Category: Melodrama

Judy (UK 2019)

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland

In the last few years we’ve seen three films which build stories around the later careers of Hollywood stars visiting the UK and now we have a fourth. Judy‘s narrative deals with Judy Garland’s last singing engagement at The Talk of the Town in London in December 1968, a few months before her death aged 47. The film follows Stan & Ollie (UK 2018) and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK 2017) (the last days of Gloria Grahame). My Week With Marilyn (UK-US 2011) is perhaps slightly different, set in 1957 when Marilyn Monroe’s career still had four more years to run, but there are still some common elements. None of these films are biopics as such, focusing on distinct periods towards the end of a star’s career. Judy seems the oddest of the quartet, possibly because it is adapted from a West End play by Peter Quilter and also because it is even more focused on the star performer at its centre. I think it suffers because there is no one who is able to stand up against Renée Zellweger as Judy, whereas in the other three films there is either a second character (i.e. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy) or a key figure with whom the character has a ‘special’ relationship throughout the film. As Nick said as we came out of the cinema, “it wouldn’t be anything without Zellweger” (or words to that effect). This isn’t a criticism of Zellweger or the supporting cast, but rather a function of the script and the narrative structure. In practice that ‘second character role is split between an under-used Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn, the woman who is charged with making sure Judy is in a fit state to get on stage – and that she gets there – and Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans, Judy’s fifth husband. The script moves the wedding forward to make it happen during Judy’s run at The Talk of the Town. It actually took place a few weeks after Judy had been ‘stood down’ by Bernard Delfont. (See this ‘Flashback’ blog story.)

Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder

In 1968 Judy Garland was at a low ebb. She had no money (never able to deal with her own financial affairs, the millions she earned were mismanaged by various agents) and she was fighting for custody of her children with her third husband Sid Luft. She was also homeless. London had offered Garland salvation on previous occasions when she sold out the London Palladium both on her own in 1951 and for a 1964 recording with her daughter Liza Minnelli. Bernard Delfont’s ‘supper club’ venue offered good money and a potentially receptive audience. Judy follows the events of this ultimately tragic series of shows, although several details are changed. It also includes flashbacks to Judy’s early career at MGM in the late 1930s, suggesting that the trauma of her early stardom haunted her to the end. The film says virtually nothing about the intervening 30 years. How could it? There is too much to fit in to create a biopic. In any case, there are several Garland bios already (both documentary and fictionalised) on YouTube recordings of US TV material.

Renée Zellweger certainly gives the part everything she’s got. She doesn’t necessarily look or sound like Judy but she presents the star’s emotions and her psychological state very impressively. The film looks as if there wasn’t much spare cash in the budget. The Hackney Empire stands in for The Talk of the Town. In some ways it’s a good substitute but in other ways not (The Talk of the Town was completely converted to ‘dining’ as a supper club, but the Empire still has a circle of theatre seats and one sequence uses these seats). I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be in New York or LA in some American scenes and apart from some ‘tourist shots’ it didn’t feel like London for most parts of the narrative. Some surprising things about the events depicted turn out to be ‘true’ – Lonnie Donegan with his guitar was indeed a stand-in act for Judy when she didn’t show. Some of the changes don’t make much sense so Judy’s children with Sid Luft are left back in the US because they need to be in school. Lorna was 16 and her brother Joey 13 but the film represents them as much younger children, emphasising the pain felt by Judy forced to leave them with Sid. I think this particular change is meant to link to the flashback scenes when 16 year-old Judy is suffering what we would now call abuse from MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer during the production of The Wizard of Oz. The young Judy is played by Darci Shaw who I now realise is a young actor who first appeared in the TV drama series The Bay. I didn’t recognise her at all. She was 16 or 17 during the shoot but looked younger in the Oz period scenes.

Judy with Lorna and Joey, her children with Sid Luft, clearly much younger than their ‘real’ ages

Judy does represent Garland’s status as an icon for gay culture with the inclusion of a gay couple who are big fans of Judy. I thought this worked well. The other aspects of the legend – Judy’s reliance various forms of uppers, downers and sleeping pills plus alcohol is also covered and related back to her teen stardom, as is her problem with her self-image, especially her weight. Zelwegger appears half-starved in order to be convincing as Judy. Ironically Garland’s 1951 Palladium triumph was when she was considered overweight – it’s staggering to think that she was only 29 in 1951 and making a ‘comeback’.

The real Judy Garland photographed around the time the Talk of the Town engagement began

I was engaged throughout by the film and I did get a little emotional at the end. It is hard not to respond to the tragedy of someone so talented with one of the great singing voices of the 20th century reduced to the state Judy Garland was in during the last few months of her life – and to know that the abuse meted out to her as a teenager was the cause. My main interest in the film is really in who the audience is and what they made of it. The small but enthusiastic audience in our tea-time screening on a Wednesday were mostly older and mostly women. I expect that this has often been one of the audience groups during its run. Should we expect gay men and younger women to be attracted to screenings? A quick glance at the box office returns suggests that the the film has attracted audiences of all kinds. It opened at No2 with The Joker opening at No1. Was this clever on behalf of distributor 20th Century Fox? Judy made over £2 million from a saturation release of 633 screens with a high screen average of £3,297. That fell 46% in Week 2, but Judy still held No 4 in the chart. Figures like these suggest a fairly standard trajectory but the mid-week figures reveal something else. After 10 days the film has made £4.7 million, but unusually £1.5 million came from the Monday-Thurs screenings suggesting that the audience does skew older. This was confirmed when the daily figures last Monday showed Judy back at No2 in the chart. Judy looks like joining that group of films buoyed by the over 50 audience. Unfortunately it is up against Downton Abbey that is still raking it in nearly £1 million on its 5th weekend. Still, Judy looks like being one of the biggest ‘UK only’ hits of the year.

I am intrigued to know what younger audiences made of Judy. I researched Judy Garland’s career just before the film came out and I learned a lot by reading across several sources. Without that research I might not have understood everything that happened in Judy, even though it was something that happened only a few hundred yards from where I was studying as a university student in 1968. My memories of the events are hazy at best.

I haven’t said anything about Judy in terms of its ‘look’. Director Rupert Goold and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland both have backgrounds in television as well as some key film titles. As I’ve indicated, I think the budget has possibly constrained any kind of expressionist devices being employed with the emphasis on Renée Zellweger (with a fetching Elvis-like outfit for the ‘Trolley Song’ number) rather than the theatrical backgrounds or the choreography of the performance. The costume design is probably the standout aspect of the film. I understand that Judy’s clothes were not ‘imitations’ as such but new creations using similar approaches. They worked well but I felt for Jessie Buckley with her underwritten part, no opportunity to use her great singing voice and one hideous suit I remember (though she looks good in the dress above). Music for a film like this is problematic I think. Gabriel Yared is an experienced film composer but because I haven’t heard Garland’s performances in the 1960s, I don’t know how the arrangements stand up. By the end I suspect Judy Garland could still express the emotion but not necessarily hit the notes as she wanted to.

LFF 2019 #8: Made in Bangladesh (Bangladesh-France-Denmark-Portugal 2019)

The workers at ‘Modern Apparel’

One of several revelations during my LFF visit, this is an excellent film that deserves wide distribution. Writer-director Rubaiyat Hossain was present with her lead actor and others for an intriguing Q&A and I was very pleased to discover a filmmaker who I had not known about before – certainly a weakness on my part. Ms Hossain has followed a trajectory familiar from those of some women in Indian independent cinema – education and training in the US alongside film production and ‘social activism’ back in Bangladesh. Her first film as a director, Meherjaan in 2011, caused a stir in Bangladesh with its story of the impact of the 1971 War of Independence on a woman’s life and was taken out of cinemas. Her second film Under Construction (2015) is concerned with a woman in an unhappy marriage and who is an actor appearing in a Tagore play. Researching her background, I’m now glad I didn’t ask a naïve question about the possible influence of Indian parallel cinema on Hossain’s work – Wikipedia tells me that she has been inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

Made in Bangladesh, as the title hints, is concerned with the sweatshops of Dhaka where young women work to produce cheap clothes for customers in Europe and North America. But as the director stated, it isn’t about these women as victims, but instead about how they fight for their rights. Its origins are in the account of the experiences of a ‘real’ worker that have been translated into a fiction narrative featuring the actor Rikita Nandini Shimu as a young seamstress ‘Shimu’. The original worker also helped organise training for the women playing the factory workers. The director acknowledged that she needed this kind of input to ensure the authenticity of her presentation of the women’s stories. The narrative begins with a fire alarm in a factory which shuts down operations for a few days and raises questions about working conditions, safety and workers’ rights after one of the workers has died. During the closure Shimu tries to meet the managers and get paid her overtime which she needs to pay rent arrears. This is when she meets an NGO activist who offers to pay her for an interview about what goes on in the factory. She informs Shimu about how to form a union and offers to help her generally. The narrative then follows Shimu’s attempts to develop a political consciousness about rights among her workmates and to try to recruit enough would-be members to register a union for official recognition. The narrative presents a series of events that were once familiar in British, French and other film cultures in the 1970s before filmmaking lost much of its political energy in the West. Rubaiyat Hossain manages to resolve her narrative in an interesting way that I won’t spoil.

The director is second from the left, next to Shimu who has the microphone during the Q&A

But there is more to the narrative on top of the important central story-line. In the Q&A Hossain revealed that wages for the young workers (most are aged 18-30) have improved over the last few years. The garment manufacturing sector is a crucial part of the Bangladeshi economy and these young women have some leverage. Like all young people who start to receive a living wage they find themselves in a situation which allows them to ‘have a good time’, but also puts them under pressure to help with other family members. In some ways the women are similar to the young British working-class girls of the 1960s who experienced economic improvement but still found themselves struggling in a patriarchal society which attempted to define them. The director stressed the idea of female empowerment and reminded us that Bangladesh has a history of female prime ministers and women in positions of power. I’m not sure that this has necessarily helped the mass of Bangladeshi women so far, but the general point is important. The freedom experienced by the young women in the factories is expressed through their clothing. The director commented that they wear salwar kameez rather than the saris favoured by most women in the city. This is more comfortable and functional in the factory but also allows more freedom as they move together through the streets where the colours of their costumes contrast with the drabness of the city.

The style of the film is a familiar form of social realism enlivened by music and the exuberance of the women themselves. Sabine Lancelin photographed the film. She was born in colonial Belgian Congo. Composer Tin Soheili was born in Iran and is based in Denmark. He has a long list of credits, many for documentaries. There were several women in other creative roles on the shoot and overall it is a good example of European producers supporting but not overwhelming a Bangladeshi production.

Shimu faces pressure from her husband at home

Shimu (the same actor who was in Hossain’s earlier films) is a young woman from a rural area who left home at the age of 14 and fled to Dhaka to escape an arranged marriage to a man she feared. She had received enough elementary education to become literate and this, combined with her native intelligence, makes her a potential activist. But she has married in Dhaka and though she loves her husband he is out of work. When he does find employment she may be under pressure to spend more time at home. When she is working, she is paying the rent. The narrative shows Shimu in a range of relationships with other women, several of whom exert different kinds of pressure on her activities in forming a union. Social class, traditional ideas about women’s roles etc. all make an impact.

Shimu is given a book on the legal basis for a factory union

The questions in the Q&A and the comments in various reviews always puzzle me. There are many assumptions made about people in countries like Bangladesh. Ms Hossain handled all the questions well. She explained that the film hasn’t yet cleared the Censors’ office in Bangladesh. She explained that she was prepared to make cuts to ensure the film was screened and that she wanted the widest release possible so the workers in the factories would get to see themselves on screen. I understand that discussions with possible distributors in the UK were possible during the festival. I hope something is organised as I’m sure there is a market for the film in the UK, both among the local Bangla populations and for many other UK audiences who are aware of and energised by campaigns to pay these women more and regulate the factories who make the clothes sold in UK stores. International sales are through Pyramide and the film will be released in France in November.

Here’s the (English subtitled) trailer:

LFF 2019 #7: Wet Season (Singapore-UK 2019)

Eating durian with their fingers . . . in the classroom

Writer-director Anthony Chen from Singapore has been living in London for ten years and he was present to introduce his film and then to offer a Q&A (which I had to leave after around 20 minutes to get to my next screening). Chen’s first film Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013) won the Sutherland Prize for a ‘First Feature’ at LFF in 2013. The director explained that he had been involved in two other productions (as a writer and producer for his jointly-owned company Giraffe Pictures) since 2013, but also he needed a long time to make his own films because he is so concerned with the details of location, casting and production design.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this fascinating film is that the two principal characters are played by two of the leads from the earlier film, even though initially the director had been determined not to cast them. This isn’t such a minor point as will become apparent after a discussion about the plot outline. Yeo Yann Yann, the mother in the first film, now plays another woman in an unhappy marriage, but now she is a teacher in an English-medium high school (where students take a form of the traditional British O levels, still available internationally). This character, ‘Mrs Ling’, is under pressure in three ways. As a wife she has been undergoing intensive IVF procedures but has ‘failed’ after several years to become pregnant. She is also a migrant from Malaysia, married to a Singaporean man, and finally she is a teacher of Mandarin – a subject that is sidelined in a high school which is resolutely focused on English and Maths. Add to this that she has become the main carer of her father-in-law who is severely disabled and requires intensive personal care. A carer is with him during the school-day but it is Ling who must cope at all other times. Ling is determined to secure her place as a Mandarin teacher by improving her students’ grades and she organises a post-school remedial class. It quickly becomes apparent that only one boy, Wei-lun (Koh Jia Ler, the 10 year-old from Ilo Ilo, now a strapping 16 year-old), is prepared to take it seriously. When the other boys drift away, Wei-lun stays, citing his parents’ wish that he learns Mandarin to be able to ‘do business’ in China when he grows up.

Wei-lun competes in a wushu event

As the relationship between Wei-lun and his teacher develops in this ‘after-school’ time, it becomes apparent that they are too lonely people who need each other and that makes them feel validated. (Wei-lun’s parents are away much of the time.) Later Ling will introduce Wei-lun to her father-in-law and the pair will bond over a love of martial arts. I won’t spoil the plot but you will guess where all of this is heading. What I do want to do is to discuss the film as a melodrama. Compared to relatively restrained Ilo Ilo, which I haven’t seen for a few years, this new film feels like a full-blown melodrama. I love melodramas and this was, for me, a successful film, but from the few reviews I’ve seen so far (mostly North American), it will suffer in the West because of melodrama’s poor reputation with contemporary audiences. But not here for me.

The starting point of the film is the winter monsoon season, when rain is torrential. In melodrama, rain is often associated with sexual desire/sexual release. It rains a lot in Singapore and when it rains, it’s heavy rain. Anthony Chen uses rain very effectively but he has other melo possibilities as well and this is where his meticulous attention to detail pays off. I’ll just mention a few instances. One of the key ‘significant objects’ of the narrative is the durian. The durian is a very large and heavy fruit which Ling breaks in two and then she scoops out handfuls of fleshy pulp which she shares with Wei-lun. Durian is native to Borneo and Sumatra and is imported into Singapore from Malaysia. In this sense it is like Ling herself. But the fruit is also divisive. While many love the fruit, many others think it has the most disgusting smell of any fruit. In Singapore there are shops and stalls devoted to the fruit but it is also banned from the transit system and many hotels because the smell is said to linger. The symbolic value of the image of eating durian should be clear (see the image of Ling and Wei-lun eating at the head of this blog post and in the clip below).

A second sequence involves Wei-lun taking part in a wushu contest – a display of a distinct form of martial arts movements. Anthony Chen told us that Koh Jia Ler had been interested in this activity as a young boy but now he trained intensively for several weeks to get to the standard necessary to win a gold medal in a national schools competition. Ling and her father-in-law support his performance. Finally, to emphasise the importance of location, Chen has two key scenes in which we see Ling and her banker husband Andrew each in their ‘natural habitats’. Andrew (Christopher Lee who is ironically Malaysian) is shown in Singapore’s financial district where the tall buildings are linked by green walkways. Ling is shown at one point in her home environment in rural Malaysia – a quieter, calmer and more organic environment. Chen told us the house in Malaysia took him a long time to find. (Yeo Yan Yan was also born in Malaysia.)

On the bus together

Yeo Yan Yan wore a wig for the part of Mrs Ling and Chen dresses her in what seemed to me to be fairly dowdy outfits with rather shapeless skirts and clumpy shoes for her teacher role. She comes across as an attractive woman who has lost interest in her appearance, which perhaps helps the idea that the confused Wei-lun sees her as both a teenage boy’s idea of an ‘older woman’ and a maternal figure. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing basis for a student-teacher relationship. My impression is that as the narrative progresses her costumes become slightly less dowdy. As a melodrama with a woman at its centre, the other notable feature is that Ling doesn’t seem to have a close female friend but then the more I think about the film as a melodrama, the more interesting it gets. I need to see it again. At the moment, I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal in place. It is scheduled for release in Singapore in November and I think it may do well in Asia generally. The two leads are very good and the UK DoP Sam Care does a great job with director Chen’s careful selection of locations.

LFF 2019 #4: Monsoon (UK 2019)

monsoon_still

Character in search of an identity

LFFlogo2019I enjoyed writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting, and we’re in similar territory investigating the issue of diaspora identity. Though the protagonist (Henry Golding’s Kit), as in Lilting, is gay, unlike the first film the emphasise isn’t on sexuality but on his attempt to understand where he belongs. Kit is returning to Saigon, having left as a young child, and finds himself a stranger in the land that nurtured him. His dislocation is not presented in any way as dramatic, it is just something he tries to work though.

Like LiltingMonsoon is a melodrama, but eschews extremes: there is no deluge of emotion. To criticise this would be unfair as it’s clearly not the intention of the film to engage in histrionics; I like my melodrama to be meaty. Although we all have crises in our lives they are usually played out in a low-key fashion, as is Kit’s.

Kit hooks up with Parker Sawyers’ Lewis, son of a Vietnam veteran. Lewis’ relationship with his adopted home is also conflicted as he’s obviously troubled by America’s role in the country. However, there’s no suggestion from the film about how to deal with this other than through an angry denial that he ‘isn’t one of those’ (gung-ho) Americans.

Typically of melodrama, mirrors proliferate and often disorientate as we’re not sure whether we’re seeing the character or his (women are marginal in the film) reflection. For me it was setting up interesting themes but never developing them; we never learn who is in the mirror. Of course there are no easy answers but I’d’ve liked the film to suggest some with which I could argue or agree. The widescreen compositions are immaculately framed.

Similarly melodramatic, is the manic traffic (which I’m told is absolutely Saigon) which makes it hard to think. So maybe that’s why there are no ‘answers’.

Clearly I’m lukewarm about the film for it was too cool for me. However, it is certainly worth seeing. In a world of shifting identities (one of the reasons why bigots like Farage and many Brexiteers crave for the certainty of Britain’s ‘great’ past) we need cinema to interrogate what it means to be who we are.