Category: British Cinema

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.

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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.

Victor/Victoria (US 1982)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.

The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.

In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook.  This original version is

a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).

But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).

There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.

Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).

For Those in Peril (UK 1944)

For Those in Peril is perhaps the best example of the Ealing Studios wartime propaganda film. It’s a very short feature at 64 mins, just long enough to appear in a double bill as a B feature and, although featuring serving armed forces personnel, it does have two well-known professional actors in the lead roles so the film mixes documentary and feature film elements. The main purpose of the film is seemingly to introduce audiences to a little-known role for the RAF, working in collaboration with the Royal Navy. The outcome of the fictional narrative is, however, more problematic and not an obvious choice for a propaganda film.

The film’s title immediately refers to the possibility of lives lost a sea, but in this case of aircrew rather than sailors. The RAF in wartime was supplied with high speed launches (HSL) designed to find aircrew forced to ditch their planes over water. (The film’s opening sequence carefully explains why this was necessary.) The establishment of these units led to friendly rivalry with RN units who had bigger boats with more firepower but slower speeds. The film’s location seems to be Shoreham – although for obvious reasons this isn’t signified. David Farrar plays the F/Lt Murray, RAF officer in command of three launches and the fictional narrative involves the arrival of Pilot Officer Rawlings (Ralph Michael – an established actor and serving airman) who sees his posting as possibly ‘beneath’ him since he insists he should be flying. Murray is an experienced master of small boats since before the war and he tries to gently turn Rawlings’ truculence into something more positive – and gives the junior officer some harsher words when necessary. After a few exercises involving the launches joining naval craft, the film’s action sequences begin with an RAF Boston bomber being shot down over the channel. The three crew manage to launch their inflatable dinghy and their position is notified to air-sea rescue. Murray takes two launches and the larger (and slower) naval vessel follows. A Walrus seaplane is also launched. Three problems face the rescuers – thick fog, the presence of an armed German trawler and the minefield which the aircrew and their dinghy have entered.

P/O Rawlings (Ralph Michaels) arrives by Southern Railways electric train

The intriguing aspect of the narrative is its potential propaganda. The central narrative involves Rawlings and his development in a moment of crisis so that he can take command when needed with the support of his crew (who are capable and have been well led by Murray). The other propaganda message is that aircrew are not abandoned and all possible effort is expended to save them. But more problematic is the action in the film which sees an eventual ‘victory’ for British forces, but at significant cost in terms of lives lost alongside a valuable ship and aircraft. More lives are lost than saved. This is the dilemma for propaganda filmmakers in their attempt to use realism in their appeal to audiences. Men are brave and they die in the service of their country. Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence of what audiences made of a film like Those in Peril (or any details of its distribution and how many people saw it).

David Farrar as F/Lt Murray

For me, the film works because of three factors – the documentary footage, David Farrar’s central performance and the script by Richard Hillary and Harry Watt, J.c. Orton and T. E. B. Clarke. The documentary photography is by Douglas Slocombe. This was his first credited role as cinematographer and he would go on to be one of the most celebrated figures behind the camera in British cinema history. The interiors were shot by Ernest Palmer, an experienced Ealing man. David Farrar would go on to become a leading man in three classic Powell and Pressburger films as well as two more for Ealing. For Those in Peril was perhaps his breakthrough as a leading man, but his popularity (he later claimed several hundred fan letters each week) was mainly a result of his two Sexton Blake films in 1945. Also making his first solo outing for Ealing was director Charles Crichton as director. Crichton would go on to become one of Ealing’s most important directors and was probably best known for The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titchfield Thunderbolt (1953).

The two RAF HSLs in harbour while the crew swim for recreation

Richard Hillary, who wrote the original story, was a young RAF officer who first fought in the Battle of Britain aged 21. He was credited with 5 definite ‘kills’ but was then shot down and rescued by the Margate lifeboat, having suffered severe burns. During his lengthy hospital treatment he wrote one of the best books about wartime flying, The Last Enemy, which I remember reading as a child. He returned to flying but only a few months later he was killed in a nightfighter crash. His story for Those in Peril was presumably based on his own experience.

The contributions of key personnel such as Farrar, Slocombe and Crichton make this a must-see film for anyone interested in Ealing Studios. I recommend it as worth 64 minutes of anyone’s time.

I couldn’t find a trailer for the film, but this is a Pathé News report with the same title, showing the Air Sea Rescue crews at work:

Vertigo Sea (UK 2015)

John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.

Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:

Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:

A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.

The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.

The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.

The three screens with one of the archive portraits of Africans

The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.

The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.

For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?

A still from archive footage of migrants at sea. I think these are the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ of the late 1970s?

I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.