Category: Melodrama

Apple Tree Yard (UK 2017)

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Yvonne (Emily Watson) emerges from the holding cells at The Old Bailey

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.

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Mark (Ben Chaplin) and Yvonne (Emily Watson)

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.

I Know Where I’m Going! (UK 1945)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

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!

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona's house.

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona’s house.

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.

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

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.

A Monster Calls (Spain-US-UK 2016)

Conor and the monster

Conor and the monster

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.

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

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.

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

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.

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

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:

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu Japan-France 2016)

A misleading 'selfie' suggesting 'harmony' in the extended family of Akie, Hotaru and Toshio – and the mysterious Yasaka

A misleading ‘selfie’ suggesting ‘harmony’ in the extended family of (from left) Akie, Hotaru and Toshio – and the mysterious Yasaka

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.

Formal breakfast in the household

Formal breakfast in the household

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.

LFF2016 #6: These Days (Questi Giorni, Italy 2016)

Four young women on their way to Belgrade

Four young women on their way to Belgrade

lff-2016.jpgOn my last few visits to the London Film Festival I have often enjoyed an Italian film, invariably selected by Adrian Wootton. None of these films has to my knowledge been released in the UK. This year the Vue in Leicester Square showed Questi Giorni and although I could see it was a flawed film in some ways, I still enjoyed watching it. When I looked for some reviews following its appearance ‘In Competition’ at Venice last month I was taken aback by the ferocity with which it was condemned by most reviewers.

Not being familiar with the work of director Guiseppe Piccioni, I looked over his filmography and he appears to have had a career making roughly similar films mixing elements of comedy, melodrama and romance. The one feature of his films that I did recognise was his frequent casting of Margherita Buy who was excellent in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015). In this film she is cast as the harassed hairdersser and single mother of Liliana, a student with a crush on her Literature professor. It’s the summer vacation in a provincial town and Liliana is invited by her friend, the rather stern Caterina, to join her on a journey to Belgrade where Caterina is hoping to get a job in an upmarket hotel, found for her by a Serbian friend. Somehow, two other friends, Anna and Angela, also join the party and it’s four young women on a road trip with a ferry from Bari crossing over to Montenegro and on to Serbia. They meet some Serbian lads making the same trip in the opposite direction but the main (melo)drama is played out in Belgrade. The narrative sees all the characters faced with questions about what they are doing in their lives and what they should do next. Guiseppe Piccioni was present for a Q&A and he told us that he wanted to make a film about those moments in life, especially when we are young, when we don’t realise that we are taking decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. He seemed to be distancing himself from the perception that this was simply a generic road movie.

Margherita Buy as Liliana's mother

Margherita Buy as Liliana’s mother

Piccioni has won awards in the past but I didn’t think of Questi Giorni as a potential ‘awards winner’. But also I didn’t think it was open to all the criticism it received at Venice. Possibly film journalists at festivals have too many expectations of what they want/hope to see and are quick to reject what doesn’t fit. There is also a common feeling that films about young women have to make feminist statements or at least represent ‘girl power’ and it is morally objectionable for a young woman to have a crush on her teacher. In this case it seems that Piccioni adapted an unpublished novel by a younger filmmaker he had been mentoring. I disagree that all the characters were simply stereotypes or that the film is poorly photographed and edited – as argued by some reviewers. I found the beginning of the film a little confusing (I wasn’t sure how old the young women were supposed to be – the actors seem to be in their twenties) but by the last section I’d bought the melodrama in Belgrade.

Piccioni proved an entertaining guest speaker. He discussed his decisions about his approach in terms of Tolstoy and the audience asked questions about Milton and Guy de Maupassant (Liliana is studying Paradise Lost, Caterina is reading de Maupassant). Unusually, I asked him a question. I was intrigued by the film clips played in an old cinema being renovated in Belgrade. I recognised a couple of sequences from Dusan Makavejev’s The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (1968), including the iconic shot of a naked woman and a black cat. It seemed to me that this film by Yugoslavia’s best known film director internationally represents a narrative that possibly contradicts that of Piccioni’s film. I was surprised that he didn’t know the Yugoslavian film and wasn’t aware of the effect he was creating.

I suspect Questi giorni won’t get a release in the UK. I enjoyed the film and I hope that Adrian Wootton continues to select Italian films for LFF. I feel our film culture is lessened by the lack of films like this one on release. (No subs on the official trailer, but an idea of the look of the film.)

Julieta (Spain 2016)

TheSpanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A Spanish poster for Julieta featuring the two stars playing the same lead role.

A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is an occasion for joy in my book and I found Julieta to be utterly absorbing and thrilling. ‘Un film de Almodóvar’ is like a gourmet meal – every ingredient is rich in meaning and exquisitely presented. Gourmet meals are sometimes more about style than nourishment, but not with Almodóvar. I find his films as sustaining as the best peasant food. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Julieta has received some lukewarm reviews alongside the majority of favourable ones, mainly I think from writers who don’t know the range of his work – or possibly from younger reviewers who don’t fully appreciate what it means to look back? I was going to write a full-blown defence of the film, but I discovered that Mark Kermode, in one of his most perceptive and informed reviews, has already done it. So I’m not going to repeat all his points – you can find Kermode’s review here. Instead I’ll expand on some of the aspects that interest me most.

Julieta is Almodóvar’s third ‘literary adaptation’, following Live Flesh (1997, based on a Ruth Rendell novel of the same title) and The Skin I Live In (2011, based on Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet). This time Almodóvar has turned to Runaway (2004), a collection of short stories by the celebrated Canadian short story specialist Alice Munro. Three stories, ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, are about the same character at different stages of her life. I read these after seeing Julieta and then found Almodóvar’s explanation of what he did. There are useful pieces in both the Guardian/Observer (interview by Jonathan Romney) and Sight and Sound (September 2016 – article by Maria Delgado, review by Jonathan Romney). In the UK Julieta is distributed by Pathé which offers little documentation in support of the film but in Canada the distributor Mongrel Media offers a Press Pack in which Almodóvar provides a delightful set of notes which are almost as entertaining as the film and I recommend them to you.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta with her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado) in their Madrid flat.

Julieta is a story about a young woman from Madrid who falls passionately in love with Xoan, a married man in Galicia, and who later marries him in difficult circumstances that to some extent mirror what has happened to her own parents back in Andalucía. She is then dismayed to find her relationship with her daughter from the marriage breaking down and bringing the past back to her as she tries to live a new life in Madrid.

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Adriana Ugarte with Pedro Almodóvar and Daniel Grao (Xoan) in the confines of a 1980s dining car

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a poster for a Lucien Fred exhibition

Emma Suárez as the older Julieta in front of a Lucian Freud portrait

Pedro tells us that he’d acquired the rights and started adapting the stories before making his earlier film The Skin I Live In and that Munro’s book actually appears as a prop in that film. He’d already switched the location from British Columbia and Ontario to New York before deciding that he wasn’t confident enough in English and transposed the action again to Madrid, Galicia and Andalucía. He suggests that in North America, the physical separation of parents and grown-up children is common but in Spain it is exceptional – “the umbilical cord joining us to our parents and grandparents survives the passing of time”. He says that the original stories are still Munro’s but that he’s had to change them for cinema and he hopes that Julieta will be seen by Munro’s admirers as “a tribute to the Canadian writer”. In fact, he hasn’t changed that much. The main thing he has done is to find a way to ‘stitch’ the three separate episodes together so that one coherent narrative can be manipulated on the cinema screen with flashbacks and the use of two actors to play Julieta at different times of her life. The transformation shot when the younger Adriana Ugarte becomes the older Emma Suárez is quite remarkable. (Both actors are very good, Agarte is well known from Spanish TV and it’s a welcome return for UK audiences to see Suárez who starred in the early films of Julio Medem in the 1990s.) Almodóvar is not the first director to adapt Munro and one of my favourite films is Away From Her (Canada 2006) directed by Sarah Polley. As a young and inexperienced director she didn’t have the weight of Almodóvar’s experience in 2006 but she does have a woman’s perspective – and an affinity with Canadian life. When I first remembered the connection I thought that the two films were very different but on reflection they are both recognisably Munro’s narratives, so Almodóvar has been ‘faithful’ to the author in one sense.

In the Press Notes Pedro makes several claims and assertions that I take with a pinch of salt:

“I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humour, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left. Someone with whom you’ve lived for a lifetime disappears from your life without a word. You can’t understand it. It happens, it’s in our nature, but it’s incomprehensible and unacceptable. Not to mention the pain it causes.”

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

The housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) with the young Julieta when she first appears in Galicia

I would argue that it is a melodrama, that the visual compositions are, as usual, extraordinary and that the film refers back to various periods of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, as well as clear references. It is this which makes the film ‘un film de Almodóvar’ as well as a wonderful adaptation of a great writer’s work. Elsewhere, Pedro remarks that Ava, the woman Julieta meets in Galicia and who may be her husband’s on/off mistress is perhaps named after Ava Gardner. At the house in Galicia which will become Julieta’s home she must grapple with the housekeeper Marian, played by Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s ‘go to’ character actors, here playing Mrs Danvers to Julieta’s Rebecca from Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Later on a character will tell us that he feels like a character from a Patricia Highsmith story. The earliest part of the story is set in 1985 and Pedro tells us that he had to explain to Adrianna Ugarte how a young woman from Madrid on a train (Hitchcock/Highsmith again – but also in the Munro story) might behave in the sexually liberated ‘Movida‘ period when the first outrageous Almodóvar films appeared. The Press Notes finish with these lines:

“Almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen. Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story. I’d like to persuade my brother (the producer) to offer a free second viewing to people who have already seen the film.”

 Julieta is a work of genius in which the adaptation becomes a personal exploration of grief, loss, passion and memory. I know some audiences drifted away from Almodóvar, disappointed by I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) (but not me). Julieta should bring them back – after 10 days, it had made over £820,00 in UK cinemas – on the way to perhaps making £1 million and emphasising Almodóvar’s status as the most consistent foreign language director distributed in the UK.

Campo Grande (Brazil-France 2015)

CampoGrande

This final screening in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender was introduced by Lúcia Sa, Professor in Brazilian Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. She informed us that the film had only opened in Brazil in June 2016 so it was something of a coup to see it in Manchester now. When I checked later I realised that since the film was co-produced with France it stands a good chance of getting a European release, certainly in France but perhaps also other territories. It had its world première at Toronto last year and also appeared in Berlin, Rome and at the American Film Market. Lúcia also told us that the director, Sandra Kogut, is from a Hungarian family. Further research reveals she has lived in France and worked in Europe and had artworks exhibited in New York. Might we then expect a view of contemporary Brazil from a global perspective?

Regina (Carla Ribas)

Regina (Carla Ribas)

Professor Sa suggested that the film we were about to see was about the ‘divided space’ of Rio de Janeiro. The film’s title refers to one of the poorer outlying areas to the west of the city. One morning, Regina, a wealthy woman in the affluent district of Ipanema in the South Zone (Zona Sul), is told by her maid that a small girl has been left in the entrance hall of the building with instructions not to move until her mother returns. Later the girl, Rayane, will be joined by her older brother Ygor (he’s around 9, she is perhaps 5). Neither knows where their mother has gone or the address of where they live with her. Regina at first tries to get rid of both of the children by phoning the local council and getting them put into care. But the mystery remains – why have they come to her door? Regina also has her own problems. She is splitting from her husband and her daughter, who is studying for college exams, is moving between the two. Is she being a ‘bad mother’? How does she feel as a middle-aged woman  facing a possibly lonely future? Regina is also packing to move and the film carefully links her domestic chaos to the frantic building work taking place across the city. When Ygor re-appears at her door, she has a change of heart and tries to find his mother and his home. In the film’s Press Pack, director and co-writer Sandra Kogut explains that she sees the chaos of the city as both in one sense ‘realist’ and in another sense expressionistic as it represents the turmoil in the heads of the characters. The domestic chaos of Regina’s apartment is similarly bewildering for the children.

The child's perspective is emphasised in framings like this.

The child’s perspective is emphasised in framings like this.

Campo Grande is 80 kilometres from Ipanema and when Regina makes the journey to find Ygor’s grandmother’s house she feels completely disorientated – she would never normally visit a place like this. Kogut also explains that although she wasn’t aiming for ‘realism’ as such she did use a methodology with the mainly non-professional cast that meant they didn’t know what would happen from scene to scene and that they stayed in position in designated settings such as Regina’s apartment for several days to get used to their situation. The street scenes were filmed ‘live’ – i.e. without blocking off traffic or using extras. Kogut is also an experienced documentary filmmaker. This approach is in fact quite similar to that of ‘social realist’ filmmakers such as Ken Loach. I also wondered if this might be a ‘realist melodrama’. It certainly seems that way and music is quite important in the narrative, including Regina’s daughter’s rendition of the John Lennon song ‘Love’ on the piano and a Brazilian pop song that Ygor claims is his grandmother’s favourite. The performances are generally very good. Carla Ribas who plays Regina is one of the few professionals in the cast.

Ygor and Rayane

Ygor (Ygor Manoel) and Rayane (Rayane do Amaral)

Two further points about the film’s ‘look’ are important. As Lúcia Sa suggested, there are several scenes when the camera adopts the child’s perspective – shooting from a much lower ‘eye level’. There is also a more frequent use of close-ups and shallow depth of focus than might be expected in a film using a ‘realist’ aesthetic. In this sense the film is similar to the first of the Weekender films I saw, Jonas e seu circo sem lona, a ‘pure’ documentary. Campo Grande certainly highlights the inequality in Rio de Janeiro, though I suspect that something similar could be found in narratives set in many cities. I should also note that something else the director says, about the ways in which wealthy Brazilians develop very fluid relationships with maids and other servants, ties this film in with The Second Mother (Brazil 2015). You can probably guess why the mother of Ygor and Rayane left her children at Regina’s door. I’ll just reassure you that there is a resolution of sorts.

Here is the official Brazilian trailer – no English subs but it gives you the ‘feel’ of the film:

 

Reading Blue Eyes (Blå ögon, Sweden 2014)

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.

Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.

(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)

The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down