde Park Picture House

“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”

On Sunday, September 10th, film fans had a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage event. Between 1000 and 1500 they could enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There was screening a looped visual presentation of memorabilia associated with the cinema. And in the foyer a copy of the cinema Log Books donated by the family of one of the original founders of the cinema in 1916. This was the 1919 log book and included among the titles were films starring Geraldine Farrar. She was a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and launched into films in Cecil B. De Mille’s famous version of Carmen (1915). By 1919 she usually worked with the director Reg Barker in productions with the Goldwyn Company.

There were also conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors. The Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors came from the Lounge Cinema [sadly converted into bars and fast food outlets], fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours are a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927):  just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.

Appropriately there followed screening of 35mm films. These were all the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. This was package prepared by the British Film Institute from the National Film Archive and titled ‘Their Finest Hour’. Jennings films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and combine vision and sound in a distinctive manner. They display often unexpected juxtapositions, a sign of Jennings’ admiration for the Surrealist Movement.

The programme opened with a documentary influenced by his work with the Mass Observation Movement and then offered three of his wartime films, the period when he achieved the peak of his poetic representations

First was Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) which visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. The film mirrors the anthropological concerns of Mass Observation. This is very much an observational mode. Jennings and his team of the cameraman Henry Fowle and sound recordist Vorke Scarlett worked for the GPO Film Unit under producer Alberto Cavalcanti. The film was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. In a sense propaganda for the ‘US cousins’, a stance that was part of Jennings war work as well.

This is what is has been termed an ‘associational documentary’. It lacks the explicit social commentary of the Griersonian films, relying more on the connections between people, objects and settings. The theme in the words of Laurie Lee offers

“as things are, Spare Time is a time when we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves”

So there is an sub-text about labour and working people. This is reinforced in the visual style of the film where actual labour tends to appear in static shots whilst camera movements are more likely for people’s leisure activities.

There are three sections. In Sheffield we meet the steel industry and then the pastimes organised round the three-shift system. We see and hear a local brass band, visit a pub, see the walking of whippets and the release of pigeons, a cycling party and a crowded and popular football match.

Then to Manchester and Bolton where the cotton industry is based with weekend leisure. The most famous sequence of a Kazoo band was most likely shot in Rotherham and before the production included Jennings. Then we visit the Belle Vue  Zoo, see children in the street and a ballroom where the dance floor soon fills with the couples circling to a band.

Finally we visit Pontypridd and the coal collieries. A hooter accompanies the pithead and then the evening fun at a fair. The sequence is mainly in low key lighting. An amateur choir assembles and starts to sing Handel’s ‘Largo’. The music follows as the camera shows us streets and shoppers, then a youth club match and, as the evening passes, the start of mealtime.

The various musical troupes overlap the visual source to provide the accompanying track, punctuated by industrial noise. The film opens and closes with recorded music and the words of Laurie Lee. He also introduces each section The inconspicuous camera records the events, at one point observing as the pianist with the choir slips out of her coat whilst commencing the accompaniment. We see a family preparing to dine on a magnificent meat pie. There are several relaxed scenes in public houses. The Welsh section includes a notable tracking shop down a street. otherwise the camera relies mainly on long shots and ‘plain American’, with straight cuts and just the occasional dissolve. The film was edited by Jennings, there is no other person credited. And the cuts between sequences weaves a tapestry whilst the commentary sets up the separates sections and the finale.

Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.

The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. This is a ‘compilation’ documentary. The film intercuts short scenes of town and rural life – Westminster Abbey, evacuated children in the countryside – with scenes of military action, fighter pilots on an aerodrome, destroyers at sea.

The film appears to be completely based on ‘found footage’. it was constructed by Jennings with Stewart McAllister as editor. McAllister is a key member of the production team in the war-time films and brings a precision to the cutting of and between images,. He also brings a complex treatment to the tapestry of sound that accompanies the images. The war time films directed by Jennings use noise and music as well as words and this melange is increasingly complex. The soundtrack includes music by Beethoven and Handel, but the important part is the prose and poetry read by Olivier.

The C16th Britannia accompanies a map from that period. Then we hear selections from John Milton, Williams Blake, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling: a rather unusual combination.  The film moves on to Winston Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, [also featured in the recent ‘Dunkirk’]. And finally we hear words from Abraham Lincoln’s Address following the Battle of Gettysburg. The last opines widely held beliefs in ‘western democracies’. But the word accompany tanks passing the statue of Lincoln in Parliament Square: a clear pitch to the allies across the Atlantic.

