At a time when Talking Pictures TV in the UK is attracting more and more viewers to its offer of popular British films from the 1940s to 1960s (and a few other goodies too), it’s worth asking if in another 50 years, film scholars will be studying the ‘popular films’ of the 2010s. They should because every film reveals something about the film culture which produced and consumed it. What can we learn now? On the eve of a possible ‘Brexit’ we might note that this British film attracted some investment from Belgian tax funds. I wonder if that will happen again in a ‘post-Europe’ British film industry? (Actually the Belgian company Umedia seems to have other UK productions on its books.) The principal production company of Fisherman’s Friends is British with a record of producing popular entertainment features that don’t involve the usual public funders, BBC Films, Channel 4 and the various regional funders. This counts as an ‘independent’ production in the commercial sense, though it is resolutely mainstream and conventional as a film narrative. Lastly, the film is distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors (EFD) which focuses on both US and UK independent features – and is prepared to support a wide release.
Fisherman’s Friends is one of those ‘based on a true story’ films, an unlikely music industry story which is easily turned into a social comedy romance. It is being generally treated as a ‘feelgood film’ or ‘one for the Oldies’. Neither of these is a totally inaccurate description but perhaps masks the interesting mix of elements. In 2010 a group of fishermen in Cornwall who enjoyed singing sea shanties were noticed by radio DJ Johnnie Walker and found themselves with a Top 10 album after a record producer gambled on their local popularity becoming a national phenomenon. They went on to make regular high-profile appearances, e.g. on the Glastonbury stage, and are still performing with slightly changed personnel in 2019.
The film based on the ‘discovery’ of the group inevitably changes some aspects of the story and grafts on a romance. A music industry figure played by Daniel Mays meets the group through a contrived storyline. The leader of the group is Jim played by James Purefoy and his daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton) is a single parent with a 7-year old daughter. Alwyn manages a B&B. The plot creates an interesting triangle. All the singers are local fishermen in Port Isaac and many double as the local lifeboat crew. The structure of the comedy narrative refers back to Ealing with the arrival of metropolitan record industry people in ‘the independent kingdom of Cornwall’. The trip also highlights the presence of the British upper classes in Cornwall. Think Whisky Galore as the best-known example of this sub-genre. In this case there is also a visit by the fishermen to ‘that there London’ – possibly the weakest part of the film.
The weakness of the script is there in very cheesy one-liners (followed by the occasionally very funny line) and the exaggerated difference between Cornwall and London. The London we see is all about record company offices and hipster diners/pubs. It’s good to see that London is represented as the multiracial city it is in reality but the scene in which the fishermen sing an impromptu shanty in a pub and are cheered on by a largely young black audience is very odd. I’m suggesting that the filmmakers have some positive ideas but haven’t quite worked them through.
This is a film with a strong cast which also includes David Hayman, Dave Johns, Noel Clarke (almost unrecognisable under a wig) and Maggie Steed. Steed, Purefoy and Middleton all come from the South West (but not Cornwall!) so they do have some regional authenticity. By contrast to this experienced cast, director Chris Foggin is making only his second film. The writers have got hits like the two St Trinians films among their credits. Somebody should perhaps have known better than to string out the narrative to 112 minutes. There are several songs in the film and that perhaps explains the length. I enjoyed the songs though I think some more variety might have improved the ‘musical’ elements of the genre mix. The ‘real’ singers appear as extras in the film. Whether they are actually singing I don’t know. The one ‘different’ song sung by the Same Swainsbury character is something that might have been developed. Unuusually for a British film of this type, it is presented in ‘Scope which enhances the natural beauty of the Port Isaac setting.
Many of the UK critics marked the film down and the trade paper Screendaily remarked that despite ‘soft reviews’ the film’s wide release (over 500 screens) had been successful giving it a No 2 slot in the UK Box Office. If the film does skew towards older audiences it may well have done good business in mid-week. Overall I enjoyed the film. It won’t be a classic feelgood film and as the ‘true story’ is already nearly ten years ago the narrative itself doesn’t necessarily speak for/about 2019. But the opening week success does suggest that in the midst of debates about streaming and up against the release of Captain Marvel on the same weekend, a small independent feature can still attract audiences in large numbers. It may simply disappear next week but EFD will still feel it was worthwhile going for those 500 screens. Cineuropa also reports that the film has ‘pre-sales deals’ in Spain and Scandinavia – perhaps the universal attraction of singing fishermen and the possibility of a metropolitan man falling for a local woman can sell the film in several territories? I enjoyed Tuppence Middleton’s performance very much.
