Category: British Cinema

Censor (UK 2021)

Enid (Niamh Algar)

Censor is the British film that perhaps benefited most from the pandemic’s impact on cinema releases in the UK. After initially appearing at a range of film festivals, including Sundance and Berlin, and getting a US release in June, the film opened in the UK in August of 2021. It gained a profile from national reviews and for a while it was a ‘must see’ film. Although it got some very good reviews, it seems some horror film fans were disappointed by what is actually a very sophisticated narrative ‘about’ horror films and how they both generate fan communities and controversies. Censor is now streaming on MUBI in the UK (and is available to rent or buy on most UK streamers).

Prana Bailey-Bond

Censor is the début film of Prana Bailey-Bond, a young Welsh woman, too young to have first discovered the ‘video nasties’ during the period when they were being pilloried in the tabloid press in the UK in the early 1980s. She first experienced horror films on video in the mid 1990s and became aware of the history of the controversies. She became interested in the politics of the attacks on video viewings of horror films and in an interview has suggested that she equated them with the attempts to repress ‘rave culture’ which she recognised as a  form of rebellion as a teenager. Working with scriptwriter Anthony Fletcher, she directed a short film Nasty (UK 2015) and when that was well received, moved on to the development of Censor.

A little history

I think it’s quite important to understand the history of ‘video nasties’ and the structures of the film industry in the UK, especially for non-UK readers. There is a long history of film censorship in the UK which up to 1984 operated in a typically British ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The industry itself established the BBFC (then the ‘British Board of Film Censors’) in 1912. The board both classified films to be seen by adults only or children of set ages and required cuts for films deemed unacceptable. The Board had no statutory powers. These rested with local government authorities which issued performance licences for venues. The only other law that could be applicable to films was the Obscene Publications Act – which was notoriously difficult to use for prosecutions.

The ‘censor’ team in their dingy basement offices (Enid wither back to the camera)

The development of video cassette technology in the early 1980s created a new viewing environment and the initial refusal by the Hollywood studies to release their films on video (at a time when, in the UK, cinema admissions were falling rapidly) meant that a new domestic market was created for films not classified for cinema screenings. The Thatcher Conservative government, pressurised by campaigners against obscenity and pornography, created the Video Recordings Act (1984) which charged the BBFC with a statutory power for the first time to ‘protect’ younger audiences. ‘Video nasties’ was the term used by the tabloids to describe around 70 horror films, most made outside the UK, which were then proscribed by the BBFC. Around 2000 the BBFC (British Board of Film ‘Classification’ since 1985) organised extensive public consultations which then informed new classification policies. Many of the original ‘banned’ titles were then re-classified for public viewing.

Enid’s local video store – in reality most of the ones I visited in the 1980s were brighter and busier and much more cramped

The film

Prana Bailey-Bond was a diligent student of the furore that surrounded the video nasties controversy and in particular the defence by film and media scholars, especially in Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (1997) an anthology edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley. She researched the films in question but decided to adopt an approach which avoided direct historical references. Instead she imagines a group of ‘film censors’ working away in an underground office space sometime in the early 1980s. She doesn’t reference the BBFC directly. One of these censors is Enid (Niamh Algar) a serious and intense young woman who dresses rather primly. Enid lives alone and works diligently to suggest edits in films before ‘passing’ them. Later, it emerges that Enid is at odds with her parents over the disappearance of her younger sister Nina when the two girls were playing together in the woods some years earlier. Enid becomes particularly interested in the films of a particular producer of cheap horror films who at one point comes into the censors’ office. She becomes aware of the media controversy about horror films when one of the films she has ‘passed’ is named in a court case as possibly prompting a vicious attack. She also visits a local video rental store where she observes that the more notorious ‘extreme’ films are kept ‘under the counter’. As the pressure on Enid mounts she begins to lose her grip on reality, especially when she thinks that an actress in one of the films she is working upon might be her sister, now grown up. In the final section of the film, as the audience, can’t be sure about what we are seeing as Enid appears to cross over into the fictional world of horror films.

