Category: Romance

God’s Own Country (UK 2017)

It’s grand up here on the moor! Josh O’Connor (right) and Alec Secareanu

God’s Own Country is a terrific film and one of the very best to be released in 2017. It has two standout lead performances, ably supported by two ever-reliable industry vets. It looks wonderful and tells an emotional story with limited dialogue and enormous power. It will be discussed partly because of the gay love story at its centre, but also because it’s a story about small farmers in rural Britain – an increasingly marginalised group in the UK (although it’s one of three such films this year with the earlier The Levelling and Dark River to follow). You’ll read a lot about the film as it picks up prizes so I’ll concentrate on my personal response to a film made on the moors close to my home.

For readers outside the UK, the film’s title refers to some Yorkshire people’s sense of their home county (it’s the biggest of the traditional English counties). I’m assuming it’s ironic in many ways since the writer-director Francis Lee seems quite sensible as well as being highly talented. He’s had a career as an actor in British theatre, film and television and this is his first feature after a trio of well-received shorts. His work with two young and highly promising actors demonstrates his understanding and empathy. Perhaps surprisingly in a film so carefully located in the director’s own backyard (Lee was brought up on a farm near Halifax and the main locations for his film are all around Keighley, just a few miles away), the three actors playing the farming family are not local. Josh O’Connor (one of the UK’s rising young actors to watch), who plays the central character Johnny, is from Cheltenham and he is the one under most scrutiny as a young farmer. Lee sent him, and the Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, to work on local farms for some intensive acclimatisation to livestock farming in the Pennines. It certainly paid off and the farm work looks genuine to this non-farmer. Johnny’s father is played by the Liverpudlian actor Ian Hart and his grandmother by the Londoner Gemma Jones. These two simply make sure the family is a credible working unit. Francis Lee knows the location and he knows actors, so his film narrative has a sound basis. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward – Johnny has stayed on the family farm while some of his friends from school have gone to university. It’s a hard life and socially isolating on the farm, especially when his father has a stroke and everything falls on Johnny in terms of physical work. His only respite is swift casual sexual encounters and fierce binge drinking in the village pub. In classic genre style this is all changed when the smoothly handsome and very capable Gheorghe arrives as a temporary hired hand. It’s to the film’s credit, I think, that Georghe is represented as a skilled worker and not as stereotypical migrant labour. But Georghe is more than a skilled worker, he is also an intelligent and sensitive young man – and just what Johnny needs. But can Johnny develop a relationship and sustain it? That’s the narrative enigma.

The film is a gay romance and that might be part of its attraction as a different kind of story since many such romances, especially for younger characters, are urban affairs. I’m not sure the many references to Brokeback Mountain from journalists and reviewers are helpful – the narratives are not that similar apart from sheep and ‘isolation’. The love story in God’s Own Country is universal. It’s also the case that the isolation Johnny experiences is nuanced. Johnny may be a Pennine hill farmer, but in reality he only lives a mile or two from a large town (this area for the last two hundred years or so has mixed the agrarian and the industrial cheek by jowl). His sense of isolation is social and psychological, not geographical. At the beginning of the story he is a character with wild energy but he’s sullen and not very likeable. Josh O’Connor handles his development as a man very well.

I only have one quibble with Francis Lee. He says very clearly that he didn’t want the landscape to look ‘beautiful’. I can understand why, coming from an upland farm, Lee wants to stress how a young person might feel. But for those of us who don’t have to deliver lambs out on the moor in all weathers, this land is beautiful – and in fact there is a scene in which Georghe makes this point. It’s worth noting that these are the moors on which the Brontë sisters might have tramped, but few of the film or TV versions of the Brontë novels have actually been shot here with filmmakers selecting similar, but still different, moors elsewhere. The credit for the film’s look also goes to cinematographer Joshua James Richards who is also having great success with American landscapes for Chloé Zhao, whose 2017 film The Rider is about a young cowboy in heartland America. Francis Lee can obviously attract talented collaborators. God’s Own Country is a must see film, both rivetingly ‘real’ and also romantic. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.

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The Big Sick (US 2017)

Kumail (Kumail Nanjani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan)

I approached The Big Sick with trepidation. I knew it had been very well reviewed and had opened strongly in the UK for an American Independent film. I wasn’t bothered about Amazon as a studio – at least their films are getting into cinemas – but Judd Apatow as producer was a bit of a worry and I’d never heard of director Michael Showalter. The only other thing I knew about it was that it focused on a relationship between a Pakistani man and a white woman – and that one commentator criticised the film for perpetuating the stories of South Asian men and white women. When were the gender identities in such relationships going to change? This charge reminded me of scenes in East is East (UK 1999), a film I have always found offensive in its representations of Pakistani women and girls, even though – or perhaps because – it is a narrative written by a British Pakistani man.

My fears were not realised. I found The Big Sick to be an affecting romantic drama with some comedy elements. It isn’t a romcom as such (it doesn’t have a romcom structure or generic characters) and by the end I was in tears and not tears of laughter. The film is written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjani and is based on the story of their relationship, though I hope that some of it is an invention. Kumail (an experienced TV actor) plays himself but the Emily character is played by Zoe Kazan, who I now realise I have seen before in films like Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

The Big Sick opens in a comedy club where Kumail is doing his stand-up routine and Emily is in the audience. They meet after the show and a romance begins. The ‘impediment’ to the prospect of a lasting relationship is the attitude of Kumail’s traditional parents. Emily invites Kumail to meet her parents but Kumail has not told his parents about Emily and he has rebuffed all of the stream of young Pakistani women his mother has found for him. At this point, the major element that makes this romance ‘different’ appears in the form of a serious illness that strikes down Emily and puts her in a coma. Kumail is forced into a relationship with Emily’s parents, the three meeting at her bedside. In a sense, the romance continues with Emily absent. The resolution of the narrative affected me a great deal and I’m not sure why.

There are a number of issues in and about the film that I found interesting. Kumail’s family members are played by actors from Hindi cinema, the Bollywood star Anupam Kher and the less well-known Zenobia Shroff (Little Zizou, India 2008) as his parents, plus British actor Adeel Akhtar (playing for comedy as in Four Lions, UK 2010) as his brother Naveed. It’s good to see a recognisable South Asian family in an American film. Emily’s parents are played by Holly Hunter and comedy actor Ray Romano. This couple seemed more obviously played for laughs. Having recently watched Holly Hunter’s strange character in the first series of Top of the Lake (NZ-Aus-UK 2012), I found her performance too exaggerated in both that series and this film – and I struggled to decipher her dialogue at times. In the end this didn’t spoil my enjoyment. I watch very little US TV or stand-up comedy and I can imagine that for audiences who watch both regularly, there will be a different ‘feel’ to the film (I read the other stand-ups who work with Kumail as not very funny, but perhaps I’m wrong?). I think it’s the first American film I’ve seen where the Asian family seems more familiar than the American. I wonder how British Asians have read the film? According to Box Office Mojo, the UK is its biggest overseas market (but only just ahead of Australia) and so far it has made $100,000 in India.

Souvenir (Belgium-Luxembourg-France 2016)

Isabelle Huppert as Liliane/Laura in one of her striking gowns as the chanteuse making a comeback

I never thought that I’d see a Francophone film at the Hebden Bridge Picture House with only 13 of us in the auditorium, especially one starring Isabelle Huppert (perhaps everyone came to the only other screening last week). The issue here is that Souvenir is one of those French films more or less ‘dumped’ in cinemas with little promotion by StudioCanal on its way to a swift DVD release (August 14 in the UK). But what a strange film it is! It may be that the distributor hopes to cash in on Huppert’s high-profile success in Elle. On the other hand, this film was shown at the London Film Festival last October, presumably because the directors previous short films have been released on a BFI collection. If I’d seen it as part of the ‘Love’ section of LFF I would have thought it was out of place – but I would have enjoyed it.

La Huppert plays Liliane, a lonely woman working on a specialised production line in a paté factory. One day a young temporary worker, Jean (Kévin Azaïs – the male lead in Les combattants) recognises her as a singer who, under the stage name of ‘Laura’, once appeared in a Eurovision-type song contest forty years ago. Jean is only 22 and it is his father who has always been a fan, but now the younger man is attracted to Liliane. He wants to resurrect her career. Everything that follows is predictable, but also engaging.

Liliane with Jean (Kévin Azaïs) and his father (Jan Hammenecker )

I wondered if this was meant to be a 1930s musical romance presented in the style of . . . a 1930s musical romance. At times it seems very old-fashioned. Its use of colour and its nostalgic feel is in some ways reminiscent of Populaire (France-Belgium 2012)  According to IMDb, Belgian writer-director Bavo Defurne has a background in short films and a single feature, North Sea Texas (2011), about young gay romances. Perhaps Souvenir is one of those examples of a small film that Isabelle Huppert supports for reasons of her own. I doubt any other star actor of her magnitude would take it on – or could take it on. It is almost the kind of role that Barbara Stanwyck might have taken (and I can’t think of higher praise than that).

This is a co-production in which different scenes are shot in different European regions so that local funding is triggered. I thought I recognised a riverside scene as shot in Liège and sure enough both Liège itself and the Wallonie Film Fund appeared in the credits alongside Ostende and Bruxelles. I think this is really a Belgian film and I don’t know if this explains the humour. I laughed out loud several times. The music in the film comes mainly from Pink Martini, a US ‘mini-orchestra’ whose players are well-known in Europe. Pink Martini released a 2016 album including the two main songs from the film and the album’s title is the key phrase from the song that Laura/Liliane sings in her comeback, ‘Je dis oui !’ – the woman who says ‘Yes’ to all the charms of her young man. Jean has trained as a boxer and has the muscles to prove it. My guess is that Bavo Defurne (one of the co-writers of the song) is making a reference to that scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (US 1953) when Jane Russell explores a gymful of muscled Olympic athletes on her transatlantic sea crossing.

Liliane with her former husband and manager Tony Jones (Johan Leysen)

I can’t claim to know enough about the history of chanson but for me the music in Souvenir seemed more like the 1960s than 1974 (when ABBA won Eurovision, as quoted in the film). Liliane’s song ‘Joli Garçon’ (Pretty Boy) is actually very catchy and it might indeed do well in Eurovision. Defurne uses it skilfully in ‘Souvenir’ – which in turn is the title of the song that ‘Laura’ is supposed to have sung in 1974.

Anything starring Isabelle Huppert is worth watching and, taken in the right spirit, Souvenir is entertaining. The director has said that he hoped to produce a ‘Sunday TV matinee movie’ and that seems a reasonable description – except that in the UK the subtitles will probably prevent it happening.

My Cousin Rachel (UK-US 2017)

The mirror image of the gothic melodrama?

It’s an odd coincidence that this ‘re-adaptation’ of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel should arrive in UK cinemas so soon after Lady Macbeth. I went to see My Cousin Rachel with Nick and when we discussed the film in the pub afterwards we had almost the complete opposite reactions. I was slightly disappointed and certainly not as excited as I was by Lady Macbeth. Nick didn’t share my appreciation of Lady Macbeth but thought My Cousin Rachel worked. Perhaps he’ll add some comments here.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was a very popular writer of novels and short stories. She was often termed a ‘romantic novelist’, but that is a misleading term when thinking about the film adaptations of her work including the three Hitchcock films, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds as well as Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I was intrigued to see that her Wikipedia entry suggests that she had more in common with a writer like Wilkie Collins with his ‘sensation novels’. Certainly, My Cousin Rachel made me think of Collins, partly because of its convoluted family relationships and the importance of letters and wills. The story was adapted first in 1952, the year after the book was published with the intriguing pairing of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the two main parts. I haven’t seen that version but it appears to have been poorly received.

The story is set in the mid-19th century, perhaps the late 1830s (the year is not given in the film, that’s the time the book suggests). Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has grown up as an orphan and a ward of his cousin Ambrose. When Philip arrives back at the estate in Cornwall/Devon he learns that Ambrose has died in Tuscany where he had been spending time for his health and where he married another, distant, cousin. Philip will inherit the estate on his coming 25th birthday but before that event he is expecting Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his cousin’s widow to arrive from Italy. The estate is currently held in trust by the family lawyer (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Ambrose’s friend and godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen). Nick’s daughter Lucy (Holliday Grainger) was Philip’s childhood friend and she clearly has an interest in him. What will happen when Philip meets Rachel? Will he confirm his suspicions that she is a dangerous woman who perhaps caused Ambrose’s demise – or will the naïve young man quickly lose himself in infatuation?

The romance of landscape . . .

This is a good set-up for an engaging narrative. The wild scenery (beaches, cliffs, crop fields close to the sea, woodlands etc.) suggests passion and romance and the large country house with dark stairways, servants hiding in the shadows etc. offers the possibility of the gothic and the narrative elements of film noir and melodrama. All of these were in Rebecca, albeit in the later period of the 1930s. But actually it is the mystery elements which tend to drive the narrative here and this is where the Wilkie Collins references come in. There is a mysterious will that Rachel possesses but which hasn’t been signed. Philip struggles with the legal documents that constrain his behaviour before his birthday. Letters written by Ambrose crop up at various points, discovered in clothes or books. (The relevant titles for Collins’ fans are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).)

The film offers us a vaguely Hitchcockian score by Rael Jones. The cinematography, production design and costumes are all very well presented and the performances are generally very good. I think my problem was that the presentation doesn’t go far enough in suggesting the possible dark side. Director Roger Michell wrote the script himself. He is an experienced director but seemingly a first-time scriptwriter. Perhaps he focused too much on writing a ‘faithful’ adaptation and not enough on exploring the genre possibilities? I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. Sam Claflin gives another solid performance, but I’m still not completely convinced that he is leading man material. I’m a big Rachel Weisz fan, but here her usual strong performance seems to lack something. Overall, I was most impressed with Holliday Grainger who stole most of the scenes she was in. I also enjoyed Tim Barlow’s performance as the ancient retainer Seecombe whose demeanour seems to poke fun at Philip. I think perhaps Michell and Claflin are not quite sure how to present Philip. Is he both the hunting shooting man on the moors and the shy naïve boy? We do see him topless with a toned gym-fit body (nullifying the authenticity of the costumes) in the house but when he leaps down to show his estate workers how to scythe hay there is no Poldark moment with the bare-chested leading man vigorously wielding the blade.

Philip and Rachel when he gives her his mother’s pearls. Is this the dangerous vulnerable Rachel?

Rachel is often seen with her travelling case of herbs which she uses to produce the tisanes which might be poisoning Philip. Sometimes she appears vulnerable, but is she really seeking Philip’s protection? At other times she seems completely in control of her affairs and easily able to outmanoeuvre Philip. In a Guardian piece this weekend Julie Myerson recalls reading the novel as a teenager and seems to praise the film adaptation (“Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film”). She claims that Rachel’s vulnerability is what “makes her so terrifying to men”. I’m not sure I understand this. In Sight and Sound (July 2017) Lisa Mullen thinks the film works but that it “never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions”. I’d agree with that. She also thinks it’s unfair to make comparisons with Hitchcock. Why shouldn’t we? She ends: “Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama”. That seems fair enough. I’m left wondering why those two Wilkie Collins novels have never been adapted.

My Cousin Rachel seems to be working at the box office. Fox put it out on 467 screens for No 6 in the UK chart in its first weekend. By the following Tuesday, with older audience interest it moved into the Top 5. In the trailers below you can compare the leading performances. Richard Burton was just about the right age for Philip and this was his first leading role in a film.

Now, Voyager (US 1942)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this Warner Bros. classic this coming Saturday (June 3rd) in their ‘reel’ film slot. One reason alone should be enough to excite potential viewers, it contains, if not the finest, then certainly the most memorable performance by Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale. The films follows a transformation of this women worthy of Hans Christian Anderson’s famed story, ‘the ugly duckling’. And Charlotte at the beginning of the film is rather like a duck with a waddle, but by the climax of the film she is as regal as any swan.
Along with this we have an excellent performance by Paul Heinreid as romantic object Jerry Durrance; debonair but capable of real passion. Claude Rains is his usual well-informed and analytical professional, Dr Jacquith. Gladys Cooper plays the repressive and dominant matriarch, Mrs Henry Vale, with real venom. Her title reveals the value system she follows. And Janis Wilson as the young and vulnerable object of Charlotte’s affection is good enough to warrant the credit she does not actually get.

The film enjoys all the technical skills of the Warner Bros.’s production departments. Robert Haas does fine with the art design. Sol Polito, a talented cinematographer, varies the lighting and camera from dark interiors to sun drenched locales. And working alongside them is one of Hollywood’s outstanding composers, Max Steiner, providing a score at times dramatic and times lush. The film’s screenplay by Casey Robinson has one of those memorable lines that are quoted more often that the film enjoys screenings. The screenplay was adapted from a successful novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, who actually published three novels about the Vale family.

All its qualities come together when seen on the large screen. And the visual quality is properly served by the film grain of 35mm: though unfortunately not these days nitrate stock. Follow the line used by Prouty from the poet Walt Whitman:

“Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

Frantz (France-Germany 2016)

Adrien (Pierre Niney) at the Hoffmeisters’ house with Anna (Paula Beer), Frau Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber) and Doktor Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner)

Frantz is a very beautiful and deeply moving film that is likely to be one of my films of the year. It’s another film that doesn’t seem to be destined for a long run in cinemas in the UK. That’s a shame because the film demands a big screen in a cinema rather than a TV set at home. Director François Ozon is remarkably prolific in the context of contemporary cinema. Frantz was screened at Venice in September 2016 and his new film is in competition at Cannes later this week. I didn’t follow his early work in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2000 he has managed just less than one film a year on average. He has ranged across genres and film aesthetics and featured an array of interesting European stars, so in one sense it isn’t surprising to discover that Frantz is something different.

Frantz is an ‘extension’ of a story (a play?) written in 1925 by Maurice Rostand. The title of this work gives away a crucial plot point of Frantz which could spoil the film narrative for some viewers so I won’t reveal it. Rostand’s work was then adapted for a film by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932, titled Broken Lullaby and featuring Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have extended the story and, I think, significantly altered its perspective by making the woman and not the man the central character. The film begins in the small town of Quedlinburg in the centre of Germany in 1919. (The ‘old town’ I now learn is a World Heritage site.) Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman tending the grave of Frantz, her fiancé killed in 1918 during the fighting on the Western Front. She is surprised to discover fresh flowers on the grave. Meanwhile her would be father-in-law Doktor Hoffmeister turns away a young man from his surgery when he learns that he is French – the old man can’t deal with a meeting so soon after his son’s death. Anna now lives with the Hoffmeisters and eventually she and the couple she refers to as her ‘parents’ will finally meet the young man who is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). He tells them that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war and after their initial caution the Hoffmeisters are pleased to hear his stories. Adrien and Anna begin a delicate relationship based on their mutual affection for Frantz. All this takes place amidst the mutterings of many of the townsfolk, including the group of men with whom Doktor Hoffmeister used to meet in the local inn (where Adrien is staying). Eventually, the truth must out. Frantz tells Anna the truth but there are also lies in this difficult dialogue. Ozon and Piazzo then extend the story by sending Adrien back to Paris and exploring what happens when Anna follows him several months later.

It sounds a very simple story that in the 1920s would have had great resonance. It still raises questions about war and reconciliation in 2017 but also now has the added sense of a message about European unity. The new French President Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel just a few days ago expressing the co-operation of the two countries as leaders of the EU while the UK undergoes a ‘Brexit election’. Unfortunately, I don’t suppose many Brexiteers will be in the audience for the film. However, it’s also possible to remove the discourse about war and focus just on the central set of relationships and the age-old problem of telling lies (even for the best of intentions) when those involved are in fragile emotional states. Frantz is a very particular kind of melodrama that is expressed through music, camerawork and mise en scène as well as sensational performances. Ozon decided that the camerawork of Pascal Marti should be presented mainly in black and white with brief passages in colour. I’m not sure if there is a consistent logic to when the changes to colour happen but some of the transitions are truly magical. I suppose the most likely reason is to enhance the moments of great emotion. Philippe Rombi looks after the music (both he and Marti have worked with Ozon before) providing an extensive score and there are also moments of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

Anna and Adrien outside town

The combination of music and the well-chosen locations creates the perfect backdrop for the difficult conversations between Anna and Adrien. It’s difficult to describe how everything fits together, except to say that it’s perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is presented in 2.39:1 with the clarity of modern lenses, it would closely resemble the melodramas of early 1930s Germany. For Lubitsch the original film was something of an anomaly (most of his films were comedies) so I think my point of reference is Max Ophuls. Because of Pierre Niney’s pencil moustache, however, I did also think of Truffaut’s black and white ‘Scope presentation of the same period in Jules et Jim (in which Henri Serre wears the ‘tache). The narrative of Jules et Jim does have some similarities as well. The small German town with its old centre and the hills and lakes just outside  occupies the first part of a narrative that is contrasted with the modernity and sophistication of Paris. I was impressed by the preserved railways on show.

This ‘portrait’ of Paula Beer as Anna takes my breath away – it seems to convey the period, the sadness of the situation and the constrained vision of youth all in a single facial expression.

But, finally I have to confess that what really engaged me was Paula Beer’s performance. For such a young actor (21 when she made Frantz) with relatively little experience, this must have been a very difficult role, requiring fluent French.  Yet she remains calm and still without being wooden or passive, exuding intelligence and also hinting at the passion beneath the exterior. I had seen the excellent trailer for Frantz and was determined to see the film. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As the final credits rolled I saw that in the acknowledgements, François Ozon thanked the German director Christian Petzold. Petzold is my favourite current German director and I immediately wondered whether he would want to use Paula Beer in a future project. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Ms Beer has two ‘forthcoming projects’, the first for Florian Henckel von Donnersmark and then in 2018 for Christian Petzold. I’m looking forward to them already. I should also say that I enjoyed Pierre Niney’s performance very much too – Frantz is blessed by excellent casting all round.

Here’s the UK trailer from Curzon (quite mischievous in not showing any colour scenes and the way it plays with the possibilities of the narrative):

Their Finest (UK 2016)

Catrin (Gemma Arterton) and Tom (Sam Claflin)

Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes  a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband

Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.

Gemma Arterton’s costumes work very well for me. The hats especially seem to suit her.

Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.

Lone Scherfig on set in Pinewood with Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton

Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x” narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.

Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard and Helen McRory as his agent Sophie at the premiere of the film ‘The Nancy Starling’

The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder and Gordan Jackson as British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.

Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.

Pembrokeshire stands in for Dunkirk on set for ‘The Nancy Starling’

Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.

¡Viva! 23 #6: El Soñador (The Dreamer, Peru 2016)

Sebastian/’Chaplin’ (Gustavo Borjas) photo Cesar Fe

I’m not sure if this is just coincidence, but this was the fourth film that I saw at ¡Viva! focusing on a young person and their problems. This time the protagonist is a young man living on his own on the waterfront in Lima. Sebastian (nicknamed ‘Chaplin’ – I’m not sure why) is seemingly a ‘nice young man’ caught up with a gang of young thieves. He is increasingly reluctant to use his skills as a locksmith to help them break into containers and warehouses. Sebastian has a friend who is a dope dealer, living on an old ship. But he doesn’t seem reliable. Much more likely to help Sebastian is Emilia, an attractive young woman who responds to his advances – but unfortunately she is the sister of the two brothers who run the gang. This outline suggests a straight genre picture, but writer-director Adrián Saba has other plans.

The film’s title in English is ‘The Dreamer’ and this is how Sebastian is presented. He dreams of a better life. He remembers his childhood and how he got here, he dreams of good times with Emilia and he dreams of things going wrong. Saba also ‘chops up’ the trajectory of the narrative, starting with nearly the end, flashing back to childhood and dropping in dream sequences. This is presumably designed to do two things. One is to take us away from too close an adherence to the typical petty crime story and the other is to make Sebastian a more complex character. I think the jury is out on whether either of these aims is met. On the other hand the performances of Gustavo Borjas as Sebastian and Elisa Tenaud as Emilia are fine – they make an attractive young couple – and the film clocks in at 80 minutes. That’s about right for the slim story. I think perhaps it needs a little more. We do find out something about Sebastian’s childhood towards the end of the film, but perhaps that could have been expanded.

Two alternative trailers, the first with English subs. The second is arguably a better trailer.