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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was going to start this post with another moan about Peter Bradshaw, but in this case his review wasn’t that bad, just not enthusiastic enough for me. Instead it was Wendy Ide, now reviewing for the Observer, who was the real culprit. In a paragraph of clichés she sneers at the film for its worthiness and even manages to imply a plot development that doesn’t happen. I know this isn’t an unusual occurrence, but in this case its impact is compounded by the treatment this film got from some UK exhibitors. I mean you, Picturehouses. The Olive Tree was chosen by Picturehouses for its ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot in which a relatively obscure film is placed in selected Picturehouse cinemas for a single showing at 18.00 on a Tuesday. The argument presumably is that this gives an outlet the film might not usually get and it can be promoted as part of a ‘strand’ in the local cinema’s programming. I guess that for some titles this might actually be beneficial – but in several cases the slot has been used to screen a film that could reach a much larger audience who might not be able to get to that single screening.
The Olive Tree is written by Paul Laverty, arguably one of the UK’s most consistent screenwriters whose scripts have graced two Cannes Palme d’Or winners for director Ken Loach. He is also the partner of the director Icíar Bollaín, the most high-profile female director in Spain. The Olive Tree is their second production together after the critically acclaimed Even the Rain (Spain-France-Mexico, 2010). They met on Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995). The Olive Tree is a ‘comedy drama’ that for me was both very funny and deeply moving. It is, as might be expected from Laverty and Bollaín, rooted in observation and social commentary. So, although on the surface this may indeed be a simple story, you don’t have to look far beneath the surface to find the commentary about the ongoing economic crisis in Spain, the anger about aspects of corporate practice and the pain of contemporary social and personal problems. Despite the subtitles, everybody can access the humanity of this film and in any sane film culture they wouldn’t have to look carefully for its single showing in their local cinema.
Many of us love trees. We especially love old trees and this olive tree is perhaps 1,000 years or old or more. (The grandfather in the film claims it is 2,000 years old.) Anything this old and especially a tree which has supplied fruit for the livelihood of succeeding generations of farmers is not just a tree, it is a symbol of a way of life. Consider the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers in the West Bank – a deliberate act of vandalism in trying to destroy a culture. The situation in the Valencia region of Eastern Spain is not so critical but unbearably painful nonetheless for the farmers and their families. In The Olive Tree, Alma (Anna Castillo) is a young woman working in the chicken shed on the family farm and acting as a carer for her grandfather who has dementia. He now barely touches his food and doesn’t speak but instead wanders into the ancient olive plantation staring at a mound of stones. When Alma realises that he is thinking about the olive tree that was sold several years earlier when she was still a child, she resolves to somehow get the tree back. Unfortunately the tree was sold for €30,000 to an energy company in Düsseldorf – where it has pride of place in the atrium of the company’s HQ. Alma is a resourceful young woman, but the only way she can proceed is by subterfuge, persuading her uncle and a younger driver to ‘borrow’ a truck with a crane and head for the Rhine by telling them a made-up story about an offer to return the tree. It’s a crazy prospect and we seem to be in the fictional world of madcap adventures and ‘feelgood’ films. Laverty and Bollain have the task of making the journey – and its outcome – credible while at the same time entertaining us and making serious social comments. I think they do this splendidly.
At one point I wondered if Laverty’s starting point was his own script for The Angel’s Share (UK 2012) and indeed there are similarities, but The Olive Tree has a different tone and perhaps a broader perspective. One of its strongest themes is about the pain and misery of the Spanish boom before 2008 and the subsequent crash. The family lost its money through investment in a seaside restaurant and the anger about the moneyed classes who survived the bust is neatly encapsulated in a visual joke. The economic and social plight of Spain is also represented by the tree’s sale to Germany – which is the strong Eurozone centre oppressing the weak Spanish Euro partner. On the other hand, the film also acts as a rebuke to Brexiteers as the truck sails along, passing signs welcoming the trio to France and Germany – signs in blue with the circle of yellow stars of the EU. There are no borders, no customs posts, no currency exchanges.
Lying behind or underneath the feelgood road trip and the economic and social commentary is a family melodrama – a tale of repressed emotions. Through the tree Alma is linked to her childhood relationship with her grandfather. She doesn’t speak to her father who has a different set of feelings about the old man. She does tease her uncle but she has failed in her relationships with men nearer her own age. Perhaps the journey is also about addressing these issues. Alma’s difficulties with family and work colleagues are contrasted with her relationships with her female friends and with the women who drive the social media campaign which develops during the truck’s journey. The campaign exposes the energy company’s ecological crimes and focuses on the ‘tree rescue’ as a news story about popular resistance.
So, this isn’t just a ‘simple story’, it’s many-layered. All the performances are good but I especially enjoyed that of Javier Gutiérrez as Alma’s uncle Alcachofa and that of Pep Ambròs as Rafa, his driving mate. The film looks wonderful in Sergi Gallardo’s ‘Scope compositions and sounds great with Pascal Gaigne’s score. It was nominated for four Goyas with a win for Anna Castillo.
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)’.)
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.
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.
La Novia or The Bride is an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding. It screened at ¡Viva! at the end of a day of films directed by women plus a panel on ‘Female filmmakers in Contemporary Spanish Cinema’. The screening was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham of the University of Manchester who was also on the earlier panel. She explained her interest in this adaptation directed by Paula Ortiz by reference to the change in emphasis brought about by the alteration of the play’s title so that instead of the institution of marriage, the focus is on the single agent of ‘The Bride’. Here is a film with a female protagonist who has ‘agency’, rather than being presented as ‘victim’ or simply as the object of the male gaze.
I’m not really in a position to comment on how much this change of emphasis actually changes readings of Lorca’s original text since I haven’t seen theatrical versions of the play nor the best known film adaptation – as a dance drama directed by Carlos Saura (Blood Wedding, 1981). I have read a synopsis of the play and various commentaries and the main difference would seem to be that The Bride dispenses with what might be called the ‘chorus’ figures and some lesser roles, replacing them to some extent with crowd scenes and visual effects. In addition, Ortiz begins her film with the final sequence of the narrative and then flashes back. She also includes a sequence about the three central characters as teenagers/young adults. Lorca’s text names the main characters by role – i.e. ‘The Groom’, ‘The Groom’s Mother’ etc. and Ortiz follows suit. (The adaptation was written by Paula Ortiz and Javier García Arredondo.)
Lorca’s play was written in 1932 and first performed in 1933. Lorca himself was young, gay and radical. He didn’t survive the Civil War and was killed in 1936, presumed assassinated by right-wing militia. His body was never found. Blood Wedding was one of three Lorca plays set in rural Spain (Andalusia in this case) which attempted to bring modern theatre and its critique of bourgeois Spain to small villages with conservative values. Productions of the plays ever since have been open to different interpretations depending on their location and timing. The Bride was filmed partly in Zaragoza and Huesca, but mainly in Turkey in the Cappadocia region made familiar to international viewers by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, especially in his Chekhovian film Winter Sleep (2014). The setting in terms of historical period is much more difficult to determine. The only indicators are motor vehicles which range from 1930s models to as late as the 1960s/70s. In rural Spain under Franco life didn’t change much so the indeterminate time period perhaps doesn’t matter.
Questions are usually asked about stage adaptations for film in terms of ‘opening out’ and making ‘filmic’. The Bride is both in one sense ‘enclosed’ by its interior locations and its arid setting amongst mountains and plains and in another sense, visually ‘epic’ in its cinematography and use of effects. Cinema 1 at HOME was quite full and I found myself in the first couple of rows with the screen looming above me. Though I usually sit close to the screen, it’s unusual to be so close to a very big screen and with big close-ups of faces in CinemaScope, I found the beginning of the film overwhelming. It was impossible to see the whole screen at once and read the subtitles. The ‘filmic’ elements include the use of slow motion and close-ups and symbolic imagery. One significant addition is an ‘optical toy’ seen in the glass-blowing workshop – a carousel of glass plates depicting a horse and rider which as it turns catches a device that makes a metallic sound. This toy appears in the Bride’s dreams/nightmares. It sits in her father’s workshop where glass objects are blown and The Bride will receive a crystal dagger from the old woman representing Death who warns her not to marry if she doesn’t love the man who would be her husband.
