The Little Stranger is a beautifully made film adapted from a celebrated novel and directed by a ‘name’ director. It has four well-known star actors playing the leads and I liked it very much. It is also slow and in some ways sombre and its presentation from the distributors (Pathé/Fox in the UK) risks alienating its audience. Certainly that appears to have been the case in the US where it died in its second week, generating only $210 per screen from 477 screens. Its first weekend in the UK was poor but not disastrous, with a screen average of just over £1,000 from 297 screens giving it 13th place in the weekly chart. I suspect the film will skew older and therefore mid-week box office might be better.
The problem is that some audiences might be expecting a ghost story/horror film/haunted house picture when in fact it is a gothic melodrama set very carefully in 1948. Some IMDb comments suggest that for some US audiences the narrative will be bewildering but for older and more aware UK audiences, it should resonate.
Outline (NO SPOILERS!)
The film is adapted from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, her third to be Booker Prize nominated. She followed the 2006 The Night Watch, set in wartime 1940s London with a story set in 1948 during the period of the 1945-50 Labour government which transformed the UK. She claimed that this was a novel about a socialist Britain undergoing change.
Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a GP (General Practitioner) in rural Warwickshire, a 37 year-old bachelor somewhat reluctant to embrace the National Health Service which is slowly being introduced. One day he is summoned to ‘Hundreds Hall’, the local stately home now beginning to decay as inheritance tax bites into the upper middle-classes’ wealth. He’s been there once before as an 8-year-old boy in 1919 when the hall was still in its Imperial pomp putting on a show for the local villagers, but now he finds the young heir Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) to be a disabled RAF veteran, supported by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday has been called to see young Betty, the only servant left. Betty is frightened and miserable rather than sick and there is a suggestion that there is something in the great house which is not quite right. Faraday finds himself curiously drawn into the world of the Ayres, first treating Roderick’s condition and then becoming more deeply involved in the family’s affairs. It will be some time before Faraday becomes fully aware of the symptoms and the extent of the family’s decline. How he reacts to events and what he attempts to do (or not do) forms the basis of the narrative.
As directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a script by Lucinda Coxon, The Little Stranger is a slow-burning gothic tale well-served by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and music by Abrahamson’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rennicks. Production design, art direction, costume, sound design, location scouting etc. are all top-notch. The key is restraint – and repression. Gleeson seems to me to be both perfect for the role, but also in one sense ‘wrong’ somehow. (He’s actually a year younger than Ruth Wilson, but his character is meant to be ten years older than hers – I suppose that means she is also wrong for the role, but I don’t think it’s important). More important is Gleeson’s very severe appearance as Faraday and his carefully researched accent – which gives his narration a restrained rationality. We don’t get a first name for Faraday (named for the scientist?). The use of the surname puts the doctor in his place in terms of social class. The upper classes always used surnames in social situations, especially the men, following public school practice. Faraday addresses his patient as ‘Roderick’ or ‘Rod’ but if they were social acquaintances he would have called him ‘Ayres’.
The Little Stranger is all about social class. In some ways, Faraday is a working-class Tory. This has been a fairly common tradition in the UK in rural areas, especially in the families of servants (Faraday’s mother was a maid at the ‘big house’). But Faraday is made more complex by specific lines of dialogue in which he reveals some contradictory views about the Labour government’s policies. The real discourse about class focuses on the house which is crumbling physically and metaphorically as a symbol of the decline of the Ayres and their ilk. Most commentators have referred to Abrahamson’s last film Room because it featured in the 2017 Oscars, but I was reminded of What Richard Did (Ireland 2012) which also featured social class in quite subtle ways and was for me a more interesting film than Room.
Sarah Waters says of her initial research for the novel that she watched the films of the period, read popular novels and looked for the ‘voices’ of ordinary people. She kept in mind novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca 1941 by Hitchcock), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she watched I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur film loosely based on Jane Eyre that has some elements in common with The Little Stranger, including the ambiguity of events. Are they supernatural or the result of some kind of psychological disturbance? There are several shots of staircases that suggest a Hitchcockian narrative.
What is fascinating and satisfying about Waters’ complex narrative that is well-served here is that it has so many layers and narrative possibilities. The set-up offers us a potential romance between Faraday and Caroline and there is a key scene at a dance which I won’t spoil, except to point out that this is the only one of Waters’ narratives not to include a lesbian relationship. All we know about Caroline is that she was involved in the war effort but came back to the hall to help care for her brother. Many younger people during the war were politicised by the experience of ‘social mixing’ and in some ways Caroline is to the left of Faraday. As for Faraday himself , we also know only a little of his history. His parents struggled to give him an education and after qualifying as a doctor he spent the war years working in a military hospital. He has the chance to work in London but he seems obsessed with staying in the village. If this was a film made in the 1940s the central character might have been played by David Farrar or James Mason, both actors with very different personae to that of Domhnall Gleeson. I’m racking my brain to think of a 1940s cinema equivalent of the Faraday character and the actor who might play him. Trevor Howard seems a bit to smooth/posh.
Who or what is ‘The Little Stranger’? The people around me in the cinema seem to have made up their minds, but I think it is an open question. I’ll have to back to the novel, since I’ve forgotten Sarah Waters’ original ending. Perhaps I don’t want an ending anyway? The metaphor of the crumbling mansion, the new homes being built in the grounds by the local council and so on are fine for me. I note a couple of American reviews who see this as about ‘Britain in decline’. For me, 1948 signals the re-birth of Britain as a more equal society. Unfortunately the new world was not to last, but sweeping away the old to make room for the new is to be celebrated isn’t it? Perhaps ‘The Little Stranger’ is the infant welfare state?
Here’s the official UK trailer (with a few more spoilers than presented in the text above):
Maudie is the kind of film that as a young person I might have given a miss but now I’m older, and I hope wiser, I appreciated it a great deal. In simple terms Maudie is a partial biopic of Maud Lewis from Yarmouth in Nova Scotia who in later life found fame as a well-known ‘folk artist’ in Canada. Actually, however, it is mainly a moving love story about two people both too easily seen as marginal in their contemporary world.
Maud/Maudie (Sally Hawkins) comes from a ‘good’ background but she has developed severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and then, a different kind of social ‘disability’ sees her mistreated by her family. Determined to live her own life in small town Nova Scotia of the 1930s, she applies for an unlikely job as what is really a ‘scivvy’ (a maid, hired to do menial tasks) for a lonely fish peddler. His home is a small shack out of town on the main highway. There is barely room for him to live in the shack and she has to find a space alongside the dogs and chickens. Everett (Ethan Hawke) is an uncouth man who has struggled in the economic hardship of the Depression and he has no idea how to treat Maudie. When she starts to paint on pieces of card with any materials she can find his interest is only really aroused when he realises that there are people willing to pay a few cents for Maudie’s ‘art’. That’s the opening of a story we follow through to 1970 by which time Everett has mellowed and Maudie’s fame has spread nationally, though it will be many years before her paintings are traded at prices that reflect her importance for Canadian art.
There are two main reasons why Maudie works so well. First, it is a very beautiful film in its use of landscape and in the presentation of Maud Lewis’s art. Aisling Walsh is an Irish director who trained at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and then the National Film and TV School in the UK. She has made several features and also worked extensively in UK television for over twenty years. I note that she made one of the BBC’s Wallander films and I wonder whether the location shooting in Sweden in any way informed Maudie. She has said that she found Maud’s story familiar in some ways because of its connection to landscape and small-town life in the West of Ireland. Her vision is presented in the film through the lenses of Guy Godfree who trained in the US but is himself a Nova Scotian. I was struck by the light in the film, the skyscapes and long shots (of the arthritic Maud walking long distances). I was also struck by the music organised by Michael Timmins of the Montreal band Cowboy Junkies. Three distinctive singing voices come from Michael’s sister Margo Timmins, the magical Mary Margaret O’Hara and the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan providing a mix of Irish/Canadian folk/country/rock. The script was written by Sherry White from Newfoundland and in one of those quirks of funding, a film featuring distinctive landscapes was actually shot in Newfoundland because the Nova Scotian authorities decided to withdraw funding support for film productions. Labrador and Newfoundland stepped in to fill the gap. I can’t tell if that makes a difference but I’ve read that the landscapes are similar. Either way the film looks terrific.
The film’s beauty is complemented by two stunning central performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. They are quite different performances with Sally Hawkins studying carefully how to represent the impact of arthritis (which constricted the size of paintings Maud Lewis could attempt) and trying to learn the subtleties of a Canadian dialect. Her performance includes a lot of ‘external work’ to represent the twisted limbs of the arthritis sufferer but she definitely ‘inhabits’ the character and it never feels like simply ‘putting on an act’. By contrast, Ethan Hawke seems to be much more instinctive in his presentation of Everett. There are several interviews online in which Hawke seems to tease his audience by pretending to have done no preparation and praising Hawkins for her diligence. Both performances worked for me, but I think that Sally Hawkins was able to ‘age’ more convincingly over the course of the narrative which ends when she is in her late 60s. The real Everett was older but Ethan Hawke still seems middle-aged by the end. This is a common problem with biopics but it didn’t worry me in this case.
I’ve seen criticism of the film because of the way Everett treats Maud, especially when she first moves in. There are claims that this is domestic abuse and that the film isn’t critical enough of Everett’s behaviour. I can see that this might be a reading but I think that the narrative presents Everett as a man who has learned to live alone and is ignorant of how to treat anyone he has to share a house with. Maud must quickly see however that despite his rough demeanour he does not treat her differently because of her physical difficulties and social position. As their love slowly develops it builds towards a beautiful relationship.
I’m probably biased because I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative about small-time Canada in the 1930s-60s. This will go down as one of my favourite films of the year. It’s still on release in the UK and well worth seeing. In the first clip below you can watch a short National Film Board documentary about Maud Lewis and her paintings and then catch a glimpse of Sally Hawkins as Maud in the trailer for the film.
This is film is typical of those written and directed by John Carney. So audience responses will probably be similar to that for his earlier films Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). The other factor to consider is how much you like the popular music of the 1980s — I did recognise some of it and it seemed fairly accurate for the decade.
The basic plot involves what I take to be a ‘boy band’ formed by a group of school students intertwined with the lead singer’s attraction to a teen girl. The material about the formation of the band is heavily influenced by The Commitments (1991), as the S&S review notes. However, I did not think this film was in the same class as the earlier. The musical talent is less and the story line is rather lightweight by comparison.
The lead character is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who, because of family problems, has just moved to a new school. The object of his romantic gaze is Raphina (Lucy Boyton) who provides the motivation for his musical entrepreneurship. These two, together with their supporting cast, are good at playing the teen’s world, though I thought the plotted ages were not always convincing.
In an ironic take on ‘boy bands’ we get the group experimenting with a variety of styles from the 1980′. This has much humour but does start to feel repetitious. And whilst the film is fairly comic, nearly all of the best lines come in the first 30 minutes. As with the cast, the dynamic of a Dublin school in the 1980s is effectively realised. And I thought the attempt to create a fairy-tale ending did not fully work. it also had a pinch from Fellini’s Amarcord (1973),
It sounds good and looks fine, but there is too much shallow focus. To give one example: following a reaction shot we get a second shot, a long shot from behind Conor, who is gazing at Raphina for the first time. But she is not in focus. This does not quite fit with the intent that the audience should register her impact on Conor. Technically it was filmed on both 35mm and RED digital. This seems to be the reason for this sort of shot.
It has a 12A certificate, nothing really untoward. And it has already had what seems to be a minor success in the USA.
Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.
The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.
I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).
A reviewer on Radio 4 admitted that when he saw this film he started crying after only a few minutes and didn’t stop until the end. I knew the relatively simple narrative structure of the film before I went into the screening but I suspected that I would fall in love with Saoirse Ronan’s character Eilis early on and that I would be similarly affected. In the event I didn’t blub quite so much but I was duly smitten by Ms Ronan and my critical faculties were definitely hindered by my response to her performance.
If anyone has managed to avoid the publicity, Brooklyn is an adaptation by Nick Hornby of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, directed by John Crowley. Eilis is a young woman in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford (Tóibín’s home town) where she lives with her mother and older sister Rose in 1952. With nothing on offer in Ireland she accepts the chance of one of the two escape routes for young Irish people of the time – to go to North America where a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), has found her a job in a department store. (The other route was to England.) In her Brooklyn boarding house, Eilis is homesick until she meets an Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen). But when she is forced back to Ireland because of a bereavement she falls for a local young man, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Will she return to America?
