Category: Comedies

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen, Finland-Germany 2017)

Khaled and Wikström

I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman.  We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.

The sushi restaurant crew . . .

I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.

Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make a film in the UK. We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.

Don’s Party (Australia 1976)

Don (John Hargreaves) is nearest to the camera, in the middle ground are Mack, Jody and Cooley and in the background Kath and Mal

Don’s Party is another example of the 1970s ‘New Australian Cinema’ or an ‘AFC’ film as Australian film studies now terms such films, referring to public funding via the Australian Film Commission and similar state funding schemes. The film is an adaptation of David Williamson’s 1971 stage play by the writer himself and it is directed by Bruce Beresford. It’s one of Williamson’s early plays. He went on to write many more and to complete several film scripts for major Australian films. Beresford began in the 1960s making short films in Australia and in the UK before directing two comedies starring Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. After Don’s Party his films became more likely to appeal to specialised audiences and eventually his critical reputation helped him move to the US where Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his performance in Beresford’s Tender Mercies in 1983.

The party, given by Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan) in their home in the North Sydney suburbs is meant to celebrate the victory of the Labour Party in the October 1969 General Election. Labour is ahead in some of the polls and Don hopes to see the end of the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’ in UK terms) government of John Gorton that in coalition with the Country Party has held power since 1949. (Ironically in the five years between the stage play and the film, Labour did get in, but then the Liberals got back in.) In 1969 Labour actually polled the most votes but the Liberals got the most seats. During the 1970s the parties were neck and neck. I think this is important as context and might explain the overall sense of frustration. This is also the period of Australian involvement in Vietnam. Two of the cast of Don’s Party are also in The Odd Angry Shot, the Vietnam film set just a few years earlier.

Although the film begins with Don and Kath voting and TV footage covering the results service, it soon becomes apparent that the election is important context but not directly part of the narrative. Much more important is the set of relationships between the guests at the party and in particular the four male friends at its centre. It is a skilfully written play/film reminiscent in some way of the plays on UK TV in the same period and I thought of Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn in terms of the embarrassment factor inherent in much of the behaviour. The film didn’t get a UK release until 1979 and I didn’t find Monthly Film Bulletin‘s review very helpful. I suspect that audience interest now is likely to be directed at the depiction of ‘useless’ Australian males. The women in the film are represented as much more sensible/serious than the men, though their behaviour is sometimes equally ‘bad’. Is this a satire on Australian masculinity? Williamson and Beresford seem most interested in the men and it is the male actors who, I think, are generally better known. Ray Barrett had a long career in the UK, mainly on TV from the 1950s, before returning to Australia in the mid 1970s. He was the older ‘mentor’ figure for Don at university, but both have ‘failed’ to live up to their dreams. Don is a teacher and an unpublished novelist. John Hargreaves is one of the two actors who later appeared in The Odd Angry Shot and the other is Graham Kennedy who plays Mack, the single man at the party having split up with his wife. Kennedy’s performance poses a problem for non-Australian viewers since although largely unknown  he was a well-known ‘personality presenter’ on Australian TV from 1959 until 1991 and sometimes called the ‘King of Australian TV’. He made two films based on David Williamson scripts – the second was The Club in 1980. In a Senses of Cinema essay, Susan Bye argues that Kennedy was such a strong TV presence that his films set up a debate about the authenticity of the characters he played. She quotes him as refuting the suggestion that he was ‘really’ the the personality he appeared to be on TV. Instead, he argued that he always played a part. That part was seemingly informed by the typed figure of the ‘larrikin’, that peculiarly Australian character of the working-class rebel. In Don’s Party, the type is doubly presented by Kennedy’s character and by the character played by Harold Hopkins, Cooley, the fourth of the central male quartet. Cooley is a womaniser and sexual athlete, a smooth lawyer who at one point refers to his Irish Catholic background. The larrikin moment for Mack is caught in his comic story (with actions) about a duck hunt. He carries his pewter beer tankard on a chain around his neck.

