Lady Macbeth is a remarkable film – and not just because of the stunning central performance by Florence Pugh (previously seen by us in Carole Morley’s The Falling (2014). Fortunately, I’d seen enough very positive comments from festivals to be clear that this wasn’t a Shakespeare text of any kind, otherwise I might have avoided it. I do still wonder at the wisdom of using the title but the strong box office figures suggest that it works. The film is an adaptation of the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, first published in 1865. The reference to Shakespeare’s character is simply because Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a woman who murders men who threaten her position and she does so by involving other (reluctant/submissive) partners. As far as I can see (from Wikipedia’s outline of the novella), the script by Alice Birch for the film adaptation deals with the first two-thirds of the story. Apart from changing the setting from Western Russia to the North of England (Durham/Northumberland), the details are kept more or less intact (including the names of the characters and the mid-Victorian period).
Katherine is a woman bought for marriage (along with a small piece of land of poor quality). She is a young woman, expected to produce an heir for her older husband Alexander and treated as little more than a paid employee by her father-in-law. In turn she is the mistress of Anna, her maid, and the other servants in the country house. When both her husband and her father-in-law are away on business (her husband has trouble at the mine), Katherine seizes the opportunity to leave the house and walk on the moors and to develop a sexual relationship with the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Things escalate from there.
This is a low-budget film relying mainly on public funding (Creative England, BFI, BBC) but the quality control is high. Filmed at Lambton Castle and in what looks like the North Pennines, director William Oldroyd and DoP Ari Wegner present a harsh but beautiful landscape and an austere house – lacking the rich décor of many similar houses in conventional British costume dramas. The presentation of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights comes to mind, but Oldroyd (a theatre director working on his first feature film) presents his version of the landscape in CinemaScope rather than Academy ratio. There is another link to Arnold’s film in the casting of BAME actors playing Anna (Naomi Ackie) and later in the narrative Alexander’s ‘ward’, a young boy, and Agnes his grandmother (Golda Rosheuvel). Sebastian too has dark skin. Oldroyd and Wegner make very good use of just four principal locations – house interiors, the outbuildings and the woods and moorland around the house. I’m grateful to Stephen Morgan for his link to the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Danish painter I remember writing about in relation to Terence Davies’ Sunset Song. His interiors, though 40 years later seem to project the same austerity and cold tone.
I once had a foolish view that theatre directors might not have the visual sense of ‘real’ film directors. That was until I realised that many of my favourite directors actually came from theatre backgrounds (Sirk, Ophüls, Nick Ray etc.). William Oldroyd proves my original position wrong in spades. It may be that his cinematographer Ari Wegner composed and lit the shots, but Oldroyd certainly knows how to use his narrative space and how to place and move his actors. This film has a lot going for it and it’s a feast for the eyes. It may not offer much in terms of plot or sociological commentary but it says a great deal about oppression, boredom and lust and about a sense of foreboding. It also shows that it’s possible to bring 19th century life to the screen in modern and vibrant ways – if only more literary adaptations of costume dramas were as effective. I especially enjoyed Black actors offering strong Geordie/North Eastern accents. There is a rather interesting cat too. Amazingly Lady Macbeth made No 11 in the UK chart on its opening – audiences are discerning and can be trusted. Following The Handmaiden, this is another gorgeous adaptation that is sexy but also brutal. I don’t think those corsets are quite strong enough to restrain Ms Pugh. If you get the chance, go see it – and remember the name Florence Pugh!
The Handmaiden had a very successful launch in the UK in April – more successful than I expected given the supposed difficulty of attracting audiences to East Asian films on cinema screens. There might be several reasons for the film’s success as a draw. First, it is clear that there is an audience for East Asian films in the UK that was developed via DVD labels such as Tartan and to some extent Film 4 – and that director Park Chan-wook is perhaps the best known name, especially for his so-called ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ which includes his most-discussed film Old Boy (2003). Second, it doesn’t do to forget the attraction of classy smut – a genre of cinema that almost seems to have disappeared in the UK, but which with this film has been given an imprimatur of respectability. Third, there is an audience/readership for the work of Sarah Waters, both in novels and TV adaptations, eager to see her work on a big screen. Fourth, Ms Waters herself and several other lesbian commentators have expressed satisfaction with the film and may well have helped convince doubting audiences worried by the controversies surrounding the previous high-profile art film featuring a lesbian relationship, Blue is the Warmest Colour (France 2013). At the end of April The Handmaiden passed £1 million at the UK box office, a major achievement for a stunning film.
I should declare that I’m a great admirer of Sarah Waters’ novels and South Korean cinema (but I’ve steered clear of some of Park’s titles, including Old Boy). I thoroughly enjoyed The Handmaiden which is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen and one of the most deliciously erotic. It does have a couple of ‘shocking’ moments, but these are part of the narrative and you can always look away if they offend or make you queasy. It’s rare to find a film so long (143 mins) that whizzes by despite many slow-moving scenes. I was simply enthralled by the beauty and the artistry, including the terrific performances. A longer ‘Director’s Cut’ (167 mins) has also been available in some UK cinemas. I’m not sure what distributor Curzon/Artificial Eye’s intention was or what is in the other 20 minutes – which are not mentioned in Sight and Sound‘s review (May 2017).
Park and his writing partner Chung Seo-kyung moved the action in Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from mid-Victorian England to Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s. The new setting enabled Park to retain the maid-mistress relationship in a country house with a reclusive collector as the master of the house. The outline plot sees an attempt by a Korean confidence trickster masquerading as a Japanese count to work his way into the affections of an unhappy young Japanese woman who he aims to marry and then place in an asylum in order to steal her fortune. He is aided in this enterprise by a young woman from a den of trained crooks who will act as the lady’s maid and inveigle her into appropriate actions to help the con-man’s plans. The unforeseen element is that the lady and the maid will form a strong relationship that threatens to undermine those plans.
The initial setting is virtually a character itself – a magnificent house mixing English Gothic with classical Japanese. When in an early scene we see the car bringing the new maid to the house the road by the cliffs conjures up Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the house at Manderley. The house in Korea is similarly dark with secrets – especially what is in the basement – and is surrounded by exquisite Japanese gardens. As Francine Stock suggested on Radio 4’s The Film Programme, there is a sense of ‘garden porn’ to complement the erotica inside the house. There are certainly UK audiences who would love to see the gardens – but I’m not sure what they would make of the house itself. The owner of the house – and the uncle of Hideko, the ‘target’ for the Count – is a collector of ‘erotica’, the books and woodblock prints from Japan, the equivalent of French pornographic literature in the West. He invites ‘connoisseurs’ and potential buyers to his house to hear readings from these works by a young woman – now Hideko, previously her aunt.
The narrative structure of The Handmaiden is taken from the book, even if some aspects of the plot are changed. This means that ‘Part 1’ which offers Sookee’s arrival at the house and the elopement of Hideko and the count is followed by Part 2 in which the same events are seen from a different perspective and then in Part 3, a new set of events (i.e. different to those in the novel) derive from the twist in the narrative.
When I think back to what immediately struck me about the ‘new’ South Korean cinema that emerged in the late 1990s (which I now remember was introduced to me via Park Chan-wook’s JSA (Joint Security Area) from 2000), it was primarily the production design, cinematography and performances. I was impressed by the beauty and high technical standards of mainstream films which seemed elevated above those of other film-producing nations. The Handmaiden evokes the same response from me seventeen years later. I would happily sit through the film again just to revel in colour, costumes, decor, gardens etc. What I think pleases me most is the way Park seems to blend Japanese classical cinema with British gothic melodrama/horror. It’s as if a Japanese adaptation of a Tanizaki Junichiro novel had been melded with an adaptation of a Wilkie Collins sensation novel in a film co-directed by Ichikawa Kon and Terence Fisher, but still in a recognisably South Korean style. If you haven’t seen The Handmaiden yet, seek it out and enjoy!
One of the highlights of ¡Viva! this year, El Mundo sigue is a film made in the early 1960s and then suppressed, only re-emerging in a restoration in 2015. As such, it serves as a form of commentary on the censorship under Franco and therefore as a useful indicator of what La transición had to achieve in the liberation of Spanish cinema. The screening was introduced by Stuart Green from the University of Leeds who also led a post-screening discussion.
Stuart explained that the film suffered from attention by the censors and was re-edited after completion in 1963 in the hope of getting a higher classification (i.e. a licence for wider distribution) but even so its release in 1965 was restricted to a handful of screenings outside Madrid. This was particularly damaging since the narrative focuses on the working class district in Madrid that became the centre for ‘La Movida’ fifteen years later. We watched the restoration screened from a DVD which unfortunately degraded the image in the long shots but medium shots and close-ups were fine. The restoration in 2015 was marked by a short documentary, El mundo sigue: La resurreción de una obra maestra del cine español which I think must be included on the Spanish DVD/Blu-ray.
El Mundo sigue is an adaptation of a 1960 novel by Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui, a distinguished Spanish writer known for ‘social criticism’. It offers a melodrama about a working-class family in which the two grown up daughters are at each other’s throats. Eloísa, the older sister, is a former beauty queen of the neighbourhood who has made an unfortunate marriage to a wastrel, a waiter at a local bar-café. Over the course of the narrative she has to find enough money to feed three young children since her husband wastes his tips and meagre wages on the weekly football ‘pools’. By contrast, her younger sister Luisita ‘progresses’ from a job in an up-market fashion shop into a glamorous life with a string of ‘sugar daddies’ – rich businessmen who buy her expensive gifts. Whenever Elo and Luisita meet at their parents apartment there are fireworks. Their father is a local police officer, their brother a pious young man who left a seminary and their mother struggles each day to feed the family.
The film was directed by Fernando Fernán Gómez (1921-2007), one of the towering figures of Spanish theatre and film as both actor and director. Here he also takes on the key role of Faustino the waiter and husband of Elo. His role is both similar and very different to his lead in That Happy Couple (Spain 1951), another attempt to get round the censors and critique Franco’s Spanish society that was made by Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga. Gómez approaches his film using neo-realism and developing its melodrama possibilities. The opening of the film involves a close-up of the driver’s seat and dashboard of an expensive car – this will also be the last shot of a film which is all one long flashback. The opening shot of that flashback is an observational, documentary long shot of a fruit and vegetable market. When the shot cuts to a location seemingly round the corner, we know immediately that although we are still ‘on the street’, we are now following the worn-down mother of a family, struggling back to her apartment with something for lunch. The apartment on the second floor of a tenement building is relatively spacious and at the rear there is an open terrace. There is space, but not much money to enjoy and exploit the space available. A similar terrace re-appears later in Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987).
Neo-realism was popular as an aesthetic for several Spanish directors during the Franco era. The censors monitored the import of films, sometimes cutting scenes from those they allowed in. Italy as a Catholic country offered narratives about recognisable communities though they must have been cut because of the sexual content. Neo-realism also offered the ‘look’ of the prestige art films that Spanish authorities would have liked to have seen emulated by Spanish filmmakers at festivals like Cannes and Venice (though such films, like Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961), were sometimes not then released in Spain). Italian neo-realism was often open to melodrama and there are several scenes in which the performances are ‘excessive’ – Luisita and Elo fight and have to be kept apart. In other parts of the film, Gómez uses various expressionistic devices such as noir lighting and a montage of nighttime images. Running at just over two hours, the film is always engaging and watchable. The real question is what offended the fascist censors? What kind of social critique is being made?
During the screening, I thought of two other films from roughly the same time period, which although quite different in some ways did share some of the same themes and plot points. The first is Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers (Italy-France 1960) which sees a similar family group in Milan and the contrasting fortunes of five sons, one of whom prompts moral concerns about his behaviour which causes pain for his mother. The second is John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965) in which Julie Christie had her breakout role as the middle-class girl who is destroyed by celebrity. I wondered what was ‘absent’ in the Spanish film compared to the other two. In Rocco, the working-class family is in a community (of migrants from the South) in which community and church are important and in which skilled factory employment and eventually unions and politics will become two further structures. In Franco’s Madrid of 1963/5 the Church seems surprisingly absent and, worse still, the pious and ineffectual son in the family is a weak character whose religiosity is mocked. There are no real jobs for women, only as servants or cleaners or shopgirls. Faustino’s job has little structure and father is a state employee in a lowly position. Eloísa is a sad figure, fulfilling a role in the Francoist state of having babies. Luisita is the only one with aspirations but these have been diverted into a form of prostitution and an engagement with the new world of consumerism which is only available to the rich and which is evident in clothes and American cars. I suspect if cuts were made they removed something that explains Luisita’s sudden move into this world. She leaves home after one of her fights with Elo and is suddenly in a modern apartment with a Dansette and a pile of pop records. Stuart Green suggested that scenes were also cut depicting Faustino and Elo in bed together. This despite the fact that they are husband and wife. The ‘freedom’ and consumerism of the young and especially young women in 1965, just prior to Swingin’ London is at the heart of Darling. But Diana Scott (Julie Christie), although she is ‘punished’ for her immoral behaviour has, in modern parlance, ‘agency’. She becomes a celebrity as herself. The clothes she wears and the image she projects are for her pleasure, not as markers of her kept status.
In El Mundo sigue, the absence of those supportive, collective structures for the working-class family is to some extent countered by the presence of the playwright turned theatre critic. Here is a family friend, a writer whose play has only been seen a few times in the neighbourhood and was then barred from opening in ‘town’. Now he writes theatre reviews and at one point is warned not to be too critical of the plays he reviews. He comes to visit the apartment a few times and tries to give advice to the daughters. He is trusted by the mother because he is from the community – whereas the men Luisita takes up with have made their money through conforming to the Francoist regime’s policies.
The film’s narrative changes in its second half. Initially it would appear that the drivers of the narrative are Luisita and Elo. Gradually, however, it is Faustino who takes over Elo’s story as his gambling and womanising eventually leads to his downfall and Elo’s degradation. My memory is of Spain as a country besotted by lottery tickets but Faustino cons himself by thinking he is an expert on predicting football scores. The ‘pools’ is a relatively harmless pastime but Faustino is obsessed (we even get a glimpse of Real Madrid playing in the early 1960s when they were even more dominant than they are now). Low level gambling keeps the working-class happy and uninvolved in political struggle (see the rise of the lottery competitions in the UK since the 1990s) and seems a good way of satirising Francoism.
In the discussion that followed, it was clear that people had enjoyed the film. I think it would be very interesting to compare El Mundo sigue with other similar films from across Europe during the same period. I’m sure the differences would be interesting and show up what living under Franco was like for the urban population in the 1960s. Unfortunately the Spanish DVD is listed as only having French subs. The trailer here doesn’t hve subs but gives an idea of the film.
In the clip below from the early part of the film, we see Lusita working in an up-market shop, then Elo arriving at the family apartment seeking money to buy her children food. The pious brother and father are also there and eventually Luisita arrives and the sisters are immediately at odds.
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.
Denzel Washington is an A List Hollywood star and has been for 30 years and he seems to have remained a potent star for longer than most of his contemporaries. To retain an African-American star image in Hollywood is not easy. Most successful Black actors in the US have tended to have careers that have seen them either restricted to certain types of roles in genre films or experiencing periods of great popularity in big budget pictures followed by periods of almost invisibility. Some have become identified with independent films or popular African-American films. Few have been able to span all these positions with the authority of a Denzel Washington. A reliable lead in mainstream Hollywood action films, Denzel has also made major contributions to African-American cinema, particularly in the Spike Lee ‘joints’ Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992) and He Got Game (1998): Inside Man (2006) is perhaps an example of both Lee and Washington exploring Black identities more indirectly. But even Denzel Washington struggled to get international distribution for his first two directorial efforts, both of which focused on African-American young men and women and their relationships with an older central figure (played by Washington himself). Antwone Fisher (2002) has several elements in common with Fences, now the third of Washington’s director-star productions. The second film, The Great Debaters (2007), was not to my knowledge released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. Interestingly, all three films have high ratings on IMDb despite some stinging reviews for Antwone Fisher. This suggests to me that the films have been appreciated by the audiences they were designed for. In the UK, African-American films generally have struggled to get distribution beyond a handful of major cities. The relatively ‘wide’ distribution of Fences is therefore something of a breakthrough.
Fences is an adaptation of a 1983 Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning stage play by the leading African-American writer August Wilson (1945-2005), one of a cycle of ten plays interpreting African-American lives in Pittsburgh with each focusing on a specific decade in the twentieth century. The play was successful on Broadway with James Earl Jones in the lead and was revived for further success in 2010 with Denzel Washington himself in the lead and Viola Davis in support. The two repeat their roles in the film adaptation and Davis has now won an Oscar for her performance. Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a garbage worker in 1950s Pittsburgh who is campaigning for driver’s jobs in the garbage collection service to be available for African-American workers. Davis is his wife and there are only a few other roles, all as members of Troy’s immediate circle. The stage origins are clear as Washington has decided not to ‘open out’ the narrative, nearly every scene being set in the backyard of the Maxson house where Troy takes many years to actually erect the ‘fences’ of the title. These are largely metaphorical and, as Troy’s close friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) points out, they are either designed to keep somebody in the household or keep others out.
Fences deals directly with questions about identity, rights and culture. It is similar in two ways to Antwone Fisher. (I have posted some notes on Antwone Fisher here, taken from an evening class in 2005 – they include a number of extracts from reviews and IMDb ‘users’.) First, at its centre is the story of the working class Black American, whose early family life remains as a scarring presence throughout later life. In the earlier film, Denzel is a navy psychiatrist trying to help the young and volatile sailor Antwone Fisher to overcome his problems and develop his real potential. In Fences, Denzel Washington as Troy is himself the victim of poverty in his southern childhood and the consequent problems he faces bringing up his own sons, and especially his second son Cory, are related to his childhood experiences and his later frustrations playing in the so-called ‘Negro leagues’ as a baseball star in the 1930s. (‘Major League’ baseball became ‘integrated’ in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded Jackie Robinson for the first time.) Secondly, in both films, Washington the director tends towards a seamless ‘Hollywood realism’ style, conventional for a family drama or in the case of Fences a stage adaptation. However, he also includes isolated scenes which work much more like fantasy. Antwone Fisher begins with a dream sequence in which a young Black boy is alone in a field of waving corn when suddenly he is invited into a barn where an enormous community feast is waiting and everyone is expecting him as guest of honour. The final scene of Fences is similarly fantastical and I’m not sure if its theatrical ‘effects’ were evident in the original Broadway production. Also in Fences, when the story moves forwards a few months or years, Washington the director sometimes allows the narrative to work through different visual modes as he sets up the transition to the next segment of the story.
There are two major question marks about Fences that might have prevented it succeeding. The first is Denzel Washington’s decision to retain the theatrical setting and to play the lead role himself. Certainly for the first third or so of the film it did bother me. So much of the narrative depends on Denzel’s delivery of long speeches in scenes which did feel like a filmed stage play. Secondly the play seems to work through the presentation of a limited number of African-American family types and to include all the expected narrative threads. The actors have to deliver performances that humanise the basic types. I think the burden on Viola Davis is very heavy. She is the only female figure on screen for much of the film. Though I’m never going to argue in any simplistic manner against a text which uses types in this way, I do worry that it might backfire in a play like this which has such a strong cultural purpose. Fortunately, I don’t think the film fails on either score. Because the players know each so well and because they are such talented performers, the ideas about the social, political and economic history of African-American life eventually shine through. By the end of the film I found myself very emotionally involved. Be warned also that Sanniya Sidney appears as the bright young child Raynell in the closing scene and the tears are bound to fall. I spent a little time trying to work out exactly when each scene was set and how this matched what was happening to the characters. I think that, apart from the emotions of the family melodrama, what struck me most forcefully was the ‘lived history’ of the African-American family. The narrative ends in the early 1960s with references to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The ‘story’ begins in the early 20th century with Troy as a child in the South (i.e. in the story he tells us). I’m conscious of the hardship and struggle over 60 years and the changes that did eventually come about. The story needs to be told again and again. The serendipity of the release of Fences alongside Hidden Figures and Loving is something to be celebrated and exploited.
Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.
I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.
I was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.
Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.
As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.
Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
This film has been roundly praised in some quarters but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about it. Director Tom Ford, who was responsible for the similarly acclaimed A Single Man (2009), is best known as a designer, starting in ‘interior architecture’ and moving on to fashion before making A Single Man. That film’s been sitting unwatched on my hard drive recorder for a while and I’ve noticed that some critics have argued it was more about style than substance. Nocturnal Animals has generated some similar comments and I’m afraid that’s my reaction too.
‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the title of a ‘story within a story’ – a form of mise en abîme which also occurs in cinema when fictional characters might stage a play/make a film which in turn reflects on the lives of the fictional filmmakers. In this case, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a first novel, written by Edward, a man in his late 40s, and posted as a manuscript to his ex-wife. She is Susan Morrow, a college lecturer, now a woman with a family and married to Arnold, a surgeon. The lead character in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is Tony, a maths professor who becomes the victim of an altercation with three men on a remote road at night in Maine which also threatens Tony’s wife and teenage daughter. Susan starts to read the novel and can’t stop. The author of the ‘framing novel’ entitled Tony and Susan was Austin Wright, a Cincinnatti Professor of English. It was his last novel, published in 1993 and he died in 2003. Although the novel received praise from critics on publication and was sold for a possible film adaptation, it didn’t sell books in the expected numbers and it wasn’t until it was seen as successful in the UK that it was re-published in the US in 2010. At this stage, Tom Ford was able to work on an adaptation, seemingly creating his own adapted screenplay with some significant differences to the original novel.
