Category: British Cinema

GFF20 #19: Children of Men (US-UK-Japan 2006)

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Life without a future

As we live in a sort of dystopia with the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, we can cheer ourselves up by observing that things ain’t as bad as they might be. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón and his four other scriptwriters, show a truly terrifying vision of a future without children (based on PD James’ novel). As is the way with science fiction, the film is about now; and the now of 2006 is even more relevant in 2020. The focus of the film is on the treatment of migrants and things have got much worse in the last 14 years as the right-wing dehumanisation of human beings has gained more traction. It’s noticeable that there are those on the right, in the current crisis, who are being honest in their defence of the economy over the lives of the old and infirm (I won’t link to any as they are not worth reading). If the likes of Toby Young are seen on mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC again . . .

In the film Cuarón highlights the lack of human empathy in our world through: the treatment of migrants; police state tactics; the desecration of the environment; the war on terror; celebrity culture. It shows illegal migrants being caged before deportation and a police state similar to that imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984 (published 1949). There are numerous contemporary UK references, such as the burning of livestock because of ‘mad cow’ disease and the hysteria that accompanied the ‘national’ mourning of Princess Diana.

In a documentary short that accompanied the DVD release of the film, The Possibility of Hope (US 2007), the broader issues of climate change and capitalism (which both fuel increased migration) are investigated showing Cuarón to be a political filmmaker even if his films are commercial in nature.

I’m not sure why Children of Men wasn’t a hit as it is a brilliant action movie containing some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema. Cuarón likes to use the long take, also used to devastating effect in Roma and with didactic purpose in Y tu mama tambien. Film theorist André Bazin would likely have approved of Cuarón’s aesthetic except for the fact he favours a moving camera. Having screentime mirror the audience’s experience of time does signify realism, we get a sense that we see characters acting in real time and so avoiding the manipulation of editing (ignoring the fact that a number of long takes in the film are separate shots digitally welded together). In addition, this ‘sense’ of real time can serve to heighten suspense in a ‘race against time’ narrative sequence. Hence, when the protagonists are under attack in a car the escape unfolds in the same time experienced by the spectator and, as there are no cuts, it seems as if the profilmic event happened as it is shown. Having the camera inside the vehicle further enhances the suspense as this gives the audience the same viewpoint as the characters.

Cuarón’s long takes are not always focused on key narrative action. For example, at one point the camera wanders away from Theo, who is present in every scene of the film, to seemingly investigate what’s going on elsewhere: when he’s on his way to work, soldiers are standing on the street and the camera walks through them to see a block of flats being emptied, presumably of refugees.

Clive Owen’s taciturn persona as the protagonist Theo is perfect for the role. Danny Huston’s cameo as a government minister is a masterful portrayal of the vapid urbanity of the English upper class. Michael Caine channels John Lennon as a Steve Bell-like political cartoonist (Bell did the actual cartoons on view) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a revolutionary, manages to convey deranged fervour and genuine concern. However, the true star of the film is Cuarón and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have produced a devastating vision of life without a future and life with humanity.

Gumshoe (UK 1971)

Gumshoe is difficult to write about with any critical distance as it’s a film that I love on so many different levels (though I do worry about its use of racist language). It cropped up on Talking Pictures TV and worked as a tribute to Michael Medwin, one of the least recognised but most important figures in the British film industry over a period of 60 years or more – mainly as a character actor but also as a producer. Medwin died aged 96 a month ago and since Talking Pictures TV schedules well in advance this screening probably wasn’t planned as a tribute. In fact, because he appeared in over 100 films and TV programmes, Michael Medwin pops up frequently on Talking Pictures. In 1968 Medwin’s production company  established with Albert Finney, Memorial Enterprises, released its first two films. Charlie Bubbles (1968) was directed by Finney from a Shelagh Delaney script and co-starred himself with Billie Whitelaw and Liza Minnelli and if . . . . made a star of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film. Spring and Port Wine followed in 1970 with James Mason in a Bill Naughton-scripted family melodrama set in Bolton. I really should post something on each of these three films, important to me when I first saw them and also now.

