Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.
Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.
Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.
Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.
Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.
Lost is an interesting 1950s British film for several reasons. Perhaps the most interesting for me is that it is written by Janet Green. She began her film writing career with The Clouded Yellow, an excellent thriller with Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons in 1950. In the mid-1950s she wrote for various Rank productions and I realise that I described her career in more detail in my post on Eyewitness (1956). Lost comes from earlier in the same year and shares one of the actors, the American, David Knight. The film is in some ways a pre-cursor of Green’s three scripts for the crime thriller/social problem films she wrote for Michael Relph and Basil Dearden.
The film’s title refers to Simon, a baby in his pram taken from outside a chemist’s shop opposite Kensington Gardens. (The American title for the 1957 release by Republic Pictures was Tears for Simon.) The distraught parents are an American couple, Lee Cochrane (David Knight) and his German-born wife Sue (the Austrian actress Julia Arnall, recently signed by Rank). He works in the US embassy, she’s a designer and the child was in the care of a nanny. The investigating police officer is DI Craig played by David Farrar. Farrar had spent the previous few years on Hollywood ‘runaway’ productions in various parts of the world, playing second leads. Lost saw him back on a British production with top billing. The character doesn’t offer him much scope but he’s a solid presence and he does the grouchy, sardonic old pro very well. In the climax of the film he has a not very dignified action sequence to navigate.
One of Craig’s first tasks is to try to calm down the Americans, explaining that kidnapping babies is not a common occurrence in the UK. But despite warnings Cochrane and his wife are bent on following up leads themselves with predictable results. Green’s script goes whole-heartedly for the police procedural with Craig painstakingly exploring every possible clue, no matter how slight. This makes the film into a genuine ensemble piece with so many police officers and possible witnesses. There are familiar faces everywhere, both well-loved character actors and young players making early appearances in minor roles. Thora Hird is a landlady, Dandy Nichols is a shopkeeper, Joan Sims sells ice cream in the park (and flirts with Craig/Farrar), Barbara Windsor is trying different nail varnishes in the chemist’s shop, frustrating the chemist Joan Hickson. Shirley Anne Field appears in a garage. The most important supporting player is possibly Eleanor Summerfield playing a plain-clothes police sergeant who hints at a liking for Craig. Summerfield was a RADA-trained actor at home on the stage, TV, films and radio, but never in the major parts that she deserved. Perhaps it was the conservatism and sexism of a period in which filmmakers were nonplussed by relatively tall (5′ 6″) attractive women who could be both serious actors and comediennes.
As one IMDb reviewer has noted, Lost is unusual as a major crime drama shot in Eastmancolor in mid 1950s British cinema. This was only director Guy Green’s third film in that role and previously he had been a distinguished DoP. Here, with Harry Waxman behind the camera, the pair take their shoot all over London and into the Home Counties, offering an attractive and intriguing vision of the region at the time. It might be interesting to compare the London of Lost with Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much which opened nearly six months later in 1956. That film also features a kidnapping of a child in London and Hitchcock used the Albert Hall and street locations in Brixton and Camden, though he was certainly less interested in the kinds of realism found in much of 1950s British cinema. I did think of this Hitchcock film though, mainly in terms of Doris Day’s performance. There are aspects of Julia Arnall’s appearance that reminded me of Doris Day and even more of Grace Kelly in her three Hitchcock films (many others have made this connection). Ms Arnall didn’t have the acting skills or experience but she was beautiful and quite striking and it seems strange that Rank dropped her quite quickly after a further Guy Green film, before she could really develop her career.
Lost is solid entertainment and worth watching for David Farrar, one of my favourite British actors, and Eleanor Summerfield’s brief appearances as well as its fascinating views of London in the 1950s. I’m also interested now to go back to Sapphire (1959), Janet Green’s crime and racism story. I wonder what it would have been like if David Farrar had played the Nigel Patrick role? The film will no doubt re-appear soon on Talking Pictures TV. Unfortunately it’s cropped to Academy from the original 1:1.66 ratio.
The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?
I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.
The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.
The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.
I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.
The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?
Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).
The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.
Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.
The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).
In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.
The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951)(DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.
But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.
The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.
The American title for this low budget SF film was Blood Beast from Outer Space which, while making its exploitation credentials clearer, is more than misleading. Spoiler alert: the beast is kidnapping young women, who aspire to be models, for procreation purposes on Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter). As Steve Chibnall points out in ‘Alien women: The politics of sexual difference in British sf pulp cinema’ (in ed. IQ Hunter British Science Fiction Cinema), the British at the time were worried about young women, not aliens.
Although the beginning of The Night Caller suggests Cold War paranoia, Patricia Haynes’ blonde scientist is soon portrayed as rebuffing John Saxon’s advances. No doubt at the time his double entendre (about beds) would be seen as flirting; now, hopefully, we realise that this behaviour isn’t appropriate in a work situation. So she is characterised, despite being blonde, as somewhat frigid. On the other hand, female scientists are thin on the ground in film (and life) and she is a particularly dynamic character and takes it on herself to act as a bait by replying to the ‘beast’s’ advert, to be a model, in Bikini Times. During this confrontation the beast explains:
‘I fear what I cannot control, and I cannot control an intelligence which is almost equal to mine. A mind such as your searches and destroys’.
Clearly young ’60s women were giving men some problems and, of course, she is punished for her ‘uppityness’.
As you may have gathered, The Night Caller is more interesting as symptom of the mores of the time than drama. It has the production values of early Doctor Who though cheapie specialist John Gilling does direct with some vigour. The best scene is when a victim’s parents explain their bewilderment about their young daughter: Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stone are hilariously deadpan culminating in the moment when the former produces a requested copy of Bikini Times from beneath a sofa cushion.
Touch and Go is an Ealing film I knew nothing about before I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, though most of the cast and crew were familiar. When I looked the title up in Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios book I discovered that it is one of the prime exhibits in his condemnation of the ‘End’ of Ealing in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue against Barr’s analysis of what the film represents in terms of a studio that appeared to have lost its way and indeed its purpose by 1955-6. To emphasise his argument Barr contrasts the film with The Ladykillers, one of the few successful films from the same period. It’s a legitimate comparison in the sense that both films are shot in Technicolor and located in specific districts of London – and both were written by William Rose. But one has great vitality and a real cutting edge while the other is ‘suffocating’ and ‘stodgy’. My own preference is to try to find something of interest in everything I watch and Touch and Go reveals some aspects of British culture in the 1950s, even if the overall effect is indeed ‘deadening’.
The film’s plot is very simple. Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins) is a furniture designer who stomps off from his job because the firm’s head man (James Hayter) refuses to consider expanding production of Jim’s modernist furniture. This is a classic Ealing set-up of traditional v. modern written by Ealing stalwart Rose from an idea conceived by himself and his wife Tania. Jim decides that his family should emigrate to Australia – his wife Helen (Margaret Johnston) and 18 year-old daughter Peggy (June Thorburn) having little chance to object. The main section of the narrative then concerns the last few days before departure from Tilbury. The second ‘inciting incident’ is provoked by the family’s ageing black cat, a cunning brute named Heathcliff, who causes Peggy to meet a young engineering student Richard (John Fraser) and very quickly fall in love with time running out before ship sails. Will they actually get on board? Well, what do you think?
Technically, there is little wrong with a film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe and though it may have been Michael Truman’s first directorial credit he had been an editor on many of the Ealing classics of the late 1940s and a producer on similarly well-known films in the early 1950s. This film is edited by Peter Tanner, also a very experienced Ealing hand. The cast too are fine with Hawkins turning his contrasting avuncular charm and rages towards domestic struggles and occasional comic interludes with his neighbour, Reg (Roland Culver). The plotting includes some important details such as Jim’s recognition that Richard will be facing National Service, a concept most audiences under 70 will probably have forgotten about. Richard also wants to be an engineer and seems enthusiastic about something that was once a British strength. By contrast, the script does nothing with Jim’s designer skills, his role as a designer is a plot point and not much else. Heathcliff is actually the most interesting character.
The film’s setting is the Fletcher home in a Chelsea house with a basement kitchen. The house is part of a studio set with a pub handy across the road. It’s very quiet and Jim and Reg can stand in the middle of the road in the late evening, drunkenly talking and larking about. A few yards from the set is the ‘real’ London of the Albert Bridge and the Embankment – which is actually quite well-used as the setting for the romance. Barr’s comparison with The Ladykillers is valid, but the more revealing comparison is with John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK 1958). This odd excursion for Ford is a mix of police procedural and family melodrama, filmed in Technicolor with Hawkins as Inspector Gideon and also paterfamilias with a lively daughter played with pizzaz by Anna Massey, a music student who becomes involved with a bright young police constable. Ironically, Ford’s film was co-scripted by the Ealing writer ‘Tibby’ Clarke (writer of Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob). The script is full of comic moments amongst some rather grisly crime stories. My focus in the comparison with Touch and Go is the contrasting characterisation of the daughters. June Thorburn as Peggy is lovely and convincing in her role but she seems a young 18 (she was actually 24) and the script has her attending what appears to be a secretarial school for middle-class girls. The mothers in these films seem to be stay at home housewives even though their children are independent young women. Anna Massey’s music student has the banter of an arts student and the drive and the wit. Peggy looks beautiful on the dancefloor in her rather formal gown, even though the music is trad jazz with a trumpet solo played by Richard’s fellow student. Bill Rose’s script is so timid that the potential in the characters rarely develops into anything. Charles Barr makes the point that the Ealing films in his ‘End’ phase seem almost primed to become TV sitcoms, soaps and dramas. At the end of 1955 the Ealing Studios lot was actually sold to the BBC and, breaking with Rank, Ealing moved to the MGM British lot in Borehamwood in 1957. The Ealing site would now become the production centre for ‘cop shows’. Jack Hawkins made The Long Arm for Ealing in 1956, a ‘police procedural’ film in some ways looking forward to Z-Cars on TV. Pat Jackson’s Ealing film about nurses in training, The Feminine Touch (1956) could also be seen as the precursor for hospital soaps. Following ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), the BBC created Angels (1975-83) focusing on student nurses.
The potential of Touch and Go to tap into the migration narrative of the post-war period seems to have been deliberately ignored and this seems strange given Ealing’s ventures into Australian productions. Between 1945 and 1972, Australia funded an assisted passage scheme whereby migrants could travel to Australia from the UK for just £10. This was part of the ‘White Australia’ policy and was also linked to the movement of children in care, the focus of Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus 2010). Alongside these dubious policies, Australia also encouraged migration from Ireland and several other European countries. Michael Powell eventually made a film about an Italian migrant, They’re a Weird Mob (1962). I do wonder why Ealing chose to develop drama/action pictures in Australia rather than comedies, especially in 1955? The comedy Geordie (UK 1955) in which Bill Travers plays a Scottish highlander who competes in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 attempted to make use of the interest in the games. But perhaps by this stage, Ealing was unprepared to do anything too different? (Ironically Margaret Johnston was born in Australia – and June Thorburn in Karachi). Touch and Go is at best gentle comedy. I laughed out loud just the once.
The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.
Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).
Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.
The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.
Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).
The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.
Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.
Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.
In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.
There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.
Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.