The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the Czech villagers of Lidice [a mining community] in 1942. This was notorious event carried out as retribution for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Jennings and his team relocate the events to a Welsh mining village (Cwmgiedd) with the local inhabitants playing the population under Nazi occupation and becoming the victims of their terrorism .

The suggestion for the film was made by exiled Czech officials to the Ministry of Information. This was a Crown Film Unit production. Jennings is credited with both script and direction. And his colleagues on the film are the familiar and experienced team, with Stewart McAllister as editor, H. E. Fowle as cameraman. Ken Cameron is the sound recordist.

The film opens with an aural and visual introduction to the world of a mining village in a Welsh valley. This is typical of Jennings work and it weaves sounds and images to produce an effective portrait of the mining community. The film uses both English and Welsh, without any subtitles for the latter language: in fact, the words are not necessary. This, as in other wartime films, uses  ‘actual sound’ as well as ‘found sound’; an important aspect of the films. Then the German occupation arrives. As the narrative develops their repressive tactics increase. With the news of the assassination we reach the stage of reprisals. This involves the deportation of women and children and the murder of all the adult males. We do not see the actual execution but hear the gunfire as the men defiantly sing ‘Land of our Fathers’.

The entire cast are non-professional and the film is a fine example of how effectively Jennings and his team work with ordinary people. The sense of place is reinforced by the coupling of images of people with images of settings and objects which combine to effect a sense of a recognisable place and community. The accompanying sounds – industrial, domestic, rural – add to the effectiveness of this.

And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British  cinema. Jennings and his colleagues weave a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.

The production team is the now familiar one – McAllister, Fowle, Cameron – with an editor at the Crown Film Unit, John Krish, assisting. Once more we have the inter-weaving of actual and found footage with actual and found sound, including recorded music. And once more Jennings and his team display their unrivalled ability to capture ordinary people carrying out ordinary actions: though in extraordinary times.

The film opens with a pitch to the North American audience by Leonard Brockington. But then we move into the film proper, relying completely on the sounds and images of Britain and its people.

It is evening and we are presented with the British countryside. Then a Spitfire flies low over the scene. The film progresses through the night and on to the evening of the following day. In the course of the film we see countryside people, town and city people, factory workers, troops and the military. And we see these people both at work and at play. Among the famous settings are a grand ballroom packed with dancers; a wartime factory and the lunchtime canteen concert; in parallel the National Gallery in London and a concert of classical music. This provides a seamless tapestry of British wartime life. The film glosses over differences of class, gender and place. The one anachronism, as the film ends we hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the sound track: a false note which I suspect was dictated by producers rather than the actual filmmakers.

All these films are in black and white. They famously made Jennings an undoubted ‘auteur’ for British film . But the subtle developments apparent in the war-time films point to the importance of the contributions by Fowle, McAllister and Cameron. Jennings would seem to bring an overall form and the recurring themes.He has been criticised as ‘patronising’. But I think it is more that he remains an outsider but one with real empathy for the subjects of the films. What is apparent is that the films offer an ‘imagined community’, smoothing out troubling wrinkles and contradictions such as class. The war time films in particular embrace the notion of ‘A People’s War’; a concept that is closer to notions of propaganda than actuality. But the films do generate a sense of authenticity that was powerful at the time and which remain abiding images of Britain’s past.

God’s Own Country (UK 2017)

It’s grand up here on the moor! Josh O’Connor (right) and Alec Secareanu

God’s Own Country is a terrific film and one of the very best to be released in 2017. It has two standout lead performances, ably supported by two ever-reliable industry vets. It looks wonderful and tells an emotional story with limited dialogue and enormous power. It will be discussed partly because of the gay love story at its centre, but also because it’s a story about small farmers in rural Britain – an increasingly marginalised group in the UK (although it’s one of three such films this year with the earlier The Levelling and Dark River to follow). You’ll read a lot about the film as it picks up prizes so I’ll concentrate on my personal response to a film made on the moors close to my home.