La Novia looks wonderful in Migue Amoedo’s presentation and it has interesting music with a score by Shigeru Umebayashi and a song performed by The Bride as well as a Spanish language rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Take This Waltz’ (which is based on Lorca’s words).However, as to what it all means I’m not sure. I didn’t really buy the argument that The Bride is a woman with agency. She seems a traditional female figure to me, who seems compelled to go with her teenage crush Leonardo rather than The Groom. In doing this she hurts Leonardo’s wife and causes suffering for the Groom’s Mother. It’s a choice between the ‘wild’ and ‘natural’ Leonardo on his rearing horse and the ‘modern’ Groom on his motorcycle. Underpinning the struggles of the two suitors are ancient family feuds by which the whole community seems bewitched. My other problem is that the three actors seem too old for the roles. They are all in their mid-thirties. It wouldn’t matter on stage but it struck me in the close-ups on the screen.
La Novia was nominated for, and won, several awards in Spain but my impression was that the film doesn’t really work for audiences. I was told that the subtitles did not properly represent Lorca’s dialogue and that as an adaptation it wasn’t likely to appeal to admirer’s of Lorca’s work. I found it pleasurable to watch and to listen to, but its meanings were rather lost on me.
Another first feature by a female filmmaker from South America, Rara followed Alba and offered ¡Viva! audiences a third young teenager’s struggles in a family group. In this case the family group is intact, but following a divorce, lawyer Paula (Mariana Loyola) is living with Lia (Agustina Muñoz), a vet. The central character is Sara (Julia Lübbert), who with her younger sister Catalina (Emilia Ossandon) is getting used to the new family arrangements – which involve visits to her father’s new household. Like Alba this is a first feature. Director Pepa San Martín had also previously made two short films and her first feature was co-written with the experienced Alicia Scherson. I think the best way to describe the film is as a family drama with comedic elements. Watching it I did feel that many scenes would have worked in situation comedies and television comedy drama series. This is not in any way a criticism. In the UK these types of narrative forms have often been where women writers have had most success and established themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Rara and found many aspects of it impressive. My only concern was that the narrative as a whole didn’t seem to be completely coherent. I wondered if I was misreading some scenes.
Rara doesn’t announce where it is set until the first mention of ‘the capital’, Santiago and the implication that we are outside the capital (and actually in Viña del Mar, north of Valparaiso). When I checked after the screening I discovered that civil partnerships between same sex partners were made legal in Chile in 2015 and that moves to legalise same sex marriage are current under the presidency of Michelle Bachelet. Rara is clearly a topical film and this perhaps explains the background to what is ostensibly a youth picture about Sara and her approaching 13th birthday – her first since having braces removed with the promise of kissing to enjoy. Much of the narrative is taken up by Sara’s vacillation over how to celebrate her birthday. Should she have a small party in her mother’s house or a bigger party (planned by her close schoolfriend), possibly in her father’s new house? She has other relationships to worry about as well – her first possible boyfriend at school and her sometimes difficult times with her younger sister. Catalina is always likely to steal the narrative limelight – especially when a stray ginger kitten appears. But these questions about the party (and at one point the cat) also have implications for the two families. Whether Sara understands what her actions might provoke is unclear, but they give her father and his new wife some possible opportunities to develop a case for custody of the two girls. The new status of same sex partnerships has not been universally welcomed and some of the staff and students at school aren’t totally supportive. It’s all too easy to say the wrong thing or to react without thinking. According to the review on the Queer Guru website, the story is:
actually based on the true story in 2004 when a Chilean Judge lost custody of her own children purely on the basis of her sexuality. Rara (which means ‘sad’) stops before the trial begins . . .
