Burning is the first high-profile foreign language film release in the UK this year (it arrives with 27 international festival awards including the Critics Prize at Cannes). It opened on just 34 screens and so I had to make a 2 hour train trip to Sheffield to see it. Picturehouses in Bradford haven’t, as far as I’m aware, shown any foreign language films yet this year. Fortunately for me, not only was Burning a riveting watch but I could stay on and see one of the films touring under the Japan Foundation banner later in the day. Well done Showroom for putting these on.
I tried to avoid reading about Burning before the screening. All I knew was that it was loosely based on a story by Haruki Murakami. I had noted and then forgotten that director Lee Chang-dong was responsible for the fabulous film Poetry that I greatly enjoyed in 2011. The new film focuses on three central characters. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man in his twenties doing casual work when he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) who claims she was at school with him ten years ago. She’s since had plastic surgery she tells him. “I’m pretty now. You once called me ugly.” The pair appear to bond immediately but Hae-mi is about to go on an adventure holiday in Africa. She asks Jong-su to look after her cat and he complies diligently. But when Hae-mi returns she is accompanied by a wealthy man she met in Nairobi, ‘Ben’ (Steven Yuen), a few years older. The trio begin an uncomfortable relationship. I won’t detail any more plot spoilers because the narrative transforms slowly into a form of mystery thriller in its second half.
Jong-su is the central character and he is in every scene so he is effectively the narrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly we learn that at college he studied creative writing and that he wants to write a novel – but as yet he doesn’t know what the story will be. His family is ‘fragmented’. His mother left home many years ago and his father has ‘anger issues’ and is about to be convicted of assault. His sister has also gone so Jong-su is on his own in the farmhouse on the outskirts of Paju City some 90 minutes north of Seoul and close to the border with North Korea. Although I haven’t read the Murakami short story, I did recognise something of the tone of his writing and the sense of loneliness and alienation. Murakami is also well-known for his interest in Western literature and the relationship between Jong-su and Ben is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith with Ben as a ‘Tom Ripley’ character (though in Highsmith, Ripley tends to be the central character). When Ben asks Jong-su which writer he admires, he replies William Faulkner, which doesn’t augur well.
Jong-su also tells Hae-mi that Ben and his wealthy friends are ‘Gatsbys’. This comment points to an analytical subtext. We don’t know how Ben earns the money which pays for his swish apartment in Seoul and his Porsche. The actor Steven Yuen is Korean-American and seen to great effect in Sorry to Bother You (US 2018) and various US TV series. One reviewer suggests that Yuen speaks ‘perfect’ Korean and no doubt for local audiences there are minor details like this that make the characters much richer symbols. At one point Jong-su visits a large Catholic church. I couldn’t work out why but this is another example of a clue about a character’s background which might only be apparent to a Korean audience. Jong-su is no mug, but his demeanour suggests that he is seemingly not ‘with it’. With his mouth hanging open and a bemused/bewildered look at times, he openly states that the world is a mystery to him, but this masks his intelligence and determination. According to Wikipedia, Yoo Ah-in, the most experienced of the actors playing the leads, is something of a ‘youth icon’ in Korea. Jun Jong-seo gives an amazing performance as Hae-mi, especially since this is her first film role.
Burning is 148 minutes long. This is not unusual for South Korean films and I was fully engaged for the whole film – in fact, I was surprised when the film ended, I thought that there might be more. (Having said that, the ending is perfectly fine, I just wasn’t expecting it.) It does seem to be a problem for some American audiences as revealed in IMDb User comments. These call the film slow and boring. They couldn’t be more wrong. The narrative moves slowly but it does so with increasing mystery and tension. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is excellent, as you might expect from someone who has worked consistently with some of the best South Korean directors. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the door (of a truck or a container) with just a glimpse of a view down the street on the right-hand side of the screen from where Jong-su appears. Now I think about it, it is an ironic ‘pre-echo’ of the last sequence in the film. I enjoyed the film’s score as well and I noted in the credits that it includes something from Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, France 1958).
You might reasonably ask why the film is titled ‘Burning’. The Murakami story is titled ‘Barn Burning’ and at one point Ben tells Jong-su that he has a secret hobby that involves burning derelict greenhouses. Jong-su dreams about a burning greenhouse. The dream is not heavily signalled and other ‘events’ in the film may also be dreams. It’s one of those narratives in which the ‘reader’ can never be sure of the ‘truth’ of statements. That may irritate some readers and intrigue others. It all worked for me and if you are lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance of one of the few cinemas showing the film, I’d strongly recommend making the trip. West Yorkshire fans – it’s coming to Square Chapel in Halifax on 16-19 February.
This is an exhibition at the ‘impressions gallery’ in City Square, Bradford. It is alongside the Central Library and has a main entrance and also one through the library. This exhibition runs from October to January 5th 2019, excluding public holidays.
I took it in because I went to one of the two screenings organised by the Gallery at the Bradford Media Museum in conjunction with Picturehouse. This was a 35mm archive print from the museum of Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Roger Corman’s film adapted from the novel by Brian Aldiss. The earlier screening had been The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
The exhibition itself is a set of photographs by Chloe Dewe Mathews. She enjoyed a Artist Residency in the Alpine region where the famous novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) is mainly based.
“In Search of Frankenstein explores the environmental and social issues of our time through the themes of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’, written in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva.”
The exhibition includes photographs taken by Chloe Mathews of the Alpine environs. Impressive mountains, gorges, snow-covered landscapes and ice falls, dramatically reminding one of the the settings in Shelley’s powerful writing. There are also photographs inside a set of tunnels constructed by the Swiss Government as part of a programme to house and protect the population in the event of a nuclear war. And Chloe Mathews also visited the Bodleian library in Oxford which holds the original manuscript written by Mary Shelley. Photographs show both Mary’s writings and corrections/changes as well as brief suggestions by her soon-to-be husband Percy Bysshe Shelly.
“I wanted to put those two environments [mountains and bunkers] next door to one another …. to allow people to think about these beasts, these things that we have created and their effect on the landscape around us.” [Notes by Chloe Dewe Mathews].
The photographs and their juxtapositions are certainly effective. They also offers a reminder of how still relevant and protean is Mary Shelley’s creation. And the film screenings also remind one of how influential her early science fiction novel became and remains.
There is an aspect not referenced in the exhibition but which flows out of the juxtaposition of mountain and bunkers. The latter form a labyrinth under the mountains. Into the Labyrinth offers the traditional and mythic lairs for monsters; going right back to the founding example of the Minotaur and its labyrinth on Crete. This potent symbol is most often seen in cinema in the cycle of serial killer films where almost always the film climaxes in an underground construction and maze of tunnels or similar.
Mary Shelley’s creation is not really a serial killer, though Baron Frankenstein possibly is and certain is represented as one in many film versions, especially those produced by the Hammer Studio. In Frankenstein Unbound neither the Baron nor the monster are strictly serial killers, but the monster is frighteningly monstrous. And the climax of the film takes place in a labyrinth, following the novel set in the arctic wastes. This is the high point of the film and as the protagonist [John Hurt] hunts down the monster the sequence is both dramatic and visually stunning.
I suspect visiting the exhibition will stimulate people to consider other aspects of Shelley’s rich and complex work as well as those explicitly presented in the gallery. It is well worth a visit, especially as you can drop in before or after a film at the Media Museum, though there are no signs at the moment of any more Frankenstein works.
Talking Pictures’ synopsis, along with the title, suggests a cautionary tale:
A young Welsh girl leaves her home with the intention to seek a glamorous life in London.
‘Sixties British cinema regularly dealt with the dangers of London for provincial girls; as in The Pleasure Girls though in Smashing Time (1967) the girls do have fun. The opening sequence, with some excellent handheld camerawork, shows Jennie Jones (Janet Munro) trashing a place; she’s drunk and very unhappy. Most of the film is a flashback showing how she came to be in that predicament.
The early scenes, in ‘the valleys’ near Cardiff make it quite clear why Jennie has to escape so on one level she comes across as strong because leaving is the only option. However once in London she is economically dependent (upon ‘nice guy’ Bob – John Stride). She’s also shown to be overly-influenced by the glamour marketed by advertising; thought to be a female weakness at the time. That Jennie seems at once a protagonist and a victim must be, in large part, due to Munro’s marvellous performance. She’s given top billing and later became familiar in Disney films; she also appeared in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). She died in 1972, apparently from an alcohol related illness.
Strikingly the film is shot in colour, a rarity in cinema at the time. It was produced by the prolific Independent Artists (their fêted This Sporting Life was also released in 1963) and marketed as an exploitation movie as can be seen from the poster below.
Peter Graham Smith’s direction is good and some of the editing, where an extreme close up of a character’s face appears for a very short amount to time, is highly distinctive.
Ted Willis adapted Patrick Hamilton’s novel 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and it suffers from the poor pacing of Jennie’s downfall. We know from the start it’s going to end badly but the ‘fall’ is too precipitous giving the film an abrupt ending. That said, it’s worth watching for Munro alone.
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):
As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.
Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.
Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London(1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.
The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.
The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.
In 1953 Fritz Lang, in the last section of his Hollywood career, was pleased to be able to sign a two-picture deal with Harry Cohn and Jerry Wald at Columbia. In the space of a year this arrangement produced what is generally recognised as one of Lang’s best American films, The Big Heat, as well as one of his least appreciated films (by critics) in the shape of Human Desire. Oddly, both films have the same pair of stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, so what is supposed to have gone wrong with the latter film?
It’s important to recognise that these two films were very different ‘properties’ that Columbia hoped to exploit and that the producers and director took a different stance towards each of them. I’ve been reading Patrick McGilligan’s book on Lang (faber and faber 1997) on the background to the two productions and I was intrigued that he doesn’t mention the key change in Hollywood during 1953 – the switch to widescreen. Fox introduced CinemaScope as a 2.55:1 aspect ratio in 1953 and the other studios had to respond. They could agree to adopt the Fox standard or develop their own formats In the immediate aftermath of Fox’s The Robe in September 1953. Columbia did eventually opt for CinemaScope, but for Human Desire, released in August 1954, they released a non-anamorphic or ‘spherical’ projection print in 1.85:1 black and white. ‘Scope required an anamorphic ‘squeezed print’. Columbia’s option meant masking a traditional Academy ratio (1.37:1) 35mm projection print. Such a print would need to be magnified to fill a wider frame with possible increase in grain, but using black and white stock in 1954 would still make it a superior image to Fox’s colour ‘Scope. All of this may sound fairly academic, but for this picture the image is more important than usual. The cinematography by Burnett Guffy includes some terrific footage of the immense diesel locomotives then in use by American railroads. Guffy was one of the leading Hollywood DoPs, known for work with Max Ophüls (The Reckless Moment, 1948), Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, 1949) and Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, 1950). The last of these featured Gloria Grahame, so he did know how to present the magnificent Grahame at her best. The print I watched was from MUBI, available online. It was ‘broadcast’ at 1.78:1, i.e. filling the 16:9 video or computer screen. Even so it felt like a significant improvement on the 4:3 TV screening I watched thirty or forty years ago.
Human Desire is an adaptation of the Emile Zola story that is probably best known from the earlier Jean Renoir film version, La bête humaine in 1938 starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. Columbia insisted on ‘Human Desire’ instead of the translation as ‘Human Beast’. The story is relatively simple. An engine driver falls in love with a married woman whose husband has forced her to become involved in a murder. Jean Gabin was, at the time and for many years after, the epitome of French masculinity in cinema and it is hard to imagine any Hollywood actor quite matching his mix of tough guy, heart-throb, hero, liberal icon etc. Simone Simon was one of several leading female actors in France to enjoy working with him. McGilligan refers to Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame as “not quite A List”, which seems to me disparaging. He follows up with the suggestion that Ford was Columbia’s ‘go to’ star name, capable of playing a wide range of characters. Born in Canada but raised in California, Ford has that ‘ordinary but possibly heroic demeanour’. He’s cast here as Jeff Warren, a returnee from the Korean War who comes back to his job on the railroad. He returns also to lodge with his co-driver Alec (played by Edgar Buchanan), whose daughter is now grown up and has her eye on Jeff. It’s not long before Jeff becomes aware that Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) has become the railroad Yard Manager and only a little later that Carl’s wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) is trouble of one sort or another. Crawford was probably best known then for his role as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and also as Judy Holliday’s boyfriend in Born Yesterday (1950). Human Desire opened in the UK in September 1954, which was perhaps unfortunate timing since Broderick Crawford was about to become very famous as the Chief in the TV series Highway Patrol which began in the US in 1955 and became a staple of the new ITV programme schedule in the UK in 1956. Crawford’s role in Human Desire is actually rather sad – he’s a drunk who mistreats Vicki. The plot will manoeuvre Vicki into a situation where Jeff will have to try to keep her safe from Carl. I won’t spoil the narrative any further.
I can understand why the critics were disappointed with Human Desire. Part of the problem was that the studio couldn’t cope with the idea of Glenn Ford as the psychopathic character of Zola’s story. Lang argued that all three characters suggested the ‘Human Beast’, but instead, Cohn insisted on Grahame as a femme fatale who manipulates the two men. My advice would be to forget the original story and simply focus on Ford and Grahame, both excellent in underwritten roles. For Gloria Grahame in particular, the role she was offered doesn’t really allow her full rein. For me she is one of the sexiest and appealing of all female stars forever seemingly typecast except when she got the role that won her an Oscar in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (US 1952). Columbia certainly messed up on this movie. Guffey had originally researched shooting in the Canadian Rockies which would have added a great deal to the action including a metaphorical ‘edge’ as the line went through mountain passes. As it was it seems that the main railway action was filmed on the Rock Island line in Oklahoma.
I think the film is definitely worth seeing and I note that IMDb users rate it at 7.2 which suggests that plenty of audience members rate it highly. It certainly could be a film noir. The soldier returning is a good man drawn into a dangerous relationship. Perhaps the studio did mess up with its changes to the property but with the talents of the actors, director and cinematographer, this is a film that offers plenty of attractions. Here’s brief clip from a key scene.
I watched this film in a cinema preview screening a couple of months ago. The reaction of the audience was mixed ranging from the enthusiastic to the vitriolic. I feared for the film on release and it has indeed been damned by most UK reviewers after its opening last week. I actually enjoyed it but I can see that for many audiences it might not work. However, if you forgive a couple of problems there is plenty to admire.
The first consideration is that this is a literary adaptation of a much-loved and celebrated novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. I haven’t read the novel but I could feel the sense of a literary narrative in the very distinctive characters and the ways in which they are represented. The second consideration is that this is an adaptation by the Catalan Isabel Coixet who both wrote and directed the film. Coixet has made several English language ‘international’ films, none of which I’d seen before this one. In Spain the film was a big success and it won many awards and nominations at Spanish festivals. Unfortunately, this particular narrative needs some careful handling of the nuances of the English class system and details of English culture in the 1950s. Coixet’s production decisions are not always helpful.
As the title suggests, the story concerns a bookshop newly established in a small coastal town in the late 1950s by Florence Green, a youngish widow with a love of books and just enough money to get a business going. Florence discovers that she has an implacable enemy in the town in the shape of the woman in the ‘big house’, Mrs Gamart. She wants the bookshop building for an arts centre and she doesn’t think much of Florence’s ideas or her values. Fortunately, Florence will discover a possible ally in the reclusive Mr Brundish. These three characters and their conflicts provide most of the plot incidents. The trio are played by Emily Mortimer as Florence, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Gamart and Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish. These fine actors are arguably the main attractions for a UK audience – and possibly also one of the sources of confusion for the audience.
The Bookshop is a Spanish film made in Barcelona studios and interiors and on location in Northern Ireland on Strangford Lough. The creative HoDs and the crew were all Spanish apart from some Irish personnel. I spent most of the film wondering where on earth the narrative was set and by the end had decided on Ireland (but I haven’t been to the Lough, so I wasn’t precise). None of this matters except that I knew the fictional town was meant to be in Suffolk according to the publicity material (and the novel). The film certainly doesn’t look or feel like it is set in coastal Suffolk – typically flat landscapes and shingle beaches. Instead we get hills, cliffs, rocks and sand and forests. Several user comments suggest that the accents are all over the place. They didn’t bother me but I can see the criticism. The other complaints are about the minutiae of book covers and anachronistic books etc. All of these small points get in the way of engagement with the story but overall I think the problems are as much to do with audience expectations as with the film itself.
Seeing the poster, recognising the three stars and then noticing the blurb, I think many UK and possibly US audiences will have expected a kind of BBC or ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ kind of literary adaptation. These are sometimes rather cosy with a veneer of authentic detail (a ‘surface’ realism) and a strong narrative drive. The Bookshop is perhaps more ‘quirky’ with a more elusive narrative. It lacks the veneer of correct period detail but for me it sets up intriguing questions that kept me guessing. The narrative resolution is a surprise but for me worked very well. Emily Mortimer is an actor I admire and I think she is very good in the role. Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson are more of a problem – both are asked to play strong distinctive characters who are actually not seen that often – they each have a handful of set piece scenes. Nighy in particular has a well-known persona as a comedic actor which doesn’t fit this particular role so some audiences might be disappointed.
The story is about Florence and I think that the film works when we focus on her and her struggles. The book covers in the shop may be ‘inauthentic’ but I liked the costume design and those 1950s outfits , so stifling and conservative are made slightly more daring for Florence, matching her decisions to shake up the locals by stocking Nabokov’s Lolita (and making a visual reference to the novel’s first publication from the Olympia Press in Paris – very shocking in the 1950s). Florence’s only real relationship is with her very young schoolgirl assistant played by Honor Kneafsey and very good she is too. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will point out that this is not a conventional narrative about good triumphing over evil or adversity. Instead it is an intense character study of Florence Green. The film is photographed by the veteran French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, a long-term collaborator with Isabel Coixet. I enjoyed his work very much and a trip to County Down is very much on my horizon.
Here are the American and Spanish trailers, slightly different I think. My advice is to dispense with any assumptions about what it will be like and simply go with it.
It’s not often that you get a chance to see a silent film with live accompaniment; Salomé, with Circuit des Yeux, was screened in Leeds and London in the UK. In notes given out at the screening, Haley Fohr (who is Circuit des Yeux) asks that we:
‘re-contextualise [the film] in a new kind of satire . . . When I see Salomé’s need for John the Baptist I see a woman’s need to be heard, not desired.’
The score certainly did ‘re-contextualise’ as its modernity clashed, dialectically not in opposition, with the images to both heighten the drama and offer a 21st century frame to view the nearly one hundred year old text. However, I didn’t find Fohr’s reading of Salomé convincing and, disastrously, the protagonist was literally silenced because the intertitles were omitted; Fohr explains this is “perhaps . . . a bold choice”. The effect was to break the spell of the film every time the screen went blank where the intertitles would have been! It wasn’t difficult to follow the story but the immersive effect of cinema was entirely lost. Not a ‘bold choice’ but a stupid one.
My experience of the film was therefore fragmentary but it’s certainly an interesting production; apparently the major studios wouldn’t touch it and it wasn’t released until 1924 when it flopped. As one of the first American art films that wasn’t surprising. Salomé is played by Russian émigré Alla Nazimova who was the driving force behind the film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. It uses Aubrey Beardsley’s original drawings as the basis for the costumes which were ‘brought to life’ by Natacha Rambova (an American who was married to Valentino for a time). Charles Van Enger’s cinematography looks fabulous in a pretty good print; he worked with Lubitsch at Warners and his career lasted into the 1990s. The ‘dance of the seven veils’ was more of a convulsion and has nothing of the eroticism of Debra Paget in The Indian Tomb (1959). Disconcertingly Louis Dumar, playing someone with whom Herod’s wife flirts, looks like David Cameron, complete with supercilious grin; further evidence, if it were needed, that it was difficult to concentrate on the fragmentary film.
Fohr’s score might best be described as jazz with minimalist episodes. Her terrific vocals have an eastern vibe and, as noted above, add much to the film. If only there had been intertitiles.