For readers outside the UK, the film’s title refers to some Yorkshire people’s sense of their home county (it’s the biggest of the traditional English counties). I’m assuming it’s ironic in many ways since the writer-director Francis Lee seems quite sensible as well as being highly talented. He’s had a career as an actor in British theatre, film and television and this is his first feature after a trio of well-received shorts. His work with two young and highly promising actors demonstrates his understanding and empathy. Perhaps surprisingly in a film so carefully located in the director’s own backyard (Lee was brought up on a farm near Halifax and the main locations for his film are all around Keighley, just a few miles away), the three actors playing the farming family are not local. Josh O’Connor (one of the UK’s rising young actors to watch), who plays the central character Johnny, is from Cheltenham and he is the one under most scrutiny as a young farmer. Lee sent him, and the Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, to work on local farms for some intensive acclimatisation to livestock farming in the Pennines. It certainly paid off and the farm work looks genuine to this non-farmer. Johnny’s father is played by the Liverpudlian actor Ian Hart and his grandmother by the Londoner Gemma Jones. These two simply make sure the family is a credible working unit. Francis Lee knows the location and he knows actors, so his film narrative has a sound basis. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward – Johnny has stayed on the family farm while some of his friends from school have gone to university. It’s a hard life and socially isolating on the farm, especially when his father has a stroke and everything falls on Johnny in terms of physical work. His only respite is swift casual sexual encounters and fierce binge drinking in the village pub. In classic genre style this is all changed when the smoothly handsome and very capable Gheorghe arrives as a temporary hired hand. It’s to the film’s credit, I think, that Georghe is represented as a skilled worker and not as stereotypical migrant labour. But Georghe is more than a skilled worker, he is also an intelligent and sensitive young man – and just what Johnny needs. But can Johnny develop a relationship and sustain it? That’s the narrative enigma.

The film is a gay romance and that might be part of its attraction as a different kind of story since many such romances, especially for younger characters, are urban affairs. I’m not sure the many references to Brokeback Mountain from journalists and reviewers are helpful – the narratives are not that similar apart from sheep and ‘isolation’. The love story in God’s Own Country is universal. It’s also the case that the isolation Johnny experiences is nuanced. Johnny may be a Pennine hill farmer, but in reality he only lives a mile or two from a large town (this area for the last two hundred years or so has mixed the agrarian and the industrial cheek by jowl). His sense of isolation is social and psychological, not geographical. At the beginning of the story he is a character with wild energy but he’s sullen and not very likeable. Josh O’Connor handles his development as a man very well.

I only have one quibble with Francis Lee. He says very clearly that he didn’t want the landscape to look ‘beautiful’. I can understand why, coming from an upland farm, Lee wants to stress how a young person might feel. But for those of us who don’t have to deliver lambs out on the moor in all weathers, this land is beautiful – and in fact there is a scene in which Georghe makes this point. It’s worth noting that these are the moors on which the Brontë sisters might have tramped, but few of the film or TV versions of the Brontë novels have actually been shot here with filmmakers selecting similar, but still different, moors elsewhere. The credit for the film’s look also goes to cinematographer Joshua James Richards who is also having great success with American landscapes for Chloé Zhao, whose 2017 film The Rider is about a young cowboy in heartland America. Francis Lee can obviously attract talented collaborators. God’s Own Country is a must see film, both rivetingly ‘real’ and also romantic. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.

Heritage Day at the Hebden Bridge Picture House

“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”

The Hebden Bridge Picture House‘s Open Day was on Saturday September 10th. This was also the final screening on the cinema’s long-serving Kalee 35mm film projector. For a while now the projector team having been nursing along this 65 year old machine, including some running repairs to keep the films on screen. The projector is now retiring: a suitable home for old but capable machines.

Appropriately enough the final title screened on the Kalee was Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film, Frenzy (Universal Pictured, 1972). Filmed in and featuring London it was shot in colour and standard widescreen. It is the most sardonic of Hitchcock’s films with Barry Foster in a stand-out performance as Robert Rusk, Convent Garden entrepreneur and serial killing psychopath. Jon Finch is capable as the victim/hero of the film, Richard Blaney. The film has some excellent London locations, photographed by Gil Taylor and Leonard J. South. It also has a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer adapted from the novel by Arthur Le Bern. Le Bern’s other famous novel is ‘It Always Rains on a Sunday’, provided the story for one of the finest East End representations from Ealing and Robert Hamer. Shaffer script has real drive but also some fine and witty lines, two concerning ties.