The Hollywood Reporter review suggests that ‘Rara’ means strange. Either way, the script has to present Paula’s family as ‘just like other families’ – which it clearly is – but also to subtly indicate why problems might arise and the first indication is when Catalina’s drawing of her family shows her two mothers. She has actually left off her gran, Pancha – another mother whose conservatism makes her less supportive than she might be. A UK review by Isabelle Milton makes a good point in noting that in some sequences showing Sara in school, the use of long tracking shots seems to suggest an art cinema sensibility that is not supported by more familiar generic scenes such as dancing to pop music in a bedroom. The character of the father (played by Daniel Muñoz) seemed less well-drawn than the other main characters and I couldn’t ‘read’ his behaviour in some scenes. Is he playing ‘weak’ to disguise his intentions, is he simply ‘mild-mannered’? A colleague suggested he seemed ‘feminised’. This added to my sense of a slight incoherence.
Shot in CinemaScope and running at a concise 88 minutes, Rara is nevertheless an enjoyable film to watch with many excellent performances, especially by the two young sisters. It seems to have been released in Italy, Mexico and Spain with France to come and I hope it opens in more territories. Here is a trailer (with English subs) which perhaps pushes the conservative comments about sexuality harder than in the film itself:
and here is the Chilean trailer (no subs):
and here’s a long interview (with translation) from the Berlin Film Festival screening:
Alba was the second of three films at ¡Viva!, to present young teenagers in complicated family situations. 11 year-old Alba lives with her mother who is bedridden and dangerously ill. Alba is reliant on her own company and struggles to make friends at school. When her mother is hospitalised Alba is sent to live with her father Igor who she doesn’t really know since she was a baby when her parents divorced. He too is a solitary figure and seems beaten down by life. But he makes an effort and as a new relationship between father and daughter slowly develops, Alba also finds a new friend at school and starts to ‘open up’. But, once she begins to engage with her classmates, familiar issues of peer group pressure emerge and, in Alba’s case, social class attitudes. We realise that Alba’s mother must have put her daughter into a school in a middle-class area and her father’s lifestyle and his job in a municipal office don’t fit in. The narrative then has to deal with this new predicament.
Alba is a film developed with help from various film festival schemes as a first feature by Ecuadorian director Ana Cristina Barragán. She had previously made two well-received short films and this enabled her to attract two pairs of producers from Mexico and Greece who helped to make the film a success at festivals in Rotterdam and San Sebastian as well as Chicago, Mumbai and Lima. I haven’t seen a debutant film as fine as this for a long time. Despite sometimes employing the dreaded Steadicam and shallow focus at times, the CinemaScope frame is used by cinematographer Simon Brauer for lovely compositions which tell us a great deal in a film with less dialogue than usual given the shyness of both Alba and her father. The details are very well worked into the narrative and I would enjoy watching the film again to pick up what I might have missed first time round. Macarena Arias as Alba is fantastic. Like the young actor in La Madre, she has the kind of face that can be switch from vulnerable child to serious young adult and can be revealed as just as pretty as the privileged girls when dressed up for a party. Pablo Aguirre Andrade as Igor is also very good. I thought he seemed familiar and now I realise he was in the youth picture María y el Araña which screened at ¡Viva! in 2015 (and which I also liked very much).
The film doesn’t name the city in which Alba lives, but in the most lyrical section of the narrative Alba and Igor visit the seaside area of Santa Elena. This section sees Alba playing a cassette in Igor’s clapped-out old car. He confirms that the tape is one of her mother’s. ‘Eres tú’ was a massively popular Spanish song from the early 1970s sung by Mocedades and a big hit around the world. The scenes that follow are the most lyrical with a patient father recognising and supporting Alba’s affinity with living creatures and her appreciation of natural beauty.
But the joy of these scenes can’t last and there is more drama to follow. I like the way in which Barragán manages to show how Alba can ‘blossom’ through friendship but then find herself in more difficult situations because of unfamiliar social differences. It’s rare to find such a moving mix of ‘growing pains’ youth picture, family drama and subtle social commentary in a film that is also beautiful to behold.
Alba is a positive and encouraging story about a young girl told with considerable skill and panache. I hope to see more films by this director and Alba deserves to be widely seen and enjoyed. So far, promotional material is only available in Spanish via the official website which carries a Press Pack and the trailer below (from which I’ve taken most of the screengrabs in this posting).
Although I’d seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous three films, I still wasn’t quite prepared for Certain Women. I watched it intently but despite foreknowledge about her approach to narrative I was still surprised when it just stopped. I’ve thought a lot about the film over the last few days. Ms Reichardt is a favourite of many (most?) critics and I understand why. But her films still don’t get a wide release. She doesn’t make it easy for audiences but I would urge you to watch the films if you get the chance.
The ‘certain women’ of the title are four women in Montana. They are involved in three separate narratives which are subtly linked together in indirect ways. In the first we meet a small town lawyer played by Laura Dern who finds herself exhausted and exasperated by a difficult client. In the second, Michelle Williams is a business woman with a husband and teenage daughter who don’t seem totally enamoured of her attempts to build a weekend cottage using sustainable local materials. The third story features Kristen Stewart as a recent law graduate with little money forced to drive across the state to teach night school. There, by accident, she meets a young woman working in a solitary job as a ranch hand looking after a small herd over winter. This character (who some reviewers refer to as ‘Jamie’) is played by Lily Gladstone who is part Native American. I have to agree with all the critics and festival juries who pick out her performance over her more established fellow actors – each of whom are very good in their roles.
Chosen as the ‘Best Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2016, Certain Women has since been extensively reviewed so here I want to focus on just a limited range of responses. (Sophie Mayer has an excellent article on the film in Sight and Sound, March 2017 – it isn’t online as far as I can see but Mayer covers some of the same ground here.) Kelly Reichardt was born in Florida and her first film was made there, but her recent work is set in the North West, especially in Oregon. Landscape is crucially important in these films and Reichardt began her career with a fascination for photography. She has been well-served by her director of photography Christopher Blauvelt who has shot her last three films and she herself has taken on the film editing for her five major features. She has re-iterated that she hopes audiences will look to find meanings in her films rather than have them explained. The first shot of Certain Women (the whole film was shot on 16mm, blown up) is a static long shot as a mile-long freight train gradually comes into view. I’m not sure if I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain at this point, but I certainly did later. The first shot of Brokeback is a long shot of a truck stopping early in the morning, in Wyoming not Montana but the landscape is similar. There are huge spaces, mountains, big skies and only a few people in small towns. I remember two other specific moments from early in the film. In one the camera lingers on a scene in a small shopping mall where children in Native American costume are performing a dance. It feels like a documentary. Sound is important as well. Laura Dern’s character, despondent in her car, turns on the radio/CD and we hear Guy Clark’s ‘Boats to Build’:
It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same o’l same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes
Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail
I didn’t register those lyrics at the time, but when I read them now, they seem like the perfect ironic accompaniment to the desolate lives of the characters. I’ve never been to Montana but I’ve read a few stories and watched a lot of movies. The stories that interest me most are those which are either set in the final days of the ‘frontier’, both ‘real’ and mythical, or which comment in some way on the world of the contemporary ‘Western’ with its lonely cowhands and characters seemingly bereft of purpose. Any time after the 1880s is perfect for the ‘twilight Western’ and Brokeback Mountain is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of story. Brokeback began as an E. Annie Proulx short story that was adapted by Diana Ossana and the ‘dean of the twilight Western’, Larry McMurtry (also responsible for the Montana-set Lonesome Dove and Texas-set The Last Picture Show). Another writer with a trilogy of Montana-set variations on the twilight Western is Thomas McGuane with Rancho Deluxe (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Tom Horn (1980). The (anti-)heroes of these stories are generally men who can’t come to terms with the decline of the West and its codes and are defeated/discouraged by the modernised West. (Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman from 1978 is one of the few female leads.)
