Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
The Reunion was presented in the comfortable surroundings of the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington – an excellent cinema and one I wish I could attend more frequently. I enjoyed the film but it was only later that I began to wonder about the Spanish title which has all kinds of possible interpretations. The writer-director Jonás Trueba is known for three previous features, all seen as ‘festival films’ centring on relationships but geared towards character studies rather than plot. The characters are often roughly the same age as the director so here a couple in their early 30s meet for the first time in 15 years. Then, they were still at school and experiencing first love, now Manuela (Itsaso Arana) lives in Buenos Aires and has returned as a visitor to Madrid at Christmas. She has contacted Olmo (Francesco Carril) and when they meet she hands him a letter. We don’t find out until later exactly what the letter contains but we follow the couple to a restaurant and then to a gig in a bar where Manuela’s father (played by singer-songwriter Rafael Berrio) is performing. After switching to another bar, they are invited to a private dancing club. In the early hours of the morning Olmo heads for home – the flat he shares with his partner Clara, an academic psychiatrist. He wakes Clara by accident and she quizzes him before he falls asleep. The last section of the film features his dream about the time when he and Manuela first met and we learn how the letter he was given at the beginning of the evening was first written.
I don’t think I’ve spoilt any narrative pleasure in revealing the structure of the film. Most audiences will be more interested in the interactions between the characters than the sequence of events. The Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer is not particularly sympathetic to the film, suggesting it is too slow, but he does reference Eric Rohmer as a possible model. Rohmer seems a good shout and the Spanish press reports on the film include comments about the director’s seeming interest in la nouvelle vague. We slowly learn about each character – the flirtatious Manuela and the more reserved Olmo. He is a translator and would-be writer, she is an actress who tells him that since she’s been in Madrid she’s had a different partner each night. There must be something that keeps Olmo interested (besides the fact that Manuela is so attractive).
To return to the title, ‘La Reconquista’ generally refers to Iberian history and the long struggle by Christians to recover the lands occupied by Moorish invaders between the 8th and 15th centuries. Why then choose this title? I haven’t worked that out yet but it suggests something different to ‘Reunion’ in English. Trueba himself emphasises that it is not just the meeting but the ‘recovery’ of the time they had together? I’m also slightly baffled by a reference to a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Suspension of Mercy (known in Spanish as Crímenes imaginarios) made by the 15 year-old Olmo. It’s only a couple of weeks since I saw the last of several European film adaptations of Highsmith novels and they are all ‘disturbing’ in one way or another and the reference here seems to contradict the tone of the narrative – or at least to suggest a whole new facet of the relationship. I need to see La Reconquista again to get my head round these references. I should also add that the music performances are presented in such a way that they are directed to Olmo and Manuela – one is a song Manuela’s father had written around the time the couple first met.
In the Q&A after the film, the director told us that the film has struggled to find an audience on its Spanish release despite good reviews – so I might find re-watching it difficult in the UK. I think there will always be an audience for this kind of intelligent cinema, but it may be too small to sustain a cinema release. But do try to catch it if it turns up. I’ll be looking for Jonás Trueba at future festivals.
Spanish trailer (no EST):
A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is an occasion for joy in my book and I found Julieta to be utterly absorbing and thrilling. ‘Un film de Almodóvar’ is like a gourmet meal – every ingredient is rich in meaning and exquisitely presented. Gourmet meals are sometimes more about style than nourishment, but not with Almodóvar. I find his films as sustaining as the best peasant food. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Julieta has received some lukewarm reviews alongside the majority of favourable ones, mainly I think from writers who don’t know the range of his work – or possibly from younger reviewers who don’t fully appreciate what it means to look back? I was going to write a full-blown defence of the film, but I discovered that Mark Kermode, in one of his most perceptive and informed reviews, has already done it. So I’m not going to repeat all his points – you can find Kermode’s review here. Instead I’ll expand on some of the aspects that interest me most.