The real victims in the film are Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Brenda Blaney and Anna Massey in a fine performance as Babs Milligan. There is also a fine cameo by Billie Whitelaw as Hettie Porter, suggesting an interesting sub-plot to the film. But the gallery of female victims marks this as one of the most overtly misogynous of Hitchcock’s films.

Alongside the serial killer narrative we get an enjoyable minor plot around food: between Alex McGowan as Chief Inspector Oxford and Vivian Merchant as his wife. This adds another sardonic note to the scenario. It also features one of the many authorial motifs in the film: the familiar one involves a bowler hat.. There is a complete list of these in the excellent ‘Hitchcock’s Motifs’ (Michael Walker, Amsterdam University Press, 2005). Apart from ‘food and meals’ there are such interesting examples as handbags, mothers, and staircases.

The staircase is a good example of the design, cinematography and editing of the film. At one point there is an impressive reverse track down a staircase and out into a Convent Garden street. A trope that Hitchcock perfected early in his career. And the film offers an intriguing variation on the serial killer’s labyrinth.

The film was shot in Technicolor but distributors (in a typical false economy) printed the film up and circulated it on Eastman color stock. So the projectionist had to offer an apology before the screening for the ‘fading’ on the print. There was a definite pink tint on the film but there were only a few scratches and good contrast and definition. So we enjoyed most of the qualities of this film. Whilst not one of the great masterpieces directed by Hitchcock it does standout in the late titles that he worked on. It does, though, miss the hand of Bernard Hermann: the score is by Ron Goodwin, who appears to be trying to add a Hermann tone to the music, but without the Hollywood composer’s touch.

The cinema is installing a replacement 35mm projector over the coming month. They hope it will be ready for a November screening. The new machine is a Victoria 5 and has been acquired from the old (and sadly defunct) Bradford Playhouse. This is the projector that operated in the smaller auditorium. Years ago I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) in that auditorium projected on that machine. This was the occasion that I realised that the film is one of the finest masterpieces directed the Swedish artist.

I am looking foreward to seeing films of a similar quality at the Hebden Bride Picture House and screened from their ‘new’ projector’. Their regular presentation of films in their proper 35mm format is an example to other exhibitors in Yorkshire.

The Limehouse Golem (UK 2016)

(from left) María Valverde, Sam Reid, Douglas Booth, Olivia Cooke and Eddie Marsan

The Limehouse Golem is a fascinating film for several reasons. It seems to have divided audiences and overall its box office performance has been ‘soft’ for Lionsgate in the UK (albeit on one of the worst weekends of the year for the cinema b.o.). It’ll be interesting to see what happened in Week 2.

My personal interest in the film is mainly because its two key locations of an 1880s East End street and the interior of a music hall were recreated in the atmospheric setting of Dalton Mills in Keighley. This complex of three textile mills built in the 1860s is a listed building with several unique features which have been cleverly utilised. The complex has been used for a range of film and TV locations including North and South (2004), the TV adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s novel and it lies adjacent to Keighley Station and the Keighley & Worth Valley heritage railway. Using other key locations in the North of England and then studio work in London, The Limehouse Golem has a very strong visual aesthetic with minimal visible CGI. This and the performances of an impressive cast are its strengths.

Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) interviews Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) in prison

The scriptwriter Jane Goldman is known for her collaborations with Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar but perhaps the important link here is her 2012 adaptation of the Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The Limehouse Golem has been adapted from a 1994 novel with the title Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd specialises in biography and novels about London and its history. The Limehouse Golem is about the trial of Elizabeth Cree, charged for the murder of her husband, a would-be playwright. The narrative involves going back over Mrs Cree’s emergence as a star of Dan Leno’s music hall. Leno is one of three historical figures (Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing are the others) who appear to have been in the British Museum Library reading room at the same time as John Cree and whose testimony must be explored. I haven’t read the novel, but in the film, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) is the investigator of this mystery which is presented through a series of flashbacks, some with ‘unreliable narration’. I suspect that, as in the case of The Woman in Black, there is possibly a degree of snobbery in some of the reactions to Goldman’s adaptation of a genre novel by an acclaimed ‘literary’ writer into a popular film. The other negative reactions may come from genre fans of horror or mystery films. The latter, in particular, can sometimes dismiss a narrative if they deem it too easy to ‘solve’ as a puzzle. It’s really a question of how you approach a narrative in order to be entertained. It may well be the case that The Limehouse Golem is an easy ‘puzzle’ to solve, but I would argue its pleasures are found in how the events are presented on screen.