Commentary

I’m not sure what to make of Censor. I remember the video rental market very well. It involved sexploitation films, thrillers and martial arts films as well as horror – all of which would otherwise have struggled to get into cinemas. I was never particularly interested in the video nasties. I’m too squeamish for gory horror films, but I’m not necessarily interested in banning them. I am interested in horror as a genre but more inclined to ghost stories and psychological horror. Bailey-Bond does call Censor a ‘psychological horror’ and although there is plenty of blood at times (and the screen is suffused with a red glow), the film is not particularly scary as such. Having taught horror films and read widely around the subject, I can see that Prana Bailey Bond is an intelligent and talented filmmaker (and recognised as such in industry circles). She certainly develops an impressive performance by Niamh Algar and she packs a great deal into the brief 84 minutes running time of her film.

Enid crosses a boundary . . .

It seems clear to me that the 1980s is now a time of fascination for two groups of people. For one group who were children of the 1980s and who are now established in more senior roles in society, there is a nostalgia for childhood experiences. For younger groups discovering the 1980s for the first time and necessarily without the cultural baggage of the period, films like Censor must feel rather different. For my generation the 1980s was a nightmare – unless you were willing to embrace Thatcherism and the real horrors that accompanied it. I’m intrigued by Bailey-Bond’s linking of the horror films on video to rave culture and I think she has produced an intelligent and illuminating film. The performances are strong and the film hasa distinctive visual style. I’m not sure I’m competent to evaluate how effective/appropriate it is but I do note that DoP Annika Summerson has used a wide range of formats for image capture with aspect ratios varying from ‘Scope to Academy and along with Production design by Paulina Rzeszowska has achieved a look that might well suggest horror in video in the 1980s. This is definitely a film to look out for, but only as long as you don’t expect a standard generic horror flic. Here’s the UK trailer.

The Net (UK 1953)

What a strange mix of ingredients The Net presents. At first glance this should be a prestigious ‘A’ feature with the distinguished director Anthony Asquith and a fine cast headed by Phyllis Calvert and James Donald and a strong supporting cast of character actors. It’s a Two Cities film and it’s made at Pinewood for Rank – but it’s only 86 minutes long. Why is it not included by Wikipedia in its ‘select list’ of Two Cities films? The answer probably lies in its mix of genres and the recognition that science fiction is the main genre with a spy thriller and romance also worked into the narrative.

Science fiction was generally a despised genre in the UK of the 1950s, though in retrospect certain films such as the Quatermass series (i.e. including TV serials) have since gained much respect. One of several useful American reviews of The Net (it was renamed Project M7 in the US and released in 1954 as the ‘B’ picture alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon) suggests that it was the first UK science fiction film since The Shape of Things to Come (1936). I can’t think of another science fiction title during the 1940s. The Net was based on a novel by John Pudney, an intriguing figure who was known as a poet and writer and who, during the Second World War, joined the RAF and worked as a ‘creative writer’ at the Air Ministry. Several of the films that made use of his writing had themes relating to flying. Ironically he was also the father-in-law of the UK film studies pioneer Victor Perkins. Pudney stood as a Labour candidate in the 1945 General Election in a safe Tory seat and his political connections may have informed his writings in the early 1950s. His 1952 novel was adapted by William Fairchild who was a prolific screenwriter in the 1950s.

The model’s design is displayed in this alternative poster/lobby card

In the ten years from the end of the Second World War, the UK economy was under great strain as the country struggled to rebuild after wartime damage, repay American loans and deal with the end of Empire. The one hope for an industrial revival based on new technologies was the lead in aviation design, a more positive legacy of war. Unfortunately, both the Labour and Conservative parties were wedded to a Cold War policy that required the UK to have its own nuclear deterrent. The British film industry produced several films in the decade that focused on aviation and especially on aviation developments and nuclear research. In David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier an aircraft manufacturer attempts to develop a new jet fighter that will be operational at speeds over Mach 1, breaking the ‘sound barrier’. Lean’s film uses aircraft which are recognisable from the period and it was a box office hit. The Net imagines a much more advanced experimental programme which pushes it into science fiction. (The sound barrier had been ‘broken’ in 1947, but not by operational aircraft which were only just beginning to go into service in 1953.)