Julieta is Almodóvar’s third ‘literary adaptation’, following Live Flesh (1997, based on a Ruth Rendell novel of the same title) and The Skin I Live In (2011, based on Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet). This time Almodóvar has turned to Runaway (2004), a collection of short stories by the celebrated Canadian short story specialist Alice Munro. Three stories, ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, are about the same character at different stages of her life. I read these after seeing Julieta and then found Almodóvar’s explanation of what he did. There are useful pieces in both the Guardian/Observer (interview by Jonathan Romney) and Sight and Sound (September 2016 – article by Maria Delgado, review by Jonathan Romney). In the UK Julieta is distributed by Pathé which offers little documentation in support of the film but in Canada the distributor Mongrel Media offers a Press Pack in which Almodóvar provides a delightful set of notes which are almost as entertaining as the film and I recommend them to you.
Julieta is a story about a young woman from Madrid who falls passionately in love with Xoan, a married man in Galicia, and who later marries him in difficult circumstances that to some extent mirror what has happened to her own parents back in Andalucía. She is then dismayed to find her relationship with her daughter from the marriage breaking down and bringing the past back to her as she tries to live a new life in Madrid.
Pedro tells us that he’d acquired the rights and started adapting the stories before making his earlier film The Skin I Live In and that Munro’s book actually appears as a prop in that film. He’d already switched the location from British Columbia and Ontario to New York before deciding that he wasn’t confident enough in English and transposed the action again to Madrid, Galicia and Andalucía. He suggests that in North America, the physical separation of parents and grown-up children is common but in Spain it is exceptional – “the umbilical cord joining us to our parents and grandparents survives the passing of time”. He says that the original stories are still Munro’s but that he’s had to change them for cinema and he hopes that Julieta will be seen by Munro’s admirers as “a tribute to the Canadian writer”. In fact, he hasn’t changed that much. The main thing he has done is to find a way to ‘stitch’ the three separate episodes together so that one coherent narrative can be manipulated on the cinema screen with flashbacks and the use of two actors to play Julieta at different times of her life. The transformation shot when the younger Adriana Ugarte becomes the older Emma Suárez is quite remarkable. (Both actors are very good, Agarte is well known from Spanish TV and it’s a welcome return for UK audiences to see Suárez who starred in the early films of Julio Medem in the 1990s.) Almodóvar is not the first director to adapt Munro and one of my favourite films is Away From Her (Canada 2006) directed by Sarah Polley. As a young and inexperienced director she didn’t have the weight of Almodóvar’s experience in 2006 but she does have a woman’s perspective – and an affinity with Canadian life. When I first remembered the connection I thought that the two films were very different but on reflection they are both recognisably Munro’s narratives, so Almodóvar has been ‘faithful’ to the author in one sense.
In the Press Notes Pedro makes several claims and assertions that I take with a pinch of salt:
“I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humour, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left. Someone with whom you’ve lived for a lifetime disappears from your life without a word. You can’t understand it. It happens, it’s in our nature, but it’s incomprehensible and unacceptable. Not to mention the pain it causes.”
I would argue that it is a melodrama, that the visual compositions are, as usual, extraordinary and that the film refers back to various periods of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, as well as clear references. It is this which makes the film ‘un film de Almodóvar’ as well as a wonderful adaptation of a great writer’s work. Elsewhere, Pedro remarks that Ava, the woman Julieta meets in Galicia and who may be her husband’s on/off mistress is perhaps named after Ava Gardner. At the house in Galicia which will become Julieta’s home she must grapple with the housekeeper Marian, played by Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s ‘go to’ character actors, here playing Mrs Danvers to Julieta’s Rebecca from Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Later on a character will tell us that he feels like a character from a Patricia Highsmith story. The earliest part of the story is set in 1985 and Pedro tells us that he had to explain to Adrianna Ugarte how a young woman from Madrid on a train (Hitchcock/Highsmith again – but also in the Munro story) might behave in the sexually liberated ‘Movida‘ period when the first outrageous Almodóvar films appeared. The Press Notes finish with these lines:
“Almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen. Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story. I’d like to persuade my brother (the producer) to offer a free second viewing to people who have already seen the film.”
Julieta is a work of genius in which the adaptation becomes a personal exploration of grief, loss, passion and memory. I know some audiences drifted away from Almodóvar, disappointed by I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) (but not me). Julieta should bring them back – after 10 days, it had made over £820,00 in UK cinemas – on the way to perhaps making £1 million and emphasising Almodóvar’s status as the most consistent foreign language director distributed in the UK.
Truman didn’t turn out to be quite the film I was expecting. I usually choose ¡Viva! screenings because of which day and what time they are playing. I might briefly skim the blurb in the brochure but then quickly forget it and I usually like the surprise I get when I’m in the screening. This was certainly the case with Truman – an entertaining and enjoyable film with high-quality contributions all round. However, there isn’t as much use of Truman, the dog played by ‘Troilo’, as I expected – and this might disappoint those who go to the film expecting a canine-centred story.
I’ll outline the simple plot since there isn’t much chance of ‘spoiling’ the narrative. Tomás (Javier Cámara) flies into Madrid from Canada to visit his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darin), a theatre actor. Julián is terminally ill and focused on finding a home for his dog Truman. This involves auditioning possible ‘adoptive parents’ for Truman and visiting the vet etc. to find out about Truman’s health and psychological well-being. But Tomás has come a long way to spend four days with Julian and there are many other things to do in order to get Julián’s affairs into some kind of order. We quickly realise that Tomás is there as the calm, reasonable character who will allow himself to be hoodwinked, up to a point, and relieved of quite a lot of money to satisfy all of Julián’s demands. The other major character is Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Julián’s cousin, who is much more visibly angry about Julián’s approach to his impending demise. What follows is a form of comedy drama that delicately and adeptly treads a fine line between acerbic wit and sentimentality. As the director says in the Press Notes:
Truman is an attempt at overcoming the panic we all feel in life when faced with illness and impending death: our own or that of a loved one. It is an exploration of how we react to the unexpected, to the unknown, to grief.
I found myself with a wry smile one moment and then immediately afterwards realising the import of what was going on the next. Julián is an actor and a rogue and the centre of the narrative features three encounters with colleagues in the business, each involving Julián in a kind of guessing game – what do they know about his position, what should he tell them? What is the right thing to do? All of this is watched by the calm Tomás who has to decide how to respond to his friend – to console him or get him to face reality. I don’t think there is anything new or surprising about the narrative but I agree with some reviewers who think that Tomás is involved in a sequence towards the end which is unnecessary and detracts a little from the narrative’s resolution (though I suspect I could change my mind).
The success of the film depends firstly on the two male leads and their performances. The rest of the cast is good as well (with the dog effortlessly stealing his scenes) and the script is excellent. The director and co-writer is Cesc Gay whose previous work I don’t know, but who seems to have been successful since writing and directing his first feature in 1998. IMDB reports a budget of €3.8 million which I would argue has been spent sensibly. Apart from a trip to Amsterdam, the story stays in Madrid (though some scenes were shot in Barcelona – presumably for funding purposes) and the locations are all effective. The trip to the funeral services company was a standout for me, lending an air of surrealism.
Truman is interesting in bringing two Argentinian stars to Spain. Ricardo Darin is arguably Argentina’s leading male star and Dolores Fonzi is a very well-known figure in Argentina, a model before becoming an actor and for several years part of a celebrity couple with Gael García Bernal. She was the lead in Paulina, the festival prizewinner of 2015. I presume that Spanish audiences will detect Argentinian accents so both Julián and Paula are written as Argentinians in Madrid. I’m not sure if it was spelt out in the film but I assume that Julián would have come to Madrid as a student and met Tomás at that point. Javier Cámara is seen as a Madrid actor (and he has featured in Almodóvar’s films, most notably I’m So Excited (Spain 2013)). Truman opened in Spain and parts of South America in Autumn 2015 (generating around €6.5 million at the box office) and is rolling out across Europe at the moment. StudioCanal have the film for the UK and it should open later this year. I think it could do well, especially since Wild Tales, the Argentinian film in which Ricardo Darin features, was the biggest non-Hindi subtitled film in the UK in 2015 (though it was the worst year for subtitled films for some time). It should appeal to older audiences for whom the dilemmas will be more meaningful. It might work in a different way for younger audiences. In Manchester, the film attracted a healthy audience and proved a fitting climax before the Saturday night party began.