Douglas Booth as Dan Leno performing in the music hall

The setting of the film in the Gothic world of late 19th century London is shared by a range of current film and TV offerings, including the TV series Ripper Street. What makes the setting particularly interesting for audiences in 2017 is the ability of familiar genre set-ups to absorb and use contemporary concerns in its storylines (whether this is intentional or not and this film first appeared in 2016). In this case there is an emphasis on gender identities and immigration. One character is an ‘exotic’ acrobat played by the Spanish actor María Valverde and the the Jewishness of the East End is explored in some detail, including in the reference to the ‘Golem’, the monster formed from clay that can be either protective or malign in its actions in relation to Jewish communities. Interestingly, it is his Jewishness that singles out Karl Marx rather than his work on Das Kapital. Cross-dressing is a feature of Dan Leno’s music hall performances, into which Lizzie Cree is inducted. These are traditional performances in an English context but the introduction of a ‘repressed’ gay sensibility by two of the characters is something that appears to have gone down badly with some audiences. I think that Peter Ackroyd is a gay writer so this may be in the original novel. The narrative could have introduced Oscar Wilde and his circle since he was active in London from the early 1880s. But then there is no claim to historical accuracy in the film and ‘real’ characters like Dan Leno are presented anachronistically several years out of place.

The clearest contemporary reference is to celebrity gossip and tabloid sensationalism so that in one scene an unworldly Inspector Kildare arrives at a crime scene overrun by goulish spectators and Daniel Mays as a uniformed constable explains that the blood attracts crowds because it is cheaper than paying to watch (or read) a ‘shocker’. The narrative is indeed about celebrity, ‘performance’ and the 1880s equivalent of reality TV. I didn’t enjoy the gore on display in the murders but this may please others. The discovery in the film is Olivia Cooke, a young actor (23) from Oldham playing Lizzie Cree most convincingly. Douglas Booth as Dan Leno, Henry Goodman as Marx and Eddie Marsan as the music hall manager lead the fine team of players and credit must also go to director Juan Carlos Medina, cinematographer Simon Denis (who also shot episodes of Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders) and the whole production design crew. I did note the comment that though the music hall scenes include interesting musical sequences, we never see any musicians – how odd. The trailer below gives an impression of the use of locations and sets and I’ve chosen the stills to show this as well.

A Change in the Weather (UK 2017)

This is a new film from the husband and wife team of Jon Sanders and Anna Mottram. There previous three films known as ‘the Kent trilogy’ were low key features, with rather downbeat stories. The plots of the films however seem not to be the prime focus. That is very much character, relationships and a sense of a particular time of life: one that mirrors their own.

I saw this title at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum (renamed ‘Science + Media) and introduced by Bill Lawrence of ‘Reel Solutions’ who have been promoting the film.

The film is in colour, an anamorphic format of 2.35:1 and runs 99 minutes. It is an ambiguous and elusive film. It takes time to identify the characters and to understand the story it tells. The film is set in the ‘Cathar’ region of southern France. The action takes place over a week, though that information only surfaced well into the film. A small group of people are involved in a workshop as a prelude to a written play.

The writer is Dan (Bob Goody) who also plays a writer, Bernard, in the drama they are working on. His wife Lydia (Anna Mottram) is one of three actors who play Elsa [Bernard’s wife] in the workshop, in older age, The other being Kalle (Meret Becker) who plays the youngest manifestation of Elsa;  and Monica (Maxime Finch) who plays Elsa in her thirties, In addition Lydia’s daughter Debbie (Seonaid Goody) is there with her baby daughter Constance: Debbie is a puppeteer. James (Stephen Lowe) is a widowed friend.  His dead wife Bea (Tanya Myers) appears as a ghost, but only appears to Lydia and the viewers. And Jo (Emma Garden) is a friend of Lydia with whom she talks via Skype on her laptop. There is Aidan (Douglas Finch) who I assume is the pianist that we see and hear. And there is an unnamed sound recordist in some of the workshop scenes.

The film opens with a single woman sitting in a chair in front of a painted backcloth: we realise later that this is Lydia playing the character of Elsa. Off-screen several people fire questions at her. She answers these for a while then rises and walks off the stage: the camera continues on the empty chair.

There follows a scene in a bathroom, with Dan lying naked in the bathtub whilst Lydia studies her face in the mirror. This is one of several conversations between the pair. It is always uncertain to what degree the characters portrayed are Dan and Lydia or Bernard and Elsa.

A fairly short exterior sequence follows. The exteriors tend to be shorter than the interiors though there are several which include conversations. At this stage of the film the light suggests autumnal sunshine.

Now we see one of several sequences where a character playing Elsa dances with a puppet. We start with Lydia but eventually we will see all three characters playing Elsa in a dance routine with the puppet. Debbie controls the puppet here by hand, later she moves the puppet by the control bar.

We see two conversations between Lydia and Jo on her laptop. She talks to Jo in order to gain support. There is an evening of what seems to be entertainment, Kalle performs a rendition of ‘Melancholy Baby’ with Aiden at the piano and joining in the second chorus. And Bea appears mysteriously sitting amongst the spectators.

As the film develops the relationships between characters emerge to a degree. Dan and Lydia’s marriage has unexpressed tensions. Kalle has a long-term friendship with the couple and she is the only (apparently) non-English member of the workshop. Monica is possibly flirting with Dan. James would seem to be still mourning Bea. Bea appears to Lydia a number of times, though what causes her appearances – Lydia’s need or some other factor – is not explained. And Aidan only appears as a pianist.

At the end of the film a couple of characters leave. Debbie leaves because her work is finished. Lydia leaves because of the tensions in the marriage, only partly explained by a long discussion between her and Dan. We assume that the other participants leave as the week appears to have run its course. Bea makes a final appearance overlooking the buildings but not apparently seen by anyone except the audience.

The film relies extensively on long takes. And there are a number of pans over the cast. Early in the film the camera offers a restricted view; later pans present the audience with more of the set and characters. Thus in the opening shot the camera sticks to a fix position even when Lydia walks off-camera. Later in the film, in similar settings, a pan will reveal the characters who are watching or listening or questioning. The camera tends to a mid-height angle, but there are occasional high and low-angle shots. And there are some tracks in the exteriors. In line with the developing narrative there are more exterior long shots later in the film so that viewers start to acquire a sense of the settings and the buildings.

The music, of which there is a substantial amount, is predominately played on the piano, but there are at least two sequences where the accompaniment is on a harmonium. I suspected the change of instrument signified something about those sequences but I am not sure what?

The film’s opening sequences appear to be in autumnal sunshine. There are also a few evening or night-times scenes with chiaroscuro. As the film and the relationships develop the sunshine diminishes and the sky becomes clouded. In the later stages the sound of wind is audible on the soundtrack and there is an evening storm at one point.

It will be clear that I found that the film required close attention and a lot of input by myself. This was clearly part of the strategy embodied in the film. As the characters acquired identities I found I could start to comprehend the relationships. Interestingly the character easiest to place was Bea as a ghost, because she disappears mysteriously at the end of her first appearance.

It was equally so with what one might term the plot. It took time to work out about the workshop and its point. And it took time to see what sort of situations the developing relationships were creating. There were themes that i found suggested rather than fully realised. One was the relationship between the sexes. At one point Bernard abruptly changes the focus in a ‘hot seating’ session, possibly because of what the answers to question suggest about him. And there is an unexpressed question: why is only the female character played by more than one actor? It was probably just me, but when I saw the shot of Dan naked in the bath I was irresistibly reminded of Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday.

However I felt that the film repaid this care and attention. By the end of the film the resolution illuminated the themes that seemed to be embodied in the story. The cast are excellent. When I worked out the main points in the film their performances fitted exactly. The settings were well chosen and the music was appropriate and enjoyable. The cinematography in  particular was excellent and I was happy to sit there watching the settings and the performers.

Lydia with Bea

After the screening Jon Sanders and Amma Mottram talked about the film and answered questions. Jon Sanders has worked as a sound engineer and editor as well as directing films. Anna Mottram has worked extensively as an actor and has three screenwriting credits on their joint films. Bill Lawrence started by filling in some background and then asked them about their approach to filming and how they made the film.