Lydia and Dr Leon enjoying viewing ‘What the Butler Saw’ on a trip away from the Project.

The experimental project is located on a coastal site somewhere in Southern England where Professor Heathley (James Donald) leads a team developing the M7 aircraft intending to fly beyond Mach 1 at high altitude. If successful the project is intended to lead to developments of a spacecraft. The ‘Net’ of the title is metaphorical possibly referring to the claustrophobia of the project personnel and to the restrictions placed on Heathley by the civil servant who is his effective manager on site (played by Maurice Denham). It may also refer to the idea of a ‘network’ of spies expected to be attempting to infiltrate the project. Robert Beatty plays the Project Security officer. Heathley plays a form of ‘mad professor’, who is completely immersed in his work. He plans to test the aircraft himself instead of using a professional test pilot. He also neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), who is pursued by the charming and eloquent  Dr. Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). This and a second relationship between two younger members of the project team (played by Muriel Pavlow and Patric Doonan) make up the romance element.

James Donald as Prof. Heathley in his futuristic flying suit.

I’m not very familiar with Anthony Asquith’s work and not a big fan of the films I have seen. He was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a celebrated director from the 1920s to the 1960s, but this film seems restricted by a low budget. Much of the film is set in the project offices, Heathley’s home or the control room for the flight tests. The interior scenes are quite ‘stagey’, but sometimes the night time scenes have more atmosphere. The M7 aircraft is a model that seems to have drawn on aspects of different new jet types in development at the time. Its fuselage and especially the nose section resembles the Handley Page Victor (which didn’t fly until December 1952) and the delta wing was a feature of various designs including the Avro Vulcan (which first flew in August 1952). These two bomber designs were both intended to deliver nuclear weapons in the future but they were much bigger aircraft than the M7 is intended to represent. The M7 design also incorporates engine intakes which look familiar from the design of the de Havilland Comet which was introduced as the world’s first commercial jet airliner in 1952. Bizarrely, the M7 is seen to be a seaplane for take-off and landing. I’m no aeronautical engineer but this sounds implausible. It does, however, fit in with the other aspects of the film, including the control room (which can take over the controls of the aircraft in flight) and the futuristic helmet and flying suit (see the above film still). I’m reminded of the boys’ comic paper of the 1950s, the Eagle and the adventures of ‘Dan Dare’.

The Net is a strange representation of issues that were certainly important in the early 1950s. I did find it entertaining and it wasn’t a struggle to watch but the budget restrictions and the implausibility of the plot in the context of 1952 were hard to take. I think Phyllis Calvert was wasted and I was egging her on to enjoy a fling with Herbert Lom. James Donald is fine in a role he seems quite suited to. The real weakness of the narrative is that the villain, the spy, is obvious from fairly early on. Whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the performance of the actor concerned I couldn’t decide. I decided to watch The Net because in my research into 1953 film releases in the UK I noticed that Phyllis Calvert was on stage in Blackpool at roughly the same time this film was in cinemas. I think too that a tie-in cigarette advertisement in 1953 featured her role in the film. She was also appearing in Ealing’s Mandy (UK 1952) in second run cinemas. Perhaps because of this, I came to The Net with the wrong expectations? The Net was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV some time ago and I recently watched a recording. Talking Pictures TV has announced a new online service to be launched on December 1st. This is an exciting prospect and I’ll report on it in due course.

Return from the Ashes (UK-US 1965)

‘Stan’ (Maximilian Schell) and Michele (Ingrid Thulin) play speed chess when they first meet

I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.

Charles (Herbert Lom) comforts Michele when she first returns to Paris from the camp

The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.

When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.

Stan with Fabienne (Samantha Eggar)

The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)

Stan and Michele when they first meet again after her return

The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager  and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films.He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed but by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.

The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).

