Category: British Cinema

Where Hands Touch (UK 2018)

Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) and Lutz (George MacKay)

Amma Asante has completed three more films since her first, the remarkable A Way of Life, appeared in 2004. That film won prizes as a small independent production but struggled to find an audience outside festivals and a limited UK release. Belle in 2013 brought her to the attention of North American audiences and a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. A United Kingdom in 2016 continued her move towards international co-production and a bigger budget with two major stars in David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Each of these three films dealt with issues of identity in unusual circumstances and they proved difficult projects to get made despite help from the British Film Institute. The films were not without their critics but they did win prizes and some very enthusiastic audiences. Because Belle was a narrative that dealt with issues arising from the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century it proved the most attractive to African-American audiences. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanaian filmmaker who has moved from acting to scriptwriting and writing-directing. She has very clear ideas about the kinds of stories she wants to put on screen. She has proved determined to present these stories in the most accessible way she can and each of her films is strong in terms of cinematography, editing and art direction. Equally, she draws strong performances from well-chosen casts. I’ve been impressed by all the films but there are critics who find her stories too conventional and lacking in sophisticated ideas. I don’t accept those criticisms but they have been there and I must admit to my concerns prior to watching Where Hands Touch. I was forced to watch the film on VOD just three weeks after its UK release because I couldn’t find it locally in cinemas. The film was released first in North America in September 2018, seemingly for only 3 days in 103 cinemas. In the UK it opened on only 5 screens and the following week was on only one. The distributor, Spirit Entertainment is mainly known for DVD/Blu-ray and VOD. Could the film be as bad as these indicators of a lack of faith in cinema distribution suggest?

I’m relieved to say that many of the criticisms from North American viewers and some critics are either malicious or just silly. There have also been some very enthusiastic responses, but there is something about the film that perhaps doesn’t work. Nevertheless, given the subject she has tackled, this is another win for a brave filmmaker. The story of how the film came to be made and the historical basis is laid out on Amma Asante’s website. I’ll just include a brief summary here.

Leyna is a ‘Rhineland Bastard’, the daughter of Kerstin (Abbie Cornish)

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 included the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland which would last until 1930. The French Occupation Forces included 25,000 to 40,000 ‘colonial troops’. A significant proportion of these soldiers were Tirailleurs sénégalais, West Africans from various African territories in the French Empire. Some of these men married local German women, but many babies were born to unmarried mothers and these became known in Germany as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. Wikipedia quotes the British historian Richard Evans who suggests that these children comprised 500-600 new ‘Black Germans’. Where Hands Touch focuses on a teenage girl who grows up as one of the 500+. An important point to note here is that the children of a married couple automatically took their father’s nationality, but those born ‘out of wedlock’ took their mother’s nationality. When the Nazis came to power and began to implement policies designed to secure the ‘racial purity’ of ‘Aryan Germany’, they at first had more problems with the Rhineland Bastards because they were German citizens. But after 1937 they adopted a policy of forced sterilisation to prevent any further ‘mixed marriages’ (not only involving Black youth but also Gypsies and others deemed ‘non-Aryan’).

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

Leyna Schlegel (Amandla Stenberg) is a bi-racial girl of 15 in 1944 and still living in the Rhineland when her mother hides her to prevent her arrest by agents who would no doubt find ways to force her sterilisation. Leyna and her white little step-brother Koen are then taken to Berlin where they must try to be ‘invisible’. Leyna will eventually find it impossible to stay in a Berlin school and instead will move into factory work with her mother. False papers keep her safe and she starts a relationship with a young man she meets. He’s in the Hitler Youth, just like every Aryan child, including Koen. In late 1944/early 1945 Berlin is a dangerous place and it’s inevitable that Leyna will be arrested at some point. What will happen to her?