Mack (Graham Kennedy) tries chatting up Kerry (Candy Raymond)

The other two men are a repressed dentist and an accountant (the only man who admits to voting for the Liberals). These two men both leave the party – and leave their wives to be propositioned by Mack and Cooley. It’s not clear to me what Williamson wanted to say about the women. Ironically, the most sympathetic character in the whole narrative is Jody, the accountant’s wife played by the British-born actor Veronica Lang. She happily admits to being a Liberal, but also turns out to be the most sociable and a ‘good sport’. If there is a satire about the sexual mores of the partygoers, it’s mainly expressed through male bravado – countered by the women who meet the challenges (which are often then withdrawn). There is a fair degree of nudity, both male and female and I would argue that the film is quite confused about how it represents gender and sexual mores. What in turn this means for the representation of political ideas and social class is equally unclear. The thumbnail review in Sight and Sound (Summer 1979) suggests that it shows the ‘failure of socialism’. This seems a silly statement since there hasn’t been a socialist party in power. The characters are certainly aware of social class and political issues. Perhaps the saddest symbol of Don’s frustration is that at the end of the film he finds the sapling that he had planted in his garden the night before has been trampled down during the drunken rousing of the night before.

Overall I enjoyed watching Don’s Party. Despite the conventional nature of the drunken squabbles, much of it rings true. It carried me along and I didn’t worry too much about its stage origins.

The Graduate (US 1967)

The 50th Anniversary (actually Christmas 2017 in North America) release of The Graduate is an odd anniversary for me. I now discover that the film is deemed a classic and it has received the same 5 star reviews that all ‘classics’ seem to receive automatically. I’ll have to wait until I watch it again in a cinema to see what this means in practice. For now I want to try to remember the first time I watched it during 1968. The circumstances are memorable since it was a preview screening several weeks before the UK release (which was several months after the US release date). My university Student Union received a large number of tickets for a late night screening (i.e. after the last house) at the London Pavilion, the large cinema still standing but no longer showing films, on Piccadilly Circus. I don’t remember how we got back to our digs in Streatham at 2 a.m. in the morning but I assume we got the night bus. I think I must have enjoyed the film and I think we followed the distributor’s plan by talking about it to friends several weeks before its London release in August 1968.

My main recollection of the film is that I was taken by Paul Simon’s songs more than the film itself. I think I already knew ‘The Sound of Silence’ and ‘April Come She Will’, but ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’ were possibly new to me. I enjoyed the film which I found very funny but I’m not sure what kind of lasting impression it made on me apart from the music. The soundtrack was certainly innovative and predated Easy Rider (1969), Mean Streets (1973) and American Graffiti (1973) – the most frequently quoted music soundtrack ‘breakthrough’ films. Pop music had often been used in Hollywood films in the 1950s and 1960s before The Graduate but never so carefully integrated in the narrative and certainly not in a film that wasn’t ostensibly about musicians or the music industry. The one odd aspect that occurs to me now is that Paul Simon’s songs and Simon & Garfunkel as a duo were very strongly connected with New York and I’d forgotten that The Graduate is an LA movie.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

Listening to an item on the re-release on Radio 4’s The Film Programme and reading some of the print reviews, I was surprised at several of the comments. Reviewers now seem to focus on the older woman, younger man aspect of Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, though they know that in fact Bancroft was playing much older than her ‘real’ 36 and was only in fact six years older than Hoffman. I don’t remember being ‘bothered’ by the relationship. It makes me think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) with his mother played by Jessie Royce who was only eight years his senior. I think that this shows that The Graduate was a film still tied to ‘old Hollywood’ in 1967. It surely isn’t a ‘New Hollywood’ film. I suspect that Mike Nichols is now seen as more of an innovator than he was considered at the time. Yes, he did win the Best Director Oscar for the film, but wasn’t that an indication of how skilfully he made a film in the tradition? Nichols was well-known first as a comedian in partnership with Elaine May and then as a highly-successful director on Broadway. His first three films were all adaptations – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) from Edward Albee’s play, The Graduate from Charles Webb’s novel and Catch-22 (1970), my favourite of the three, from Joseph Heller’s novel. Aged 19 in 1968, I wasn’t a cinephile, so I didn’t make critical judgements about The Graduate. I remember the unusual ending better than anything else. For me, at that time, Dustin Hoffman didn’t represent a young graduate. He wasn’t much like the American grad students I came across in London. It was probably not until Midnight Cowboy in 1969 that I began to think about Hoffman. Similarly, Katherine Ross made more impression on me in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both also in 1969. Having said that, the notes in my film diary suggest that it was Ms Ross, alongside the music, that caught my attention.