Kelly Reichardt began to critique the Western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010) in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with more sense than the men on her pioneer wagon train – but, of course, the men don’t listen to her. The four women of Certain Women still live to some extent in a world of men who don’t listen or who make foolish decisions which the women will pay for in some way. For Certain Women Reichardt has adapted short stories by Montana novelist Maile Meloy from her collections Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009). It occurs to me that each of the three stories could be related to Western narratives and themes. The first story develops into a familiar tale about sheriffs and fugitives with Laura ‘used’ by the law because she is compassionate and can defuse a potentially tricky situation. What does she get out of it? It’s as if she’s restricted by those traditional roles for women in the Western – schoolteacher, pioneer mother or saloon girl. The third story about the lonely ranch hand and the exhausted teacher is a sad romance, beautifully played and paced and its standout is the short sequence in which the two young women are together on the horse that takes them between the school and the diner. This story has obvious echoes of Brokeback (in which, as I’ve just remembered, Montana-born Michelle Williams is the abandoned wife and mother). In the twilight Western there are often two characters – one who tries to adapt to modernity and one who is trapped inside the codes of the West (which in these stories are usually honourable codes). The exhausted Beth and ‘natural’ ranch hand again seem familiar.
In the second story from Certain Women Williams is Gina, the ‘strong woman’ still not sure if she is doing the right thing and struggling with herself as she does what those pioneer women had to do and build her own house (or at least, direct and organise the men she finds to do it). In this story the key scene is her encounter with the old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks that she would like to use for her house. He doesn’t need them but how much should she pay for them? Is she right to ask for them? If he offers them to her for free should she take them? The man with the stones is played by René Auberjonois, a name I recognised more than a face. Later I realised I had seen him in countless Westerns as well as the films of Robert Altman (Reichardt in an interview says she used to use his voice as the bartender in McCabe and Mrs Miller in exercises for film students). While her husband says nothing, Gina tries to engage the old man when he looks out on his land and points out the birds. Gina mimics the bird calls and we can’t be sure whether she is genuinely interested in the birds or just practised in negotiation. Again she seems to be struggling with a ‘modern’ role. Is she any happier than in her previous incarnation as pioneer woman?
The first story, in which Laura at one point cries out, imagining what it might be like to be a man who is listened to and given credence, is the only one with conventional (i.e. generic) ‘action’ – but even then its conclusion is subverted. In all three stories, the meaning is conveyed through landscape, cinematography and sound. It’s also ironic that one of the markers of the mise en scène of the ‘woman’s picture’ is costume. Reichardt may well have made an ‘anti-woman’s picture’ (as well as an ‘anti-Western’ and an ‘anti-melodrama’?). Costume says a lot here. In the first scene Laura returns to her office from a lunch-time tryst, late and a little bedraggled. Her sweater is half tucked in her skirt and half pulled out. We watch her climb the stairs and then come down when she is called to the phone by her receptionist. We know it isn’t going to be an easy afternoon. By contrast, Michelle Williams as Gina is seen first in running gear (and headphones) and then securely wrapped up for the cold – ‘properly’ dressed and with her hair tied up. At the end of the episode when she smokes a cigarette and sips a glass of wine at the chilly barbecue she has organised it seems like a visualisation of the contradiction between her efficient businesswoman and her striving for authenticity. Like Laura, Gina seems to represent the two twilight Western characters in a single conflicted character.
In the third episode, Beth (Kristen Stewart) wears clothes that look as tired as she is. Meanwhile, Lily Gladstone as the ranch hand is dressed for manual work but looks lively and alert (for the moment anyway). Both Wendy Ide in the Observer and A. O. Scott in the New York Times comment on Kristen Stewart’s performance. Ide argues that we know her performance is exceptional but it’s hard to figure out what she does. Scott makes the point that she successfully conveys the character’s tiredness and despair, but still retains enough of the glamour that appeals to the ranch hand. In terms of the ‘anti’ twilight Western however, the ranch hand who is closest to the land and open to the romanticism of the myth of the West is the one who is going to suffer. The other three characters all seem aware that they are attempting to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Western scenario, but so far are still trapped in their mythical roles or are unsure how far they have escaped them. You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the male characters in the film. There are two significant male roles, both of which have a narrative importance, but one of which is so inconsequential as a character that I didn’t realise his significance until after the screening. There is also a dog (there often is in a Reichardt film). I didn’t know there were corgis in the US. They don’t look well-adapted for ranch work, but Wikipedia tells me they are bred as ‘herding dogs’ (see the trailer below). I chose the German trailer as the best on offer for this blog.
I had to travel for four hours to see Certain Women – not as far as Kristen Stewart’s character, but it would be good if distributors and exhibitors had a bit more faith in films like this. There’s a good reason why Kelly Reichardt excites cinephiles. She makes films that make you think – and feel.
Gurinder Chadha is a distinctive director. Ever since her first short, but important, first film I’m British, But . . . (1990), she has sought to make films that draw on her personal experience but which also reach out to audiences using music and strong emotions. From 2000’s What’s Cooking she has written scripts with her partner Paul Mayeda Berges and an American sense of the popular ‘feelgood’ formula has been melded with Chadha’s own sense of joyfulness. Perhaps as a result, her films have tended to fare better with broad public audiences than with critics. Nevertheless, her importance within British Cinema has been recognised. Viceroy’s House has been a long time in the making and it feels like the most personal of Chadha’s films. In the final credits, amongst all the archive photographs and newsreel footage of both the carnage and the celebrations that followed the partition of British India and the emergence of two new independent states, she tells the story of a woman who fled the Punjab. As the caption reads, that woman was the director’s grandmother.
There have been many films that have tried to deal with Partition and its aftermath. Gurinder Chadha is not alone in being a diaspora director ‘returning’ to the sub-continent to make a partition film using funding and infrastructure from Europe and North America. Other examples include Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) and Vic Sarin’s Partition (2007). There are many ‘popular’ Indian films that include stories about partition and its aftermath, but some of the best are examples of art cinema or parallel cinema, such as Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of films about the aftermath of partition in Bengal, Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) or a film like Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1973) by M.S. Sathyu. In this context, Gurinder Chadha’s film needs to be seen as an attempt to introduce an outline history of the process of Partition and British withdrawal to a broad audience. She explains all of this in an interview in the Observer (and see below for a video presentation of her motivations). The angry denouncements of Viceroy’s House by writers such as Fatima Bhutto in the Guardian seem to rather miss the point.
Chadha has based her film on a range of published histories and has used a romance between two Punjabis, a Hindu young man and a Muslim young woman, to provide an emotional charge that takes us into the ‘personal stories’. This romance is part of what she herself has referred to as a ‘below the stairs’ narrative to compare with the story of diplomatic negotiation hurriedly conducted by the ‘last Viceroy’, Louis Mountbatten, and Indian political leaders. Chadha also includes the activities of Lady Mountbatten, although not the rumoured flirtation with Nehru. In the space of only 106 minutes, Viceroy’s House tries to be both epic and personal. Inevitably, the historical detail is limited, but it serves as an introduction and as far as I can see it is fairly accurate. I was surprised to hear on the BBC’s Film Programme that the host Charlie Brooker didn’t know the history and found the politics interesting but as he put it, “heavy lifting”. So, perhaps Gurinder Chadha was wise to try to sugar the pill of a history that should be taught in schools (i.e. the history of the British Empire).
The ‘below the stairs’ reference is to the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) that Chadha must have watched as a child (she was born in 1960). A re-boot of the series was attempted in 2010 which ran for two seasons. Inevitably, however, for many reviewers the reference point has been Downton Abbey (2010-15), especially with the portrayal of Louis Mountbatten by Hugh Bonneville, one of the stars of Downton as the Earl. My feeling is that Bonneville is miscast as the Viceroy. Although he is closer in age to the historical Viceroy than James Fox in Jinnah (1998), he feels rather ‘chummy’ and not like a successful military commander and second cousin of the King Emperor. From her various statements, it seems clear that Gurinder Chadha is much more familiar with the British ‘heritage’ films and TV programmes about the Raj than with the many Indian and diasporic films about the end of the Raj and its aftermath. However, the romance she conjures up does figure in some of those Indian films and I felt a sudden recognition in the closing scenes when the Hindu boy seeks and finds his Muslim girlfriend (e.g. in Train to Pakistan and in Earth, where the religious mix is reversed). I was suddenly reminded of scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) in which a young Muslim-Hindu couple are caught up in communal riots in Mumbai. Both films are scored by A. R. Rahman. I found the score for Viceroy’s House to be conventional and almost lost in the presentation for much of the film, but it worked in those closing scenes. I’m aware that for some UK audiences, the romance seems ‘tagged on’ and unnecessary – but it is central to Chadha’s strategy. She wants audiences to both understand the complexity of the political negotiations and to feel the emotional torment on a personal level. I think she gets close to doing that. I’m not convinced though by the romance. The two actors don’t seem well-matched. I know Huma Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, but I didn’t recognise the actor playing Jeet Kumar. It was only later that I discovered that Manish Dyal is an American actor. Gurinder Chadha appears to be concerned to use British or American South Asians or Indians who are used to working in ‘international productions’ rather than actors working in Indian film industries. I wonder if this will be a barrier to acceptance by Indian audiences? (There is, however, a brief appearance from Om Puri, who died recently, far too young, and who will be sorely missed.)
Having discussed the film with friends, I think there is a consensus that although the mis-castings are a barrier and the romance could have been better handled, overall the film has attracted a popular audience and it does deliver that basic history lesson. The trailer perhaps inadvertently provides the key to the problems Gurinder Chadha faced. She has explained how difficult it is to sell a story like this to funders for mainstream films and I’m assuming that the UK trailer is the price you have to pay to satisfy a conservative distribution/exhibition environment. Several people have told me that the trailer put them off seeing the film or that it nearly stopped them (and they said that would have been a shame).
The film has received quite a lot of coverage in the UK media, with Gurinder Chadha responding. Yesterday, when I thought all had quietened down, another over-the-top piece was published in the Guardian by Ian Jack. I was particularly disappointed to read this as I usually enjoy Ian Jack’s writing. He is an ‘old India hand’ and therefore perhaps emotionally involved, but he claims the film as ‘fake history’ and detects that Chadha and her fellow writers, her husband and the British playwright and scriptwriter Moira Buffini, have been too reliant on a 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. The two central findings of this book that Jack finds objectionable/not proven/not credible are 1) that the British government’s long-term policy was to support a separate Pakistan as an ally against Soviet influence in South Asia and that 2) that this was Churchill’s policy formulated before he lost power in 1945 and introduced secretly into the 1947 negotiations by Lord Ismay, Churchill’s wartime military assistant after 1940. By 1947 he’d become Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff. The point about British policy seems to me to be not really an issue. After 1947 Pakistan became a Western ally, India became a non-aligned nation with ‘normal’ relations with the Soviet Union. Ismay and Churchill’s role in all this (in the film, it is a document supposedly drawn up for Churchill that provides the basis for the Partition boundaries in Punjab) is obviously more debatable. But then, as most historians would agree, Churchill’s racist comments about India and Indians as well as his extreme anti-communism were well-known and it certainly seems plausible that his influence may have been felt on men pressurised to make decisions in July/August 1947. Ian Jack attempts to discredit Sarila by quoting various British historian’s reviews of the book. I haven’t read either Sarila’s book or the full reviews Jack mentions (I have read other quite favourable reviews, but possibly by less distinguished reviewers) so I’m not going to comment further. I only wish to point out that where anyone stands in these debates about Partition depends to a certain extent on where their broader sympathies lie with Indian, Pakistani or British positions. Again I don’t favour one over another, but I do feel for Gurinder Chadha in her attempt to view her personal story in the context of all of these political machinations.
On one score, Ian Jack is certainly on shaky ground. He asserts: “The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office”. In fact it has had a ‘wide’ UK release and after two weekends (i.e. ten days in cinemas) it has made £2.34 million. Given that the film did quite well in the first week with older audiences, the full two week total might be closer to £2.8 to £3 million which is more than OK for a UK release. I will be intrigued to see how the film does in other territories and especially what happens when it reaches India. Indian media company Reliance is a production partner and should promote the film, but so far there seems to be confusion about when an Indian release might happen. I’ve seen March, June and August mentioned.
In the video clip below, Gurinder Chadha describes the long preparation process for her film which she started mainly because of her experience in travelling back to Kenya and then to her family’s home in Punjab as part of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006. The whole of that episode is online and it’s a fascinating watch. When she reaches Pakistan and finds the family house which was allocated to Muslim refugee families fleeing in the opposite direction to her grandparents in 1947, she knows she must tell the story of Partition.