Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.
Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.
In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.
There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.
Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.
Disobedience is a wonderful film. It is quite a feat to make a film nearly two hours long that focuses on the intimate relationships of three childhood friends in later life plus the significant absence of a father and short sequences with assorted relatives and fellow members of a religious community. It is even more remarkable when English isn’t your first language and your film is set in a closed community that you don’t necessarily know much about. I’d read something about the film and the book it was based on, but as often happens these days, I immediately forgot who the director was. Part way through the film I thought this must be a female director who is handling these scenes so sensitively and I remembered that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Naomi Alderman. The end credits reminded me it was actually the Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio in the middle of a run of three films made over two years. A Fantastic Woman arrived in the UK earlier this year and his English language remake of his own Gloria (2013) is released in the US next year.
Lelio approaches his task with two familiar strategies. One is a ‘don’t explain’ approach in which audiences are required to wait and attempt to puzzle out who is related to whom when Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka lands back in North London from New York. We work out quickly that she is the daughter of the Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) who died during the opening sequence in his synagogue. But whose house are we now in and what do all these people mean to Ronit? Ronit has decided to live ‘outside’ this very specific Jewish community as a single woman working as an art photographer. Her single status and her professional life is a concern for her relatives. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Ronit is welcomed by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who she has known since childhood and who was her father’s protegé. Eventually she will also meet Esti (Rachel McAdams) who was the third member of a childhood trio. At this point I feel I need to say that Esti looks younger than the other two. In one sense this isn’t a problem but the script insists that they were together as children and Weisz and Nivola are 8 and 6 years older than McAdams. Perhaps this is a commentary on the ‘maturity’ of characters rather than actual age? I only mention this because the age difference is palpable. It also makes it more difficult to work out how the characters are related.
The second strategy is to use a shooting style that switches between long shots and close-ups. The film was shot mainly in streets of semi-detached houses in Hendon. The close-up style at times uses a very shallow field of focus so that characters move into and out of focus very quickly. There is a tension between the ‘openness’ of the long shots of streets and the confining atmosphere of the ‘closed’ community. The author of the original novel, Naomi Alderman writes in the Guardian about how she felt watching the adaptation of her novel about the frumkeit of Hendon, the very specific Orthodox Jewish community in North London. I hadn’t realised that there are important differences between this community and those of Golders Green and other parts of North London, especially Stamford Hill, the centre of Ultra Orthodox congregations. Ms Alderman suggests her novel, written during the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, was the first to focus on this kind of Jewish community since George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in 1876. She suggests that there have been others since. She wrote the novel while still ‘frum‘ or ‘observant’ of the teachings of her synagogue and writing it was part of the process of acknowledging her LGBT+ status. All of this is part of the film and when Esti and Ronit ‘escape’ the confines of the community, they find a hotel in Central London where they can rekindle the passion they had for each other as teenagers.
The film’s narrative is kept almost completely within the community apart from the episode referenced above. This means that it isn’t a narrative about conflict between the community and the wider world but rather, as the title suggests, within the community itself, posing the question of the freedom to act and what pursuing or prohibiting that freedom means in terms of obedience/disobedience. There is a danger, perhaps, of treating the restraints of such a life style as ‘exotic’, but I think that is avoided in Lelio’s presentation of the story. My one disappointment with the film is that there are no subtitles for the Hebrew spoken in the synagogue. I’m assuming that there is also Yiddish spoken in the film (‘frum‘ as I understand derives from Yiddish?). I’d have liked to know more about what was being said but perhaps this ‘withholding’ of knowledge is part of Lelio’s approach as outlined above. I knew there was something odd about Esti’s hair, but I hadn’t realised that a sheitel or wig was required for a married woman in the community.
The success of the film depends to a large extent on the performances of the three leads and the supporting cast, including Alan Corduner as Uncle Moshe. In some ways, the key role is Dovid and Alessandro Nivola manages to represent a character whose actions appear ambivalent. He is in the opening scene as his mentor makes his final speech about freedom and he is the one who makes crucial decisions about freedom at the end of the film. In between we can’t be absolutely sure what he is thinking or indeed feeling – but it is a struggle. It is the two women who seem able to be able to act, to some extent, on their emotional impulses. The film should be a melodrama but Lelio’s approach drains much of the potential for ‘excess’ in the colour and mise en scène – several scenes deal with the rituals of mourning and remembering the absent father figure. But there is music and the small group singing, especially of male voices, is very affecting.
Rachel Weisz was a producer on the film having optioned the novel. I’m not sure how much she was then involved as a producer. The crew list includes many ‘executive’ and ‘line’ producers and I suspect the major burden was borne by Frida Torresblanco of Braven Films. She is a significant figure in Hispanic films, now based in New York. I’m not generally pleased with the trend for filmmakers from smaller producing countries to move in anglophone productions but I have to admit that Sebastián Lelio is very successful with this venture and I look forward to Gloria Bell – I just hope we get it sooner rather than later.
PS. Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC1 about the history of the Jewish community in Leeds. This seemed to have a ‘Reformed’ rather than Orthodox practice but it was equally revealing about migration and a community within a community. A Very British History: The Jews of Leeds is on iPlayer for 29 days.
Ken Hughes’ biggest hit was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK, 1968) and he seems to have little in common, although he was roughly the same age, with the British ‘new wave’ directors such as Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger. A characteristic of the wave was its northern settings and despite being set in London The Small World of Sammy Lee shares its ‘down at heel’ gloom. Anthony Newley was using the film, he hoped, to prove he could be a serious actor and it was made whilst he was performing in his hit West End show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (Newley was a multi-talented superstar of the era). The film covers less than 24 hours of Sammy’s little world which he spends performing as a compere in a strip club whilst trying to find £300 to cover a gambling debt: at 7pm he will be beaten up.
Most of the film is set in Soho, an area Hughes apparently knew well and his script reeks of authenticity. There is certainly a smell about Soho at the time which is explicitly revealed in a climactic moment when Sammy tells his audience, consisting of seedy, middle aged men, the truth. It reminded me of Maureen O’ Hara’s ‘showgirl’ in Dance Girl Dance (US 1940) when she tells her audience ‘home truths’; if memory serves, Hughes isn’t quite as daring as Dorothy Arzner (yes, a woman director in classical Hollywood) who had O’Hara directly address the film’s audience. Soho was known for its sex clubs and, like Expresso Bongo, there is titillation to be had from women in underwear and tassels on their nipples. The women’s matter-of-factness is well conveyed, it is just a job they have to take, and Julia Foster, as the ‘naive northern lass’, portrays her humiliation with pathos. The club owner’s (Robert Stephens) rant about ‘any woman who takes her clothes off is a whore’ emphasises the misogyny of the time.
Hughes’ film not only condemns the treatment of women, Sammy himself is shown to be a pathetic male chasing thrills and ignoring consequences with his gambling. Newell plays him as a schmuck, not a bad guy as such but contemptible. The scene when he taps his brother (Warren Mitchell) for money is, this article suggests, a rare presentation of Jewish life in British film. When his brother berates his wife (Miriam Karlin) for spending money on clothes she looks at him with disdain and reminds him he married her because of her ‘looks and class’. She also has no truck with Sammy’s pleadings.
Despite the fact the ending of the film has a dab of sentiment, it doesn’t ameliorate the desperation of Sammy’s life.
The restored print (shown on Talking Pictures) looks great. Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who only died two years ago (aged 104 and also shot the classic Get Carter, UK, 1971), worked mostly in documentary and he brings out the grubbiness of Soho well. However the area’s multi-cultural vitality isn’t missed; an opening tracking shot along a row of restaurants shows the diversity of cuisine on offer. Sammy chats to Afro Caribbeans in passing as with anyone else. When desperately trying to buy drugs, Sammy asks a black jazz pianist (I haven’t been able to find who is playing the role) and is berated for his racist assumptions that a black person would necessarily have drugs; a progressive representation for its time and now.
Much of the footage of Sammy racing against time through the streets was obviously shot with no cordoning off as the public can be seen watching him which, paradoxically, adds to the authenticity of the film. Neither John Hill’s or Robert Murphy’s books on British cinema of the time mention the film and I think it should be placed alongside ‘new wave’ classics such as A Kind of Loving (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963).
With John McGrath writing the script you can be pretty confident there will be a sensible political message and this thriller (well, generically it’s not quite clear, but thriller might be the best category) is both of its time and about a system that is still with us.
At the start, where Nicol Williamson’s protagonist (Marler) is having ‘rough sex’ with his wife to be followed by aggressive driving of his Jaguar, I thought we were in a gangster film. It has a similar look to the concurrent Performance (UK) and shares the time’s love of exaggerated zoom shots; both had major studio backing: Columbia and Warner Bros. respectively. However, it soon becomes clear he’s a go-getting executive (not so different from a gangster really). However, he has to return to his roots, a Liverpool that still has pre-war housing and bomb sites, as his father’s ill.
Unsurprisingly, for he’s been living in Virginia Water in a massive detached house, he finds Liverpool’s anti-establishment ethos gives him perspective. On his return south he gatecrashes his wife’s dinner party (it is in his own house), drunk, and tells the pinstriped tossers what he thinks of them. The class tensions remind us that although the 1960s were more egalitarian than the decades before, as McGrath makes clear, the ‘old order’ is still in charge.
Apart from the distracting zooms, Jack Gold‘s direction is confident. He shoots crowd scenes well and there’s a great moment at a wrestling match where the contestants suddenly realise that the audience has erupted into a riot. They stand together bemused, watching the mayhem. McGrath was born in Birkenhead which vouches for the authenticity of this portrayal Liverpool.
Williamson’s career was ended by drink but he’s a formidable presence in the film, even if it is difficult to understand why he has such a ‘way with women’ (the misogynistic tones are of its time). Rachel Roberts is great as a ‘good time’ mother who clearheadedly knows what she wants and what she can get.
Apparently McGrath suggested that his script prefigured Thatcherism and it’s true that the ruthless corporate culture is still with us, evidenced by the CEO of Bet365 paying herself £217m in 2017.
The retrospective programme in Leeds this year focused on time-restricted narratives – ‘Time Frames’. Among some interesting East European films from the 1960s and early 1970s was this odd little film by Canadian director Sidney J. Furie. After a couple of directing jobs in Canadian film and TV, Furie had arrived in the UK hoping for bigger and better films. But first he wrote and directed this 85 minute B+W drama which received an ‘X’ Certificate from the British Board of Film Censorship. It was made at Walton Studio in Surrey for Gala films, the company belonging to Kenneth Rive, best known for bringing foreign language films into the UK. My assumption is that it was intended as a ‘programme filler’ for Rive’s European films, many of which were X-rated, as well as some of the adult dramas finally beginning to appear from British studios. The BBFC website suggests that the film was cut to receive an ‘X’ which is quite bewildering. The version we saw (on 35mm film) displayed the X Certificate but was definitely cut as there is at least one still available from a scene which wasn’t in our print.
So you might be wondering what this X film is about. The time frame is less than 24 hours, beginning when a USAAF daylight bombing raid is over Europe about to drop its bombs. The co-pilot is hit by German anti-aircraft and David the young Captain pilot steers the bomber back to the UK. He has just one more mission before he can return home and his crew determine to help him lose his virginity (he’s 21) before that last flight. David’s anxiety increases when he learns that though the co-pilot has recovered in hospital, the shrapnel has castrated him. What follows is a psychological drama spread over a night in the local village. At its centre is David’s encounter with Jean, the daughter of the pub landlady.
Furie appears to have recruited all the young Canadians he could find in London to play the American airmen. Most of them are fine with just the occasional Toronto vowel showing through, but the lead role of the Captain is played by Don Berisenko, a young man who clearly modelled himself on James Dean and here spends much of his time with his uniform cap pulled low over his eyes and with along wild hand gestures and body movements. Fortunately, his main scenes are with Susan Hampshire as Jean, a couple of years older than him but playing younger. She counters his method acting with something much calmer and quieter but more effective. The script plays with the moral code of the period which was severely tested under wartime conditions. Eventually human feeling prevails, though in a sense the narrative resolution is ‘open’ as to what happened to the ‘girl’ and the ‘boy’ afterwards.
I found the dialogue in the opening scenes on board the aircraft risible but the script improved and if I’d been presented in a cinema with this in 1960 as the ‘B’ picture I would have been quite happy. I’m struggling to work out what would have needed to be cut for an X but then the BBFC’s decisions often baffle me. Researching the film after the screening I discovered that the film has been broadcast several times on Talking Pictures TV, but only in graveyard slots at 01.00 or 02.00 in the morning. If it is listed again I might record it to check out the cuts.
This is a real gem of UK crime cinema, spiced up by the inclusion of two US actors and a stronger Hollywood feel than was the norm for British pictures in the 1950s. Nothing could be more ‘English’ than the murder of a ‘floozy’ in a Home Counties small town social club where the middle classes meet to play tennis, swim and generally frolic. Yet the arrival of Superintendent Mike Halloran (John Mills) as a hard-bitten and abrasive investigator soon sets the locals talking – to each other but not to him. Although the events and characters are very familiar and I can see why some IMDB ‘users’ see the film as a precursor to current police procedurals such as Midsomer Murders, the style and the tone of the film do seem quite striking. Halloran is no avuncular John Nettles type. He drives his men and doesn’t tread lightly in dealing with the locals.
There is certainly some noirish cinematography by Basil Emmott and the script by Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby is sharp. Director John Guillermin, star John Mills and cinematographer Basil Emmott combined for I Was Monty’s Double in 1958. In this film they have a supporting cast filled with familiar British character actors. The potential murder suspects include Derek Farr as that familiar post-war character, the bogus war hero and Alec McCowen as a disturbed young man. Geoffrey Keen with rimless specs is the pompous Town Mayor, Dandy Nichols is a landlady and Harry Fowler a band-leader. Elizabeth Seal as the adventurous daughter of the Mayor nearly steals the film with an outrageous dance. The Americans are represented by Charles Coburn as a disgraced Canadian doctor acting as the local GP and Barbara Bates as his niece working as a children’s nurse. Bates is probably best remembered in the UK for her small but important role in All About Eve (US 1950). I thought she was excellent in Town on Trial. She plays the only woman to confront and almost charm Halloran, whose gruff manner is partly explained when he tells her that he was once married with a daughter but mother and child were killed in an air raid. Several commentators suggest that Mills ‘can’t do romance’ but I believed his relationship with Bates here and I’m coming to the conclusion that the more I see of the variety of his work, the better an actor he appears to be. I used to groan when I saw his name in the cast but I’m changing my mind.
The mystery behind the film for me is the company Marksman which produced the film for Columbia in the UK. Columbia seemed to use a number of small companies in the 1950s and this is something I will try to explore in the future. I’m quite surprised that this film has not received much critical attention. It doesn’t even figure in British Crime Cinema, eds Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Routledge 1999 – but as the editors point out, crime cinema in the UK in the 1950s has received little attention by UK scholars.
The alternative title of the film is The Case of the Stocking Killer so I don’t need to say any more about the murder method. The film takes place in the fictitious town of ‘Oakley Park’ which is supposed to be somewhere on the Thames close to London (a town of 50,000 is mentioned). Largely a police procedural, the film also develops as a satire on the bourgeoisie of the town and ends with a thriller finale that seems to have borrowed something from Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947) – and a couple of other plot points as well. According to IMDb the film was intended to be shown in a 1.75:1 ratio, certainly non-standard and very close to contemporary 16:9 TV sets at 1.78:1
Talking Pictures TV comes up trumps again with this British film starring Vera Lynn. I’ve always known Vera Lynn as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ because of her war work visiting troops at the front and singing for relatives and friends on her radio show. I also knew about her fabulous recording career in the 1940s and 1950s. But I’d never seen her before in a feature film. This film (under its alternative title) was the third of three wartime features. It’s in some ways an unremarkable mixture of a romance, a crime film and a musical comedy of the sub-genre of wartime films featuring charity music and variety performances (e.g. the ‘Hollywood canteen’ films).
Vera plays a young woman who has volunteered for a women’s auxiliary role supporting RAF personnel on leave in London. But secretly she is hoping to get a break that will offer her an entry into show-business. By chance she gets mixed up with an attempted robbery in a very complicated bit of plotting. The victim of the robbery is Michael Thorne (Donald Stewart) who has been some kind of impresario but now works in a government office. Egged on by her comrades, Vera gets an invite to a charity performance and meets and falls in love with Thorne, eventually winning on three counts – saving him, getting together with him and rescuing him from the crooks.
The film is directed by Walter Forde (known for his earlier work, especially with Ealing (see Saloon Bar, 1940)) and photographed by Otto Heller. It was made for Columbia UK on a reasonable budget and generally looks pretty good. Vera gets to sing six songs and she has a wonderful voice. (Some of the musical numbers follow the convention of an invisible orchestra accompanying Vera.) For me the highlight of the film is a bit of daredevil sleuthing in which Vera has to climb out of a window high above the West End and edge along a narrow ledge in her attempts to save Thorne. She does this in a long evening dress and heels most impressively. I wonder why she didn’t get more roles after the war? She is quite tall (5′ 7″) for the period, especially in heels. She looks very good and moves very well but I don’t think some of the hair and make-up styles suited her as she has a strong distinctive face which makes her stand out against her rather bland rivals for Michael’s affections. She also has a bright, open personality and a sense of grit and determination beneath. The cinema’s loss was music’s gain. I think Vera Lynn is now 101 and I wish her well. Donald Stewart (an American domiciled in the UK) had a small part in the Jessie Matthews musical First a Girl (1935) and I think that Vera Lynn, like Jessie Matthews might have had a successful Hollywood career in other times. She did have a successful music career including hit singles in the US. Here’s one of the songs:
I hadn’t seen this classic UK SF film for over 40 years and it actually seems more modern now than during the 1970s when the Cold War had cooled a little. Now, of course, the Earth is catching fire because of global warming and the film’s presentation of authorities as stupid and patronising still holds true as political leaders deny we’re destroying ourselves and the UK government manages to produce, this week, a budget that doesn’t even mention the biggest threat of our time.
In the film nuclear bomb tests, which were commonplace in the late 1950s, have shifted the Earth’s axis and orbit with catastrophic results. It is a slow burner as the protagonist, Edward Judd’s journalist Peter Stenning, slowly discovers the truth. His developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Mankiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British ScienceFiction(which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.
The version of the film shown on Talking Pictures is the recently remastered print that looks great though why the channel insists on blurring out nudity eludes me; the showing I saw was after the watershed. It’s the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety prevalent to the time anyway and I remember seeing Mai Zetterling’s bum in Only Two Can Play(UK, 1962) as a teenager on afternoon TV; that too was blurred by Talking Pictures. Clearly it’s a channel aimed at older folk but are we really so prudish? There’s more flesh observable in an ad for a kinky dating service that runs on the channel.
The widescreen compositions work very well in the busy-ness of the newspaper office, giving more than a whiff of authenticity which is enhanced by the casting of Arthur Christiansen, an ex editor of the Daily Express, as the newspaper’s editor. Widescreen also heightens the impact of the apocalyptic montages of London and other parts of the world. As Hunter points out, authenticity informed Guest’s direction in contrast to the staple creature-features that were popular at the time. The CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square features Judd in the crowd and found footage of disasters are interpolated with skill. The only crummy special effect, acknowledged as such by the supervisor Les Bowie, was the fog flowing up the Thames; they didn’t have the budget to reshoot. And the focus on Jeannie’s and Peter’s developing relationship also serves to give a human dimension to the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon. The film’s in black and white except for a sepia tint for the framing of the narrative which is very effective in giving an uncanny atmosphere to the images.
The only false note for me was the portrayal of young people whose ‘beatnik’ music seems to have unhinged them. Though Hunter makes a good case for the film showing that their reaction is reasonable in comparison to the older generation who draw upon the ‘Blitz spirit’ to deal with the events in a low key manner. This spirit is very much part of English (British?) myth making and many Brexiteers refer to it as evidence we can deal with the disastrous economic and social consequences of leaving the EU. No doubt the spirit was very real during the War but why self-harm ourselves so it needs to be used again? Indeed, why self-harm ourselves by continuing the ruinous policies that are destroying the planet?