Privatisation and the threat to Film 4

A Film 4 logo seen in the credits of many British films

The Tory government in the UK is seriously considering the possibility of selling the publicly owned Channel 4 TV corporation. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is not funded by the licence fee but by the sale of advertising. However, as well as its commitments as a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK, Channel 4 has other commitments that derive from its establishment in 1982 as a ‘publisher broadcaster’. These have been watered down over time and particularly since the early 1990s when the bold, radical style of Channel 4’s operations was severely curtailed and the channel became more focused on mainstream programming skewed towards younger audiences, while retaining a cutting edge on particular forms of programming such as news. I confess that I became far less interested in the station at that point. However, the other parts of its original remit remained in the sense that Channel 4 was required to commission all its programming from other TV companies and particularly from independents. In addition, this commissioning should include production outside London and the South East. This became particularly important when ITV ceased to be organised through regional franchises and became a single national network operation.

Film 4 is the film production and distribution arm of Channel 4, commissioning films since the channel’s outset. In the last 30 years, Film 4, alongside the BBC and BFI has been a major funder of independently produced British films. I would go so far as to suggest that if Channel 4 had not funded filmmakers in the 1980s through to the 2000s, the British film industry would probably have folded and become nothing more than an offshore facility for Hollywood productions. It might be argued that in reality that’s all the UK film industry has ever been except for its genuine studio period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Nevertheless, Channel 4 and Film 4 have been important in ensuring that smaller independent British films have been made, including films in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as English regions. In doing so they have been crucial in helping to develop the careers of filmmakers such as Shane Meadows.

Derry Girls, made in Northern Ireland by Hat Trick for Channel 4

It’s also true that the commissioning of programmes by the BBC and ITV from independents eventually followed the Channel 4 lead. Even so, to take away that possibility that Channel 4 might fund an independent to make Derry Girls in the North of Ireland or It’s a Sin about a group of gay men learning to live with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s would be very damaging to the media ecology in the UK. Both have been big hits with audiences, but would another broadcaster have commissioned them? The companies that made them are now quite large independents, some having been acquired by foreign multinationals, but many others are still small UK companies. On Tuesday this week 44 independent production companies paid for a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph newspaper, a major Tory-supporting media outlet, arguing that privatisation “would cost jobs, reduce investment, and place companies at risk in the nations and regions”. The ad was timed to attract attention at the Tory Conference in Manchester.

One of the This Is England TV serials based on the original film and made by Warp Films in Sheffield for Channel 4

The government response has predictably argued that any buyer of Channel 4 would be required to abide by its PSB and other founding commitments. So, it would follow the ‘successful’ model of privatisation of the rail industry, postal service, energy and water etc, all of which are now a national disgrace? If the privatisation goes ahead the only likely buyers are going to be multinationals and these will be mostly US-owned corporations. Can we see Disney, Viacom or Warner Bros, supporting offices in Leeds and Bristol and funding shows like Derry Girls? Perhaps they would, but in the long term they are international capitalist enterprises with only profit as a long-term goal (Channel 4 is currently a not-for-profit corporation). Would Film 4 still exist as a funder? Wouldn’t the already high US content of the channel just increase? Do we really think that the UK government could force one of these corporations to stick to PSB regulation?

There is a second concern here that links the possible privatisation of Channel 4 to the rise in film production from the streamers, principally Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The Tories will argue that the streamers are producing films in the UK, lured by high quality skilled crews and facilities and tax concessions for ‘high-end television’ as well as feature films. There are several problems with this. First, the government has no clear cultural policy. It cries out for films and TV about ‘British values’, whatever they may be, but The Crown is the only Netflix production I can think of that fits the government request and that’s not exactly social realism. Are Netflix going to fund Shane Meadows (and would Shane want to be funded by them?). Second, dependence on dollar investment in UK film and TV is vulnerable to exchange rate changes and other factors. The streamers could decide to leave for a host of reasons and all the shiny new studio spaces currently being hurriedly built to lure the streamers would be empty. I don’t subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, Disney or Apple TV+. Dealing with multinational capitalist enterprises is a given of modern life but this quartet threaten the very future of British broadcasting. With a government seemingly determined to ‘subdue’ the BBC and create more commercial freedom, UK TV will become as US-dominated as UK film production. Channel 4 is one of the few organisations striving to protect independent filmmaking in the UK – and to help export the films produced. The privatisation must be stopped.

Limbo (UK 2020)

Limbo is one of the more remarkable British films of the last few years. Its subject matter of asylum-seekers in the UK is not in itself new, but its presentation here is – in several different ways. Although it is a fictional story, there is a real-life event which is some ways might prompt the ideas behind the fiction. In 2015, when the Conservative government in the UK agreed to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, a small number of families (15 or 24 according to varying reports) were sent to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay is a ferry and road/rail journey of around 2 hours away from Glasgow. The influx of even a small number of refugees was noted on an island with a resident population of only around 6,500. Fortunately the refugees appear to have settled in well.

(from left) Omar (Amir El-Masry), Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Farhad (Vikash Bhai) share a house

Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo places a motley group of around 20 asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (the film’s credits suggest that scenes were shot on several islands in the group including North Uist). This carries to the extreme the idea of isolating asylum-seekers with larger towns several hours journey away (apart from air services). The asylum-seekers are all single men who are housed in what appear to be local council dwellings and the narrative focuses on a group of four men in one of the small houses. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work until they have been cleared to stay in the UK as refugees. Sharrock’s approach to his narrative is arguably both absurdist and fantastical, but in many ways actually makes a more authentic statement about what it means to be an asylum seeker than other more ‘realist’ films. The film is released in the UK by MUBI and after cinema screenings it is now available to stream on MUBI. The stream includes a recorded discussion between writer-director Sharrock and his four principal actors. It is worth noting that the actors were at first reluctant to read a script which they thought might be the same old story about migrants and ‘white saviours’ etc. However, having read the script, they all became enthusiastic and very much wanted to be part of the production.

Boris and Helga role play an encounter on a dance-floor . . .

. . . to the bemusement of the asylum-seekers

The film opens with a close-up on a blackboard. The camera pulls back to a mid-shot of a woman facing the camera. She nods and a man turns on a portable CD player. Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started With a Kiss’ begins and the camera pulls back to a long shot showing the woman slowly begin to move her body in time with the music. We can see the man now as well and the couple appear to be in a small hall with a high ceiling and a long thin blackboard on the wall behind the couple and a large space in front. The screen shape is Academy, the squarish shape (1.37:1) coming back into vogue for isolated art films. I was so mesmerised by this opening, I failed to recognise one of my very favourite performers, Sidse Babett Knudsen the Danish star of the Borgen TV serials. Here with long straggly hair and wearing an ill-fitting blouse and calf-length skirt, she and Kenneth Collard play Helga and Boris who are employed to help asylum-seekers to understand British customs. This lesson is ‘Cultural Awareness 101: Sex – Is a Smile an Invitation?’. When the camera offers us a reverse shot of the twenty asylum-seekers they look bemused, mystified or stunned. The camera picks out the four men who will be principal characters. Sidse’s dancing is at once hilarious, oddly strained and yet still erotic. The pacing is very slow. Helga asks a question when the dancing ends and one man slowly raises his hand to answer but we then cut to the bleak (but very beautiful) landscape of the isles with heather-covered moorland, seawater inlets and hills in the background and then to an isolated phone-box in the middle of nowhere. This is the centre of the universe for the asylum-seekers, their only means of access to the outside world (apart from a hill-top where a mobile signal might be possible). I’ve described this opening in detail because the constituent elements are well-known/conventional but Sharrock presents them in such a distinctive way throughout the film that we are invited to think again about what we see.

Omar speaks to his mother, a refugee in Turkey

Farhad examines the oud that Omar always carries

Eventually, our focus will narrow to just two of the characters (though significant action will also involve the two West Africans in the house). Omar is a Syrian who always carries his grandfather’s oud everywhere he goes. In its case, the oud is like a guitar and initially Omar cannot play it because he has injured his wrist. When his dressing is removed he is still unable to play but more from the trauma of being parted from his family (though he came to the UK deliberately, hoping to send for his parents). Omar speaks very good English, as does the other main character, the older Farhad, an engaging Afghani man who has been waiting longer for his asylum application to be considered. I’m not going to spoil any more of the narrative and instead I’ll stick to general comments about Ben Sharrock’s approach to his story. I understand he spent some time in Syria after growing up in Edinburgh. This is his second feature following Pikadero (Spain 2015), filmed in Spanish and Basque – this is also available on MUBI.

Omar meets some locals including these quizzical young women . . .

. . . and the Sikh who runs the mini-market

Limbo does have a conventional narrative of sorts. Some viewers might read it as a showing a ‘character journey’ for Omar. It’s not giving too much away to suggest that he can only free himself from his own ‘limbo’ by playing his oud, preferably for an audience. But this also means coming to terms with aspects of his family relationships and Sharrock finds ways to explore this using fantasy sequences which I think work very well. I think this is a wonderful film. Parts of it are very funny. One or two moments are harrowing. It isn’t an overlong film at just over 100 minutes but it is slow, giving you more time to appreciate the camerawork by Nick Cooke and the pacing of the edits by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, as well as reflecting on what you are seeing. The performances are all very good but particularly the two central performances by Amir El-Masry as Omar and Vikash Bhai as Farhad. Bhai is from Leicester and El-Masry was brought up in London. I realised later that I had seen El-Masry in the John Stewart film Rosewater (US 2014). He has also appeared in a Star Wars film. Bhai has been in several UK TV shows. El-Masry speaks Egyptian Arabic and Bhai learned some Dari for his role as an Afghani man. I point this out simply to confirm that this is a carefully scripted film for actors rather than an attempt to cast non-professionals in a form of realist drama. The focus is directly on the experience of ‘limbo’, the pervading sense of being caught in a ‘waiting room’ with memories of where you have left and attempts to maintain hope about where you might get to. There is relatively little contact between the four men and the locals who are mainly friendly if sometimes insensitive. The locals include both Helga and Boris but also a local Glaswegian Sikh shopkeeper who has some good lines. Reviewers have variously compared the film’s presentational style to Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. I can see the possible links but this is very much Ben Sharrock’s (and his cast and crew’s) film.

One of the best films I’ve seen this year and one that I very much recommend, I hope you can find Limbo online or on a cinema screen. Perhaps community cinemas will book it? You can view the MUBI trailer below. The US trailer is, I think, misleadingly ‘oversold’. The MUBI one gives you a better idea of the film.

Bank Holiday (UK 1938)

Bank Holiday is notable for several reasons. It’s an early directorial effort from Carol Reed, borrowed from ATP for a Gainsborough production. It’s also an early outing for Margaret Lockwood, already looking ‘smashing’ and an experienced ‘leading lady’, but not yet the huge star she became in the 1940s – it was the third of her seven films made with Carol Reed. In her autobiography she argues that the success of this film made her a real film star in the UK. The photography is by Arthur Crabtree who would go on to become a major director at Gainsborough Studios. The strong supporting cast includes several notable players including Kathleen Harrison in her ‘Cockney’ persona. The film is a comedy-drama mixed with a romance. (In the US the film was retitled Three on a Weekend with one sequence excised to comply with the Hollywood Production Code.)

Margaret Lockwood in serious romantic drama mode as Nurse Lawrence.

The first half of the film perhaps provided the model for the later propaganda picture Millions Like Us (1943) with its depiction of a seaside holiday in Brighton (disguised here as ‘Bexborough’). Reed and Crabtree offer us an almost documentary record of the British working-class August Bank Holiday (which was thensensibly at the start of August, rather than the end as currently). I particularly enjoyed the sequence at the London railway terminus (presumably meant to be Victoria). There are two, for me, unusual features of the film. The first is the casting (with top billing) of John Lodge, possibly for the US market. I confess that I wasn’t aware of Lodge as an actor and an American ‘blue-blood’. Lodge was a tall man with a severe demeanour and a face seemingly etched from marble. I’m not surprised that his biggest role was opposite Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, early in his short acting career. Later he appeared in several British films plus a French production but he gained a naval commission in 1942 and never returned to acting. He was part of the two great New England families, the Lodges and the Cabots, and after the war he became first a US Senator and then Governor of Connecticut. When the Republicans returned to power in 1968 he moved into diplomacy as an American Ambassador. With his background, Bank Holiday sounds an unlikely production on which to utilise his talents. In fact Lodge as ‘Stephen Howard’ provides the serious drama which to some extent bookends the comedy and romance. As the film opens, he is waiting for the birth of his first child and his wife is being tended by hospital nurse Catharine Lawrence (Margaret Lockwood). The birth is difficult and the mother dies. Catharine is very moved by Stephen’s distress but like so many other workers in London, she is expecting on this Saturday lunchtime to travel to the seaside with her boyfriend Geoffrey (Hugh Williams). Can she enjoy the Bank Holiday with Stephen’s despair hanging over her? On her train journey we meet the other characters who provide the two main comic adventures.