Jon Sanders explained that their first film, Painted Angels (1998) a UK/German co-production set in a Western ‘bordello’ and filmed in Canada, was not a success. It had a limited release and only made it onto video in the USA. So they gave some thought to alternative ways of making film that were relatively cheap and quick. involving small casts, inexpensive production  values and avoiding the logistical requirements of mainstream film,.

They have made four films in twelve years. The approach involves long takes, filmed quickly and relying on a degree of improvisation by the actors. For this film they worked out the characters and a bare bones plot, written out on 32 cards, one for each scene. The credit reads ‘devised by . . . ‘. Friends offered the use of a rural house with a barn in France for a location. The devised story included an ending but much in between depended on the improvisation of the actors. The film was then shot chronologically.

The cast and crew had worked with the filmmakers before and some were personal friends, which is mirrored in the story. Merit Becker had met the filmmakers years before as an exchange student, which is also mirrored in the plot., Since then she had become an established actor in the German film industry and wanted to work on one of their films.

Anna Mottram explained how the improvisation worked in the creative process. So the opening scene was an example of ‘hot seating’, [Hot-seating is a way of developing (or deepening) character. If you are in the hot-seat you answer questions from others in the group while you are ‘in role’.] And the acting also worked on the ambiguities, as scenes where it was unclear which character actors were performing. Jon Sanders explained the directors main task was to keep the actors to ‘the sub-text’.

I asked about the way the technical crew worked with improvised scenes. Jon stated that how it worked varied, some scenes were completed in one take, ‘Melancholy Baby’ actually took nine takes. For the cinematography they relied on the camera work of David Scott and his grip Glyn Fielding. Scott had experience in documentary filmmaking which stood him in good stead with this approach. As an example Jon cited the scene where an actor danced with a puppet. Scott was given the start and end positions for the shot and then followed the action ensuring these were achieved. For sound they used two boom microphones which served well. And, as noted, the sound recordist is part of the plotting, and seen in scenes where recording takes place: I think this is Mike Duffield. Jon also noted that as the filming progressed some planned scenes were left out, seeming unnecessary.

A this point they asked the audience about their responses to the film, which were generally positive. I had noticed that two or three people left during the screening, presumably not taken with the film. But the remainder appeared to have enjoy it.

I asked the filmmakers about themes in the film, noting that stories about older couples reaching a crises point in their relationship seemed a frequent issue recently. Jon responded that probably this was ‘something in the air’ these days. But he also explained that their approach lent itself to domestic dramas and that ‘marriage, love and death’ were central themes in life.

Another audience member asked about the ghost, Bea. Anna talking about the first scene in which Bea appears. She suggested that Bea could be seen as a way of Lydia ‘talking to herself’; i.e., working through the tensions that appeared in the story.

I had to leave before the end to catch a train. As I left Jon was referring to the ghost and his admiration of Mizoguchi Kenji, the great Japanese director: his film Ugetsu Monogatari‘ had two ghosts and an ending that might be described as transcendental. A Change in the Weather is not a melodrama like that film, it is more mundane and downbeat but well executed. And the title, which is part of the visual narrative, also offers metaphor. It is a quote from a poem by W. H. Auden.

“Will love come and surprise him, knock on his door, step on his feet, or turn up like the weather, mildly or roughly?”

This struck me, like the film, as a very English approach. And whilst filmed in France the film really carries that sort of cultural character. It definitely stands out among recent releases produced in the UK. The film m is slightly challenging but repays the effort. To date there have been four screenings and it certainly deserves far more outings,. If you have a local independent cinema it would be worth asking them to feature the film. I, for one, would watch it again.

A Change in the Weather

Why Dunkirk? Thoughts on Nolan’s version of the myth

Kenneth Branagh’s character of the naval Commander on the Mole in Nolan’s Dunkirk is based on a historical figure

Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.

I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the  Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.

Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on two novels). In other ways it is very different.

An archive photo (Hulton Picture Archive) of evacuated soldiers arriving in London by train. Nolan’s images frequently use compositions drawing on such images

The Dunkirk myth

The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of co-operation between allies’.

Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of  wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected  the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.

Tom Hardy plays one of just two RAF pilots shown in the film. (A third is quickly shot down)

One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.

The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.

My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers.  The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.

For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.

YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.