Category: Stars

45 Years (UK 2015)

Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). This still uses shallow focus as do several cenes in the film.

Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). This still uses shallow focus as do several scenes in the film.

Eagerly anticipated, Andrew Haigh’s Berlin prizewinner had a very good opening weekend in the UK at No 10 in the chart with the highest screen average of £4,871 (apart from Secret Cinema’s Star Wars Event). It opened on only 68 cinema screens but also on Curzon online. This weekend it is more widely available, I think, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next. The critical coverage was also very positive and my friend asked “Will this be another King’s Speech?” I understood the question and I think that the reviews may have encouraged older audiences who have enjoyed mainstream comedies such as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films or Quartet (which also featured Tom Courtenay). If this happens, I think some audiences will be disappointed. They might be surprised in a good way but some of the negative reviews on IMDB suggest that they might struggle. 45 Years is a traditional arthouse film which will feature on Film 4/Channel 4 at some point (Film 4 is involved in the funding). One of the ironies of British cultural life is that the theatre audience which might look down on cinema – and British Cinema in particular – would probably enjoy 45 Years.

Andrew Haigh (best known for Weekend 2011) adapted 45 Years from a short story by David Constantine (see this Telegraph feature). ‘In Another Country’, written some 15 years ago, was inspired by a news story about an 80 year-old man who had been asked to identify the body of his father that had been preserved in a glacier in the French Alps for 70 years. The father was a guide who had been lost in the mountains. In Haigh’s adaptation, Tom Courtenay is Geoff Mercer, a man in his 70s who learns that his girlfriend Katya, who fell into a crevasse fifty-three years earlier in 1962, has been spotted in a glacier after a recent snow melt in Switzerland. This revelation occurs five days before Geoff is due to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of his marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling). The short story (I think of only 12 pages?) has become a 95 minute feature. Haigh carefully depicts the impact of the news from Switzerland on Geoff and Kate and traces what happens in their relationship during the build-up to the anniversary party. The crucial change he appears to have made is to focus on Kate and to see the events from her perspective.

45 Years uses a highly intelligent script. Haigh’s mise en scène is rich in symbolic meaning. The two central performances are extraordinary and deserving of the prizes they have won. These three features of the film make it a ‘must see’ and the reception of the film by many audiences demonstrates how much they have enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed the film as well but I think there are issues and questions – partly related to the switch of focus. In an interview with Nick James in Sight and Sound (September 2015), Haigh suggests that he made the switch because there are relatively few ‘later age female existential crisis’ films. He preferred to see Geoff recover from the impact of the news and to see Kate repress her emotions and face a later crisis. He confirmed that as a gay man, he did perhaps favour the wife as an underdog. All this is fine and makes a lot of sense but for me it causes difficulties because of the aesthetic decisions taken by the director.

The environment 1: The Broads

The environment 1: The Broads

The environment 2: Charlotte Rampling with Andrew Haigh on location for her morning walks across the fields (in LS/long takes)

The environment 2: Charlotte Rampling with Andrew Haigh on location for her morning walks across the fields (in LS/long takes) (from

Haigh uses the house and the local environment (close to the Norfolk Broads – a flat landscape with the tourist boats on the Broads, even in winter) almost as characters in the film. The house in particular actually looks and feels like a house an older couple may have inhabited for many years – rather than a ‘dressed set’. ( The nearest city is Norwich but there are no references to where this actually is in terms of dialogue, on-screen credits etc.) In one sense this could be anywhere. What we do get in the dialogue are little nuggets such as a reference to the Battle of Trafalgar and the hall where the wedding anniversary will take place (Nelson was a Norfolk man and his fleet was sometimes berthed at Great Yarmouth). I’ve seen one reviewer suggest that Haigh is a ‘realist filmmaker’ but this seems to me to be misleading. True, several shots by Lol Crawley as DoP use long takes and a long lens to show Kate as a tiny figure in the landscape in deep focus. But at other times she is shown in shallow focus, isolated in the centre of Norwich with the busy world around her – all out of focus in a fuzzy blur. Haigh himself describes his style as naturalism, arguing for single take two-shots for many internal scenes (i.e. avoiding the shot/reverse shot convention).

Who is Kate? We learn next to nothing about her except that she was once a teacher in the locality (she chides the postman who calls her ‘Mrs Mercer’). What did she teach? What is she interested in? (She plays the piano.) Does she have siblings? Did she have any relationships before she met Geoff, was there a ‘serious’ one? Mostly we learn about Geoff because the central plot incident concerns him. But his background is equally mysterious. What did he do in the plant that he visits for a reunion? Haigh and James seem to suggest that he was a ‘trade unionist’. But most people in large organisations were trade unionists in the 1970s. What skills/knowledge did Geoff have? Was he graduate or a trained engineer? How did he get to have a German girlfriend and to spend several weeks with her in the mountains? Perhaps it’s just me, but without knowing any of this I’m struggling to understand how Kate and Geoff have developed a relationship over 45 years. How did this leftist couple survive in rural Norfolk for so long? Did they travel a lot? Do they have other friends beyond the rather narrow group shown here?

I’m not suggesting that a romance drama needs tons of sociological detail but I do expect a few simple assumptions to make sense. I think I ought to be able to recognise the nuances of social class in a British drama. Perhaps after all it is the marriage of the colonel’s daughter to the working-class lad from Hull which offers the intrigue? That lad is still there in Courtenay’s performance which resonates with those of his 1960s prime in British Cinema. Charlotte Rampling was a heartless upper middle-class trollop in Georgy Girl (1966) but much of her subsequent success has been in European art cinema. In an interview Courtenay (in praising Rampling) suggests that she is much more attuned to the process of filmmaking (whereas he is more attuned to theatre). That might explain some of the tension in the intimate scenes, but it may also be nonsense on Courtenay’s part. I can’t imagine you can make 50 films without getting used to the process. Some commentators have suggested that 45 Years is more like a ‘theatrical play’, a ‘two-hander’. But it is also intensely ‘filmic’. The opening credits are white on a black background accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned slide projector clicking through a carousel of slides. I tried to work out if the click was edited in time to the changing titles. Later the slide projector will become crucial to the narrative. Associated with this is a scene in which Kate returns to the house to find Geoff with a cut finger and tenderly dresses the wound for him. He says he’s been trying to fix the ball-cock on the toilet cistern. Again, later we wonder if he was actually doing something else. This is one of those moments when it would be good to know more about Geoff. Is he supposed to be good with his hands? 45 Years is a film with star actors – actors with star personae. Geoff and Kate are also Tom and Charlotte. Their star images are composites of the roles they have played and their appearances in secondary circulation. At the end of the film, Rampling as Kate conducts herself in the final scenes with the presence of an Ingrid Bergman. I’m trying now to imagine her as a younger star playing a local school teacher in Norfolk and it’s difficult. I’m going to have to watch the film again but my first viewing is still reverberating. I’m wondering about whether to see it as a melodrama – there are several songs as well as symbolic use of mise en scène. I’m intrigued as to what younger audiences (under 60!) make of the film – please let us know.

The use of Long Shots and the ‘lived in’ house are evident in this UK trailer:

Rewatching Touch of Evil

Orson Welles, Janet Leigh and Akim Tamaroff in TOUCH OF EVIL (from

Orson Welles, Janet Leigh and Akim Tamaroff in TOUCH OF EVIL (from

As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.

Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.

I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) walk alongside the car with the bomb in the opening long take (from

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) walk alongside the car with the bomb in the opening long take (from

Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:

Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.

I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.

Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)

Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):

Piku (India 2015, Hindi)

Deepika Padukone as Piku

Deepika Padukone as Piku

Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.

The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.

Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan discuss diet and bowel movements.

Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan discuss diet and bowel movements.

At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.

The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.

Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?

It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.

Notes on Screen Acting: Jessica Chastain

Screen acting and 'less is more' control:  Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (2012)

Screen acting and ‘less is more’ control: Chastain in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)

Jessica Chastain was recently voted MVP by Broadcast Film Critics’ Association and received the award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards Ceremony in January 2015.  It is the first time this award has been given. Chastain was chosen because of the diversity of screen acting work she has achieved in 2014, namely Miss Julie, the directorial debut of Liv Ullmann; her work on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (in which she acts, but she also contributed to the writing); supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. 

Chastain took the opportunity to deflect the award to her collaborators.  She used the rest of her time, on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday and in the face of the (then) current controversy about Selma and its lack of Oscar nominations, to quote King and ask for a time of ‘speaking up’ when injustice is seen. Chastain is an actor who does not feel she has to conform to the expectations of her industry, particularly those demanded of female actresses. You can see the whole speech here.

I first saw her alongside Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (2011), a post 9/11 examination of American sense of insecurity and paranoia written and directed by Jeff Nichols (who went on to greater visibility with Mud (2012)). It’s an eerie and unsettling film, in which Chastain had to be reactive to Shannon’s character’s increasingly erratic behaviour and to embody her character’s uncertainty even as she challenges his belief in a coming apocalyptic storm.  It showed that Chastain, who has strong, well-defined as well as a beautiful face, could be the emotional centre in the scene without having to dominate it. This is a quality she brought to Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life (2011) in which Chastain (alongside Brad Pitt) had to both be symbols – ‘mother’ or ‘father’ – in this epic (Kubrickian) examination of love and family and a believable, emotional presence. Mallick’s famous control as a director, moving them around within a frame, can lead to an underestimation of what those actors are actively doing to contribute to the overall poetic force of non-conventional cinema. Robert Bresson famously controlled actors’ movement as part of his highly aestheticised approach. Mallick’s use of improvisation – as I remember the butterfly moment (included in the trailer) is one example in The Tree Of Life – shows the freedom and responsibility performers have to understand and direct the action on screen by moving and embodying what they believe the director is trying to achieve.

Chastain is worthy of attention for her screen acting because she is so versatile, encompassing a number of styles for different genres and directors. She has worked in television and theatre, including playing in Wilde’s Salome with Al Pacino, of which a documentary was made. She works on the minutiae – any screen actor such as Michael Fassbender featured earlier on this blog takes on this kind of detail – in order to bring a character into some reality.  Chastain, though, distinctly separates herself from the idea of ‘The Method’ which she alludes to here, in a Variety-sponsored discussion between actors here.  Her comments call to mind Laurence Olivier’s (apocryphal) exhortation to Dustin Hoffman as the latter suffered for his art on Marathon Man (1976): ‘Try acting, dear boy.’  Acting, for Chastain, is a matter of working together in an area of trust and skill (not the self-absorption that ‘living’ the part demands).

She has, despite this visibility, a tremendous understanding of the kind of restraint that is necessary onscreen to communicate a character who has an inner life, as well as an outer expression. Her second Oscar-nominated performance was for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA operative who moves to be at the centre of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Chastain, working with Kathryn Bigelow as director, seems to recognise that playing this woman has to negotiate the stereotypical gender expectations with a greater finesse than just challenging them head-on. As Maya, the key CIA agent in the search for Osama Bin Laden, she has to embody a character who is strong, analytical, determined and fixated.  The gender of the character is significant since these qualities have a greater impact as held by a female rather than a male character. However, if Maya were represented as a driven, emotionless being then no audience could ultimately relate and empathise with her search.

A brief analysis of the film’s opening scene shows how Chastain balances a lot of these conflicting needs even when she has little to say or do onscreen. Zero Dark Thirty became a very controversial film in its depiction of torture.  This sequence features the torture by the CIA operatives of a prisoner, it is possible to see how Chastain controls her physical movements in the frame. As we watch, we’re not sure which way this woman will go as regards the torture happening in front of her. This has to be conveyed through very short phrases of dialogue and by small physical gestures. The film opens in the prisoner’s cell and then creates a ‘reveal’ as she takes off a suit outside to show she is, as Dan (Jason Clarke) says, ‘rocking her best suit’ for her first interrogation. The dialogue suggests Maya is the ingénue. As she replies ‘I’m fine’ in an emotionless tone, her body language acts contrapuntally to that statement (main picture above). Chastain also has to work within her placement in the frame (see screen grab below). In the sequence outside, Clarke has all the movement in the frame – crossing in front of Chastain, who is relatively still. In the interrogation room, Clarke and Reda Kateb (the prisoner, Ammar) are in the foreground and frequently shot in medium close up. Clarke and Kateb do a different, difficult acting job working in a much higher emotional register.  Chastain stands in the background of the frame or is shown in a cutaway. (Although, importantly, Bigelow and DP Greig Fraser light her in a warm glow whilst leaving Clark’s face in ambiguous shadow).

Chastain:  'Zero Dark Thirty' - small gestures in frame background.

Chastain: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – small gestures in frame background.

Chastain builds a picture of a woman who is both determined to make a difference and quite prepared to take part (without a mask) but someone who recoils at the brutality and violence. The cutaway (below) shows her swallowing hard as the interrogation intensifies and she demonstrates her discomfort by averting her eyes with an involuntary movement. The early ambiguity is important since it will playback later in the film – when Maya takes greater charge in a similar situation and when certain events have a strong emotional impact on her.  The groundwork for a complex character has been laid immediately.

Chastain as Maya - swallowing back her responses.

Chastain as Maya – swallowing back her responses.

Chastain, as a female actor, has achieved – and suffered – great visibility. In looking for the Critics Award film again, I found a number of celebrity reports of it, including this critique of her dress entitled: “At least her hair looks good! Jessica Chastain misses the mark in white Asian-inspired frock as she receives MVP honour at Critics’ Choice Awards.” She has also resisted the cat fight that the media wished to inflame between her and Jennifer Lawrence when they were both Oscar-nominated in 2013. Chastain wrote on her Facebook page, in response to these media reports, “I find it very sad that the media makes up bogus stories about women fighting in this industry.  Filming The Help [her first Oscar-nominated role] was the most amazing experience and yet, that is the film I’m most asked about in regards to ‘fighting on set’. Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along?” Chastain seems unafraid to have her own opinions and to see social media as an outlet for her own (unmediated) views, a feature which became quickly unusual for celebrity accounts in these times of self-branding.

This is significant, since certain kinds of star image and publicity can blight an actor’s ability to do good work and inhabit characters fully onscreen.  What are the models for Chastain’s future career? Here, she discusses her influences and her experiences and is clearly in thrall to the art of filmmaking and has humility in understanding her role within that (see this interview). She is a visible star, but like Julianne Moore (for example) she still seems to have the ability to be credible as a particular type of person, more ordinary than extraordinary. Last year’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an experiment in narrative structure, credited to Ned Benson (although an article I have read that Chastain was strongly involved in the writing process) which tells the story of a relationship breakdown from two perspectives. It was produced as two films – Him and Her.  It has had very limited release so far (not in the UK, except at the London Film Festival) and is on European DVD as Them, a film recut out of the first two. In each, Chastain and James McAvoy play the character and then the other character’s perspective of themselves, an opportunity as Chastain says to play different nuances on the same person. The trailer gives some indication of how, in altering from ‘her’ perspective to ‘his’ it is a question of changing small gestures to infer a different emotion. It’s not had strong reviews (and they contain huge spoilers, in case you want to avoid these). However, the New York Times review ends with this strong endorsement of Chastain, despite its misgivings about the film:

She is an actress who short-circuits conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama.