Category: Melodrama

Thou Shalt Not Hate (Non odiare, Italy-Poland 2020)

Simone on the water . . .

The winner of two prizes at Venice in 2020, Thou Shalt Not Hate is another film to divide audiences. It won ‘Best Italian Film’ – an outstanding achievement for the début feature film from writer-director Mauro Mancini, working with Davide Lisino. Its star Alessandro Gassmann is very well known so it was less of a surprise that he should win ‘Best Actor’. Still, despite these awards, the relatively  small number of reviews I have found include several that are completely dismissive as well as others praising the film highly. I’m still thinking about the film and several aspects of the narrative still puzzle me.

. . . Simone finds Antonio

The film begins and ends at the same location, a beautiful lake in what I assume is the foothills of the Dolomites in Friuli Venezia Giulia. A small boy is coerced by his father into a cruel act at the beginning of the narrative. At the end a man visits the same spot to reflect on what has happened in the last few weeks. The scenes by the lake are stunning in their visual splendour with the shots of the mountains almost hyper-real. The ‘inciting incident’, which takes place immediately after the prologue, see a middle-aged, but very fit man, kayaking along a river when he hears the sound of an impending crash on the road that runs parallel to the river. He reaches the accident and finding an injured man in the driver’s seat he phones for an ambulance and starts to fashion a tourniquet to prevent further bleeding. But in doing so he notices the injured man’s Nazi tattoos and pulls back. Clearly he feels guilty when the accident victim later dies. But what is odd is that the ‘good samaritan’ had already told the hospital that he is a doctor and has abdicated his responsibility to try to save a dying man. Would he not be questioned about this? There is instead a line of dialogue in which the doctor says he is sorry, but he “couldn’t do it”. It isn’t clear if he says this to the police at the scene or simply to himself.

Marica with her younger brother Paulo

The kayaking doctor is Simone, a surgeon at a local hospital in Trieste. More to the point he is a Jewish surgeon who we learn later has recently lost his father, a concentration camp survivor who was forced to work as a dentist for the Nazis. He begins to investigate the aftermath of what turns out to be a ‘hit and run’ driving accident in which the dead man was Antonio who has left three children, Marica 27, Marcello 17 and Paulo 11. Here again I wasn’t quite sure if Simone engineers the appointment of Marica (Sara Serraiocco) as his cleaner or if what follows is partly a matter of chance. Overall this is a film with relatively little dialogue, employing a strategy of ‘showing’ without explanation. Simone seems to be reasserting his Jewishness, partly because of the accident and partly because he must clear his father’s house and in doing so stir up memories. The two families, his own and Antonio’s are both missing a mother figure. The narrative overall resembles a melodrama with a carefully orchestrated musical score and some rather heavy symbolism alongside the photography. Trieste appears almost deserted in a series of long shots. The pacing is slow and Gassmann as Simone is dour and focused throughout. These latter features almost suggest an anti-melodrama. Perhaps instead this is a ‘moral tale’ about guilt and responsibility?

Marcello

Simone in the empty synagogue

One of the most striking shots in the film is of a large empty synagogue that Simone enters. I did wonder if Simone’s father had been a refugee from Poland after 1945? The film is a co-production with Poland and the theme of immigration would tie in with aspects of Marica’s behaviour. She does not have the Neo-Nazi fervour of her brother Marcello (Luka Zunic) but her negative attitudes to migrants are presented in quite subtle ways. Simone too, at one point gets angry with the migrants on the street who attempt to clean car windscreens of any car that stops at traffic lights.

Overall I thought this was an impressive début feature with strong performances and some interesting images by Polish cinematographer Mike Stern Sterzynski, who like the director seemed to be making his features début. North-Eastern Italy is an interesting region that doesn’t tend to appear that often in the Italian films that make it to the UK and I was engaged with the narrative throughout. The film has just left MUBI and at the moment doesn’t seem to be available on streamers. If it does turn up I think it is worth watching for its exploration of father-son and family relationships, even if it can’t quite work through everything it sets up. The ‘Made in Italy’ season has been interesting to explore on MUBI but the short window of availability is a difficult proposition.

The Ties (Lacci, Italy 2020)

Aldo and Vanda at the opening celebration

The Ties is another of MUBI’s  ‘Made in Italy’ films. I chose this one because it stars Alba Rohrwacher who I have admired in films by her sister Alice and in other films. As the title implies this is a film about a long term relationship. The Italian title actually refers to shoelaces and a scene that presents a metaphor about the relationships between parents and children. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Domenico Starnone, whose first screenplay La scoula (1995), based on two of his novels, was filmed by Daniele Luchetti, the director of Lacci. Starnone is a well-known Neapolitan writer who has been identified as one possible source of the identity of the best-selling but pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Starnone is married to translator and journalist Anita Raja and another possibility is that ‘Ferrante’ is actually husband and wife working together.

The family on the way home from the celebration, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The Ferrante question may be one of the reasons why Lacci was chosen to open the 2020 Venice Festival which lost its usual Hollywood headliners as a result of the pandemic. Lacci was immediately seen by English-speaking critics as a response to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (US 2019). This gave an extra frisson to an opening film but I haven’t seen the American film so no comparisons here. In any event, Lacci seems to be rooted in the experiences or observations of Starnone and Raja. The narrative begins in the 1980s and ends some time nearer the present. We first meet Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) at a celebration with their two small children, Anna and Sandro, in the early 1980s. They all dance joyfully in the opening credit sequence and make their way to their apartment nearby. Aldo seems like a loving father in a bathtime scene and in his storytelling but after the children are asleep he suddenly tells Vanda he has been unfaithful. She doesn’t know what to make of his statement and he doesn’t see very clear about why he made it. Vanda follows him to Rome where he makes regular radio appearances as a reader and later as a literary commentator. On the stairs in the RAI building Vanda meets Lidia (Linda Caridi), a striking younger woman. Nothing is said as the two stare at each other.

One of the more dramatic confrontations between Lidia, Aldo and Vanda, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The irony of the situation is that Aldo, praised for the quality of his speaking voice, fails to communicate as he faces Vanda. She (a teacher, it later transpires, though we never see her in a classroom), rather than articulating her anger, makes increasingly dramatic gestures. I thought at this point I was going to witness a full-bloodied family melodrama but after the early highly-charged scenes the narrative shifts gear. Aldo decides to stay in Rome and concedes full custody of the children to Vanda. Forward a few years and Aldo seems to want to see the children again. At this point, the dance music from the opening re-appears and Luchetti engineers a transition to the near present that threw me until I went back and replayed it – what has streaming done to my viewing? A different pair of actors, Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando, play Vanda and Aldo some thirty years later and they appear to be living together and bickering as they prepare to go on holiday. Now the narrative will start to ‘loop’, much like the shoelaces of the title, returning to the early 1980s and the slightly later period to reveal something about how Aldo and Lidia were as a couple and what happened during his meetings with his children. The final section of the narrative then offers a rather different perspective on the marriage through an extended scene which again comes through the link of the dance music tune from the opening. There is a ‘reveal’ here that made me think about those films where middle-class assumptions about people’s behaviour often lead to unfortunate conclusions.

The older Also and Vanda on holiday, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The reviews of the film are mixed. Several describe the narrative as dealing in ‘misery’. One references Philip Larkin. On the other hand, several scenes seemed quite ‘real’ to me and represented aspects of long term relationships – relationships we grow into that generate different kinds of love and affection as well as irritability and quite possibly mental cruelty. As a film narrative it certainly made me think. Someone described it as ‘handsome’ and that seems a good call for a presentation in ‘Scope in often warm colours and with rather fetching 1980s outfits. The central quartet of actors are very good. I recognised the other three alongside Alba Rorwacher and later realised that I had seen them in various earlier films. The two children are played by three different sets of actors, all well cast I thought. Having said that, in every case my initial reaction was that the characters at different ages didn’t look like they were the same person. But on reflection the casting does work, I think I was just thrown by the editing – which isn’t a criticism. Luigi Lo Cascio as the younger Aldo was one of the quartet in The Dinner (Italy 2014). I mention that film for two reasons. First, it questions the behaviour of a middle-class family and second it is a successful and award-winning Italian film which I don’t think made it into UK distribution. I fear that the same may be true for Lacci. In The Dinner, Luigi Lo Cascio’s wife is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is cast as the grown-up version of his daughter Anna in Lacci. It must be a different experience watching Lacci in Italy when the actors are so well-known.

I think Lacci is definitely a film to seek out if you can find it (there is just one day left of its brief stint on MUBI in the UK). Cineuropa carries an interview with director Luchetti in which he makes some interesting comments about earlier generations of parents and particularly fathers in Italian society.

Moving On (Nam-mae-wui yeo-reum-bam, South Korea 2019)

Grandad’s house and the family together

A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.

Dong-ju entertains the family

Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.

Byunggi and Mijung are siblings backin the family home thinking about care for their father

The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.

Ok-ju and Dong-ju in a taxi on a family mission

Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the YouTube clip below the trailer you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.

180° Rule (Iran 2020)

The family group at a magical wedding

This debut feature by Farnoosh Samadi is relatively short (around 83 minutes). Ms Samadi has mostly been working on short films, writing several and also co-writing a feature with Ali Asgari. Her own film deals with two familiar social issues that have been dealt with by several Iranian directors and, for international audiences, most notably by Asghar Farhadi. The first is the highly patriarchal nature of Iranian society which allows women to do many things but still requires them to seek permission from a husband or a father. The second issue is the propensity to lie to avoid social conflict or criticism. This latter can be seen as a widespread concern about the corruption of a society – many people in Iran seem to be ‘living a lie’. It forms the basis for Farhadi’s film About Elly (Iran 2009) but is also an important element of other Iranian films. I suspect it is a form of lying most associated with the middle class who have status to lose (as well as the arrogance for some to feel that they are ‘above the law’ or, more radically, that the law is an ass and it should be challenged). This latter is much more dangerous in a state like Iran.

The basic outline of this drama presents Sara as a middle-class woman who works in a girls school where she appears to be a respected and trusted member of staff, to whom the girls might take a problem. She has a young daughter of her own and a husband, Hamed, an executive given several ‘missions’ which require him to fly to various locations on trips lasting a few days. As the narrative begins it is clear that he has not asked for leave to attend Sara’s niece’s wedding some distance away in the North of the country. He is then sent out on another ‘mission’ (the subtitles are rather basic) but he forbids Sara to go to the wedding because he doesn’t think she is competent to drive herself and their daughter. Sara has bought a dress for what is intended to be a magical wedding in a forest and her young daughter (of around five) has learned a song to sing as the bridesmaid. Of course, Sara is going to defy a husband who is being unreasonable. I’m not going to spoil what is not a particularly complex plot but fate is not kind to Sara. Her family rally round to protect her but Sara makes the mistake of constructing a lie to cover what she feels is a failing on her part. She is in a state of shock and understandably not thinking straight. Her family, principally her parents and her brother, collude with her but when Hamed returns he disproves her story quite quickly and becomes violently angry. What follows is a set of legal procedures that again are familiar from Farhadi’s films with a demonstration of the male authority which permeates the whole system. Sara’s response is to remain silent throughout, in some ways an eloquent commentary on the the inequality of the legal system. Sara then finds herself facing further problems related to her position at the school and in particular her interaction with a specific student which points to another, separate but connected social issue for women. The narrative concludes with an ending that may divide audiences.

Sara has a difficult time in her marriage as this shallow focus shot connotes

The strongest aspect of this film is the central performance by Sahar Dolatshahi, an actor who featured in Permission (Iran 2018), another film about a woman denied permission by her husband. She also stars in an earlier, and better, film Inversion (Iran 2016) in which she plays an independent woman pressurised by her family to give up her independence. The actor playing Hamed, Pejman Jamshidi, is given little to do other than to be angry. I’ve read that he is generally known for comedy roles. I think that this film could have been an effective melodrama given the events in the narrative but the overall presentation of the film seems quite ‘functional’, apart from the spectacle of the wedding in the forest. True, it does begin with a close-up of milk boiling over on the stove and later there is a folkoric natural event that is often seen as a warning. But again, I didn’t really notice the score and rather than the ‘excess’ of a traditional melodrama, the mise en scène of the film added little. I have managed to find an interview with the director in which she explains that she has always been interested in the ‘secrets and lies’ that play such a strong role in Iranian social life. She has envisaged a trilogy of films and this is the first (which draws on the experiences of one of her friends). She does at one point admit: “Unfortunately, due to time and financial problems, I did not have the chance to rehearse with the cast and I just used my experiences from making short films. I always tried to choose my cast based on what I feel is the closest image to my film’s characters”. It is difficult to make low budget films and as well as the pressure of time, what tends to happen is that the there is not enough paid development time for the script and planning the shoot.

Sara’s brother attacks Hamed because of his treatment of Sara

The title of the film requires some explanation for those readers not part of the film industry or film academia. I don’t know if the film has a different title in Farsi but I’m assuming that this English title refers to the convention of ‘not crossing the line’ – here is a brief explanation on Wikipedia. The convention is helpful in filmmaking if the intention is always to ensure that the audience knows where the characters are in relation to each other in any setting. What does it mean in the context of this film? It seems to be metaphorical in that Sara has ‘crossed a line’ and finds herself in the ‘wrong place’. But there might be a more specific reason for the title.

The social issues in this film are important and Farnoosh Samadi faces many problems as a woman trying to write and direct films in Iran. I want to support her intentions but I feel that the film feels a little undercooked for international distribution. On the other hand I’m pleased that we are still able to see films coming out of Iran and this was my second film at the Borderlines Festival – where it was included as part of the ‘F-rated’ strand. My next screening is another Iranian film but I expect a rather different experience. A contrasting Iranian film directed by a woman is Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019).

Minari (US 2020)

Father and son building a new life in Arkansas . . .

Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to review parts of the film.

Monica and jacob have different ideas about what the future might hold

The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.

David emerges as the focus of the emotion in the narrative, even if his father’s actions drive the story

What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.

The family is introduced to the local church congregation

Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)

The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.

Grandma Soonja down by the creek with the minari

I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.

The Shiralee (UK-Australia 1957)

Macauley and Buster

The Shiralee is the fourth of Ealing Studios’ Australian films and I think it is an impressive melodrama, revisiting a familiar Ealing genre from the late 1949s and early 1950s. By this point in 1957 Ealing had sold its studio facilities to the BBC and left the uncertain embrace of the Rank Organisation to take up residence at MGM-British in Borehamwood. This did at least have the promise of better international distribution even if the Ealing team did feel that something had been lost in the move.

Two of Paul Beeson’s framings of Macauley’s and Buster’s journey

A ‘shiralee’ is a slang term borrowed from indigenous Australian languages which means a burden of some kind. It was often used to refer to the ‘swag’, the few possessions that an itinerant worker carried with him from one small town or farm to another. Ealing was fortunate to be able to cast Peter Finch, who was born in the UK, grew up in Australia and then became an actor back in the UK, as the swagman. It’s hard to imagine any other actor quite so qualified to play the role. Finch had appeared in a small part in Ealing’s 1949 Australian film Eureka Stockade and had gradually moved into lead roles in British cinema. He had a terrible reputation (gleefully celebrated by the press) as a boozing womaniser. He was also a bloody good actor. The story was adapted from a first novel by D’Arcy Niland. The script was by the director Leslie Norman and Neil Paterson. Norman had been on Harry Watt’s productions for The Overlanders and his other films in East Africa and Australia and by this time had become a director after many years as an editor and associate producer.

Macauley meets up again with Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris)

A brief outline of the plot reveals Peter Finch as ‘Macauley’ the swagman who returns to his Sydney flat after weeks (months?) away to discover his wife and her lover. Incensed, he grabs his young daughter ‘Buster’ (Dana Mason) and heads out back on the road. In the adventures that follow in road movie fashion he moves from one small job to another as Buster becomes more attached to her father despite the hardships. They travel by means of walking and hitching rides. Macauley makes both friends and enemies wherever he goes and his past catches up with in the form of a woman he once knew well, Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris). His friends prove his saviour with boarding-house keepers played by Sid James and Tessie O’Shea. The narrative begins with the possibility of a social drama structured as a road movie but gradually changes and moves towards melodrama. Macauley is constrained by the need to look after his daughter (she appears to be around seven) even though she is a trouper and quite self reliant. He is used to his freedom and some employers are reluctant to hire him with the girl. We are also not surprised to discover that his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) still has an interest in Buster. The last section of the narrative moves rapidly in melodrama mode. The ending may be considered to be a familiar Ealing restoration of a form of order, although what’s gone before suggests that life for Macauley and for Buster won’t be all quiet domesticity.

Elizabeth Sellars as Macauley’s wife and Buster’s mother

The end section of the narrative does seem a little rushed (though the film is 99 minutes) but the ‘darkness’ of the melodrama has been hinted at in some of Paul Beeson’s camerawork. Beeson had begun his career as a focus-puller at Ealing in 1939 and had 18 Ealing productions under his belt before he stepped up to shoot West of Zanzibar for Harry Watt in 1954. The Shiralee was his 4th DoP credit. On the shoot in Australia and back at MGM-British he had around him many of the longstanding Ealing creatives including Jim Morahan as art director, Stephen Dalby as sound designer (though not called that in 1957) and Gordon Stone as editor. His photography captures the landscape which several critics refer to as ‘barren’ or similar but to me looks like open pasture for sheep. It’s also referred to by some as the ‘outback’. I’m not sure how that term works for Australians? Perhaps it is metaphorical for anything outside the cities? I would link it to the idea of the ‘bush’, i.e. land that has not been farmed or ‘fenced’ – though the latter has other meanings in Australia?

Sid James and Tessie O’Shea, more than ‘comic relief’

The other criticisms of the film include the insertion of Sid James and Tessie O’Shea as a ‘comedy relief’ couple. It’s true that Ealing was fond of inserting characters who might provide comic relief and I have previously worried about Tommy Trinder in various Ealing films (e.g. The Foreman Went to France, 1942) and he did appear in another Ealing Australian film Bitter Springs (1950). But Trinder was a recognised comedian. Sid James had been appearing as a character actor in British films since 1947. True, he had gained fame on radio and then on TV in Hancock’s Half Hour since 1954 and this was perhaps why the charge was made. Tessie O’Shea fulfilled the ‘larger than life’ character type and the jokes appear in The Shiralee, especially in the ‘banter’ when she visits a butcher’s shop.  But again, she could play character parts and I think that both James and O’Shea work well in the film. One of the issues here is that British film criticism in the 1950s was still mired in the dispute between realism (good) and any form of expressionism (bad). Social comedy has always been a problem for middle-class critics I think. It’s interesting that Ealing’s late 1940s comedies were praised but in the 1950s, apart from The Ladykillers in 1955, it was the comedies or films with comedic elements that were often seen as failures. One other addition to this film was the attempt to connect to the new pop music of 1957 with a Tommy Steele song. This is sung over a blank screen before the opening credits like the ‘overture’ of a 1950s musical. Unfortunately this title song is poorly recorded and uses an oversweet girl group chorus. It is followed by John Addison’s orchestral score under the credits with hints of an American Western before an Australian voiceover narrates an introduction to the ‘swagman’. Steele has a second unmemorable song written by Lionel Bart later in the film. He had become the UK’s first modern pop star in 1956 as a skiffle performer moving into early rock ‘n roll and his banjo playing might have worked well in a more ‘raw’ version of the title song. It seems Ealing wasn’t quite ready yet for new ‘youth music’.

How long can Macauley and Buster put up with domesticated Aussie life in the 1950s?

In his Zoom lecture on Ealing in Australia last week, Stephen Morgan referred to the last two Ealing films in Australia as ‘moving away from the community ideas of the 1940s’. I think he sees this as Australian film beginning to define itself in opposition to the British and American films made in Australia – or possibly it just marks the general (and regressive) move away from collectivism to American-style individualism? But is this what really happens? In The Shiralee,  I think that Macauley is in one sense a loner who antagonises some folk but who also makes firm friendships. The film does restore ‘order’ in the community but it’s one mainly on his terms. Having said that, I’m not sure how long the new ‘equilibrium’ will survive. Unfortunately Ealing itself couldn’t last long after 1957. This is, I think, one of the more satisfactory late Ealing films. Ealing itself had lost much of its earlier community feel during the 1950s. I will try at some point to cover the other two Australian Ealing productions and then think about the whole ‘overseas Ealing’ project.

I watched The Shiralee on Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ Vol. 5 DVD. It has also been shown on Talking Pictures TV as in the trailer below: