Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.
I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason but just because I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.
Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.
Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron . . . I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about . . . well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I . . ?
The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.
According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.
Gurinder Chadha is a distinctive director. Ever since her first short, but important, first film I’m British, But . . . (1990), she has sought to make films that draw on her personal experience but which also reach out to audiences using music and strong emotions. From 2000’s What’s Cooking she has written scripts with her partner Paul Mayeda Berges and an American sense of the popular ‘feelgood’ formula has been melded with Chadha’s own sense of joyfulness. Perhaps as a result, her films have tended to fare better with broad public audiences than with critics. Nevertheless, her importance within British Cinema has been recognised. Viceroy’s House has been a long time in the making and it feels like the most personal of Chadha’s films. In the final credits, amongst all the archive photographs and newsreel footage of both the carnage and the celebrations that followed the partition of British India and the emergence of two new independent states, she tells the story of a woman who fled the Punjab. As the caption reads, that woman was the director’s grandmother.
There have been many films that have tried to deal with Partition and its aftermath. Gurinder Chadha is not alone in being a diaspora director ‘returning’ to the sub-continent to make a partition film using funding and infrastructure from Europe and North America. Other examples include Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) and Vic Sarin’s Partition (2007). There are many ‘popular’ Indian films that include stories about partition and its aftermath, but some of the best are examples of art cinema or parallel cinema, such as Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of films about the aftermath of partition in Bengal, Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) or a film like Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1973) by M.S. Sathyu. In this context, Gurinder Chadha’s film needs to be seen as an attempt to introduce an outline history of the process of Partition and British withdrawal to a broad audience. She explains all of this in an interview in the Observer (and see below for a video presentation of her motivations). The angry denouncements of Viceroy’s House by writers such as Fatima Bhutto in the Guardian seem to rather miss the point.
Chadha has based her film on a range of published histories and has used a romance between two Punjabis, a Hindu young man and a Muslim young woman, to provide an emotional charge that takes us into the ‘personal stories’. This romance is part of what she herself has referred to as a ‘below the stairs’ narrative to compare with the story of diplomatic negotiation hurriedly conducted by the ‘last Viceroy’, Louis Mountbatten, and Indian political leaders. Chadha also includes the activities of Lady Mountbatten, although not the rumoured flirtation with Nehru. In the space of only 106 minutes, Viceroy’s House tries to be both epic and personal. Inevitably, the historical detail is limited, but it serves as an introduction and as far as I can see it is fairly accurate. I was surprised to hear on the BBC’s Film Programme that the host Charlie Brooker didn’t know the history and found the politics interesting but as he put it, “heavy lifting”. So, perhaps Gurinder Chadha was wise to try to sugar the pill of a history that should be taught in schools (i.e. the history of the British Empire).
The ‘below the stairs’ reference is to the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) that Chadha must have watched as a child (she was born in 1960). A re-boot of the series was attempted in 2010 which ran for two seasons. Inevitably, however, for many reviewers the reference point has been Downton Abbey (2010-15), especially with the portrayal of Louis Mountbatten by Hugh Bonneville, one of the stars of Downton as the Earl. My feeling is that Bonneville is miscast as the Viceroy. Although he is closer in age to the historical Viceroy than James Fox in Jinnah (1998), he feels rather ‘chummy’ and not like a successful military commander and second cousin of the King Emperor. From her various statements, it seems clear that Gurinder Chadha is much more familiar with the British ‘heritage’ films and TV programmes about the Raj than with the many Indian and diasporic films about the end of the Raj and its aftermath. However, the romance she conjures up does figure in some of those Indian films and I felt a sudden recognition in the closing scenes when the Hindu boy seeks and finds his Muslim girlfriend (e.g. in Train to Pakistan and in Earth, where the religious mix is reversed). I was suddenly reminded of scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) in which a young Muslim-Hindu couple are caught up in communal riots in Mumbai. Both films are scored by A. R. Rahman. I found the score for Viceroy’s House to be conventional and almost lost in the presentation for much of the film, but it worked in those closing scenes. I’m aware that for some UK audiences, the romance seems ‘tagged on’ and unnecessary – but it is central to Chadha’s strategy. She wants audiences to both understand the complexity of the political negotiations and to feel the emotional torment on a personal level. I think she gets close to doing that. I’m not convinced though by the romance. The two actors don’t seem well-matched. I know Huma Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, but I didn’t recognise the actor playing Jeet Kumar. It was only later that I discovered that Manish Dyal is an American actor. Gurinder Chadha appears to be concerned to use British or American South Asians or Indians who are used to working in ‘international productions’ rather than actors working in Indian film industries. I wonder if this will be a barrier to acceptance by Indian audiences? (There is, however, a brief appearance from Om Puri, who died recently, far too young, and who will be sorely missed.)
Having discussed the film with friends, I think there is a consensus that although the mis-castings are a barrier and the romance could have been better handled, overall the film has attracted a popular audience and it does deliver that basic history lesson. The trailer perhaps inadvertently provides the key to the problems Gurinder Chadha faced. She has explained how difficult it is to sell a story like this to funders for mainstream films and I’m assuming that the UK trailer is the price you have to pay to satisfy a conservative distribution/exhibition environment. Several people have told me that the trailer put them off seeing the film or that it nearly stopped them (and they said that would have been a shame).
The film has received quite a lot of coverage in the UK media, with Gurinder Chadha responding. Yesterday, when I thought all had quietened down, another over-the-top piece was published in the Guardian by Ian Jack. I was particularly disappointed to read this as I usually enjoy Ian Jack’s writing. He is an ‘old India hand’ and therefore perhaps emotionally involved, but he claims the film as ‘fake history’ and detects that Chadha and her fellow writers, her husband and the British playwright and scriptwriter Moira Buffini, have been too reliant on a 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. The two central findings of this book that Jack finds objectionable/not proven/not credible are 1) that the British government’s long-term policy was to support a separate Pakistan as an ally against Soviet influence in South Asia and that 2) that this was Churchill’s policy formulated before he lost power in 1945 and introduced secretly into the 1947 negotiations by Lord Ismay, Churchill’s wartime military assistant after 1940. By 1947 he’d become Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff. The point about British policy seems to me to be not really an issue. After 1947 Pakistan became a Western ally, India became a non-aligned nation with ‘normal’ relations with the Soviet Union. Ismay and Churchill’s role in all this (in the film, it is a document supposedly drawn up for Churchill that provides the basis for the Partition boundaries in Punjab) is obviously more debatable. But then, as most historians would agree, Churchill’s racist comments about India and Indians as well as his extreme anti-communism were well-known and it certainly seems plausible that his influence may have been felt on men pressurised to make decisions in July/August 1947. Ian Jack attempts to discredit Sarila by quoting various British historian’s reviews of the book. I haven’t read either Sarila’s book or the full reviews Jack mentions (I have read other quite favourable reviews, but possibly by less distinguished reviewers) so I’m not going to comment further. I only wish to point out that where anyone stands in these debates about Partition depends to a certain extent on where their broader sympathies lie with Indian, Pakistani or British positions. Again I don’t favour one over another, but I do feel for Gurinder Chadha in her attempt to view her personal story in the context of all of these political machinations.
On one score, Ian Jack is certainly on shaky ground. He asserts: “The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office”. In fact it has had a ‘wide’ UK release and after two weekends (i.e. ten days in cinemas) it has made £2.34 million. Given that the film did quite well in the first week with older audiences, the full two week total might be closer to £2.8 to £3 million which is more than OK for a UK release. I will be intrigued to see how the film does in other territories and especially what happens when it reaches India. Indian media company Reliance is a production partner and should promote the film, but so far there seems to be confusion about when an Indian release might happen. I’ve seen March, June and August mentioned.
In the video clip below, Gurinder Chadha describes the long preparation process for her film which she started mainly because of her experience in travelling back to Kenya and then to her family’s home in Punjab as part of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006. The whole of that episode is online and it’s a fascinating watch. When she reaches Pakistan and finds the family house which was allocated to Muslim refugee families fleeing in the opposite direction to her grandparents in 1947, she knows she must tell the story of Partition.
The Salesman has become indelibly connected to the idiocies of Trump’s attempted bans on Muslims entering America. Director Asghar Farhadi’s film duly won the Foreign Language Oscar with the director unable to attend the ceremony. In the UK, where the film is scheduled for release this week, preview screenings were arranged for Oscar night in response to the ban. If all this publicity means more people are encouraged to see the film that will be a good thing. The Salesman is an excellent film and it continues Farhadi’s astounding run of productions. In many ways the film uses a similar narrative form to Farhadi’s earlier films and this is the only reason why I would personally have preferred to see Toni Erdmann win the Oscar as something new.
The Salesman is most like Farhadi’s earlier films About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011) in the way it demonstrates how the restrictions on social behaviour and the barriers to open discussion in Iranian society lead to potential tragedy. It’s also ‘different’ for two reasons. First, it operates as a mise en abîme – a narrative featuring a play within a play and encouraging the audience to consider how in this instance Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman might offer a commentary on the lives of the characters and on Iranian society generally. Second, Farhadi supplies a dramatic ending with something of a twist in the narrative (which I don’t intend to spoil).
The film opens with an urgent evacuation of a building. The reason for the evacuation is not immediately apparent, but will eventually be revealed as a consequence of poor building regulations – a literal weakness in the fabric of Iranian society. A couple is forced to move out of their flat. They are Emad, a high school/college teacher and his younger wife Rana (whose occupation I didn’t catch, but I think she is a student/writer?). They are also leading players in a theatre company which is staging Death of a Salesman. The director/producer of the play and a family friend, Babak, finds the couple a new apartment at short notice but unfortunately the previous tenant has left behind much of her furniture and belongings that must be stored until she collects them. There are early indications that Emad and Rana are going through a rough patch in their marriage and it may be partly related to a lack of children. Emad is clearly having problems with his teaching and a class of young men who can’t really see the point of a screening of the classic Iranian film The Cow (1969) directed by Dariush Mehrjui. The young men are not ‘bad lads’ – rather, we get the impression that Emad just doesn’t have the time to prepare his classes properly. More problematic is an incident in which Rana appears to have been assaulted in the bathroom of the new flat, requiring stitches to a wound on her head. Emad is shocked by what has happened to his wife and decides to take matters into his own hands (Rana does not report the incident to the police) and we, as the audience, don’t have a clear idea of what happened. I don’t think I’ll spoil any more of the plot development, only to say that what follows is in many ways a critique of masculinity in contemporary Iran. Farhadi cleverly introduces this issue by showing Emad being humiliated in a taxi by a middle-aged woman who, for no apparent reason, refuses to sit next to him. The humiliation is compounded by involving a third party, one of Emad’s own students who feels embarrassed for his teacher. The more Emad discovers about the previous tenant of the flat, the more obsessed he becomes about finding out what happened to Rana and trying to find someone to blame. At this point the narrative begins to resemble an almost Hitchcockian thriller.
The production of Death of a Salesman is clearly affected by these events involving two of its leading actors. I don’t know the play well enough to comment on the possible links between the two narratives except to recognise that Miller and Farhadi are both concerned with characters who are suffering from their own inadequacies as well as from the problems in the wider society. Farhadi in interviews mentions the importance of the humiliation of different characters and the sense that in both Miller’s play and his own group of characters there are questions about how much certain characters are able to cope with the modernising forces of city living. He suggests that Teheran today and New York in the late 1940s display similar influences of this modernising process. He does explain the links in interviews, but to discuss them here would spoil the narrative.
The Salesman is a deftly plotted film with marvellous performances from its ensemble cast led by two of Farhadi’s regulars. Shahab Hosseini appeared in both About Elly and A Separation. Taraneh Alidoosti has appeared in four Farhadi films. She was ‘Elly’ and also the young female characters in both Beautiful City (2004) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006). Babak Karimi as the producer of the play and all round ‘fixer’ has also worked on earlier Farhadi films. He is a major figure in Iranian cinema with a career as an editor and on one occasion as a producer for Abbas Kiarostami on Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). Farhadi has honed his methods through work in theatre and on TV and now he is able to work with these talented actors to produce complex dramas that seem simple on the surface, but which contain so much in their many layers of meaning. I note from the recent preview screening of The Salesman in London that one of Farhadi’s UK champions is Mike Leigh and looking back at my review of About Elly in a festival screening I see that I mentioned Mike Leigh in thinking about the three films from Farhadi I had seen at that point. Now it is five films and Farhadi’s talent is visible to an international audience. There is a lot more to say about The Salesman, but ‘opening up’ the text at this point would spoil the film for readers and anyway I would need to see the film again to understand more about how Farhadi does it.
The trailer below reveals slightly more of the plot, so don’t watch if you want to avoid any clues as to what happens.
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.
If you are in the UK and you haven’t seen I Know Where I’m Going!, you can watch it free on BBC iPlayer for the next four days and I urge you to do so. It’s one of the best films by the UK’s top filmmaking duo, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, AKA ‘The Archers’. I watched it again on the day La La Land was released in the UK. I was intrigued to hear the American film being lauded for its ‘unconventional’ love story. Micky and Emeric knew all about those.
I Know Where I’m Going! begins with some interesting credits and a montage of scenes from the early life of Joan Webster, the girl who has always known where she is going. Now, in the form of Wendy Hiller, she is the 25 year-old daughter of a bank manager engaged to the wealthy businessman and owner of the company she works for. She has to make her way to the (fictional) island of ‘Kiloran’ which her husband-to-be has, in effect, ‘taken over’ for the duration of the war – and their wedding. The only problem is that the weather in the Western Isles is notoriously fickle and Joan finds herself stranded on the larger (real) island of Mull, wondering if the small boat coming to collect her will ever arrive. Of course, she isn’t alone and all kinds of people are aware of her predicament, including Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). Let the drama, the romance and the fun begin!
It’s worth reflecting on a few ideas about the narratives created by Powell and Pressburger. First, although the setting is unusual, it wasn’t a first for Michael Powell as in 1937 he’d made The Edge of the World, perhaps the best known of his films before he worked with Pressburger. This fictional story was set on an isolated island in the Shetlands and ‘inspired’ by the final days of the even more isolated island settlement of St Kilda out in the North Atlantic, whose last inhabitants left in 1930. Although barely seen at the time, The Edge of the World was re-edited with new material in 1978 and became part of the ‘re-discovery’ of Powell’s early work. Intriguingly though, the other Archers’ film which I Know Where I’m Going! in some ways most resembles is Black Narcissus (1947). In both cases the narrative offers us a proud and intelligent young woman who finds herself in a remote place which deeply unsettles her – especially when she is confronted with a man who understands the place. However, this 1945 narrative is less tragic and (slightly) less dramatic than the later film. The two films both feature a second romance as contrast and they focus on ‘cultural difference’ as the basis for a fantasy and possibly a metaphorical study of British society. In Black Narcissus, the woman is played by Deborah Kerr who had played the triple female lead in another Archers’ film, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). She wasn’t available in 1945 so P&P turned to Wendy Hiller (who had lost the 1943 role to Kerr). One of the things I like about IKWIG (as Powell himself calls it in his autobiography) is that the story starts in Manchester and not London. I hadn’t noticed before that Wendy Hiller was born in Cheshire, so she’s nearly Mancunian. I wish I’d seen more of her films. She’s totally credible as a middle-class young woman from the ‘industrial North’, one with strong convictions who can be set up to lose them in the most delightful way.
The fun begins with the credits which are matched by two expressionist sequences, one as Joan heads north on the Glasgow sleeper and another brief one when she is praying (for the third time) for the winds to drop so she can get to Kiloran. It occurs to me that P&P use these sequences (derived from 1920s German cinema?) more in their b+w films when they don’t have colour to express emotion. The Small Back Room (1949) is perhaps the film in which they are used most extensively (and dramatically). As well as these sequences (which include Joan remembering the dancing at the ceilidh as a contrasting emotion to willing the winds to drop) IKWIG is marked by a significant amount of long shots and images of extreme weather mixed with noirish interiors. Some of the landscapes have mist and fog and a ‘glow’ of sunlight through the clouds which all adds to the sense of Celtic fantasy. The long shots composed by Erwin Hiller also have the function of ‘disguising’ Roger Livesey’s double since Livesey was starring in a West End play and never travelled up to Scotland. As in Black Narcissus, many scenes were shot on studio lots, including the Corryvreckan whirlpool sequence. This latter concerns one of two ancient myths about the fate of lovers that P&P used to underpin the central romance. The other involves a curse on the MacNeil men if they enter a ruined castle. The blooming romance represents P&P’s response to the coming end of the war. In this respect it refers back to A Canterbury Tale (1944), a film which has baffled many audiences. In political terms, this is Powell’s ‘high Tory romanticism’, not necessarily reactionary but definitely preferring the spiritual qualities of the rural and preferably the wild landscape to the ordered, rule-managed materialism of the urban society.
The film’s title was suggested by Powell’s Irish wife Frankie and it comes from the traditional Scots/Irish ballad. In the film it is beautifully sung by the then 69 year-old Boyd Steven (with the Glasgow Orpheus Choir) and used in the closing credit sequence:
Here’s the song:
“I know where I’m going
And I know who’s going with me.
I know who I love
But the de’il (the devil) knows who I’ll marry
The film has a score by Allan Gray and an entire sequence with performances at a ceilidh. In this sense it is another movement towards Powell’s concept of the ‘composed film’. It’s also one of Pressburger’s best scripts with its sly digs about the ‘rich and soulless’ – the wonderful irony of the three pipers hired for the wedding by the industrialist but who also can’t get to the island and therefore play at the ceilidh and provide Kiloran with another opportunity to woo Joan. This time I also noticed that in the opening narration we hear that “When Joan was only 1 year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right, left? No, straight on!” I wonder if this is a joke about the political climate of 1944?
IKWIG has everything, even an early appearance by Pet Clark as a rich brat. It also has an ‘eagle hunter’ with ‘Torquil’, his eagle, on his arm (credited as ‘Mr Ramshaw’). If you miss the BBC screening in HD, there is a Criterion Region 1 DVD (with an essay by Ian Christie) and Region 2 DVDin the UK.
Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.
Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.
At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.