At first I thought that everything is wrong with Interlude or perhaps it is that nothing is right. Douglas Sirk told John Halliday that it was the film in which he had little chance to develop the project or contribute to the script and none of the characters excited him. It was supposed to be an update of a John Stahl film and more surprisingly a version of the James Cain story Serenade. When the shoot began Sirk was still in a plaster cast after his accident on the Battle Hymn shoot and he had no time to research locations which were all covered by an assistant and the cinematographer Bill Daniels.
An American woman from Philadelphia, Helen (June Allyson), arrives in Munich to work for the American ‘cultural agency’, America House (which I think is a government body). She claims to be looking for experiences and trying to see something of the world. Her parents have discovered that an American doctor, Morley (Keith Andes), the son of friends, is also in the city. He calls on Helen but she soon meets a famous Italian conductor, Tonio Fischer (Rossano Brazzi). She is unaware that he has a sick wife and accepts his invitation to suddenly drive to Salzburg in the middle of a grand house party. A romance ensues.
June Allyson was nearly 40 when she made the picture but the character seems to be written much younger. Allyson plays younger but she just doesn’t seem right for the role. Brazzi however does seem right for his role, except that, as Sirk points out, he has no sense of musical timing which caused headaches for the crew when he is seen conducting the orchestra. I don’t mean to criticise either actor but in June Allyson’s case her character doesn’t seem to make sense unless she is a woman who is younger and less experienced. Otherwise we keep thinking, “What did she do in Philadelphia/Washington DC for the last twenty years?” Jane Wyman was only a year or two older than Allyson when she starred for Sirk in roles which suited her – perhaps this is just a function of the period in that women are the same age for twenty years then suddenly ‘past it’? Helen calls herself ‘a girl’ at one point. I should also point out that Keith Andes’ doctor is also fairly long in the tooth for a visiting ‘research student’. The script by Daniel Fuchs and Franklin Coen seems confused.
Interlude is a Ross Hunter production in CinemaScope and Technicolor and it takes Sirk back to Germany and in a sense to Schlussakkord (Germany 1936) a Sirk melodrama with a great conductor as the male lead. Yet somehow it feels more like those 1950s Hollywood films in which Europe is at once both the ‘old world’, full of palaces and grand houses to be admired but also the front line in the Cold War with attempts to demonstrate to Europeans the ideals of American democracy. (‘America House’, like the British Council, is an agency meant to provide education and an introduction to American culture.) On the other hand, the cinematography creates not just beautiful vistas but also very pleasing ‘Scope compositions for a melodrama – with matching music (but an unconvincing title song). At moments it seems like a rehearsal for The Sound of Music (1965). The second half of the film did work for me and I found it both sad and moving, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be.
I should mention two other aspects of the casting. The sick wife Reni is played by Marianne Koch (credited as ‘Marianne Cook’) who I first came across in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) as the German contribution to Sergio Leone’s first film in the trilogy of ‘No Name’ Westerns. Her aunt is played by Françoise Rosay, the veteran French actor who fled Nazi Occupation in 1940 with her husband Jacques Feyder. She appeared in two Ealing films in 1944. Her appearance in 1957 is as a formidable matronly figure from the Victorian era (she was born in 1891). These casting decisions alongside the Italian Brazzi seem to say something about the state of popular cinema in West Germany in the 1950s.
I’m trying to come to some kind of conclusion about this film. From the perspective of 2019 this melodrama does seem rather strange with Tonio’s sometimes quite brusque treatment of Helen and the latter’s difficulty in coming to terms with a sick woman as her rival. I’m wondering if women now would be more likely to react to Tonio’s behaviour and also more direct in dealing with what they discover about his circumstances. But perhaps I’ve got that all wrong? Perhaps I’m not giving June Allyson enough credit for representing a certain type of American woman in the 1950s credibly?
I’ve a feeling that Interlude is technically efficient as a romance/melodrama but I’m not sure that Sirk and his cast and crew were fully able to exploit its potential.
Trailer with French subtitles (includes SPOILERS) if you want to see the film first:
Since the start of 2019 just two French films have been on release in the UK but both have struggled to find cinemas in West Yorkshire. It’s good that the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds has managed to screen Un amour impossible three times this week. La villa (The House By the Sea) has failed to appear in West Yorkshire at all as far as I’m aware. Foreign language films have been almost completely absent from our screens while the endless array of Anglo-American ‘awards’ films take over.
