Category: British Cinema

The Overlanders (Australia-UK 1946)

(from left) Clyde Combo as Jacky, Chips Rafferty as Dan McAlpine and John Heyward as Bill Parsons

(from left) Clyde Combo as Jacky, Chips Rafferty as Dan McAlpine and John Heyward as Bill Parsons

The Overlanders is a highly significant film, an Australian classic helping to re-establish filmmaking in Australia after 1945. The Australian government approached the British Ministry of Information in 1943 in the hope of producing a film celebrating the Australian war effort. The MoI passed the request to Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and Harry Watt was eventually despatched to Australia. Production began in 1945 at the time the war was coming to an end in Europe. It was released in September 1946 when the war had been over for a year (though ‘policing’ duties carried on in the Dutch East Indies during the Indonesian War of Independence). The film was extremely successful in Australia and sold well around the world. (See this Australian Screen website for more background information.)

Harry Watt was one of the most distinguished filmmakers of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, probably best known for Night Mail in 1936, co-directed with Basil Wright. After directing the documentary Target For Tonight in 1941, Watt moved from the Crown Film Unit to Ealing and in 1943 directed Nine Men, a fictional war combat film set in the North African desert in which a small British squad hold off an Italian attack. In 1945 he was not yet 40 and quite prepared for a gruelling shoot in Australia. He took some Ealing personnel with him but recruited local Australian talent as well.

overlandersposterThe story, written by Watt, was based on real events suggested by the Australian authorities. The film opens in 1942 in Wyndham, the centre for meat-packing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (but in effect on the North coast of Australia). Bill McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) a cattle ‘drover’ has just delivered 1,000 local cattle for slaughter and processing, but the perceived threat of Japanese invasion following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 sees McAlpine ordered to shoot and burn the cattle as part of a ‘scorched earth policy’. The whole area is being evacuated. McAlpine refuses to abandon the cattle and declares that he will drive them over 2,000 kms to the outskirts of Brisbane. It’s the worst time of year to cross a huge expanse of brush and mountains and rivers and McAlpine struggles to put together a motley crew that includes a sailor (‘sick of the sea’), a gambler, two Aborigine stockmen, two horse traders (facing the same problem) and a local family fleeing south. The family includes an experienced man and wife and their two daughters, one a 20 year-old rider. What follows is a form of ‘Australian Western’ that actually predates the classic Hollywood ‘trail Western’ Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) with John Wayne.

Chips Rafferty, destined to become one of Australian cinemas first international stars, is an interesting actor – physically tall but here proving a strong leader because of his calm demeanour, knowledge of cattle and terrain and decisiveness rather than his physical presence. Wikipedia quotes a line from what I assume was an obituary notice in 1971, he was: “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Watt manages to make the drive interesting by carefully structuring the narrative to include potential hazards and set-backs ranging from ‘poison grass’, river crossings with crocodiles in attendance, bogs, drought and dangerous mountain crossings. He also brings aircraft into play, including the Flying Doctor service. Watt’s documentary background enabled him to make good use of these scenes – I especially liked the farmer who pedalled a generator to contact the Flying Doctor by radio.

The presence of an attractive young woman in the shape of Daphne Campbell would have certainly pushed a similar Hollywood narrative in particular directions, but here she is celebrated mainly for her horse-riding skills, even if a brief romantic interlude does lead to a lack of attention to the cattle. (See the poster which certainly ‘oversells’ the romance.)

There are two aspects of the film that seem important in the context of its production. At one point the cattle are taken through a gorge and watching them from the top of the cliffs is a group of Aboriginal men – dressed for hunting as they would have been for thousands of years. The scene is familiar from John Ford Westerns but instead of some kind of stand-off, McAlpine and his drovers simply acknowledge the men on the cliffs who return the recognition. Throughout the film the ‘otherness’ of the Aboriginal characters is not emphasised as such. Given the exposure of institutionalised racism in Australian society in the 1930s in more recent films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) it’s tempting to see the attitudes in The Overlanders as representing a British left/liberal position as set out by Watt. The script still registers ‘difference’ – as when the drive comes across a small town with “The first white man we’d seen” – and the two Aboriginal drovers are not promoted to major speaking roles. But at least they are part of the group. This links to the second key scene picked out by Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios.

In several of the British films made during the latter part of the war, especially those from Labour-supporting writers and directors, there is often a short speech about how future plans should work out and what kind of world might be built when peace arrives. In The Overlanders, that speech goes to McAlpine when he discovers that Corky the gambler wants to ‘exploit’ the Northern Territories by forming a private consortium. “No”, he says – “the development has to be national and to involve all Australians”. This is, indeed, the logic of the film’s narrative with the group of drovers representing Australia (including the Aboriginal groups).

The spectacular cattle drive

The spectacular cattle drive

Ealing went on to set up a production base of sorts in Australia and produced four more films over the next ten years –but generally declining in quality according to Barr. Two of those four were directed by Harry Watt (Eureka Stockade (1949) and the last official Ealing film, The Seige of Pinchgut (1959)). In the intervening period, Watt found himself in East Africa where he made two features. The first, in Kenya, was the early ‘eco-thriller’ about the struggle to establish game parks in the face of poaching – Where No Vultures Fly (1951). Charles Barr dubs this film an ‘African Overlanders‘ and like the Australian film, it attracted appreciative audiences in the UK and abroad. The two films suggested that there might be an international market for British films (as distinct from ‘Hollywood-British’) with ‘adventure narratives’ and spectacular scenes made overseas, but for a variety of reasons this didn’t really develop in the early 1950s. However, The Overlanders did give confidence to an Australian film industry struggling to recover after the war.

The Entertainer (UK 1960)

An in-depth composition (looking very much like a stage play) with Frank (Alan Bates) and Archie (Laurence Olivier) in the and (Phoebe) Brenda de Banzie and Jean (Joan Plowright) in the background.

An in-depth composition with Frank (Alan Bates) and Archie (Laurence Olivier) in the foreground and (Phoebe) Brenda de Banzie and Jean (Joan Plowright) in the background.

The Entertainer is an important British film for many reasons. A few months ago I got angry when commentators discussing a 2016 revival of John Osborne’s play (Kenneth Branagh’s production at the Garrick in London) only referred to the film as ‘Olivier’s film’. Laurence Olivier plays the lead character of the film but he and Osborne are by no means the only ‘authors’ of the film. It is equally important to consider the direction by Tony Richardson and the production by Woodfall Films – just at the ‘tipping point’ of the British New Wave in 1960. It’s a film and the location photography by Oswald Morris and Denys Coop (the camera operator who later became a DoP on several New Wave films) is crucial.

I first saw the film many years ago and I was grateful to see it again courtesy of Talking Pictures TV, the digital channel that suddenly appeared, as if by magic, on my Freeview offer. Talking Pictures TV is on Freeview Channel 81 and specialises in archive British and American cinema and TV. In August 2016 Screen Daily reported that the station had acquired broadcast rights to a range of classic British films in “two major library deals with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and the Samuel Goldwyn and Woodfall libraries, distributed by Miramax”. Around 100 titles are covered and some of them are showing currently in the channel’s schedules (see the website).

The Entertainer was first performed on stage in 1957 and the story is set in 1956. In the opening sequence we meet Jean Rice (Joan Plowright) looking up at the marquee of the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe which announces the summer show starring Jean’s father, the fading variety star Archie Rice (Olivier). A flashback shows us that Jean has come up from London where she is an art teacher on a youth project. She’s seen her brother Mick (Albert Finney) off at the station on his way to fight in the Suez Canal conflict. She was accompanied by her boyfriend Graham (Daniel Massey) who told her that he had been offered a job in Africa. Did she want to join him? When Jean arrives in Morecambe she meets her grandfather, Billy Rice (Roger Livesey) and then goes ‘backstage’ to meet her father and her other brother, stage manager Frank (Alan Bates). Eventually, we follow the trio home to the rented rooms where Phoebe, (Brenda de Banzie) and Billy are waiting. The ‘driver’ of the plot is Archie’s attempt to stage another, more glamorous, show. He has no money so he latches onto a young woman (Shirley Anne Field) with wealthy parents in the hope that they will finance him to create an opportunity for their daughter.