The film itself is now also called Nocturnal Animals and this title is presented as referring to Susan during her time with Edward. It also seems to refer to her now as she reads Edward’s manuscript over one weekend when she can’t sleep (and the novel is dedicated to her on the first page of the manuscript). The major difference between Wright’s novel and Ford’s film, however, is a change of setting, including the occupations of Susan and her husband. In the film, Susan (as played by Amy Adams) is a high-profile gallery operator focusing on modern art and her husband Armie Hammer is some kind of ‘money man’ who is clearly spending a weekend away with a mistress when supposedly on business. This is the weekend when Susan reads the manuscript. The manuscript has also changed a setting with the highway altercation now in the wastes of West Texas (where there is no mobile phone signal).
The gallery sequences are filmed with great attention to interior design, lighting etc. and if you like this kind of thing no doubt you will find it interesting – I don’t enjoy this clinical, hard design style. Worse, an actor as engaging as Amy Adams seems imprisoned in the set with all the life drained from her. I like Amy Adams and I like Jake Gyllenhaal, but both seem miscast here, although Gyllenhaal, who plays ‘Tony’ in the manuscript story does OK in that role. The film has three parts, the ‘now’ of Susan over the weekend, the ‘telling’ of the story she reads and her flashbacks to her time together with Edward (also Gyllenhaal). These flashbacks aren’t really credible. I haven’t read the novel, but various reviews suggest that Susan and Edward broke up 25 or 20 years ago, after grad school, which would put them in their late 40s. In the film, Susan appears to have been married to the Armie Hammer character for at least 19 years because she has a daughter at college. Hammer is not even 30 but playing Susan’s husband, whereas Adams is 41 and Gyllenhaal 35. It’s a stretch to ask Amy Adams to play 25 and Hammer is completely wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood the plot).
The most interesting part of the film is the West Texas story which features a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the local detective who investigates what happened and cajoles Tony into an unwise adventure. This narrative is realised as a genre piece recalling both the hard-boiled noir of Jim Thompson and various horror stories and crime stories. It’s beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey who handles all three narratives very well in visual terms.
From what I’ve read about the novel, I can imagine that it works well. I calculate that Wright must have imagined the ‘now’ of his story as the early 1990s, meaning that Edward and Susan were in graduate school in the late 1960s. I think that would make a difference to the story. Again, Tony in the novel’s story, as a maths professor who is intellectual rather than instinctive, reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs – though he doesn’t have Hoffman’s resilience as depicted by Peckinpah. I do wonder, though, whether Wright was influenced by Straw Dogs or Gordon Williams’ original novel. Tony’s purpose in sending the manuscript to Susan is as a kind of revenge – putting Susan through the torment that he felt when she left him all those years ago. As she reads the story Susan sees herself as the wife and mother in the car (and the mother is played by Isla Fisher, looking so similar to Amy Adams that some audiences have been confused). But also important is that Austin Wright, an academic literature scholar, writes a novel in which a maths professor with literary ambitions sends a genre novel to a college lecturer – a revenge scenario couched in the framework of literary theory/praxis. None of this works when Susan is represented as an art ‘gallerist’. I found her character emotionally stiff and therefore the interconnections just didn’t work for me. The other puzzles are firstly why Ford casts four British actors, three of them as art world denizens – is it something about Brit Art? There is a Damien Hirst piece in the film and also something by Jeff Koons and I suppose the ‘now’ sequences in the film might be seen as some kind of satire on the art world. But I’m not up to analysing that. I recommend an article from ‘Flavorwire‘ for an informed lowdown on this aspect of Nocturnal Animals. There is one other aspect of the film that I haven’t mentioned – Laura Linney’s role as Susan’s bourgeois mother who tells her daughter not to follow the course of her ambitions after graduate school. I’m not sure if she is a character from the novel or one of Ford’s inventions, but she works to repress poor Susan still further.
I realise I’ve spent over 1,000 words on a film I didn’t really like, but I guess that means it is of some interest. I think I’ll now have to read the original novel to see whether my hypothesis was correct – i.e. that it works more effectively. I can also then resolve some of the conflicting points about the characters that appear in reviews.
(Nocturnal Animals was screened in Screen 14 at the Vue, Leeds, The Light – not sure when this screen was added but as a small ’boutique’ screen it is quite different to the larger screens originally built for Ster Century and it has a screen shaped for ‘Scope)