Saoirse Ronan’s performance has already been touted as a contender for an Academy Award. I’m not sure how these awards are really judged. What I would say is that Ms Ronan is perfectly cast and that she has a face that she can transform from blank passivity to the most eloquent display board. She also has the body and the movements and gestures to wear the fabulously ugly clothes of the early 1950s. This is a film for costume fetishists. It also proves the possibilities of digital video, not just in the colours of the clothes but the fantastic detail of the weave of the cloth presented in HD. I’m tempted to say that for me this is a film about casting, costumes and locations (in Ireland and Montreal, doubling for Brooklyn). But clearly it is also about direction, script and performances. IMDB carries useful comments from audiences. The film is seen (not negatively) as an example of old-fashioned, classical filmmaking. The in-joke is that in New York, Tony and Eilis go to see Singing in the Rain and The Quiet Man. Saoirse Ronan is no Maureen O’Hara but she does very well as a ‘real’ Irish girl from 1952. The performances in the supporting roles are terrific. Julie Walters (the Brooklyn landlady) and Jim Broadbent are as good as expected and the two young men do well but I was most pleased to see Eva Birthistle as the experienced traveller who takes Eilis under her wing on the ship to New York from Cobh) – under-used for me since her wonderful performance in Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004). (I enjoyed visiting Cobh in 2014 where the station has a heritage centre which details the migration experience. At one time a mail train ran from Cobh to Cork and beyond simply to carry letters back from North America.)
If you like romances, Brooklyn is a good ‘un. If you are a fan of the book, the jury is out on whether Nick Hornby has done a good job on the adaptation. I haven’t read the book, but the script works for me.
Jerzy Skolimowski is the Polish director who was a rebel filmmaker in the early 1960s, a young man who went to Lodz film school and tussled with Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and Roman Polanski. After several Polish features he moved into ‘international’ filmmaking with a series of English language films, including Deep End (1970) made about UK issues but shot mainly in West Germany. Later he moved to Hollywood but his directing career foundered in the 1990s. In 2010 he teamed up with Jeremy Thomas to produce a critically acclaimed international thriller Essential Killing. Thomas is a legendary international producer who had previously produced Skolimowski’s The Shout in the UK in 1978. Essential Killing premiered at Venice and like many of Skolimowski’s previous titles generated awards interest (Skolimowski boasts 22 awards as writer and director from major festivals around the world). 11 Minutes, the next Skolimowski-Thomas production also opened at Venice in 2015 and was again nominated for the Golden Lion.
11 Minutes is a Polish co-production with Ireland. Most of the film appears to be shot in Warsaw with sound recording and possibly some interiors in Dublin. Most of the dialogue is Polish except for English used in one narrative strand. The only thing I can say about the ‘plot’ is that it covers what happens between 5pm and 5.11 one afternoon in the lives of a group of characters in central Warsaw. The group includes an actress who has an appointment in a hotel with an American actor/producer re a new film. Her husband is trying to find her in the hotel. A man sells hot dogs from a cart in the park and a woman walks a dog. A teenager breaks into a pawnbroker’s shop. A couple look through some video porn on a laptop. A motor-cycle courier delivers more than just a package to a married woman. Some nuns wait for a bus. A security guard watches CCTV monitors. An ambulance crew are on a mercy mission. There may be other characters I’ve forgotten. The separate stories are not told in a linear fashion and Skolimowski sometimes goes back in time before he goes forward again. This play with time also includes a cheeky image of time running backwards. The film lasts just 81 minutes, cut down from a 120 minutes original version.
For me, this was a thrilling ride. At one point I thought I was watching some kind of avant-garde film and I searched for the kinds of editing rhythms I remembered from 1970s structural films. Eventually I realised what was happening but I wasn’t prepared for the ending. Somebody who watched the same screening that I attended, at which Skolimowski answered questions, reported on IMDB that they were unimpressed. They must be hard to please. I thought that 11 Minutes was a triumph of editing and the choreography of actors’ movements and camera set-ups must have been very difficult. At the Q&A Skolomowski said that he treated the narrative as a poem full of metaphors and symbols and that like all poems he thought that readers should decide for themselves what the metaphors meant. There was a brief discussion as to what the ‘dead pixel’ on one of the CCTV screens might mean as well as suggestions that there was something supernatural going on. What was it that seemed to make some of the characters look up into the sky? It occurred to me afterwards that the film had something in common with the Argentinian collection of short stories, Wild Tales (2014). The two films have very different narrative structures but both seem in a way to be commenting on something about lives in their respective countries/cultures. A final question asked about the opening of the film and this was indeed interesting. Skolimowski begins with introductions to several of the most important characters by way of what might be considered ‘non-theatrical’ video sources – a camera on a mobile phone, the webcam on a laptop, CCTV in an interview room etc. The rest of the film is then shot conventionally on film or HD. Again, we are invited to decide what this choice of formats means.
11 Minutes does not yet have a UK distributor but it does have a leading UK sales agent, Hanway, so it should arrive here. It will be released in Ireland by co-producers Element Pictures. The film will divide critics perhaps but if you like terrific cinematography combined with excellent sound and great choreography in a whole that challenges your perception of the pace of contemporary city life, this is a winner.