René Ray and Merle Tottenham as Doreen and Milly exploring the cocktail bar at the Grand Hotel

Kathleen Harrison plays the mother of three young children, travelling with her not very supportive husband. This Lancashire actor (born in Blackburn) solidified her persona as a cheerful Cockney character in the post-war ‘Huggets family’ films at Gainsborough, starting with Holiday Camp in 1947 (which is also ‘topical’ in detailing the post-war surge in holiday camps). The other main comic narrative in Bank Holiday features René Ray as Doreen, the winner of the ‘Miss Fulham’ beauty contest hoping to win a prize in a contest at the Grand Hotel in Bexborough. With her is her friend Milly (Merle Tottenham) and this narrative also plays on the social class differences as all the film’s characters end up at the Grand Hotel for various reasons. (There is an interesting glimpse into the world of ‘girls’ papers’ discussed by Doreen and Milly at the newsstand in this piece from the Jill Craigie Project.) The original story idea and final script for Bank Holiday were written by Rodney Ackland (with Hans Wilhelm and Roger Bruford). This was Ackland’s first major success and he went on to have a hand in many more stories and scripts.

Hugh Williams as Geoffrey and Margaret Lockwood as Catharine at the open air pool

I’m interested in Bank Holiday partly because it seems like Gainsborough’s answer to ATP’s success with Sing As We Go (1934) starring Gracie Fields on her trip to Blackpool. Fields was the biggest British female star of the 1930s and Blackpool was Brighton’s main rival as the premier seaside resort. I’m biased in favour of Blackpool, but I’m intrigued by some of the Brighton footage, especially the outdoor swimming pool which I’m assuming was the Black Rock Pool. The 1930s was the age of the Lido in the UK, with 180 built between 1930 and 1939 (see the history of Grange-over-Sands lido). Margaret Lockwood in 1938 couldn’t match Fields, but she was at the top by 1945. They were, however, very different kinds of film star. Lockwood could sing but I don’t think she did in films?

Catharine can’t forget Stephen (John Lodge) after meeting him at the hospital

The film’s script cleverly brings the three narratives together through the Grand Hotel (and the idea of the ‘dirty weekend’ as Geoffrey finally gets a room with a double bed for his girlfriend Catharine). I find the tonal shift between the drama of Catharine’s concern for Stephen and the comedy of the Brighton adventures to be startling and Stephen’s behaviour at the hospital is shocking by modern day standards but it doesn’t seem to have bothered the 1938 audiences. In some ways the film feels like a war-time picture with its tragedy and comedy mix and the fears of war are presented through newspaper hoardings. Reed and his crew are I think quite brave in the way that they represent dreams and interior thoughts, such as Catharine’s about Stephen as she handles the cigarette lighter that he left behind at the hospital. Linden Travers has the small but significant role as Stephen’s dead wife Ann. The first occasion, when Catharine thinks about Stephen is presented, I think, as a parallel narrative, with Stephen staring into the Thames while Catharine gazes into the sea. The second longer sequence, when Catharine plays with the lighter, offers something I haven’t seen before. Catharine’s thoughts about Stephen conjure up a flashback to Stephen and Ann together watching a royal event which could be the Coronation of George VI in 1937. Has anyone else seen this kind of narrative device? Does it have a special name?

But above all this is Margaret Lockwood’s film. She went to Hollywood soon after her next film, The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock, but she didn’t enjoy her time at 20th Century Fox (Fox had a ‘star-exchange’ scheme with Gainsborough and Ms Lockwood found herself playing opposite Shirley Temple rather than Tyrone Power as she hoped. After a second Hollywood production loaned out to Paramount she came back to the UK with her husband just a few weeks before war broke out in 1939.

Here’s the Talking Pictures TV trailer for Bank Holiday: