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!
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.