Leyna has a “German name but not a German face” according to her teacher

Commentary

In one sense, this is a family melodrama with an emphasis on the drama. It is also a romance, a very dangerous romance. But in many ways the ‘action’ in the narrative is of less importance than the complicated questions and difficulties that surround Leyna’s sense of who she is. What is this identity in Germany in 1945? Leyna maintains that she is German. She has no other Black friends and no role models (her father disappeared some time earlier, when she was an infant). When she visits Lutz (George MacKay) he plays her a Billie Holiday record from his father’s collection and shows her images of female jazz singers. Leyna is thrown by this, she has had no chance to think about her African roots or about an African diaspora in America. Lutz is looking forward to being sent to the Eastern front. He wants to fight and to protect his country. But both Leyna and Lutz will have to deal with the questions of what it means to be German when they find themselves caught up in questions about how Jews are being killed in the camps.

Christopher Eccleston as Heinz, the father of Lutz

I think that the central problem with the film is that Amma Asante started to write a story when she discovered the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ and the more she discovered, the more historical facts and issues she tried to include. There is an interesting analysis of ‘Black Germans in Nazi Germany’ by Professor Eve Rosenhaft on the Amma Asante website and we can see the clever way in which Asante has woven into the narrative all the questions and problems discussed. But in wanting the film to speak to mainstream audiences, Amma Asante has also chosen to develop a romance. A focus on emotional relationships has been Asante’s strategy in each of her films and generally I think it works well, but in this case it feels as if there isn’t enough room for the romance itself as well as all the other issues. It may be because the project has been so long in the making. It should have been Amma Asante’s second film – she felt very driven by a search through what she saw as the neglected history of Black people in other parts of Europe. But she couldn’t raise the finance to make the film until she’d had the successes of Belle and A United Kingdom. I’m wondering now if when she finally got to make it, she tried too hard to explore all sides of the story? The film is already quite long at 122 minutes. It may be that it would have worked better as a TV serial like Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013).

There are two issues here that might explain the less than stellar reception the film has received. I’ve indicated Amma Asante’s ambition and the possible problems of structure and the sheer scale of the narrative. It isn’t the fault of the actors  Amandla Stenberg, fresh from her triumph in The Hate U Give (US 2018) (a film under-appreciated in the UK, I think) is excellent and George Mackay works as well as he can with the script. Unfortunately for UK audiences there is the feeling that he’s been 19-20 for quite a long time now after roles in successful British pictures such as Sunshine on Leith (2013) and Pride (2014) – he was approaching 26 when he played Lutz. I think his efforts to ‘act younger’ make him possibly weaker as a character. The rest of the cast includes heavy-hitters such as Abbie Cornish as Leyna’s mother and Christopher Eccleston as the father of Lutz, an interesting character who fought in the 1914-18 war and who now wants to simply survive the war and protect his son, using his relatively senior position. Between the four central characters Asante does manage to represent a range of attitudes and feelings amongst ‘ordinary Germans’ in a very difficult situation. But this is something that audiences (still) might not be ready to accept. The history of the war and the Holocaust is too often reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters and not conflicted characters who aren’t sure how and why they should act. I like the fact that the script makes clear that Lutz risks all for the romance – it is as dangerous for him as for Leyna.

This second issue about audiences and how they might understand, sympathise with or identify with characters is the most difficult challenge of all. There is also the decision to use English dialogue with the central characters mostly speaking without a noticeable accent, while some of the minor characters do. I’d be interested to see the film with a German cast or with a dubbed German soundtrack (as was the case with the recent Trautmann/The Keeper).

I hope my analysis hasn’t put you off wanting to watch this film. It’s an important piece of work and Amma Asante is a director who always produces interesting and valuable films. Finally, I wanted to mention the work of Remi Adefarasin, one of the few Black cinematographers in the UK. It’s good to see him as an industry veteran supporting Amma Asante and presenting Amandla Stenberg so beautifully on screen.

The Keeper (Trautmann, Germany-UK 2018)

This is an enjoyable and well-produced German-UK co-production focused on events in the life of Bert Trautmann, a German POW in Lancashire in the closing stages of the Second World War who became a famous goalkeeper at Manchester City with a career spanning 15 years from 1949. It’s not a full biopic of Bert Trautmann nor is it a generic sports drama. Instead it’s an unusual romance with both the war (and its aftermath) and sport as major elements. It’s also a largely ‘true story’, but with significant omissions and possible misrepresentations. But these changes don’t negate a strong narrative. Unfortunately, the independent UK distributor Parkland Entertainment has been unable to exploit the film fully with a release on 84 screens. The result is that despite audience support and some strong reviews, it’s actually been quite difficult to find the film in UK cinemas. Wherever it has played, audience responses have been good so perhaps it will succeed on DVD and VOD? The film received a wider release, I think, in Germany in March 2019, but despite making No 10 in the chart only lasted a couple of weeks making around $600,000. In the UK it had made £300,000 after six weeks.

The ‘real’ Bert Trautmann playing against Wolves

David Kross as Trautmann, dealing as best he can with hostile supporters

My personal attachment to the story is that the first televised football match that I watched was the 1956 Cup Final in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City. It became known as ‘the Trautmann final’ and what happened to Bert Trautmann on that day is an important element of the film’s narrative. However, the wider story of Trautmann’s first twenty years in the UK features many other important elements. The story, written by the director Marcus H Rosenmüller with Nicholas J. Schofield and producer Robert Marciniak takes the main points of Trautmann’s story and smooths them into a satisfying romantic drama in which Bert Trautmann emerges as a heroic figure in the UK. There is rather more in the full true story. It seems to have taken some time for the German producers to find UK partners and put the funding together. Like several other recent UK productions, the whole UK shoot seems to have been based in the North of Ireland with Belfast and its hinterland standing in for Lancashire. Effective CGI recreates both the former Manchester City ground at Maine Road and the old Wembley stadium. A German shoot based in München provides some wartime scenes and flashback material. Cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and the production design, art direction and costume design make a good stab at representing the late 1940s/early 1950s. The supporting cast is led by well-known character actors such as John Henshaw, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lewis which gives it heft, but the film stands or falls on its pairing of David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor as Margaret, the young woman he marries. Both are excellent.

Margaret and her father (John Henshaw) confront Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling)

Rather than outline the narrative I think it is useful to spell out some of the interesting facts in Bert Trautmann’s story in order to explain the film’s appeal. Trautmann was a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and fair hair. He volunteered for the paratroopers aged 17, won an Iron Cross  and survived the war, being captured and escaping several times before becoming a POW in early 1945. He was a good footballer and played as a POW alongside farm work. When professional football re-started after 1945, crowds were enormous and unlike today, big city clubs attracted a mainly male working-class audience from the local area. Manchester City had a significant section of potential support from the large local Jewish community. It is a measure of Trautmann’s ability as a player that he did eventually win over the fans despite the doubts about his wartime exploits. The obvious issue for the filmmakers was the question of how to deal with the ‘Good German’ – i.e. how to humanise the character and to avoid creating either a saintly figure or one who may appear duplicitous. Two other recent films come to mind, The Aftermath (UK-Germany 2019) and Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015). Both are relevant here in different ways. In The Keeper, there are two strategies. The first is to deflect the questions about Trautmann’s potential Nazi past by including more obvious Nazi characters amongst the POWs and by creating what seems like the exaggerated figure of the British sergeant in charge of the camp’s work details and who displays no sense of any tolerance or understanding whatsoever. This character also appears in the other films but I wonder if Rosenmüller found it difficult to direct the acting performance by Harry Melling? The other strategy here is to put the onus of defending Bert onto Margaret as his wife. Freya Mavor does very well with what I think is a difficult role. It would be interesting to compare Margaret as the younger, working-class/lower middle-class woman in the same position as the older, upper middle-class Rachel (played by Keira Knightley) in The Aftermath.

The narrative emphasises the romance between Bert and Margaret (Freya Mavor)

I’m not going to spoil the last section of the narrative covering the Cup Final and its immediate aftermath. All I’ll say is that there is tragedy that leavens the expected feelgood factor. The film finishes with titles that tell us what happened to Bert Trautmann as a footballer (he played his last City game in 1964). But apart from telling us that Margaret died in 1980 and Bert died in 2013, it says nothing more about the years after 1964. This is understandable in the attempt to streamline the story and there is enough incident in both the sports story and the romance to satisfy audiences. (If you want to know more about this remarkable man see this biography page.)

I recognised David Kross but couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. Later I realised he was the lead in the excellent youth picture Tough Enough (Knallhart, Germany 2006) when he would have been 15. I was pleased also to see Freya Mavor. I was most  aware of her from Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013) but researching this film I discovered that she has experience in French film and theatre as well as in Scottish cinema. I wonder if she speaks German as well? The Keeper was dubbed into German for its release there in 2018. The film’s credits are long at the end but it’s worth sitting through them to hear a Noel Gallagher song (he and his brother are massive Man City fans).

A Kind of Loving (UK 1962)

a_kind_of_loving_600

Love in a cold climate

In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist (which garnered much disagreement in the comments) and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.

This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:

. . . there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies – but she should know by now, without needing duendes [spirits in Ibero and Latin American culture] to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person – not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person – whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.

For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women as ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.

As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.

The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.

As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.

Eaten By Lions (UK 2018)

Eaten by Lions poster

After Morecambe and The Bay, Eaten By Lions felt even closer to home. This creatively ‘Mancunian’ film was mostly shot in Blackpool and Bradford. It premiered in Edinburgh last year and also won an audience prize at the London Indian Film Festival. It’s finally got a limited release this year, including Bradford and Manchester screenings with cast members. It will also be screening more than once in the ‘Up North Film and TV Festival’ in Halifax later this month. Check other future screenings (not just in the North!) here.

Written by David Isaac and Jason Wingard and directed by Wingard, Eaten By Lions began life as an award-winning short film titled Going to Mecca. That title, like Eaten By Lions, has a certain kind of resonance when used to describe a trip to Blackpool. Blackpool’s Mecca Ballroom was a major venue for Northern Soul fans in the 1970s and the most famous lion reference for older Blackpool fans is the Stanley Holloway monologue ‘Albert and the Lion’ from the 1930s. Though neither of these references is directly relevant for the film, they aren’t wholly irrelevant either.

Omar (Aakeel Antonio) and Pete (Jack Carroll) on North Pier.

Omar (Antonio Aakeel) and Pete (Jack Carroll) are half-brothers in Bradford suddenly forced to think about their futures when their grandmother dies. She’d looked after the boys when their parents suffered the terrible fate referenced in the title. Omar has never known who is father is, only that he is South Asian. Now, with some clues, he sets off for Blackpool accompanied by Pete, a more ‘street-wise’ character, even though, or perhaps because, he needs a wheelchair or walking frame. What follows is a series of comic misadventures leading to the discovery of a reluctant father for Omar.

The film is very funny, gaining a great deal from ensemble performances by a large cast, several playing roles in an extended South Asian family and more individual turns by Johnny Vegas and Tom Binns as Blackpool characters. It’s also an interesting cultural artefact raising questions about representation. I recommend listening to the Britflicks interview with Jason Wingard. He explains the background to the film and how they approached some of the obvious questions.  For instance, he argues that rather than make jokes about Pete’s inability to walk any distance, they simply use the disability as part of a gag about something else. Pete is just a character who happens to need walking aids. (Bradford-born comedian Jack Carroll has cerebral palsy.)

Ray (Johnny Vegas) is the owner of a downmarket B&B who offers Pete a bed

A second representation question refers to the ambivalent support offered by Blackpool Council’s Tourism Office – on the grounds that Blackpool has received a bad press over the last few years. The production couldn’t use the piers so Blackpool footage sticks to the streets and the pier footage is from St. Annes (except, presumably for the shot above, unless it’s a digital composition). I’m pretty sure that the large home of Omar’s family is also in St. Annes (with interiors shot in Manchester). Ironically, Blackpool looks empty but stunningly beautiful with blue skies and golden sands and with the artworks on the re-developed sea front looking wonderful. DoP Matt North does a grand job. (It would be interesting to programme the film alongside Tony Richardson’s film adaptation of A Taste of Honey (1961) with that film’s sequence on a crowded Golden Mile.)

Another key question is how the South Asian family is represented by two white guys. David Isaac is a writer on Coronation Street and Jason Wingard has worked extensively in and around Manchester for more than twenty years. They decided to write a script, cast the film and then see how their ideas went down with the cast they’d chosen. The South Asian family casting includes Nitin Ganatra, best known for EastEnders and Asim Chaudhry, another London actor with a big following on TV and online. I’ve tried to research several of the other actors who play members of the extended South Asian families. They represent quite a mixed bunch in terms of experience and background but my feeling is that they work well as an ensemble and they do represent the kind of families that are gradually appearing in Northern cities. I was intrigued to discover that Hayley Tamaddon who plays Sara is a ‘sandgrown ‘un” (someone born and bred in Blackpool) and that Natalie Davies is a Bradford actor – both have appeared in Coronation Street.

Nitin Sawnhey, Antonio Akheel and Asim Chaudry

I tread carefully on issues of representation because the South Asian communities in Bradford and elsewhere in the North have suffered from poorly thought out film and TV representations in the past, but now the younger generations are beginning to assert themselves as actors in a variety of roles, just as they are doing in their social lives and employment. Anyone questioning the ‘authenticity’ of the casting in Eaten by Lions might start to raise questions but I think the film answers them. Part of the reason I’m pursuing this question is that Eaten by Lions has been compared to East is East (UK 1999) a strongly autobiographical ‘comedy-drama’ film written by Ayub Khan-Din. East as East was widely distributed and made a substantial killing at the UK box office. However, there were audiences (and scholars and critics) that didn’t like it and I personally found it offensive in a number of ways. The film is set in the 1970s in Salford and focuses on the family of a Pakistani migrant (played by Om Puri) and his British wife (Linda Bassett). The comedy and the drama depend on the resistance the children show towards their strict and very traditional father (and in particular the aggression they show towards the prospective brides their father finds for his sons). I thought much of the comedy was cruel, though probably ‘truthful’ in being based on the writer’s memories. The film’s sequel West is West (2011) was less commercially successful (perhaps because it took the leading characters to Pakistan) and perhaps less coherent as a narrative – but it seemed less offensive. I have no similar problems with Eaten By Lions. Jason Wingard seems to have created a rapport with his cast whose members have ‘bought in’ to the script. I also note that David Isaac wrote a couple of episodes of Citizen Khan with Adil Ray and I wonder what kind of influence that might have had? Perhaps also, despite the rise of Islamaphobia and far right racism in the UK, we are becoming more tolerant of families featuring bi-racial characters? I hope so.

But I wouldn’t want the above discussion to suggest that race is an ‘issue’ in the film. It really isn’t, except for the unconscious racism of the boys’ aunt played by Vicki Pepperdine. Instead the narrative is about class, money and status. Omar is something of a passive character, given that he is the ‘seeker’. Pete becomes the driving force of the narrative in more ways than one. There are other characters and performers I haven’t mentioned but they all pull their weight in what is a fun film which has shown it can make audiences happy. There is an interesting soundtrack too but my one gripe is that it has proved very difficult to find information about the songs used alongside Dan Baboulene’s score. Eaten by Lions joins a long list of Blackpool-set films and it reminds me of two of the most interesting, Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (UK/US 1995) and Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (UK 1993) – both films would connect with Eaten by Lions in their different ways.