It’s important, I think, that in the late 1960s, it often took Hollywood films a good six months to arrive in the UK. The Graduate took eight. Its American success set up its UK opening – it was the biggest US box office film of 1968. The truth was that it was one of the very few witty adult Hollywood films of the 1960s to attract a mass audience (it had an ‘X’ certificate in the UK, making it out of the reach of those under 16). (The script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry must take plenty of credit.) In the UK, the 1960s, for my circle of friends, was remembered mainly in terms of British films. The American box office film of 1968 that made the biggest impression on me was probably Polanski’s first Hollywood film (after he left the UK), Rosemary’s Baby, which I actually saw a couple of years later in a Paramount double bill with Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (a 1969 UK release).

Here’s part of the ‘Scarborough Fair’ sequence from The Graduate – at least, I think it is, there are so many YouTube clips! I think this represents what I thought was new at the time. Watching it again, it’s the combination of the music with the camerawork by the veteran Robert Surtees that seems important. It’s interesting to read some of the contemporary reviews from 1967. Bosley Crowther in the NY Times was coming to the end of a glittering career as a critic in 1967 when he panned Bonnie and Clyde but praised The Graduate as a throwback to Preston Sturges. Roger Ebert liked the film but loathed the music and the ‘arty camerawork’ shown below. Interestingly, he saw the same vitality in the film that he saw in the British films that had done so well in the US in the 1960s (he was thinking of Tom Jones and The Knack among others). Thirty years later he downgraded his rating and decided that the film had dated and that Mrs Robinson was actually the most interesting character.

Dough (UK-Hungary 2015)

A French ad for ‘Dough’. The reference to a Ken Loach comedy/drama is interesting.

This film has finally been released in the UK, a year after France and the US. In many ways, it is an old-fashioned film, though its subject matter is contemporary enough. I hesitate to refer to the 1940s/50s Ealing Comedies but it does offer some of the same pleasures as those films (and to more recent films like those of Nigel Cole such as Saving Grace (2000)). My puzzlement as to where the film came from creatively lasted until I realised that its director and co-producer Jonathan Goldschmidt is a UK TV drama veteran who has not made a feature for the cinema since the Julie Walters comedy She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas in 1985. I’m not sure what he has been doing in the meantime, but his production company Viva Films co-produced this film with Hungarian partners and the interior scenes were shot in Hungary. Goldschmidt was a major figure in UK television and set up links between Granada and NDR in Hamburg. Later he worked on various EU audio-visual initiatives. The most pertinent connection for this comedy is probably his work with the great writer Jack Rosenthal.

The plot is very familiar. Nat (Jonathan Pryce), an ageing East End baker, is struggling to keep open his shop in the face of competition from a local supermarket chain owned by Sam Cotton (Phil Davis) and when he loses his apprentice to Cotton’s (who want to attract custom from Jewish residents) it looks like the end is near. In a desperate step he takes on a new ‘lad’, Aayash (Jerome Holder), the son of the shop’s cleaner, an African refugee from Sudan. Nat is becoming estranged from his own son, now too ‘respectable’ to support his father and he reluctantly begins to accept his new Muslim apprentice in his traditional Jewish bakery. But Aayash has his own problems – he is locked into an arrangement to deal cannabis for a local ‘hard man’ (Ian Hart). By accident, he stumbles across a possible solution to everyone’s problem and suddenly the baker’s shop is doing a roaring trade. You can probably guess what has happened and the narrative follows a familiar course.

Jonathan Pryce with Pauline Collins – an attractive couple for older audiences.

The script is witty and the cast are very good. As well as the three veterans listed above, Pauline Collins plays Nat’s landlady. Jerome Holder is also very good. The audience in the French cinema in which I saw the film last year laughed in all the right places, some of them seemingly ahead of the subtitles. Other than that, the most striking aspect of the film for me was the inclusion of scenes set in a synagogue – relatively unusual I think in British cinema. Jonathan Pryce has been playing Shylock in the US I think – and he has also starred in Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why the film took so long to get a UK release – I would have thought it would sell well to older audiences. This weekend my assumption proved correct, ScreenDaily reports that Dough was released on 19 screens (mostly in London I suspect) and achieved a very respectable £2,700 per screen over the weekend. Again, I suspect a strong Jewish vote of confidence. If it does turn up near you, give it a go for the performances and some decent laughs.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand 2016)

Hec (Sam Neill) and Ricky (Julian Dennison) hiding out in the mountains.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a big hit last year. In New Zealand it made over US$8million – which would mean 1 in 6 of the cinema audience saw it. It had success in Australia and healthy returns in both North America and the UK as well. So, what is the attraction? It’s not difficult to understand. Here is a family comedy with a rebellious streak that stars a likeable young teenage boy and a star actor familiar to all. It also helps that it was shot in the mountains and forests of various parts of North Island, New Zealand – and, yes, there is a Lord of the Rings joke.

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a 12 year-old boy abandoned by his single-parent mother and now has a petty crime record that drives his social worker to her last resort for foster carers. They are Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), a seemingly unlikely couple living on a remote farmstead. Bella is a ‘warm earth mother’ and a rescuer of waifs and strays, but Heck is a cantankerous old bastard who accepts Ricky only to please Bella. Ricky quickly sees that Bella is someone who might actually care for him, but when something bad happens, he and Heck have to team up and go on the run in the ‘bush’.

Rima Te Wiata as Bella

It doesn’t seem much of a story, unless it is going to be an epic struggle against the elements and the dangers of the ‘wild’. But for all his faults, Heck is a sensible man of the mountains and forests. The pair could survive for many weeks, even with the authorities, led by Paula (Rachel House) the dragon-like social worker, in constant pursuit. Director Taika Waititi has had plenty of success in recent years, headed by Boy (2010), one of the biggest ever films at the New Zealand box office. He knows exactly what he is doing and expertly builds the ‘odd couple’ relationship between Ricky and Hec that becomes the focus of the film.

I realised quite quickly that the central idea of the film was very familiar and that elements of Pork Pie (New Zealand 2017) were beginning to crop up at regular intervals. Pork Pie (like its predecessor, Goodbye Pork Pie, 1981) is an adult road movie with a young Maori tearaway and an older white guy racing through New Zealand with a massive police hunt and a social media campaign attempting to find the duo. This is what Hunt for the Wilderpeople becomes in its third section. The difference between the two films, apart from the age differential, comes from the origins of Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress by the comedy writer Barry Crump. Crump himself is presumably the model for Hec. He was famously an archetypal ‘outdoorsman’ whose adventures formed the basis for a string of comedy novels and a big celebrity status.

Ricky reluctantly poses with TK (Troy Kingi) one of the people he meets in a remote house in the bush.

My knowledge of New Zealand ethnic identities is not great, but clues in the dialogue suggest that Ricky has a Maori identity. Rather than the heavy social typing (he has been abandoned by his mother and is in care with a social worker) I noted the scene where he reads the police ‘Wanted’ notice and comments about the description of Hec as Caucasian – “They’ve got that wrong since you are obviously white”. Ricky names his dog ‘Tupac’ and sees himself as having ‘rapper’ potential. Not much, I know, but the point is that this is almost a ‘colour-blind’ film made by New Zealand’s most successful Maori filmmaker. It’s the kind of film that would be difficult to make in the UK, US and probably Australia. Most of the cast are Maori and it doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Taika Waititi presumably doesn’t feel the ‘burden’ of representing Maori identity in contemporary New Zealand, in the way that some UK directors from African-Caribbean or South Asian communities feel the pressure to represent a ‘community’. It’s difficult from outside New Zealand to be sure how a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople is understood in terms of identity. For instance, in the image above, Ricky is reluctant to pose for a selfie with TK who sticks out his tongue in what I take to be a gesture from Maori warrior traditions. I’m not sure which aspect of all this makes Ricky embarrassed. I’m happy to be informed by anyone who knows how to read this!

I realise that I haven’t emphasised just how funny many parts of the film are. There are some good movie quote jokes and the relationship between Ricky and Hec works equally well as comedy and genuine emotion. We’ve seen this kind of relationship in several well-known films and it depends on getting the mix right between the experienced adult actor and the relatively inexperienced younger actor. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are both excellent and we believe in the relationship as it develops. Waititi provides a quartet of oddball characters, including a loopy priest played by himself. The redneck hunters and ‘psycho loner’ seem more heavily typed as do the social worker and her police side-kick. Only the young girl on a horse makes a connection with the emotional drama, everything else is played for laughs. I’m not sure that Hunt for the Wilderpeople would stand up to intense scrutiny as a narrative but as a comedy with a heart that races along with plenty of laughs on the way, it’s hard to beat.

Their Finest (UK 2016)

Catrin (Gemma Arterton) and Tom (Sam Claflin)

Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes  a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband

Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.

Gemma Arterton’s costumes work very well for me. The hats especially seem to suit her.

Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.

Lone Scherfig on set in Pinewood with Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton

Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x” narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.

Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard and Helen McRory as his agent Sophie at the premiere of the film ‘The Nancy Starling’

The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder and Gordan Jackson as British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.

Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.

Pembrokeshire stands in for Dunkirk on set for ‘The Nancy Starling’

Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.

Neruda (Chile-Argentina-France-Spain-US 2016)

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in disguise on the streets of Valparaiso

Neruda is the latest of several films by Chilean director Pablo Larrain to focus on moments during Chile’s turbulent political struggles between the 1940s and the death of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006. Larrain’s approach is through a focus on certain characters, either closely involved in the events of the period or perhaps engaged in something that might be read as a metaphor for everyday life in Chile at that time. One of these films, No (2011), is discussed elsewhere on this blog. Immediately after completing Neruda, Larrain directed Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). Jackie portrayed Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, mainly through the device of the former First Lady giving an interview to a journalist. If you are unaware of how Pablo Larrain has approached historical figures and historical events in his films, you may be thrown by a film like Neruda.

Pablo Neruda (1904-73), real name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was an extraordinary figure, a poet-diplomat who took his pen-name from Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91). Pablo was a poet from age 10 who could communicate directly with the Chilean working-class and was a Communist elected as a Senator. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and perished in mysterious circumstances during the suppression of Salvador Allende’s legitimate government in 1973. Neruda was being treated for cancer but suspicions remain that he was murdered by a doctor on the orders of General Pinochet.

Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) makes up her husband for another ‘performance’ as ‘Neruda’

Larrain’s film is not, as might be expected, a straight biopic. Instead it follows Neruda over a few months in 1948 when, as a Communist, he became vulnerable to the forces loyal to the new President, Gabriel González Videla a supposed leftist who then turned towards anti-communism in order to court American support. Neruda denounced this move and became a marked man. All this is represented accurately in the film, but Neruda’s actions then become fictionalised and Larrain creates a narrative in which Neruda plays cat and mouse games with a police detective charged by the President with arresting him. This character, Óscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal, is fictional. Neruda (played in a bravura performance by Luis Gnecco) leads the detective a merry dance, at first accompanied by his lover, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and then on his own. Neruda was a larger than life character who enjoyed fine wines and fine clothes but was capable of writing poems which could rouse crowds from every section of Chilean society as the film demonstrates very well. The fictional story includes the ‘real’ escape of Neruda to Argentina across the mountains.

Detective Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) who always seems to be just one step behind Neruda

The film is always watchable and I enjoyed it very much. The camera seems to be constantly moving as Neruda moves from one hideout to another. In one extraordinary sequence we meet a young Pinochet, but our main attention is on the detective. He’s an extraordinary character who is constantly attempting to confirm his own identity as a man who is the bastard son of a famous detective. With his fedora and thin moustache he appears like a character out of a US film noir. Neruda ‘plays’ with this character, leading him on with a trail of detective novels which the detective can’t resist reading. The detective’s name in Spanish apparently means ‘stuffed toy’ and this makes sense when the narrative twist is revealed. In the meantime, Neruda emphasises this play by ‘dressing up’ and slipping away in disguise as the detective approaches. I’m not quite sure what this all means (apart from making a commentary on political figures) but it is certainly entertaining and if it introduces audiences to some of the real history of what happened in Chile, that can’t be a bad thing. If only our politicians today were half as interesting as Pablo Neruda.

¡Viva! 23 #7: María (y los demás) (Spain 2016)

María (Bárbara Lennie)

This was perhaps the most enjoyable film I saw at ¡Viva!. A comedy drama with a terrific central character, strong supporting cast and a solid story with plenty of laughs – what’s not to like? Having the opportunity to hear the director Nely Reguera talk about the film in the Q&A after the screening was an added bonus.

María is a thirty-something living in Galicia. When we first meet her she has been caring for her widowed father who has been receiving treatment for cancer. Her day job is with a small local publisher and bookseller. She has encounters with men she knows, but doesn’t have a committed partner. When Dad is fully recovered it is time for his birthday and his two sons and their partners return home for the party. Dad invites his nurse from the health centre to the party where he makes a sudden announcement that surprises everybody and has all kinds of repercussions, including questions about the future of the family restaurant which has been closed for a couple of years. María has done all the cooking for the party, but the eldest son Jorge is a chef currently working in London. I don’t want to give away any more but the plot sets up a range of issues affecting different members of the family. (The rough English translation of the title is ‘Maria (and the others)’.)

A beautiful room for the aspiring novelist

The main focus is the challenge to María’s sense of who she is and what’s she should be doing now her ‘carer’/’supporter’ role has changed. One possibility is that she might finish the novel she has been writing, another is a search for a more permanent relationship. These are both familiar ‘drivers’ for a comedy and here they are melded into the general family drama. Director Nely Reguera (who co-wrote the script with four others) had spoken about her film in the panel discussion about ‘Contemporary Female Filmmakers in Spanish Cinema’. This was her first feature after two short films and plenty of production experience as an Assistant Director. She said that María took her several years to get into production. Her comments raised expectation that this would not be a straight genre picture despite familiar tropes such as María’s relationships with her girlfriends and the different ways in which plot developments thwart her attempts to achieve her goals. I was particularly interested in the two other young women in her family  – her sister-in-law and Anne, the English partner of her eldest brother, the chef. I asked Nely about this in the Q&A and she said the English connection was partly simply realism – many Galicians travel to work abroad and that there are many Spanish workers in the UK. But she also said that Anne was one of her favourite characters in the film. It struck me that though Anne and María don’t have a great deal of interaction, Anne does have both a positive and a negative impact on how the rest of the family view María. María’s cooking is local and home-cooked, whereas Anne speaks about how she and Jorge often get take-aways, especially Thai food. In defending traditional Galician attitudes towards food, Maria is parochial in the face of Anne’s ‘globalised modernity’. Equally, however, Anne is much more supportive of María’s need for independence when her sister-in-law and others assume that she will follow tradition. Then again, Anne is possibly a figure of fun in her jogging gear.

Maria looks for more than casual relationships

María (y los demás) was released in Spain in December 2016 and doesn’t seem to have been released in other markets yet. It has been very well received in Spain with several nominations and a couple of wins at festivals and awards events. Nely Reguera has received attention as a promising new director and Bárbara Lennie in the lead role has received similar attention. Nely told us that she was lucky to get Lennie for the lead role before the big success of her recent films such as Magical Girl (2014) for which she won a Goya. She is perfect as María and the supporting cast is equally good. This is a film that is well-written, skilfully directed and wonderfully performed. In any sane world it would sell widely across different territories. Fingers crossed, it will. I hope you can find it and enjoy it.