In these sad circumstances I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed Un amour impossible very much. I have a couple of quibbles, but I was very taken with the performance of the Belgian actor Virginie Efira in the lead role as Rachel Steiner in Catherine Corsini’s engaging melodrama. (Catherine Corsini’s best-known films in the UK are Summertime (2015) and Partir (2009).) An Impossible Love is a long film (135 mins) but I was entertained throughout. In fact, my main quibble was that the last section of the film seemed compressed.
Rachel Steiner is a young woman in the late 1950s who we first meet at a dance in Châteauroux in the Loire. A young woman is singing Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’. There is a narrator who we will soon realise is Rachel’s yet unborn daughter. Rachel left school at 17 and became a typist, eventually moving into a government office where she is still unmarried at 25 – despite being very attractive and personable. But then she meets Philippe, a young man working as a translator. He’s from a wealthy family and highly cultured. She is smitten and a physical relationship begins. But when Philippe’s translator’s job ends he returns to Paris and Rachel discovers she is pregnant. He has told her he will never marry and she accepts this, bringing up her daughter herself with her mother and sister in support. Occasionally, Philippe returns and Rachel begins to believe that he should at least ‘recognise’ his daughter so that she doesn’t have ‘father unknown’ on her birth certificate. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative which then extends over nearly 50 years and which in the final section includes one major shocking revelation.
The narrative is based on a 2015 novel by Christine Angot which in turn is based on a true family story. The Belgian actor Virginie Efira, who was 40 when the film was shot, is required to age from 25 to her 60s (or 70s – I wasn’t quite sure when the final scenes are meant to be set). Her performance is extraordinary. I believed she was 25 – and 65. It isn’t just a matter of the make-up which took six to seven hours to apply each day for many scenes but also Efira’s facial and bodily movements, her speaking voice and overall physicality. Catherine Corsini thought carefully about whether to use more than one actor for the role and I think she chose well.
The film’s title is ambiguous since there are several interpretations of both ‘impossible’ and ‘love’ in the narrative. In the Press Notes, Catherine Corsini suggests that there are three main sections of the film: the romance between Rachel and Philippe, the solitude of Rachel bringing up her child and then the section in which Philippe ‘recognises’ Chantal leading to the ‘reveal’. I think that really there are four sections with the last part being split into two. As Rachel gets older there are more significant jumps ahead in time and I found that this happened too quickly. Over these sections the narrative draws on generic ideas about romance, then melodrama and finally moves towards a form of thriller or mystery. (During the romance the couple go to see Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s A Lift to the Scaffold (1958) – an odd choice for a date night?) Throughout these changes we watch the impact of events on Rachel and how she has the strength to carry on.
Philippe is an obnoxious character but it is possible to see why Rachel falls for him. Much of the time he is charming and when he utters an anti-semitic comment or expresses his snobbery and class hatred it comes as a real shock – I found myself almost crying out in anger. In a way Philippe’s behaviour is also a commentary on social history in France. There is a mention of the war in Algeria in the 1950s, some remarks about German women after the war who have lost their men, Rachel’s father left France for Alexandria to escape persecution – all references to attitudes and personal histories that underpin everyday relationships from the 1950s to the present.
If An Impossible Love hasn’t come your way in the UK, you can also catch it on the streaming service of its UK distributor Curzon. I recommend it for the performances, Virginie Efira in particular, Catherine Corsini’s direction, Jeanne Lapoirie’s ‘Scope cinematography, Virginie Montel’s costumes – and the entire hair and make-up team.
There is a line in A Paris Education uttered by one film student to another referring to “a long whiney French film”. That’s quite a brave line in a film that lasts 136 minutes and presents characters in B+W CinemaScope talking endlessly about film and ‘love’ and occasionally staring hard out of the window or just looking blank and consumed by their own thoughts. However, for an audience supposedly steeped in French cinema this should be an interesting experience. But apparently not for all as several people walked out of the LFF screening before the end.
The director Jean-Paul Civeyrac is very experienced, having shot his first feature in 1997 and developed a career in which he taught at the leading French film school La fémis, becoming head of direction and then at the film school at Paris VIII University. He’s been around film students for a long time and knows how they tick. Drawing on his own experiences he constructed a script as a form of ‘autofiction’ and shot part of it in his own university. The story offers us Etienne (Andranic Manet) as an aspiring film student who arrives in Paris from Lyon and discovers he is sharing a flat with Valentina courtesy of a family contact. She is the first of several attractive women who might slide into his bed – something of an issue for Lucie, his girlfriend of six years left behind in Lyon. Etienne joins the film class and soon becomes known as an old-style cinephile who acquires two close friends, the sociable gay man Jean-Noël (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and the intellectual bully Mathias (Corentin Fila). The narrative then meanders over the next couple of years during which Etienne attempts to make his course film and sort out his love life. A coda reveals what has happened to Etienne a few years after he has left Paris VIII.
I didn’t walk out of the film but I did struggle at times to be fully engaged by the narrative and the characters. This version of film school life seems quite laid-back. I’d gone into the screening wondering if the film would directly reference La nouvelle vague and the nearest it came to doing this was the ‘Rohmeresque’ nature of some of the encounters between young men and young women. One scene in particular seems to echo Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969) during which a debate about religion and morality in Pascal’s writing fails to lead to sexual congress. It was only later, reading some reviews, that I realised that the model for this kind of film is not the films of the Cahiers du cinéma group of New Wave directors, but the later directors Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel. Eustache (1938-1981) was a ‘provincial’ like Etienne and his friends and his most celebrated work was The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain, 1973). This long film (219 mins) starred Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bernadette Lafont in a narrative which has some similarities to A Paris Education and has been celebrated as one of the best French films ever made – though it divided critical opinion when it won the Cannes Grand Prix. I haven’t seen any of the films of Eustache or Garrel. Several titles by the latter have recently screened on MUBI in the UK. If I had known these films I might have got more from A Paris Education.
I think perhaps that I found this new film too lacking in vitality, though I was impressed by all the young actors. The literary references are fine but I found the classical music score overpowering at times. The Press Notes carry a revealing interview with the director in which he reveals that the script was written quickly and shot just four months later – which ought to have given it the vitality that I didn’t find. He also explains that he saw Marlen Khutsiev’s Ilyich’s Gate (also known as I Am Twenty) a Russian film from 1965 in 2016 and that this was the inspiration behind the script. The Russian film was censored (cut in half) in the 1960s and not released in its full three-hour version until 1989. It deals with a young man of twenty returning to his Moscow neighbourhood after two years of service and arguing about life with his old friends. Wikipedia suggests the Russian authorities didn’t like the idea of young people thinking for themselves. It also suggests that the future directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky both play small roles in the film and that references were made to François Truffaut’s work by critics at the time. In A Paris Education, the three friends watch the film on Etienne’s laptop in his darkened bedroom. The reference to this film and the work of the earlier Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet suggest the careful inclusion of names from film history. This actually begins when we sit in on the first lecture Etienne attends – an Introduction to post-war Italian cinema during which the lecturer reels off a list of directors, two of which were unknown to me. She then challenges the class to name any directors of similar stature since the 1960s. This is the beginning of the antagonism between the would-be Tarantinos in the film class and the ‘true cinephiles’ represented by Etienne and his two friends. In the Notes, Jean-Paul Civeyrac tells us in a response to a question about the fervour of students for cinema:
. . . only a minority truly possess it. At that age, many of them are trying to find themselves or flirting with the film business and, if they carve out a place in it, they don’t direct. The fervour for cinema that features in A Paris Education is the one that drives anybody for whom making a film is an existential quest.
If you want to know if Etienne eventually makes it you’ll have to watch the film. I’m not sure if this film will get any kind of UK release, but if you get the chance to see it, I recommend reading the Press Notes first.
The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.
The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.
In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.
Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.
It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.
A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.
In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.
The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.
My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.
The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.
As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.
There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant. The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).
A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage. Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.
Is one of the best films of the year so far.
Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.
Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.
She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)
What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.
The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.
Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.
This is the sequel to Room at the Top (UK 1959), often cited as the first film of the ‘British New Wave’. Like the first film it is an adaptation of a John Braine novel featuring the further adventures of his working-class character ‘made good’, Joe Lampton. In one sense it is a typical sequel in that the narrative structure and the nature of the events in the story are very similar to the first film. But on closer inspection this is definitely a development of the overall story. The film also demonstrates something seen in various sequels, a shift in the historical context. In the first film, Joe Lampton is a working-class young man who returns after the war to West Yorkshire in the late 1940s. He has been a Flight-Sergeant in the RAF who spent much of the war as a POW. The film uses fictitious names for locations but the actual locations appear to be Halifax for Joe’s home town and Bradford as the city in which he joins the Town Hall staff and then courts and marries the daughter of a wealthy mill-owner. At the same time he has an affair with the French wife of another industrialist. All this presumably takes place in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The sequel then leaps ahead to the mid-1960s but Joe’s marriage only appears to be 10 years old. His son, the reason why the wedding originally took place, is 10.
The new film uses Braine’s input but it is directed by the talented Canadian director Ted Kotcheff who also brought in a second writer, the celebrated Canadian author Mordecai Richler. Kotcheff had already worked on television plays in the UK and would go on to make important films in Australia (Wake in Fright, 1971) and a string of Hollywood features, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) in Canada based on Mordecai Richler’s novel. Richler had also worked on No Love for Johnnie (UK 1961). Life at the Top was a Romulus production by John Woolf just like the first film, but I feel that this sequel feels more up-to-date and fits in with several of the better-known contemporary films of the period. Kotcheff brings some energy into the narrative and Oswald Morris is very good on the cinematography. I didn’t see it in the 1960s or afterwards on TV. I’m not sure why it had a lower profile, but it may be connected to the TV adaptation, Man at the Top (Thames TV, 23 episodes 1970-72) and a spin-off third film in 1973.
At the start of Life at the Top, Joe (Laurence Harvey) seems to have it all – a beautiful wife, a good job at the mill owned by his father-in-law, two children, two cars and a nice house. But he isn’t happy. His father-in-law, Abe Brown (Donald Wolfit), wants to make him a Tory councillor and his son is being sent away to a boarding prep school. Joe’s working-class roots prompt him to rebel, but again he’s not sure how. In one sense at least, the casting of this sequel raises the ante. Heather Sears who played Susan, Joe’s wife, in Room at the Top was a fine actor with significant leading roles but she wasn’t a ‘star’. In Life at the Top, Susan is played by Jean Simmons, a genuine Hollywood star, albeit one who in her thirties was appearing less frequently in films. Her presence does strengthen the tussle for Joe between ‘home’ and ‘playing away’.
Like Simone Signoret the ‘other woman’ in the first film, Honor Blackman presents an assertive (and single) older woman. In her case she has come up from London as a reporter/presenter for regional television. It is a feature of mid-1960s British films to see work in TV as ‘modern’, whereas earlier, in the 1950s, TV is often treated as simply cheap entertainment, stealing audiences from cinema. Honor Blackman is a fascinating figure in British film and TV. Her long career featured a relatively small proportion of significant leading roles but in 1965 she was perhaps at her peak of public awareness having appeared for two years as Cathy Gale in the hit TV series The Avengers (1962-4) and as Pussy Galore, the most memorable ‘Bond Girl’ (she was 38) in Goldfinger (1964).
The ‘difference’ in the sequel is that Joe is sent down to London to clinch a business deal. London offers Joe another possibility of ‘escape’ and he will repeat the trip South hoping to break into the ‘modern life’ represented by London in 1965, about to become the world centre of ‘cool’. The London scenes expose Joe’s naïvete and that his ‘Northerness’ is a liability – whereas his working-class background could be a bonus. Unfortunately he is attempting to break into business corporations staffed by public schoolboys, not the newly fashionable arts and media activities (think David Bailey as a photographer at this time). Watching the film now is quite strange because Laurence Harvey starred in the very different film Darling, also in 1965. In similar settings (i.e. boardrooms) Harvey’s advertising executive is involved in foreplay with Julie Christie’s fashion model. Darling is a more sophisticated film which won three Oscars and had a much higher profile. It had a big impact on me at the time but now I’m rather taken with Life at the Top. I think that’s partly because of the location work in Bradford which includes Ilkley Station when it still had a through railway line from Skipton and Forster Square station in Bradford plus the Wool Exchange (now Waterstone’s bookshop). I’m surprised that ‘Bradford City of Film’ doesn’t make much more of the film’s depiction of Bradford in the 1960s. But also I think Jean Simmons and Honor Blackman are very good. The shots of ‘A.Z. Brown’s Mill’ also remind us of what a major city Bradford once was as the wool capital of the world. None of the British Cinema scholars seem to have much to say about the film but it strikes me as an important addition to Billy Liar as a narrative about Bradford’s decline and the frustration of the London links (i.e. the hero of both films fails to make it to London – and that was before Bradford lost its quick, direct rail link to the capital). Bob Murphy simply lists the film as one of ‘anti-Swinging London films’ in his Sixties British Cinema, which is a bit odd since ‘Swinging London’ had barely begun when the film was released in January 1966. John Hill doesn’t cover it as it falls outside his timeframe for Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1955-63 (although he mentions Darling).
Life at the Top ends with Joe’s return to Warley/Bradford and his elevation to Chair of the new company merged with a competitor. All this is Susan’s doing and she has Joe back – something he ‘settles for”. In one sense Joe has ‘lost’ as he is effectively dependent on Susan who will become the biggest shareholder in the new company when her father dies. I wonder what Joe will do next – and how he will cope with the decline of Bradford and the wool textile business?
Life at the Top has screened recently on Talking Pictures TV and there is also a Region 2 DVD.
In the extract from the film below, we see Joe with both Susan and with Norah. We also see the uncomfortable Ilkley station scene when Joe’s son goes off to school.