Gumshoe re-unites Finney and Whitelaw as actors but it also introduces a whole range of other creative talents. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a man in his early thirties who has ‘achieved’ little so far. He lives in a bed-sit at the top of a Liverpool town house where he re-reads Dashiel Hammett and develops a comedy routine to try out in the social club where he has a job as a bingo caller and occasional MC. But now he decides to expand his range and he posts an ad in the Echo offering his services as a ‘Private Eye’. He intends to hide behind his Sam Spade impersonation and dresses and talks like his hero in The Maltese Falcon. He’s surprised to get a phone call quite quickly and to be offered a job that appears deeply mysterious and which shocks poor Eddie.

Eddie and Ellen at Lime Street

I won’t describe the plot but I will sketch in the characters and the themes. The script is by Neville Smith, a Liverpool lad who was a young actor in the 1960s, appearing in some of Ken Loach’s TV plays as well as writing his first script in 1966, The Golden Vision about a bunch of Everton FC supporters, for Loach. Smith also gets a small part in Gumshoe as he had in the Loach play. Finney was from Salford, just up the Ship Canal from Liverpool and Whitelaw was brought up in Bradford. Both were part of the RADA wave of brilliant young Northern actors who broke into UK stage and screen acting in the 1950s. Billie was a few years older and got a start in the early 1950s. In Gumshoe, she is Ellen, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who went and married his older brother William, the smooth and money-grabbing character played by Frank Finlay. Finlay was born in Farnworth, Bolton. There are also parts for two familiar Liverpool actors, Bill Dean as the club owner and a cameo for Ken Jones as a clerk in the labour exchange. Liverpool looks good in the film, from an oddly deserted Lime Street station down to the docks and around several streets of Georgian terraces. At one point Eddie goes down to London and meets a woman in a bookshop played by a young Maureen Lipman (from Hull). I thought this scene was perhaps a nod to Humphrey Bogart in the bookshop in The Big Sleep where he meets Dorothy Malone. There were moments too when Eddie’s internal monologue seemed more Chandler than Hammett when he refers to hotel carpet “so thick you could feel Axminster up to your knees”. And to reverse Lippman in London, Eddie also has a joking dialogue with Wendy Richard as a girl working in William’s office who came up to Liverpool from London and got conned into staying (Richard was born in Middlesbrough). The mystery is concocted by the arrival of a South African in Liverpool played by the American actor Janice Rule and the mystery girl (looking very late 60s) is Carolyn Seymour as a South African post-grad student. Finally, Fulton Mackay is a menacing would-be Scots gangster type. Mackay and Jones were re-united in the long-running UK sitcom and later feature film Porridge (1974-9).

Eddie exchanges ‘hard-boiled’ dialogue with Anne (Wendy Richard)

The dangerous criminal narrative behind all the comedy moments involves William’s trading company getting involved in a sanctions-busting enterprise, shipping goods to Mozambique that will then be transported to Rhodesia to support the Ian Smith regime. This plot seems vestigial at best and Eddie’s involvement is accidental. One disturbing feature is that the young white South African woman played by Seymour is protected by a black student (Oscar James). He has to be ‘dealt with’ in the process of the smuggling deal and Eddie (who discovers what happens) refers to him using the language of Hammett/Chandler as it might have been used in the 1930s and adds to them some 1970s racist terms. Similarly, Eddie’s comic routine includes the kinds of racist/sexist lines common in northern clubs at the time. It’s jarring now but it works in context – Eddie is a good guy, even if he does himself no favours. Perhaps his racial taunting is cover for his own terror? I think we forget now just how prevalent such language was, but even so it does demean Eddie and emphasises his lack of confidence in himself. His relationship with Whitelaw as Ellen is not dissimilar to their relationship in Charlie Bubbles. But in this case marriage to the horrible William seems to have derailed Ellen.

