(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)
King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil. Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.
It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.
Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.
Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin. At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements. Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.
Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.
Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise. After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.
Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.
The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:
“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”
The Hebden Bridge Picture House‘s Open Day was on Saturday September 10th. This was also the final screening on the cinema’s long-serving Kalee 35mm film projector. For a while now the projector team having been nursing along this 65 year old machine, including some running repairs to keep the films on screen. The projector is now retiring: a suitable home for old but capable machines.
Appropriately enough the final title screened on the Kalee was Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film, Frenzy (Universal Pictured, 1972). Filmed in and featuring London it was shot in colour and standard widescreen. It is the most sardonic of Hitchcock’s films with Barry Foster in a stand-out performance as Robert Rusk, Convent Garden entrepreneur and serial killing psychopath. Jon Finch is capable as the victim/hero of the film, Richard Blaney. The film has some excellent London locations, photographed by Gil Taylor and Leonard J. South. It also has a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer adapted from the novel by Arthur Le Bern. Le Bern’s other famous novel is ‘It Always Rains on a Sunday’, provided the story for one of the finest East End representations from Ealing and Robert Hamer. Shaffer script has real drive but also some fine and witty lines, two concerning ties.
The real victims in the film are Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Brenda Blaney and Anna Massey in a fine performance as Babs Milligan. There is also a fine cameo by Billie Whitelaw as Hettie Porter, suggesting an interesting sub-plot to the film. But the gallery of female victims marks this as one of the most overtly misogynous of Hitchcock’s films.
Alongside the serial killer narrative we get an enjoyable minor plot around food: between Alex McGowan as Chief Inspector Oxford and Vivian Merchant as his wife. This adds another sardonic note to the scenario. It also features one of the many authorial motifs in the film: the familiar one involves a bowler hat.. There is a complete list of these in the excellent ‘Hitchcock’s Motifs’ (Michael Walker, Amsterdam University Press, 2005). Apart from ‘food and meals’ there are such interesting examples as handbags, mothers, and staircases.
The staircase is a good example of the design, cinematography and editing of the film. At one point there is an impressive reverse track down a staircase and out into a Convent Garden street. A trope that Hitchcock perfected early in his career. And the film offers an intriguing variation on the serial killer’s labyrinth.
The film was shot in Technicolor but distributors (in a typical false economy) printed the film up and circulated it on Eastman color stock. So the projectionist had to offer an apology before the screening for the ‘fading’ on the print. There was a definite pink tint on the film but there were only a few scratches and good contrast and definition. So we enjoyed most of the qualities of this film. Whilst not one of the great masterpieces directed by Hitchcock it does standout in the late titles that he worked on. It does, though, miss the hand of Bernard Hermann: the score is by Ron Goodwin, who appears to be trying to add a Hermann tone to the music, but without the Hollywood composer’s touch.
The cinema is installing a replacement 35mm projector over the coming month. They hope it will be ready for a November screening. The new machine is a Victoria 5 and has been acquired from the old (and sadly defunct) Bradford Playhouse. This is the projector that operated in the smaller auditorium. Years ago I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) in that auditorium projected on that machine. This was the occasion that I realised that the film is one of the finest masterpieces directed the Swedish artist.
I am looking foreward to seeing films of a similar quality at the Hebden Bride Picture House and screened from their ‘new’ projector’. Their regular presentation of films in their proper 35mm format is an example to other exhibitors in Yorkshire.
This blog isn’t too concerned about US TV series, but we are interested in co-productions, particularly when they involve the work of Phil K. Dick, a literary hero for many in Europe. A new season of 10 x 60 mins shows, each offering an adaptation of a Dick short story, starts on Channel 4 in the UK on Sunday. Electric Dreams is co-produced by Channel 4 and Sony Television and I hope that it turns out to be as good as the two series of Humans (US-UK 2015-16). Following that opening will be the release of Blade Runner 2049 in October. At the same time, Amazon Prime is running the second series based on Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle.
Dick was actively writing for three decades from the early 1950s to the early 1980s and he died aged only 53 a few months before the release of Blade Runner, the film which arguably introduced him to a world beyond the then relatively small group of SF/science fiction readers of his novels and short stories. For a long time Dick was idolised by only a coterie of SF fans and fellow writers and a similarly small group of academic scholars and avant-garde writers. When Hollywood discovered Dick, he wasn’t immediately popular (partly because he was soon deceased) but gradually the number of film adaptations grew and 65 years after he first began to publish short stories he is now a key figure. I’ll declare myself as one of those SF fans from the late 1960s and I’m still waiting for a really satisfying film adaptation (which, for me, Blade Runner isn’t). I’ve seen only part of one episode of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and so I can’t comment on that, but often it has seemed to me that the films which are ‘Dickian’ in concept are often better than those which are official adaptations. I await Electric Dreams with trepidation.
The real question is why does Dick’s work still appeal in 2017? I think it’s partly because his fiction is about ideas primarily and that his concerns, partly fuelled by his own paranoia have proved to be remarkably prescient. For instance, it wouldn’t be too difficult to go back through Dick’s work and find references to TV celebrities and android politicians. Donald Trump-style US presidents and ‘fake news’, information gathering by robots, invasions of privacy etc. were all being discussed by Dick in the 1940 or 50 years ago.
The first episode of Electric Dreams is based on ‘The Hood Maker’, a short story written in January 1953 and originally titled ‘Immunity’. It first appeared in a magazine called Imagination in 1955. My copy is included in Volume 2 of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Second Variety, first published in the UK in 1989. I don’t know how much of the 15 page story is used in the new adaptation and I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the thrill of watching this first story in the 10 part ‘anthology’ of short stories. I will however whet your appetite by telling you that on page one of the story, an old man on the street is attacked by a youth who lifts the man’s hat and removes a metal band round the old man’s head. He announces to the crowd forming around him that the old man is ‘another one’ resisting the probe. A crowd forms and a robot police car arrives. Two robot cops disperse the crowd and usher the old man into a building. The youth delivers the ‘hood’ – the metal band – to the Clearance Corporation. He’s a ‘teep’ – a telepathic mutant. Well, I’m hooked. All of this makes sense in a world where possibly the majority of people carry mobile phones which are always on and always broadcasting where they are and what they are doing. I feel like some kind of anarchist because my phone isn’t switched on and I’ve blocked all the location finding software etc. Perhaps soon I’ll be attacked for not conforming? Welcome to the Dickian universe!
‘The Hood Maker’ is directed by Julian Jarrold, a near veteran of British film and TV who I remember best for his contribution to the Red Riding Trilogy on Channel 4 in 2009. It also features Holliday Grainger in a lead role and she will have the honour of appearing in two primetime TV shows at the same time, since she is currently the main reason why I am watching the adaptation of the J.K. Rowling crime fiction stories Strike on BBC1. Both series air at 9pm.
The Limehouse Golem is a fascinating film for several reasons. It seems to have divided audiences and overall its box office performance has been ‘soft’ for Lionsgate in the UK (albeit on one of the worst weekends of the year for the cinema b.o.). It’ll be interesting to see what happened in Week 2.
My personal interest in the film is mainly because its two key locations of an 1880s East End street and the interior of a music hall were recreated in the atmospheric setting of Dalton Mills in Keighley. This complex of three textile mills built in the 1860s is a listed building with several unique features which have been cleverly utilised. The complex has been used for a range of film and TV locations including North and South (2004), the TV adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s novel and it lies adjacent to Keighley Station and the Keighley & Worth Valley heritage railway. Using other key locations in the North of England and then studio work in London, The Limehouse Golem has a very strong visual aesthetic with minimal visible CGI. This and the performances of an impressive cast are its strengths.
The scriptwriter Jane Goldman is known for her collaborations with Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar but perhaps the important link here is her 2012 adaptation of the Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The Limehouse Golem has been adapted from a 1994 novel with the title Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd specialises in biography and novels about London and its history. The Limehouse Golem is about the trial of Elizabeth Cree, charged for the murder of her husband, a would-be playwright. The narrative involves going back over Mrs Cree’s emergence as a star of Dan Leno’s music hall. Leno is one of three historical figures (Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing are the others) who appear to have been in the British Museum Library reading room at the same time as John Cree and whose testimony must be explored. I haven’t read the novel, but in the film, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) is the investigator of this mystery which is presented through a series of flashbacks, some with ‘unreliable narration’. I suspect that, as in the case of The Woman in Black, there is possibly a degree of snobbery in some of the reactions to Goldman’s adaptation of a genre novel by an acclaimed ‘literary’ writer into a popular film. The other negative reactions may come from genre fans of horror or mystery films. The latter, in particular, can sometimes dismiss a narrative if they deem it too easy to ‘solve’ as a puzzle. It’s really a question of how you approach a narrative in order to be entertained. It may well be the case that The Limehouse Golem is an easy ‘puzzle’ to solve, but I would argue its pleasures are found in how the events are presented on screen.
The setting of the film in the Gothic world of late 19th century London is shared by a range of current film and TV offerings, including the TV series Ripper Street. What makes the setting particularly interesting for audiences in 2017 is the ability of familiar genre set-ups to absorb and use contemporary concerns in its storylines (whether this is intentional or not and this film first appeared in 2016). In this case there is an emphasis on gender identities and immigration. One character is an ‘exotic’ acrobat played by the Spanish actor María Valverde and the the Jewishness of the East End is explored in some detail, including in the reference to the ‘Golem’, the monster formed from clay that can be either protective or malign in its actions in relation to Jewish communities. Interestingly, it is his Jewishness that singles out Karl Marx rather than his work on Das Kapital. Cross-dressing is a feature of Dan Leno’s music hall performances, into which Lizzie Cree is inducted. These are traditional performances in an English context but the introduction of a ‘repressed’ gay sensibility by two of the characters is something that appears to have gone down badly with some audiences. I think that Peter Ackroyd is a gay writer so this may be in the original novel. The narrative could have introduced Oscar Wilde and his circle since he was active in London from the early 1880s. But then there is no claim to historical accuracy in the film and ‘real’ characters like Dan Leno are presented anachronistically several years out of place.
The clearest contemporary reference is to celebrity gossip and tabloid sensationalism so that in one scene an unworldly Inspector Kildare arrives at a crime scene overrun by goulish spectators and Daniel Mays as a uniformed constable explains that the blood attracts crowds because it is cheaper than paying to watch (or read) a ‘shocker’. The narrative is indeed about celebrity, ‘performance’ and the 1880s equivalent of reality TV. I didn’t enjoy the gore on display in the murders but this may please others. The discovery in the film is Olivia Cooke, a young actor (23) from Oldham playing Lizzie Cree most convincingly. Douglas Booth as Dan Leno, Henry Goodman as Marx and Eddie Marsan as the music hall manager lead the fine team of players and credit must also go to director Juan Carlos Medina, cinematographer Simon Denis (who also shot episodes of Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders) and the whole production design crew. I did note the comment that though the music hall scenes include interesting musical sequences, we never see any musicians – how odd. The trailer below gives an impression of the use of locations and sets and I’ve chosen the stills to show this as well.
It’s an odd coincidence that this ‘re-adaptation’ of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel should arrive in UK cinemas so soon after Lady Macbeth. I went to see My Cousin Rachel with Nick and when we discussed the film in the pub afterwards we had almost the complete opposite reactions. I was slightly disappointed and certainly not as excited as I was by Lady Macbeth. Nick didn’t share my appreciation of Lady Macbeth but thought My Cousin Rachel worked. Perhaps he’ll add some comments here.
Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was a very popular writer of novels and short stories. She was often termed a ‘romantic novelist’, but that is a misleading term when thinking about the film adaptations of her work including the three Hitchcock films, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds as well as Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I was intrigued to see that her Wikipedia entry suggests that she had more in common with a writer like Wilkie Collins with his ‘sensation novels’. Certainly, My Cousin Rachel made me think of Collins, partly because of its convoluted family relationships and the importance of letters and wills. The story was adapted first in 1952, the year after the book was published with the intriguing pairing of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the two main parts. I haven’t seen that version but it appears to have been poorly received.
The story is set in the mid-19th century, perhaps the late 1830s (the year is not given in the film, that’s the time the book suggests). Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has grown up as an orphan and a ward of his cousin Ambrose. When Philip arrives back at the estate in Cornwall/Devon he learns that Ambrose has died in Tuscany where he had been spending time for his health and where he married another, distant, cousin. Philip will inherit the estate on his coming 25th birthday but before that event he is expecting Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his cousin’s widow to arrive from Italy. The estate is currently held in trust by the family lawyer (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Ambrose’s friend and godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen). Nick’s daughter Lucy (Holliday Grainger) was Philip’s childhood friend and she clearly has an interest in him. What will happen when Philip meets Rachel? Will he confirm his suspicions that she is a dangerous woman who perhaps caused Ambrose’s demise – or will the naïve young man quickly lose himself in infatuation?
This is a good set-up for an engaging narrative. The wild scenery (beaches, cliffs, crop fields close to the sea, woodlands etc.) suggests passion and romance and the large country house with dark stairways, servants hiding in the shadows etc. offers the possibility of the gothic and the narrative elements of film noir and melodrama. All of these were in Rebecca, albeit in the later period of the 1930s. But actually it is the mystery elements which tend to drive the narrative here and this is where the Wilkie Collins references come in. There is a mysterious will that Rachel possesses but which hasn’t been signed. Philip struggles with the legal documents that constrain his behaviour before his birthday. Letters written by Ambrose crop up at various points, discovered in clothes or books. (The relevant titles for Collins’ fans are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).)
The film offers us a vaguely Hitchcockian score by Rael Jones. The cinematography, production design and costumes are all very well presented and the performances are generally very good. I think my problem was that the presentation doesn’t go far enough in suggesting the possible dark side. Director Roger Michell wrote the script himself. He is an experienced director but seemingly a first-time scriptwriter. Perhaps he focused too much on writing a ‘faithful’ adaptation and not enough on exploring the genre possibilities? I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. Sam Claflin gives another solid performance, but I’m still not completely convinced that he is leading man material. I’m a big Rachel Weisz fan, but here her usual strong performance seems to lack something. Overall, I was most impressed with Holliday Grainger who stole most of the scenes she was in. I also enjoyed Tim Barlow’s performance as the ancient retainer Seecombe whose demeanour seems to poke fun at Philip. I think perhaps Michell and Claflin are not quite sure how to present Philip. Is he both the hunting shooting man on the moors and the shy naïve boy? We do see him topless with a toned gym-fit body (nullifying the authenticity of the costumes) in the house but when he leaps down to show his estate workers how to scythe hay there is no Poldark moment with the bare-chested leading man vigorously wielding the blade.
Rachel is often seen with her travelling case of herbs which she uses to produce the tisanes which might be poisoning Philip. Sometimes she appears vulnerable, but is she really seeking Philip’s protection? At other times she seems completely in control of her affairs and easily able to outmanoeuvre Philip. In a Guardian piece this weekend Julie Myerson recalls reading the novel as a teenager and seems to praise the film adaptation (“Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film”). She claims that Rachel’s vulnerability is what “makes her so terrifying to men”. I’m not sure I understand this. In Sight and Sound (July 2017) Lisa Mullen thinks the film works but that it “never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions”. I’d agree with that. She also thinks it’s unfair to make comparisons with Hitchcock. Why shouldn’t we? She ends: “Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama”. That seems fair enough. I’m left wondering why those two Wilkie Collins novels have never been adapted.
My Cousin Rachel seems to be working at the box office. Fox put it out on 467 screens for No 6 in the UK chart in its first weekend. By the following Tuesday, with older audience interest it moved into the Top 5. In the trailers below you can compare the leading performances. Richard Burton was just about the right age for Philip and this was his first leading role in a film.
Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this Warner Bros. classic this coming Saturday (June 3rd) in their ‘reel’ film slot. One reason alone should be enough to excite potential viewers, it contains, if not the finest, then certainly the most memorable performance by Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale. The films follows a transformation of this women worthy of Hans Christian Anderson’s famed story, ‘the ugly duckling’. And Charlotte at the beginning of the film is rather like a duck with a waddle, but by the climax of the film she is as regal as any swan.
Along with this we have an excellent performance by Paul Heinreid as romantic object Jerry Durrance; debonair but capable of real passion. Claude Rains is his usual well-informed and analytical professional, Dr Jacquith. Gladys Cooper plays the repressive and dominant matriarch, Mrs Henry Vale, with real venom. Her title reveals the value system she follows. And Janis Wilson as the young and vulnerable object of Charlotte’s affection is good enough to warrant the credit she does not actually get.
The film enjoys all the technical skills of the Warner Bros.’s production departments. Robert Haas does fine with the art design. Sol Polito, a talented cinematographer, varies the lighting and camera from dark interiors to sun drenched locales. And working alongside them is one of Hollywood’s outstanding composers, Max Steiner, providing a score at times dramatic and times lush. The film’s screenplay by Casey Robinson has one of those memorable lines that are quoted more often that the film enjoys screenings. The screenplay was adapted from a successful novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, who actually published three novels about the Vale family.
All its qualities come together when seen on the large screen. And the visual quality is properly served by the film grain of 35mm: though unfortunately not these days nitrate stock. Follow the line used by Prouty from the poet Walt Whitman:
“Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”
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!