I booked to see this film simply because it seemed the best choice in the particular slot in the festival programme. I’m not sure why Glasgow selected the film which was released widely in the UK just three days after its two festival screenings. Perhaps it was a purely commercial decision – it was a sell-out on the night for a screening that must have been a première (I don’t tend to notice these things). I wonder if the distributors Fox Searchlight lost faith in the film and avoided a big London opening? Anyway, there was a festival flavour to the screening with the presence of director James Kent and one of the producers (Jack Arbuthnot I think, but apologies because I missed his name) and the Q&A that followed was enjoyable and interesting in terms of audience feedback.
The narrative explores a period of a few months from October 1946 during the British military mission in Hamburg, a city almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing earlier in the war. Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is in charge of the clear-up in the city with the unearthing of corpses buried in the rubble and small groups of Nazis still creating disorder and launching attacks on British personnel. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives to join her husband and the couple are assigned a requisitioned country house on the outskirts which is undamaged. The house belongs to an architect, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who is a widower with a teenage daughter, Freda. The Luberts and the servants are to stay on but at first Rachael finds it difficult to have them in the house and they retreat to rooms in the attic spaces. We sense that a form of romantic melodrama is about to play out since Lewis is overworked and out much of the time while Rachael has time on her hands to think about the loss of her son two or three years earlier in a bombing raid. Herr Lubert lost his wife during the firestorm created by British incendiaries around the same time.
The situation is based on the real events experienced by the novelist Rhidian Brook’s grandparents. There is an interesting account of this history on the BBC website. A script by Brook was originally commissioned by Scott Free (Ridley Scott, who is credited as a producer on the film, was a 10 year-old with his parents in Hamburg a year later) which Brook then turned into a novel. The film took shape after the novel’s publication and two new writers were brought in to develop the romance and in doing so to move further away from the ‘real’ events. Much of the film was shot in the Czech Republic and the film is very much a European co-production with important German involvement through producer Malte Grunert.
Since the film has now been given a wide release in the UK, it has been widely reviewed and I’m not going to use my space here to repeat many of the comments. Most reviewers come to the same conclusion – that despite the potential of the situation and the characters’ interaction, the film doesn’t really generate the emotion that might be expected. I’m afraid I have to agree. The word that kept coming into my head when watching it was ‘bloodless’ which seems strange for a drama set in the rubble, but there you are. This doesn’t mean it’s a ‘bad film’. It’s well-made, possibly too well-made with the costumes and the decor of the house sometimes overwhelming the tensions of the living arrangements. The three leads all give good performances and I was impressed by Jason Clarke in particular. I kept wondering where I’d seen him before (he has made several big budget American films) and it wasn’t until later that I realised it was in Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002). Few would recognise him as coming from Queensland in this role.
Glasgow Film Festival programmed the film as part of the ‘Local Heroes’ strand – celebrating Scottish contributions to cinema. James Kent told us that he had family connections in Paisley and was glad to be in Glasgow, but I presume that the only Scottish contribution came via fourth-billed Martin Compston who plays an intelligence officer, a hard and hard-drinking man. Not Compston’s finest moment I feel. The character didn’t work for me and I’m usually a big admirer.
The Q&A that followed was in some ways more interesting for me that the film itself. On the whole, the people who stayed for the session (the majority of the audience, I think) appeared to have enjoyed themselves. A couple of Germans in the audience commented favourably on the representation of Germans in the film and others said how interesting it was to focus on this period. It’s easy to forget that for most people under 60(?) this is not a history that will be familiar. One questioner asked about the balance between the romance and the historical/political back story. James Kent admitted that the production team had discussed this and opted for the romance. The questioner said they would have liked more ‘history’. Kent replied that some audiences might be ‘bored’ by the history. So there we have it. Actually, a bit more history might have created a bit more drama. As it is the history sub-plot (involving the daughter and a young Nazi ‘guerilla’) doesn’t quite work as well as it might. This was an educated audience and someone mentioned Lore (Germany-Australia-UK 2012) as a film set in the same period. Kent agreed and suggested Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015) on which Malte Grunert was a producer. I refrained from asking whether the production team had looked at German ‘rubble films’ (Trümmerfilme) both from the late 1940s and at various times since. These were mostly set in Berlin, I think, but they might have informed a film set in Hamburg.
I think James Kent was probably considered a ‘safe’ choice to direct the film and in the sense that he has made several major TV films and series as well as the adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth in 2014, that’s probably a reasonable judgement by Fox Searchlight in funding the film. As one of the American reviews suggests, the film will work well on rainy afternoons as a TV or cinema matinée, but it could have been much more. On the other hand, audiences may prove that to be too conservative a view and if the film introduces just a little history alongside the costumes and the tasteful sex scenes that might be a good thing.
After starting to watch five features and completing three I was a little disappointed with ‘My French Film Festival’. The three films I watched all the way through were OK, but not really ‘special’. I’m glad I was able to see them but I doubt that they will open in the UK. Fake Tattoos was my last film before the festival closed and at first sight I didn’t expect much. But it was wonderful! A sweet romance between two young people that came across as ‘real’ without any form of contrivance or genre pressures: I loved this film.
Les Faux Tatouages is a Canadian feature, another Québécois treasure to add to those breakout films by Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, Philippe Falardeau etc. a few years ago. (I noted that a couple of the actors in the film had also appeared in Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011).) I’m not sure why Les Faux Tatouages is in a French Film Festival as it seems to be a 100% Canadian production, but it is a French language film (and it’s presented in 1.66:1).
The film opens with dialogue over a black screen. Only towards the end of the film will we realise what this dialogue might refer to. When the first images appear we are in an off-licence where Théo (Anthony Therrien) is buying beers on his 18th birthday. Downing them quickly round the corner he joins the crowds heading for a concert. Afterwards, in a late night café, he’s chatted up by Mag (Rose-Marie Perreault) who admires his fake but well-drawn tattoo. Théo is at first reluctant to respond to her advances but Mag is persistent and they end up back at her house. In the morning, Théo is uncomfortable meeting Mag’s mum and her little sister. Will he try to build a relationship? He’s 18, she’s 19. They seem well matched but there is a darkness about Théo (whose only colour choice appears to be black).
What follows is a slowly developing relationship which is totally convincing. The dialogue is beautifully written and feels ad-libbed. The two young actors had some previous experience, but mainly this is a first cinematic feature for writer-director Pascal Plante and many of the other cast and crew members had only limited experience. The film is not fast-paced. Plante and his cinematographer are quite prepared to let scenes run and Théo pauses before he speaks. The two young people both play the guitar to each other and music is a shared passion for them, though they like different types of music. (I’m not competent to discuss the selections in the film but my guess is that these are authentic music fans.) Accepting each other’s tastes is an important part of building their relationship. This isn’t a genre film as such so there are no rom-com like narrative devices and no real climax to the narrative. This kind of film just creates a glow of pleasure for me. In a way I want it to end (in the way this one does) so that I can really enjoy basking in its affects. It’s a relatively short film at under 90 minutes.
I said that we do find out about the mysterious dialogue at the beginning – or at least we are shown a scene which the dialogue probably refers to. It explains something about Théo’s behaviour and why he has to do what he has to do. But in keeping with the rest of the narrative it is something important but not necessarily terminal for his relationship with Mag. The other aspect of the film that is thankfully not concerned with genre is the fact that most of the characters we meet are ‘nice people’. Both Théo and Mag are with their mothers as single parents and both have sisters – Théo’s is older and takes him out for a drink. Mag’s is much younger and playing with her brings out Théo’s artistic and caring nature. He wants to become a tattoo artist and the possibility is one of the few conventional ‘drivers’ of the narrative.
Both the leads in the film are attractive but not conventionally so. They play their roles very well and I was happy to spend time with them. Fake Tattoos was well received at Berlin in the 14+ section of the festival and at other international festivals. As one of the IMDB reviews suggest, this is just the kind of film that should do well on VOD platforms. So please do a search across whatever streaming platforms you use and try to track this down. And look out for more from Pascal Plante.
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.