The Entertainer is not really a film that is bothered about narrative as such – I don’t think we really believe that Archie will be successful in setting up a new show. It makes more sense to follow the narrative as a metaphor for decline. Archie is a second-rate entertainer in the dying days of live ‘variety theatre’. Already this successor to the music hall is in the process of falling into the clutches of television (and TV is a despised medium by most of the writers and directors of the New Wave). It is apt then that the setting is Morecambe – a seaside resort in its last days of mass holiday appeal. Morecambe’s main attractions were developed from the late 19th century up to the 1930s, including its marvellous art deco hotel built by the Midland Railway company. Morecambe traditionally relied on the railway to bring the crowds from industrial West Yorkshire, especially from Bradford and Leeds, but by the late 1950s the numbers were starting to fall. Morecambe wasn’t big enough to attract the A List stars so, rather like the British Empire in 1956, it was waiting for the axe to fall (it would come a few years later after the railways were savaged by Dr Beeching in the mid 1960s). The film never openly discusses the location as Morecambe, so perhaps these points are lost on the audience. Tony Richardson came originally from Bradford which may be why he chose the location. Wikipedia suggests that Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger in Morecambe while himself performing in repertory theatre.

Archie and his dancers, the film suggests that the women are more scantily clad than it was possible to show on screen – thus the suggestion of sleaze

Archie and his dancers, the film suggests that the women are more scantily clad than it was possible to show on screen – thus the suggestion of sleaze

Olivier during one of the 'between shows' sequences in the theatre

Olivier during one of the ‘between shows’ sequences in the theatre

It may be heretical, but I have to admit that I don’t enjoy watching Laurence Olivier on screen (and he received an Oscar nomination for this performance as Archie). I’ve never seen him on the stage, but I’m not sure his casting always works in films – except when he plays a supporting character in genre films. In The Entertainer he has to play a man who is difficult to like and he certainly puts the character across, but his stage act is so loathsome and lacking in talent (i.e the singing voice he uses and the terrible delivery of awful jokes) that it doesn’t really make sense that he would headline a show. The crucial scenes are in the theatre after or between shows when Archie is trying to express himself to Jean (who is arguably the narrator of the story – she is the one who leads us into scenes). In these scenes, Olivier seems to do far too much and it’s as if he is still performing in the stage version of The Entertainer, also directed by Tony Richardson. Reading a synopsis of the play, it looks as if these scenes were originally in the family home but when the film ‘opened’ out the story, Richardson moved them into the empty theatre. I can see an argument that Olivier offers us an Archie who is always ‘performing’ and when he’s literally ‘on the stage’ he is unable to stop. His performance contrasts with Roger Livesey, an actor admittedly close to my heart because of his three roles for Powell and Pressburger in Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s an insult really that Livesey, one year older than Olivier, is cast as Olivier’s father. Billy is a mainly sympathetic character as a genuine former star of music hall. Livesey plays him as an Edwardian gentleman. It’s perhaps a little too close to the older Colonel Blimp from P&P’s film (in which Livesey must age forty years).

Archie and Jean meet for a father-daughter discussion. Olivier and Plowright married in 1961.

Archie and Jean meet for a father-daughter discussion. Olivier and Plowright married in 1961.

I suspect my problem is with John Osborne’s overall approach to the original play. I’ve seen a suggestion that after Look Back in Anger, the iconic ‘angry young man’ narrative for the theatre, Olivier asked Osborne to write an ‘angry middle-aged man’ piece for him to star in and that’s how The Entertainer emerged. In his satire Osborne offers three generations of Rice men – Billy, Archie and Frank/Mick. Osborne seems a little nostalgic in relation to Billy and his bile is reserved for Archie. The young men are not really used at all, which is a weakness, I think. The women have little ‘agency’ and Jean’s problems seem to get forgotten (which adds to the isolation of Archie as a loathsome figure). Osborne might have been thinking of any number of misogynist male comedians with doubtful stage material in the 1940s and 1950s – but most of them were also performers with real talent. I do wonder if the character of Archie Rice might actually have worked better in the service of the satire if he had been a more talented performer – whose style/material was going out of fashion. But perhaps the whole point is that he is a monster without redeeming features?

This is presumably a reportage shot during the production with Shirley Anne Field, Thora Hird and Laurence Olivier

This is presumably a reportage shot during the production with Shirley Anne Field, Thora Hird and Laurence Olivier (out of costume)

All the rest of the cast are very good. And what a cast it is. I was amused to note that Miriam Karlin is a bolshie dancer in Archie’s company – a year or so later she would become a TV star in the sitcom The Rag Trade in which she plays a shop steward in a small clothing factory. Morecambe’s most famous thespian, Thora Hird plays the mother of the Shirley Anne Field character. But the real interest for me is in the film as an example of Richardson’s work for Woodfall, the company he founded in 1958 with John Osborne and Harry Saltzman. Between 1959 and 1963 Richardson directed five major films of the British New Wave for Woodfall – Look Back In Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones (1963). That’s some run. I think now that I’d opt for A Taste of Honey as the key film, though all of them are important and Tom Jones won the most accolades at the time. The Entertainer seems like it’s caught in the transition in filmmaking terms from the interiors of Look Back in Anger to the openness and freshness of A Taste of Honey and the shift from the anger of John Osborne to the vitality of Shelagh Delaney (with the only female-centred film in the sequence).

Other points to mention: the screenplay was co-written by Nigel Kneale who had adapted Look Back in Anger from Osborne’s play but who was best known as a writer of science fiction screenplays, especially the various Quatermass films and TV plays. Since he came from North West England, he may have contributed to the authentic feel of Morecambe as a Lancashire resort. There is an interesting sequence in the film using the ‘Miss Great Britain’ bathing beauty contest which was held in the art deco outdoor swimming pool. Morecambe was the genuine venue for the contest in 1956 and it remained the venue until 1989. The locations used in the film are mainly in Morecambe but the theatre locations may include both the Alhambra and the Winter Gardens. Morecambe had its own Illuminations but the sequence in The Entertainer also features Blackpool’s illuminated trams.

T2 Trainspotting (UK 2017)

t2-trainspotting-poster-01

It seems a long time since there was any real mass enthusiasm for a new popular/populist ‘British’ film. There has been plenty of promotion for T2 Trainspotting including a takeover of The Graham Norton Show on the day of the film’s UK release. Danny Boyle has been doing an excellent job drumming up business. Even though early reports were reassuring, I was worried it wouldn’t be up to much and a running time of just under two hours worried me further. But to my relief it’s not bad at all.

The concept of a sequel is flexible in the movie business. Sometimes it just means a re-tread of the first film but this felt like a genuine attempt to work out what twenty years later might mean. It’s slower paced and heavily imbued with the sadness of encroaching middle age – with many references to childhood friendships. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the original and it was good to be reminded of Ewen Bremner’s portrayal of Spud as the most likeable of the central trio.

I saw a review which remarked on the lack of female roles and the waste of Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson who feature only briefly. It’s a reasonable criticism and it does feel more of a boys’ film, even if they’ve grown up a bit. On the other hand, Anjela Nedyalkova does well as Veronika, Simon (Sick Boy)’s girlfriend, and the women who do appear tend to have the upper hand.

For its fans, the first Trainspotting seems to have been enjoyed for many reasons including its use of music, the characters and the various set pieces in specific locations, some of which have become tourist attractions. For many critics/commentators the original also seemed, in sometimes contradictory ways, to engage with ideas about popular culture and in particular the debates about ‘Cool Britannia’ in the mid 1990s. Danny Boyle, like Ken Loach, became an English director who has made more than one film that has been accepted as part of Scottish film culture. By directly linking London and Edinburgh (even if it was represented by Glasgow much of the time) Trainspotting commented on the divides within the UK. T2 oddly doesn’t refer to the SNP rule in Scotland or the Referendum – but it does explicitly refer to the EU and, by implication, Scotland’s connections to Amsterdam (where Renton has been living) and Bulgaria/Slovenia (from where recent migrants have come). The film was actually being made at the time of the Brexit Referendum. I think there are two reasons why T2 doesn’t seem so ‘connected’ to what is happening now. The first is that the source material started off as an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno and the second is that the theme of ‘looking back’ is so strong. The irony is that it is only Veronika who speaks about looking ahead.

When I looked back at the synopsis and running time of Trainspotting in 1996, I remembered just how much seemed to be crammed into its 93 minutes. By comparison, the extra 24 minutes in the new film don’t seem to contain as much narrative development. Inevitably, the pace seems slower and there is more reflection. There is less ‘story’ and more soul-searching. A middle-aged film? I enjoyed watching the film but I’m not a fan as such. I have less investment in the project so I’m neither excited or disappointed. I will be intrigued to see how it works with younger audiences. I’m guessing the people who sat a few rows in front of me (our local cinema was not full on Saturday tea-time) were in their 30s or 40s. T3 has been suggested as a possibility but I’d be happy if the ride stopped here – now that I’ve finally learned what ‘trainspotting’ refers to and looked up the history of Leith Central Station.

I Know Where I’m Going! (UK 1945)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

If you are in the UK and you haven’t seen I Know Where I’m Going!, you can watch it free on BBC iPlayer for the next four days and I urge you to do so. It’s one of the best films by the UK’s top filmmaking duo, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, AKA ‘The Archers’. I watched it again on the day La La Land was released in the UK. I was intrigued to hear the American film being lauded for its ‘unconventional’ love story. Micky and Emeric knew all about those.

I Know Where I’m Going! begins with some interesting credits and a montage of scenes from the early life of Joan Webster, the girl who has always known where she is going. Now, in the form of Wendy Hiller, she is the 25 year-old daughter of a bank manager engaged to the wealthy businessman and owner of the company she works for. She has to make her way to the (fictional) island of ‘Kiloran’ which her husband-to-be has, in effect, ‘taken over’ for the duration of the war – and their wedding. The only problem is that the weather in the Western Isles is notoriously fickle and Joan finds herself stranded on the larger (real) island of Mull, wondering if the small boat coming to collect her will ever arrive. Of course, she isn’t alone and all kinds of people are aware of her predicament, including Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). Let the drama, the romance and the fun begin!

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona's house.

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona’s house.

It’s worth reflecting on a few ideas about the narratives created by Powell and Pressburger. First, although the setting is unusual, it wasn’t a first for Michael Powell as in 1937 he’d made The Edge of the World, perhaps the best known of his films before he worked with Pressburger. This fictional story was set on an isolated island in the Shetlands and ‘inspired’ by the final days of the even more isolated island settlement of St Kilda out in the North Atlantic, whose last inhabitants left in 1930. Although barely seen at the time, The Edge of the World was re-edited with new material in 1978 and became part of the ‘re-discovery’ of Powell’s early work. Intriguingly though, the other Archers’ film which I Know Where I’m Going! in some ways most resembles is Black Narcissus (1947). In both cases the narrative offers us a proud and intelligent young woman who finds herself in a remote place which deeply unsettles her – especially when she is confronted with a man who understands the place. However, this 1945 narrative is less tragic and (slightly) less dramatic than the later film. The two films both feature a second romance as contrast and they focus on ‘cultural difference’ as the basis for a fantasy and possibly a metaphorical study of British society. In Black Narcissus, the woman is played by Deborah Kerr who had played the triple female lead in another Archers’ film, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). She wasn’t available in 1945 so P&P turned to Wendy Hiller (who had lost the 1943 role to Kerr). One of the things I like about IKWIG (as Powell himself calls it in his autobiography) is that the story starts in Manchester and not London. I hadn’t noticed before that Wendy Hiller was born in Cheshire, so she’s nearly Mancunian. I wish I’d seen more of her films. She’s totally credible as a middle-class young woman from the ‘industrial North’, one with strong convictions who can be set up to lose them in the most delightful way.

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

The fun begins with the credits which are matched by two expressionist sequences, one as Joan heads north on the Glasgow sleeper and another brief one when she is praying (for the third time) for the winds to drop so she can get to Kiloran. It occurs to me that P&P use these sequences (derived from 1920s German cinema?) more in their b+w films when they don’t have colour to express emotion. The Small Back Room (1949) is perhaps the film in which they are used most extensively (and dramatically). As well as these sequences (which include Joan remembering the dancing at the ceilidh as a contrasting emotion to willing the winds to drop) IKWIG is marked by a significant amount of long shots and images of extreme weather mixed with noirish interiors. Some of the landscapes have mist and fog and a ‘glow’ of sunlight through the clouds which all adds to the sense of Celtic fantasy. The long shots composed by Erwin Hiller also have the function of ‘disguising’ Roger Livesey’s double since Livesey was starring in a West End play and never travelled up to Scotland. As in Black Narcissus, many scenes were shot on studio lots, including the Corryvreckan whirlpool sequence. This latter concerns one of two ancient myths about the fate of lovers that P&P used to underpin the central romance. The other involves a curse on the MacNeil men if they enter a ruined castle. The blooming romance represents P&P’s response to the coming end of the war. In this respect it refers back to A Canterbury Tale (1944), a film which has baffled many audiences. In political terms, this is Powell’s ‘high Tory romanticism’, not necessarily reactionary but definitely preferring the spiritual qualities of the rural and preferably the wild landscape to the ordered, rule-managed materialism of the urban society.

The film’s title was suggested by Powell’s Irish wife Frankie and it comes from the traditional Scots/Irish ballad. In the film it is beautifully sung by the then 69 year-old Boyd Steven (with the Glasgow Orpheus Choir) and used in the closing credit sequence:

Here’s the song:

“I know where I’m going

And I know who’s going with me.

I know who I love

But the de’il (the devil) knows who I’ll marry

The film has a score by Allan Gray and an entire sequence with performances at a ceilidh. In this sense it is another movement towards Powell’s concept of the ‘composed film’. It’s also one of Pressburger’s best scripts with its sly digs about the ‘rich and soulless’ – the wonderful irony of the three pipers hired for the wedding by the industrialist but who also can’t get to the island and therefore play at the ceilidh and provide Kiloran with another opportunity to woo Joan. This time I also noticed that in the opening narration we hear that “When Joan was only 1 year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right, left? No, straight on!” I wonder if this is a joke about the political climate of 1944?

IKWIG has everything, even an early appearance by Pet Clark as a rich brat. It also has an ‘eagle hunter’ with ‘Torquil’, his eagle, on his arm (credited as ‘Mr Ramshaw’). If you miss the BBC screening in HD, there is a Criterion Region 1 DVD (with an essay by Ian Christie) and Region 2 DVDin the UK.

The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

The Long Memory (UK 1953)

Philip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

Phillip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

The early 1950s has often been dismissed by critics as a weak period in British cinema, when British producers churned out war films and comedies that were popular but not very interesting. In reality this was a stable production period in which British films competed very well with a diminished Hollywood for a big share of over 1 billion cinema admissions annually in the UK. There were also some excellent films that are certainly worth re-visiting. The Long Memory is one of the best and over the last few years plenty of viewers seem to have found it (many on a DVD box set of John Mills performances). The first point of interest is its director Robert Hamer, the genius at Ealing whose later career was damaged by alcohol. Hamer left Ealing after making three well-received films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). He’d also directed a segment to the portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and made uncredited contributions to San Demetrio, London (1943) and The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Charles Barr (in Ealing Studios, Movie, 1977) picks out Hamer (and Alexander Mackendrick) as the Ealing directors who showed most ‘personal continuity’ and exemplified the best of ‘mature Ealing’. It’s fairly typical that in a Guardian piece in 2004, Kevin Jackson ignores The Long Memory completely and focuses primarily on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Keith is a big fan of that fine film and writes about it on this blog, but I prefer the other Ealing films and The Long Memory.

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay's father

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay’s father Captain Driver (Fred Johnson)

Why Hamer left Ealing isn’t clear to me but the consensus seems to be that he had a conflict with studio head Michael Balcon and decided to strike out as a director for hire with various producers. The Long Memory is the third of his features in this freelance career. Although made for two small independents, Europa Films and British Filmmakers, it had the backing of Rank and was an ‘A’ release on the Odeon circuit in 1953 with a starry cast led by John Mills. Mills plays Phillip, a ‘wronged man’ first seen on the day of his release from prison, arriving back in London and then heading down the Thames to find a home in an abandoned barge near to Gravesend. He is followed by a plain clothes police officer. A flashback then reveals that he once had a girlfriend, Fay (Elizabeth Sellars) whose father was an old ship’s captain mixed up in smuggling. Phillip got caught up with the smuggling operation and following a fracas he was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. After 12 years inside he discovers that Fay is now married to a police Superintendent (played by John McCallum, one of Hamer’s actors from Ealing). Why did she betray him? Who else might Phillip want to seek out for revenge?

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The Long Memory is notable for both its contemporary concerns – the arrival of refugees in the UK, the importance of smuggling and the black market in a period of austerity (rationing was still in force in 1952) – and its distinctive visual style. Oddly, its narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the war directly – Phillip would have been sent to prison in 1940. The film is strikingly shot, making use of the stark landscape of the estuary mudflats and the whole river environment as far up as Tower Bridge. The landscape is similar to the Romney Marsh wetlands of Kent and East Sussex on the South Coast which featured in The Loves of Joanna Godden. Douglas Slocombe, who shot that film, was still working at Ealing in 1952 and Hamer communicated his ideas to Harry Waxman, another distinguished British cinematographer whose previous titles included Brighton Rock (1947) and who would later shoot The Wicker Man (1973). Waxman covered much of the action in long shot on the mudflats and in beautifully orchestrated chase sequences. At other times the film takes on a noir atmosphere – the story, from a novel by Howard Clewes, a well-known ‘action’ novelist of the period, shares elements with several other British films of the post-war era. The ‘wronged man’, the black market and the revenge narrative were also the basis for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), a classic British noir directed by Cavalcanti, Hamer’s mentor in his GPO Film Unit and early Ealing days. Basil Dearden, Hamer’s directing colleague at Ealing, made The Ship That Died of Shame in 1955 about a trio of ex-Navy men who run a smuggling boat until their confidence gets the better of them and in an actual Ealing film, Pool of London (1950), there are similar chase scenes through night-time London, as there are as well in the classic Jules Dassin film Night and the City (1950). British noir was strong for several years from 1947 through to the late 1950s (though it wasn’t described as such at the time) and Hamer certainly knew what he was doing. In a marvellous sequence, Phillip, the Mills character, watches a house in Gravesend throughout the night – and is in turn watched by the police. From inside the house, a frightened man peers through the letterbox to see Phillip framed half in the shadows but clearly visible.

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

Hamer began his career as an editor and in the second half of The Long Memory his editor Gordon Hales puts together an exciting chase sequence with parallel actions in different locations involving different couples whose lives are intersecting. This may be a relatively conventional crime thriller but it is presented with real flair and I wish I could see it on a big screen. Part of the pleasure is in recognising the array of British character actors – Geoffrey Keen as a principled investigative journalist on a Sunday tabloid, Peter Jones as a younger journalist with much to learn, John Slater as a rather dim-witted heavy, Thora Hird as his wife, Vida Hope, Laurence Naismith and more.

The Long Memory is fine as it is but it’s worth noting that the off relationship between Fay and Bob Lowther the police Superintendent seems to signal a growing interest in the domestic melodramas of the families of police officers in later police procedurals in the 1950s, both in the UK and the US. In the clip below the journalist and the police Superintendent discuss Phillip Davidson’s possible actions – does the journalist know that the woman he suggests is in danger is in fact the Superintendent’s wife? The clip includes some interesting location work (I love the sound of the steam train towards the end of the clip).

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

i-daniel-blake-3

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in The Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteer are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some an analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this films refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 Television drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.