Eddie with Straker (Fulton Mackay)

This is a great Liverpool film and an essential North of England film. (There is a useful Liverpool perspective on this website.) Gumshoe did get a US release but, from some of the reviews, it did present problems for American viewers. Some must have been baffled by Finney playing the ‘loser’. It was a début fiction feature for director Stephen Frears (from Leicester) who would go to become one of the most accomplished British directors of the last fifty years. It’s a sign of where British cinema was heading in the 1970s that Frears began in TV and made his name there with some important working relationships, including with the writer Alan Bennett on TV films and plays. Apart from the criminally under-rated and neglected The Hit in 1984, it wasn’t until My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that Frears would emerge as an international filmmaker – and even then its success was almost accidental since that film began as a Channel 4 TV film. Chris Menges photographed Gumshoe as his first high profile job after Kes in 1969. He had shot Living Memory a 57 minute drama directed by Tony Scott, again for Memorial Enterprises in 1971, but I don’t think that got a cinema release. Gumshoe was composed for 1:1.66 projection so it is very slightly blown-up and then cropped to fit the 16:9 TV screen. There is plenty of diegetic music in Gumshoe, mainly in the club, but the only false note in the film for me was the non-diegetic song over the final scene and closing credits – by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was before their careers had taken off. Lloyd Webber is credited with the film’s music but this is the only one of the duo’s compositions (the others are covers) and it is wrong on every level. It’s the song not the singer, who was Roy Young, a ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ era rocker. But there is a mute button on the TV remote.

Humphrey Bogart was popular again in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In 1969 Woody Allen appeared on Broadway in Play It Again Sam in which he actually converses with a Bogart look-alike and a film version was directed by Herbert Ross in 1972. I don’t know if Neville Smith saw the play. Probably not, but he may have caught the zeitgeist. There is another link worth exploring and that is Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1969), a film in which Nicol Williamson plays a scouse version of Charlie Bubbles, returning to Liverpool for his father’s funeral and investigating the death. Columbia put money into both The Reckoning and GumshoeGumshoe is now available on a Blu-ray from the UK specialist distributor Indicator. The disc also carries an early Stephen Frears short Burning (1968), shot in Morocco standing in for South Africa.

Portrait from Life (UK 1949)

This was the first film under Mai Zetterling’s seven-year contract with Rank. I was delighted to find it being shown on Talking Pictures TV since Ms Zetterling’s career is one of my possible future projects. She started as a film actor when still at the National Theatre School in Stockholm as a teenager and her first film role was in Torment (Sweden 1944) written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Alf Sjöberg. More Swedish films followed including one directed by Bergman, but in 1947 she appeared in the titular role in Frieda, the Ealing Studios melodrama about a young German woman brought back to England by an RAF officer (David Farrar). Frieda was a prestigious production directed by Basil Dearden who had travelled to Stockholm to see Mai Zetterling in 1945.

A Rank publicity photo of Mai Zetterling from the late 1940s.

Portrait from Life was released in the UK in January 1949. Confusingly it had at least two other titles. In the US I think it was called The Girl in the Painting or The Lost Daughter and it had various titles in different European territories. Mai Zetterling was not happy because her role was so similar to that in Frieda. She was again a young German woman, this time in a ‘Displacement Camp’ in Germany in the British Zone after 1945. There is a theory that audiences might not have accepted a German actor in the lead for these films. Zetterling worried about typecasting – though her first Gainsborough role had been a few months earlier in one of the Somerset Maugham stories in Quartet in which she plays a wealthy young woman in a Monte Carlo casino. Portrait from Life begins with a British Major (Guy Rolfe) back in London on leave only to discover he has been jilted by his girlfriend. Taking refuge in an art gallery he is transfixed by a painting of a young woman named Hildegarde. He is joined by an older man who is similarly transfixed and claims that the girl is his daughter he was forced to leave behind in Austria when he escaped the Nazis. But he claims the girl’s name is Lydia. Major Lawrence and Professor Menzel (Arnold Marlé) discover that the painting was submitted to the exhibition by a Canadian artist (Robert Beatty) who visited a camp in Germany while still serving in the forces. But Lawrence and the Professor aren’t going to get any more information from him. Lawrence returns to Hanover but still has leave owing and gets permission to visit the various camps looking for the girl. When he eventually finds her a series of flashbacks are required to explain how the portrait came about. A dramatic finale ensues.

A studio promo photo, the actual scene has back projection of the woods around the camp. Robert Beatty is the artist.

There are several interesting aspects of the film’s production. It was directed by a young Terence Fisher – his third feature as a director after a career as a film editor in the 1930s. Fisher would go on to become a celebrated director at Hammer Films with many horror film credits. He makes a decent fist of this film. The film was mainly shot in Gainsborough’s small Islington studio with some location footage in Germany and a visit to a displaced persons camp in the South of England. Scattered throughout the cast are a number of familiar faces in small parts – Thora Hird, Sam Kydd, Pete Murray, Donald Sinden and a young Anthony Steel all appear. The other leading cast members include Patrick Holt and Herbert Lom as the man in the camp masquerading as Lydia’s father. There were in fact several actors in the cast who were German-speaking and the film does feature both English and German dialogue quite convincingly. I do wonder if this was more common in films in the immediate post-war period.

From left, Guy Rolfe, Herbert Lom, Mai Zetterling with the doll and Patrick Holt in the foreground

The film received a good mini review in Film Review of 1949 and in David Quinlan’s British Sound Films. Despite Mai Zetterling’s worries about being typecast, she became popular with British audiences. I’ve seen a review suggesting that the dramatic final scenes overwhelm the the detailed investigation that went before. I don’t agree with this. I think that David Evans’ original story and the script developed by Muriel and Sydney Box and Frank Harvey manage to offer an insight into the long and difficult process of dealing with displacement and that the drama probably matched what happened in some cases. Perhaps it is exaggerated but it doesn’t derail the narrative.

GFF20 #2: Run (Scotland 2019)

Mark Stanley and Marli Sui

I wanted see one of GFF’s ‘local/national’ films but soon after Run started I began to feel that this might prove difficult. I could only understand about one word in five of the dialogue in Run. When Run appeared in New York’s Tribeca festival it was subtitled but that would be asking too much in Glasgow. The film was shot in Fraserburgh and Peterhead and the predominantly young cast speak in slang anyway, on top of the local accent and use of dialect. Given that many actors these days go for minimal grunts or yelps, I found that I had to clarify plot details later using other reviews.

Fortunately, Run, written and directed by Scott Graham, is a visual film and the acting is intense, so I did enjoy it. I should also point out that as an old person I often turn on subtitles on TV so no criticism of actors or director is implied here. The central character is Finnie (Mark Stanley). He is an experienced fish processor and though only in his thirties he has a son working in the same factory. But the young man (known as ‘Kid’ and played by Anders Hayward’) is not settling in and is in the process of being fired. Finnie’s wife Katie (Amy Manson) works in a hairdresser’s and there is a younger boy still at school.

It soon becomes clear that Finnie is frustrated by his situation and it is affecting his relationships with his partner and children. He and Katie both have tattoos name-checking Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ and this in turn symbolises that whole world of the small town where working-class kids try everything to escape but often end up simply driving out to the local diner in a souped up old car. Finnie’s car won’t start so he takes Kid’s and heads off for the leisure centre/bowling alley where the local racers gather. Kid’s car is fast enough to challenge the local racers and from this point on Finnie simply shows he hasn’t forgotten how to race. I’m not much of a fan of car races but these are certainly filmed with some panache by Simon Tindall and edited sharply by David Arthur. The novelty here is a race around the fish dock with the danger of a large wave breaking over the sea wall and overwhelming the car’s windscreen wipers.

The bowling alley where Kelly works – a hangout for the youth, but not for Dads?

The only other plot development of note is that Finnie meets his son’s girlfriend, Kelly (Marli Sui) and she accompanies him driving around the town. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I think I’ve made clear what kind of film this is and how it uses conventions such as choice of music to delineate the different positions of the characters, all of whom face the same questions about staying or leaving. Kid being sacked because he can’t settle to the factory work is an ‘inciting moment’ which leads to Finnie’s story. It’s a well-known narrative ploy to have the parent thrown by the idea that a son or daughter might repeat the same possible ‘mistakes’ as their parents. But Finnie’s return to racing and ‘cruising’ is a different generic narrative. I thought of American Graffiti (US 1973) and how from my limited experience of Scottish culture, I’ve got the impression that American working-class culture means something different and has more impact than in some other parts of the UK. I’ve never been to Peterhead or Fraserburgh but I know enough about small towns to think that the Aberdonian director has represented something authentic.

Scott Graham is known for two previous films, Shell (2012) and Iona (2015) that received critical attention and some awards nominations. At a brisk 78 minutes the film makes its points succinctly and effectively and I was impressed by all four main performers.. IMdB suggests a budget of £1.7 million which seems quite generous for the narrative. Perhaps the stunt driving took a fair chunk of the money? The public funders include BBC Films and BFI with independent producers from both Scotland and England. The film is released by Verve in the UK on March 13th.

Rockets Galore (UK 1958)

This sequel to Whisky Galore! (1949) comes after the demise of Ealing as a Rank-associated studio but it was adapted from a second Compton Mackenzie novel about the same community written in 1957. It was adapted by Monja Danischewsky who had been Associate Producer on the 1949 film and directed by Michael Relph who had previously also been an Ealing producer and on this shoot had swapped roles with his senior partner, one of Ealing’s most prolific directors, Basil Dearden. It was actually now a Rank production but still shot on location on Barra representing ‘Todday’. The big difference is that this is a colour film and seemingly in 1:1.66 widescreen. Unfortunately the Talking Pictures TV print was cropped and/or panned and scanned to produce an Academy ratio.

There doesn’t appear to be a DVD available except at ridiculously high prices on Amazon so this rare screening was certainly welcome. (In the US it was renamed ‘Mad Little Island’.) The film doesn’t seem to have had the same box office success as the first film and its critical reputation is nowhere near as high. However, I found it interesting in both the changes and the similarities to the first film.

The ‘rockets’ of the title are new secret RAF guided missiles called ThunderBuzzards designed by a German scientist Dr Hamburger. Actually they are Bloodhound missiles introduced by the RAF in 1958 (see them on YouTube). The Air Ministry has chosen Todday as a suitable site to establish a testing station and Squadron Leader Hugh Mander (Donald Sinden) is sent to the island (incognito) to check it out, especially as it is likely that some islanders will need to be re-housed on the mainland and the strength of local feeling will need to be tested. When he arrives on the boat it is with Janet, the local schoolteacher and daughter of the island’s post office/general store. This is was the first surprise for me since Janet is played by Jeannie Carson, a Yorkshire lass who in 1958 had her own US TV sitcom (playing a Scots young woman) which ran for 32 episodes and in 1958 she also appeared in a US TV film of Little Women playing Jo March. I seem to remember that the TV series was a favourite programme in our house so perhaps we went to see the film on release. Jeannie could certainly sing and the film includes a song in Gaelic she is teaching to the children.

Donald Sinden and Jeannie Carson embraced by Noel Purcell as Father James. Behind (from left) Duncan Macrae, Gordon Jackson and James Copeland

The plot of the film is entirely predictable. We know that the islanders will find a way to scupper the ministry’s plans and that it will involve many acts of collective mischief. Janet and Hugh will fall in love despite being on opposite sides and officialdom will retreat. One of the interesting changes from the first film is that this time the two ministers (Roman Catholic and Presbyterian) will act in unison to stop the base being built. Critics dismissed 1950s films like this as backward-looking and nostalgic. There is a link between the film and some of the Ealing comedies of the earlier 1950s like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) which clearly was nostalgic. But the story of Rockets Galore does engage with the 1950s British attempt to maintain and develop an aerospace industry and generally ‘keep up’ with technological advances. The islanders’ resistance, though ‘conservative’ in economic terms, does actually look forward to contemporary concerns about environment and ecology. It’s also interesting that the film includes references to 1950s TV programmes when the islanders’ actions create a problem for the government of the day. We see a ‘Brains Trust’ type programme discussing the problem and various BBC announcers such as Richard Dimbleby giving due gravitas to the events on Todday. I recognised many of the other personalities but the names escape me apart from the politicians/columnists Michael Foot, Bob Boothby and the historian A. J. P. Taylor.

The two whisky-drinking reprobates on the island are played by Duncan Macrae (the great Scots actor also in the original film) and a young Ronnie Corbett. Macrae became a familiar figure in both films and TV in the 1950s. He was part of the group of actors and performers associated with The White Heather Club, the TV light entertainment programme that presented Scottish music and dancing. Macrae would recite poetry that as a child I thought was amusing. The show (which also appeared at Hogmanay) was criticised for promoting ‘tartanry’, the stereotypical image of Scottishness. But it did give access to a broad UK market for a range of Scots talent. Ronnie Corbett would go on to be very successful as a comedian on UK TV.

Rockets Galore does look forward as a ‘concept’ to both The Wicker Man (1973) with the closeness of the community and also to Local Hero (1983). It would be nice to think of a contemporary film project that could present a story about ousting Donald Trump from his golf course in Aberdeenshire but maybe that is too much of a fantasy. But do look up Rockets Galore when it appears again, Jeannie Carson and the children are well worth a visit.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (UK 2019)

Aneurin Barnard (left) as Steerforth and Dev Patel as David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s brave and spectacular film, which presents David Copperfield as a tale told by its subject, has received mixed reviews. I don’t have much time for the people who can’t cope with the decision to cast actors from diverse backgrounds in the film. It’s now a common practice in theatre and it means a strong cast in this film as well as making for some provocative images. As Variety‘s reviewer wrote after its Toronto screening, it is interesting to see a young Indian boy being exploited in a workshop – something that might not have happened in the the UK but certainly happened in British India in the 19th century.

Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick frees the thoughts from his head by letting them free, pasted to a kite. David and Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) watch on

I was most impressed by the cast (all 74 of them, far too many to name individually!), the cinematography by Zac Nicholson and the settings (art direction, costume design, production design) and the ideas used to ‘break the fourth wall’. It was interesting to see the film not long after watching Little Women with the similar conceit of the author appearing in the story. In fact, I liked all the scenes, but I wasn’t sure what it all added up to. I’m not really a Dickens fan but I do remember watching a BBC serial as a child and reading the novel (which I enjoyed) a very long time ago. I knew this wasn’t a ‘faithful adaptation’ and that didn’t worry me, but because I couldn’t remember all the characters or the plot from the book, my attention did wander as I didn’t feel invested in the long narrative. The original serial/novel is so long that I’m assuming many parts of the narrative are compressed or simply excised by Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell. I suspect that for many audiences, their interest will be how Iannucci’s skills and creativity are used to re-present Dickens for a modern audience. They will also welcome the chance to see Peter Capaldi re-united with Iannucci in the role of Mr Micawber (still associated with W. C. Fields for me).

Some impressive CGI transforms Kings Lynn into its early 19th century glory

What I did notice was that the events reminded me of 18th century novels – the picaresque narratives of Fielding such as Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, both filmed by Tony Richardson. It didn’t feel like a ‘Victorian’ narrative. Commentators often describe Dickens as a ‘Victorian writer’ but, thinking about it, the novel was published in 1850 after serialisation in 1849. Dickens would then have been in his late 30s so his childhood memories that fuel the narrative predate the Victorian era. In fact he would have been 25 when Victoria came to the throne. It’s appropriate then to think of the early events in the film as still being in the Regency period and in a sense a hangover from the 18th century. David Copperfield like most of Dickens’ stories is therefore a ‘Southern English’ story. There isn’t the sense of an industrial Britain developing that we find in the slightly later novels of Mrs Gaskell. There is no sign of railways, for instance (though Yarmouth was reached from Norwich by rail and passenger services began in 1844). Does this matter? Not really, but I think it feeds into a sense of the Dickensian imagination as set in an earlier period. Railways are the keystone for Victorian England for me.

The other question is whether the film is funny. I would call it amusing rather than side-splitting. This sounds like I’m putting it down, but I’m not. I’m glad I saw it. It was impressive to watch and I hope more people see it. Iannucci has brought out great performances from a talented cast and the film makes a pleasing spectacle. See it on the biggest screen possible.