Queen & Country (UK-Ireland-France-Romania 2014)

Bill’s family watches the Coronation on their first TV

‘Queen & Country’ as a title is a reference to British military ideologies about patriotism and ‘service’ to the monarchy and the establishment. Written and directed by John Boorman the film is the belated sequel to Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory that proved to be both a commercial and critical hit. Twenty-seven years is a long gap between the titles with a whole generation of new cinemagoers probably unaware of the earlier film. Both films are autobiographical to a certain extent. In Hope and Glory the central character, like Boorman himself in 1942, is nine years old. In the sequel he is eighteen and about to be called up for National Service in 1951. I’ve written about National Service in some detail in a recent post on The Bofors Gun (1968)Queen & Country was initially welcomed as probably the last film to be released by John Boorman and he duly gave interviews to festival reporters and critics. However the film didn’t fully live up to expectations at the box office and later commentators took against the film. I wonder if the setting of the story and in particular the unique cultural context of Britain in the early 1950s was just not understood by audiences, especially outside the UK? But actually the UK/Irish market was not even its strongest box office territory in Europe where the French market prevailed. Part of this failure might have been because the film screened at Cannes and was acquired by Artificial Eye in the UK, best known as an arthouse distributor. I enjoyed the film very much but I can see that it presented problems to distributors.

The new conscripts at the start of their National Service

John Boorman has had a long and eventful career. He made an initial breakthrough in UK television before directing his first feature film, the pop vehicle Catch Us If You Can featuring the then very successful singles band the Dave Clark Five. The film worked well enough to enable Boorman to move to Hollywood where he made three features that catapulted him into an international standing as a brave and innovative director: Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Deliverance (1972). Meanwhile, he had bought a house in Ireland where he has been based ever since. From his new Irish base in County Wicklow he made Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur in 1981. In between he returned to Hollywood to make Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film which seems to have offended many and didn’t make money as far as I’m aware. Boorman remained a director capable of raising finance for several further features, including the successful Irish crime film The General in 1998 with Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar. He also wrote about film. Before he became a filmmaker he had been a reviewer and in 1992 he became the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber’s long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Hope and Glory had been by then a rare British-based production as Boorman preferred making films in what he saw as exotic and interesting locations. The London location of Hope and Glory was personal for Boorman, broadly nostalgic for some audiences and an accessible child’s perspective on the ‘war at home’ for others. Queen & Country had by June 2015 (when the film was released in the UK) become more of a historical drama, looking back at a time less remembered/well-known.

Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) brings the Sergeant Instructors Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones, left) and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) to face the CO

In late 1951 Boorman’s alter ego, Bill (Callum Turner) is called up for his National Service and immediately bonds with another new conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they will have an eventful time over the next two years, despite never leaving Southern England. Bill is a bright lad, more than capable of coping with the Army’s procedures without losing his sense of independent thought. Percy is more of a tearaway. Both young men represent a challenge to the Army’s procedures designed to train young men to take orders without question. The narrative weaves together separate strands involving Bill’s pursuit of the beautiful but mysterious young woman (played by Tamsin Egerton) he has seen across the river from his house each morning and Bill and Percy’s ongoing battle with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). The social context for these stories is Bill’s family life in their house on an island in the Thames near Shepperton and the national events of the Korean War, the death of King George VI and the televised Coronation of Elizabeth II. The national context is crucial and Boorman himself has spoken about it in various interviews (especially in Sight & Sound July 2015) and in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003). In 1951 The post-war Labour government lost an election in which it still won the popular vote but the Conservatives won most seats. The new Government under the wartime leader Winston Churchill faced the prospect of fighting three separate wars in Korea as part of a United Nations force and in colonial conflicts in Malaya and Kenya. In each of these conflicts it would be necessary to use National Service conscripts like Bill.

Bill with the ‘mystery woman’ (Tamsin Egerton)

Boorman has spoken about the generational differences that became apparent in the UK at this time and how they were crystallised in the National Service experience. The generation who had fought the war were still prepared to try to hold on to the Empire which was already crumbling. In Aldershot the conflict is between Bill and Percy as National Service youths and Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewliss). After Basic Training, Bill and Percy are selected as Instructors and promoted to Sergeant (presumably instructors had to be at least sergeants). They are supposed to teach the new conscripts how to type but Bill in particular attempts to subvert the Army’s ideology with the remarks he makes to his ‘students’. This does not go down well with Bradley. Bill and Percy also become involved with Private Redmond, a ‘skiver’ who has avoided posting abroad by feigning various medical conditions. Redmond is a generic character in many military narratives involving conscription and is here played by the Irish comic actor Pat Shortt, a popular figure in Irish film and TV. In his Sight & Sound review (July 2015), Philip Kemp suggests that Queen & Country is something of an ‘episodic clutter’ reminiscent of ‘an army sitcom series’. In one sense I agree and the ongoing battle between Redmond and Bradley is a reminder of Granada’s The Army Game which ran on ITV between 1957 and 1961 and which is part of the National Service cycle of films. Meanwhile at home and with both the mystery woman and the two nurses that Bill and Percy meet, the generation gap is explored in different ways. Bill is not very enthusiastic when his father buys a TV set to watch the Coronation in June 1953.

Bill dances with one of the nurses, Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) at a regimental dance. The other nurse, Peggy (Miriam Rizea) is with Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

Queen & Country is mostly comedic in terms of the ‘army sit-com’, more like a romantic comedy drama/sexual awakening involving the mystery woman and the two nurses and a family melodrama back on Bill’s island home. However, it becomes much darker towards the end of the narrative, suggesting perhaps that Bill learns a great deal from his National Service experiences. The film worked very well for me, but then it should. It’s difficult to to work out what audiences without the historical background might make of it. At times the comedy is almost farcical, but it is carried through with conviction. Note the name of the regiment in the image above, the RARF, the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. (A name which made me think of Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968).) But perhaps the the biggest mistake is the casting of Caleb Landry Jones as Percy. The Texan is now a significant actor in Hollywood, but I don’t think he was in 2014. He looks like he could be English but his accent in the film is all over the place and in the image above where he and Callum Turner are meant to be standing ‘at ease’ in the CO’s office, everything about his stance is wrong. As a generic character in comedy about young men, he is fine but as a significant figure in Boorman’s complex presentation of time and place he is ‘out of place’.

But despite this problem, Boorman displays his skill in many scenes and he works his cinephilia into the narrative which starts and ends with a filming sequence by the Thames at Shepperton. Later Bill will take his date to see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I thought Callum Turner was excellent as the Boorman alter ego and Tamsin Egerton and David Thewlis should also be singled out. Vanessa Kirby makes the most of the small part of Bill’s sister returning from Canada. Queen & Country is widely available. I watched it on BFI Player but it is on many other streamers to rent or buy as well. John Boorman is one of the best British directors of the last 50 years and I must now re-watch some of the earlier films. Here’s the US trailer:

Hebden Bridge Picture House Centenary

This surviving independent cinema in the Calder Valley opened its doors on July 12th 1921. A year of celebration starts this Saturday, July 10th, with an evening event this Saturday, starting at 7.30 p.m. and including a screening (digital) of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921).

The town’s first cinema was a wooden structure which opened in 1911. In 1913 the nearby Co-op Hall also started screening the new ‘moving pictures’. Following World War 1 a purpose built cinema was proposed and approved. The rather large building for a small town had a classical exterior and the auditorium boasted a balcony. The opening ceremony included travel and topical pictures and musical quartet. The first features at the new Picture House were two British dramas of the period. Torn Sails (1920) was a tragic romance set in Wales. The Iron Stair (1920) was a crime drama. They were followed by a film directed by Cecil Hepworth, Anna, The Adventuress, a drama of changed identity set in Paris. Hepworth also directed a film using locations around Hebden Bridge, Helen of Four Gates (1920), though that film was screened at the Co-op Hall.

The Picture House flourished through the 1930s to 1950s. There was a period of closure in the 1960s and again in the 1970s. But then it came under the control first of the local council, then the Metropolitan Council and finally Hebden Royd Town Council. It continues furnishing theatrical entertainment for the area though it has suffered in local flooding, most recently in 2016. The Picture House still has a working 35mm projector alongside the newer Digital Projector. And in the year of celebration there will be screenings of titles from its history, 35mm prints and ‘silents’ with live music.

There is a programme with The Adventures of Prince Achmed / Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, a dazzling animation by Lotte Reiniger from 1926 using silhouette techniques. In December there is a screening of Pandora’s Box / Die Büchse der Pandora; G. W. Pabst’s film version of Franz Wedekind’s famous or infamous play. The film is illuminated by the luminous Louise Brooks in the main role. And the year ends with a screening of Helen of Four Gates; a print of what was thought a ‘lost film’ was discovered in Canada in 2007 and has now been fully restored.

The cinema is only ten minutes from Hebden Bridge railway station on the line with regular services between Leeds and Manchester. The balcony is rather cramped with wooden seats; however, the ground floor of the auditorium spacious and comfortable with a commendable low level of illumination during screenings. And the foyer offers real cups of tea with homemade cakes. Definitely worth a trip or more.

Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020)

Katrine Savard as Nadia (photos by Maxime Cormier)

Nadia, Butterfly is an important and an intriguing film. I hope it manages to find audiences who will appreciate what it is trying to do. The comma in the title carries a lot of weight. ‘Nadia’ is identified by her style of swimming and that’s the central interest of the narrative. Are there metaphorical readings as well? Nadia (Katerine Savard) is an Olympic swimmer and a member of the Canadian 4 x 100 metres women’s medley team for which she swims the butterfly leg. To reach the level of an Olympic athlete requires huge commitment, both physically and emotionally. To identify yourself with a sporting event from a young age means sacrificing many of the pleasures (and the heartaches) of adolescence. In many cases, young sports stars peak early and face retirement in their twenties. It must be difficult for them to think through what that means. The sports film tends to focus on the rise to fame of a star performer or, occasionally, the drama of the final days of a veteran. Nadia is about to swim her last race at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, at which point she will retire at barely 24 and head back to ‘school’ in order to eventually become a doctor.

Katrine Savard and Pascal Plante on set

Canada is a rich country with the resources to become a major sporting power yet apart from ice hockey it rarely produces global sporting stars and even then winter sports are not truly global. The pressure on those athletes who do show potential is enormous and swimming is one of the few sports in which Canadians can compete directly with the US and Australia in particular. Because Tokyo 2020 was postponed, Nadia, Butterfly has the feel of a science fiction film. Shot in 2019 in Montreal and Tokyo, director Pascal Plante set out to make a film which attempts to put a ‘real’ swimmer’s experience of a major sporting event on screen. Most sports films fail in this regard even if some present exciting narratives. Actors don’t have the physical attributes and skills which must therefore be depicted on screen through the machinery of cinema by production personnel who themselves don’t necessarily know the sport intimately. Nadia, Butterfly is different because director Plante was a swimmer who reached the Canadian Olympic trials for Beijing 2008 and Katerine Savard won an Olympic swimming medal at Rio 2016.

Nadia, centre, isn’t enjoying the euphoria of being at the Games as much as other team members Jessica and Marie-Pierre (right)

The first section of the film focuses on the race itself and Pascal Plante uses the race and the training before it to present what is now termed an ‘immersive’ experience of a top level swimming event with underwater cameras complementing the main cinematography of Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, editing by Amélie Labrèche and a specialised sound design. Pascal Plante himself has long experience working in the sound department on productions. The film is presented in the unusual 1.50:1 ratio. It seems to work and I think I assumed it was 1.66:1.  Once the race is over, however the narrative shifts away from the spectacle to focus on Nadia and how she attempts to deal with her retirement which will mean the end of her rigorous training regime but also the end of her comradeship with the swimming team, including her coaches and support staff and especially her close friendship with Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville) with whom she has been swimming since childhood. An early indication of the problems her retirement brings on comes soon after the race when the swimmers are winding down and Nadia reacts badly to the revelation that she has been chosen as one of the ‘hottest’ athletes in the Olympic Village in an online survey. She lashes out and says some things that her team members find quite shocking. Later we discover that she has been mainly celibate during her career and has not used the birth control pill because it may have had physical side effects that would undermine her training. She says athletes are selfish – they must be to succeed. In these exchanges it is also clear that the medley team is not as tightly-knit as we might expect. There is a language split with Nadia and Marie-Pierre on one side and Karen and Jessica on the other. Karen at least speaks French but not Jessica. I should point out that this is a Québécois film, with most dialogue in French. Jessica is also only 17 and significantly younger than the other three.

At a nightclub Nadia meets a Lebanese fencer . . .

Marie-Pierre is able to cajole Nadia into drinking and clubbing and this then becomes a different kind of ‘release’, but it doesn’t necessarily make Nadia feel better and she will pay with a severe hangover next morning when a TV interview is required from the medley team. Much of the third section of the film is concerned with Nadia’s sense of trying to understand what else the world has to offer outside high level competitive swimming. This seems to me an honest film about genuine issues in high level sports. Swimming, to me as a distant observer, feels like both a team sport and an individual sport, much like ‘track and field’ athletics. There is a sense of a team competing in the games and the relays represent team events, but they are still events that see four separate swims aggregated. Nadia has a point when she argues that swimmers have to be selfish. Their individual times are what count towards selection. After Tokyo Nadia aims to retire. For her team-mates there is a desire for her to stay, partly one suspects so that they feel more comfortable and don’t have to face the moment of leaving themselves just yet.

Nadia has one of her most important discussions about swimming and training with her masseuse (Amélie Marcil)

The other feature of the élite sports ‘bubble’ is the sense of being cocooned by the team organisation. Nadia explains she has never booked a hotel room or bought a plane ticket herself yet she has swum in many parts of the world. When she breaks away on her own she moves around Tokyo, though she never interacts with any Japanese. This sequence is presented with an electro-synth soundtrack and features the shopping and entertainment centre of Tokyo in an almost futuristic way. I’ve seen references by some reviewers to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (US 2003) and there’s something in that but I also thought of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (France 1983), especially with the focus on the Tokyo 2012 Games mascot. Plante had to commission separate designs of the Canadian team swimsuits and other costumes and I assume that included the mascot. The new designs all look good and in the case of the mascot, better than the original? There is no conventional resolution of the film which may irritate some viewers but the inference is clear. Nadia will take time to process  her experiences of swimming competitively and going to the Olympics and it will inform in some way how she tackles training as a doctor.

Nadia, Butterfly was scheduled to screen at Cannes in 2020, but as with Tokyo 2020 that event didn’t happen. The film was still reviewed and received praise from several international reviewers. It was released in Canada in September 2020 and has been available online in the US and Spain. I think it has also had a release in France? It is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK. Not all the responses to the film have been positive but most negative comments seem to come from those who were expecting a conventional sports film. I think that the film works very well indeed and that Katerine Savard as a non-professional actor but a very professional swimmer offers a real insight into professional swimming and the Olympics, as does her friend Ariane Mainville, another swimmer. It was only after the screening that I realised that I had seen Pascal Plante’s first feature Fake Tattoos (Canada 2017) which I also enjoyed a great deal. I won’t forget the name next time.

Menelik Shabazz 1954 to 2021

Menelik was a pioneer in the emerging ‘Black British’ cinema in the 1970s. My introduction to his work was of his first feature Burning an Illusion (1981). This was only the second British feature by a Black director and writer, following on from Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975).

Burning an Illusion follows the relationship between Pat Williams (Cassie McFarlane) and Del Bennett (Victor Romero Evans). Pat has imbibed the dominant values of British society regarding work and order; Del is laid-back and rebellious, though not in an obvious political sense. Over the course of their relationship their attitudes evolve and change, very much due to the racism of British Society and central institutions such as the police. The resolution of the film offered both a critical but positive stage in their lives.

Pat with Del

I was really impressed; in fact I saw it twice over in a year. Since then I have followed Menelik’s work. In fact he had already made two shorter documentaries and in the 1980s was a key member of both Kuumba Productions and the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop. He also made several documentaries including for Channel 4 and the BBC.

The major title at Ceddo was Time and Judgement (1988) which Menelik described as a ‘sci-fi / documentary. This was a avant-garde film constructed with a sophisticated montage [Soviet style] of film footage from both Britain and from Africa and presenting a variety of political standpoints on fighting racism. The film had a strong interest in Rastafaria, an abiding theme in Menelik work. It gave a powerful testimony of experience and resistance. The film was not easy to see; I caught it years later at the Hyde Park Picture House in essentially an archive screening. Rather like the experimental films of the Black Audio Film Collective this does not seem to have impacted on more recent Black British film-making.

Menelik has scripted several of his features and has also worked as a producer. Despite the critical success of Burning an Illusion Menelik has found it difficult to obtain funding for his work. Both the more recent documentaries, The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011)and Looking for Love (2015), were produced independently with Menelik also organising the distribution of the titles.

I saw The Story of Lovers Rock at Bradford’s Media Museum, presented by Menelik himself. The genre ‘Lovers’ Rock’ was new to me but the film, and indeed the audience, made it a memorable event. I caught Looking for Love at Seven; a small community venue in North Leeds. This was also presented by Menelik, working not just as a filmmaker but as publicist and distributor for his work.

Most recently I saw his last release, Pharaohs Unveiled (2019) which is a documentary setting forth a Rastafaria history of the roots of African culture. Given to a Marxist perspective I did not really get to grips with the film; it was done with Menelik’s usual skill. However, whilst some of Menelik politics are way removed from mine I have found his uncompromising recording of the Black experience and Black resistance powerfully relevant whilst his drawing together of pan-African and British movements is stimulating.

Menelik was a a tireless activist as well as filmmaker. He founded and edited for a number of years a journal bfm / black filmmaker magazine with its own festival, celebrating Black filmmaking here and abroad. The Magazine continues on line from the USA. He also was involved in education and production work. I met him when he was a participant in student film production workshops at the Bradford International Film Festival. And I was able to record an extensive interview with him.

Menelik had his own Web Pages which his family are maintaining. There is also a link to a Vimeo site with information on and trailers for his films. This is helpful because the other sites I checked [like IMDB and Wikipedia] only showed selected titles. There are trailers for his main features and a number of the shorter documentaries, many complete for viewing. There is his first film Step Forward Youth: Blood Ah Goh Run which addressed the New Cross Fire massacre of January 1981, but also relating it to State, Police and Media racism and Black Resistance leading to the uprisings in the same year: and Breaking Point: the SUS Law Controversy, an issue especially in the 1970s.

Demonstration following the New Cross fire

Menelik was a key pioneer in a Black British Cinema. The S&S latest ‘Weekly Film Bulletin’ carried a short tribute and his Burning an Illusion is currently available on the BFI Player. I think that his contribution does not currently enjoy the resonance it deserves. Roy has written on the BBC ‘Small Axe’ series. These dramas built on earlier films like those of Menelik Shabazz but the publicity and material surrounding the series did not really give the pioneers the attention they deserve. For most of his filmmaking career Menelik had to work outside the dominant film and television industries. The films’ overt critical political standpoint could not find a space there. But his films remain worth watching and his political commentaries are still relevant today.

The Bofors Gun (UK 1968)

This important British film was not easily available for many years until a UK Region 2 DVD appeared in 2012 from Odeon (It appears to be still available for rental from Cinema Paradiso in the UK). I believe the film was also screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014. Production began in 1967 with funding from the ill-fated ‘pot’ put together by Jay Kantner at Universal’s London office. Universal invested around $30 million over the next few years in a dozen British films, most of which turned out to be either expensive flops or critically-praised low budget films that failed to attract audiences. (See Alexander Walker’s Hollywood England, London: Harrap, 1974 p. 345). The Bofors Gun was in the latter category with an estimated production budget of $800,000. The production brought together writer (and director) John McGrath and director Jack Gold, both of whom were getting established in UK television drama and both of whom had strong progressive, Leftist politics. Based on McGrath’s stage play Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun (1966), the film has an outstanding cast. The narrative covers one night when a group of British soldiers are on guard duty at a military base in Northern Germany in 1954. In particular, they are guarding a Bofors gun.

David Warner as L/Bdr Evans

The Odeon DVD carries an interview with the prolific Jack Gold about his career (he died in August 2015 with 50+ film and TV directorial credits) plus a commentary on the film by Gold, ‘moderated’ by Steve Chibnall, one of the leading film scholars associated with British Cinema. I haven’t listened to the whole commentary, which is certainly interesting and useful, but Gold tells us that he missed National Service because of a medical condition. I don’t know if Steve Chibnall has any experience of the British Army, but this is a script clearly informed by McGrath’s National Service (1953-5?) and it does require some knowledge of Army procedures to fully comprehend all aspects of the narrative. I missed National Service by ten years or so (though my brother served) but at my school the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory and I spent several weeks at Army barracks in Brecon and in Scotland.

Ian Holm as Gunner Flynn

National Service in the UK meant the conscription of able-bodied men into military service after 1939. When the Second World War ended, Britain’s military commitments carried on and further legislation extended and formalised National Service for a period of up to two years (in practice, longer for some conscripts). What is now considered ‘National Service’ applied to all men born between 1928 and 1939 who were ‘called up’ between 1949 and 1960. The last conscript was able to go home in May 1963. In the last few years there has been a surge of interest in what National Service meant for the young men, for the armed forces and for UK society. I am using as a resource National Service: A Generation in Uniform, 1945-1963 by Richard Viner, Penguin 2014. My aim is to find as many filmic representations of National Service as possible. For those outside the UK, it is worth spelling out that although various forms of National Service/conscription have been common across many European and other countries for many years – and indeed some are still current – ‘conscription’, as Viner points out, has never been seen as part of the British tradition. The 1945-63 experience occurred at a particular time (the end of Empire) when the UK had military commitments across the world and National Servicemen fought alongside ‘regular soldiers’ in Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus and other places. This period was also one of great social change in the UK and this is also part of the National Service story.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O’Rourke

Reviews of The Bofors Gun consistently refer to the gun itself as a ‘piece of obsolete kit’ – thus suggesting the absurdity of ‘guarding the gun’. I’m quite prepared to accept that the gun has a symbolic role in the narrative and that the script contains several references to jokes about the Russians and the Chinese and the nuclear threat which the gun is helpless to counteract. This is one of the main jibes against authority made by Gunner O’Rourke. On the other hand, the gun was not necessarily ‘obsolete’. A Swedish design from the 1930s, several thousand were built in the UK and Canada for anti-aircraft use in the Second World War. When it became apparent that the original design was useless against jet aircraft, the gun was redesigned and a new version used in various guises up until the 1990s. The Bofors Gun is, in many ways, a ‘realist’ representation of a night on guard duty in 1954.

Plot outline (no spoilers as such)

Lance-Bombardier (the Artillery version of Lance-Corporal) Terry Evans (David Warner) receives news that he is to attend a War Office Selection Board in London which he hopes will mean a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and an escape from the drudgery of life in the barracks room. He is due to travel to the UK the following day, but tonight he is the leader of the guard detail – six gunners (i.e. ‘privates’) who are expected to patrol in pairs on a freezing February night for two hours at a time throughout the night while the rest of the guard shelter in a hut. If anything should go wrong, Evans knows that he won’t get to the WOSB.

The four gunners in the guardroom talk about L/Bdr Evans as he takes a nap (from left Richard O’Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw).

Commentary

Certain facts are made clear in the dialogue. Others have to be gleaned more indirectly. Evans more or less tells us that he is a National Serviceman. He could only apply for a commission after six months, but if he is the ‘right material’ he could be commissioned and serve as a junior officer for around twelve months. Viner suggests that 3-4% of National Servicemen in the British Army were commissioned in this way. We know Evans is ‘different’ (the film begins with him as the only soldier in the audience for a classical music concert in the local town). We also learn that he is from Manchester and that his father “sells paraffin” in Wythenshawe. I think this makes him ‘petty-bourgeois’ or ‘lower middle-class’ (I’m assuming his father owns a shop). He could be working-class if his father is a shop-worker. But what is safe to assume, I think, is that Evans represents those later to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act and the establishment of grammar schools as part of the state education system. (He would be too old in 1954 to have got into one of the new grammar schools.) The emergence of grammar school boys amongst the conscripts for National Service caused the Army several headaches. Up until this point it had drawn its officers from the best ‘Public Schools’ – i.e. private schools such as Eton, Harrow etc. Public schoolboys had an expectation of receiving a commission during their National Service (after which they expected to go to university). The Army thought that the middle classes from industrial regions in the North were unsuitable as officers (too ‘insular’) and it was suspicious of the academically-gifted grammar school boys (not all of whom were keen on being officers). Viner spends a whole chapter on these issues and he points out that the Navy was more meritocratic and that the RAF commissioned the highest proportion of such young men. It seems clear to me that McGrath intended Evans to be a case study of the problems facing the grammar school boy in this context.

Initially, there is little indication which of the gunners are National Servicemen and which are ‘regular soldiers’ (i.e. professional soldiers who have ‘signed on’ for more than three years). All of the actors are too old to be raw National Service conscripts and, to confuse matters, John Thaw (Gunner Featherstone), the youngest of them (at 24 in 1966), was already well known to UK TV audiences as a military policeman in the series Redcap (ABC TV, 1964-66). The two actors most likely to be playing regular soldiers are Nicole Williamson as O’Rourke and Ian Holm as Flynn. These two are almost polar opposites – O’Rourke is a tall, wild Catholic Irishman from the south, Flynn is a short, reserved Protestant Ulsterman. The inevitable religious conflict bubbles below the surface (and in retrospect prompts us to reflect on what might have happened in the North of Ireland if National Service had continued and conscripts had patrolled the streets of Belfast and Derry in the 1970s). More relevant here is that O’Rourke is the main source of anger channeled through Evans, whereas Flynn tries, in vain, to talk sense into the young NCO and help him wherever possible.

Barry Jackson (Shone) and Richard O’Callaghan (Rowe) play the youngest characters who are presumably National Servicemen. It’s noticeable that they do most of the tasks and that they are most likely to be bullied by the other four. Donald Gee plays Crowley as the older, quieter regular who has seen everything before and knows how to keep his nose clean. John Thaw’s character is the mouthy Londoner (although Thaw, like Warner and Gee was from the Manchester region). Inevitably, perhaps, McGrath’s script draws on the repertoire of British narratives about barracks life in which soldiers are identified by region and social class. It’s important for the drama that the group mixes regulars and national servicemen. Each has a different perspective on military life and different experience of what life outside the army might mean.

Distribution and reception

The film was distributed by Universal through its long relationship with Rank which meant it opened at the Odeon St. Martin’s Lane in London, but I’m not sure if it made it to too many Odeons around the country. The opening in London was in August, a time when distributors released those titles they had little faith in. (In those days in the UK the only cinemas that did good business in August were in seaside resorts.) That August The Bofors Gun and The Graduate bucked the trend for the critics and both were acclaimed. This is evident from the display ad shown above which is taken from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of September 28th 1968. The Essoldo cinema was part of a North East cinema chain. Note that the critics (in reality newspaper reviewers) quoted are all from the ‘popular press’, not the broadsheets. The film is also offered in a double bill with The Birds (1963) with the Hitchcock film offering more familiar genre pleasures. This looks like a smart move. The critics loved the film, the public often didn’t (and IMDb has an American poster announcing this and challenging cinemagoers to see a film that “has something to say”). I did see the film in a cinema but I can’t remember which one.

This “landmark in British cinema”, as one critic pronounced it, was edited by the great Anne V. Coates, had music by Carl Davis and was photographed by Alan Hume. Those are three of the best in the business and it is shocking that with its cast and writer-director combination, The Bofors Gun is available only in a rare DVD edition that is very hard to find and now very expensive. The DVD print is in the 1.37:1 ratio, possibly reduced from 1.66:1? The video quality is quite poor. Even so, the film needs to be seen for both its content and theme, its ensemble acting and the McGrath-Gold collaboration in its creation and presentation. If you want to catch Nicol Williamson at his height, this the film to see.

Talk to Her (Hable con ella, Spain 2002)

Benigno and Marco at the Pina Bausch show

Talk to Her is part of MUBI’s current streaming programme of Pedro Almodóvar films. I assumed I’d seen it and I remembered that several friends and colleagues rated it highly. It also won its writer-director a writing Oscar. But when I started to watch the film, I could remember nothing about the narrative. I think it must be one of those famous films that you know about without seeing properly. It may be that the casting fooled me – none of the leads are Almodóvar regulars though Darío Grandinetti as Marco later appeared in Julieta (2016) and Javier Cámara as Benigno in I’m So Excited (Spain 2013). On the other hand, several of the secondary roles are taken by familiar faces. Talk to Her is a different kind of Almodóvar melodrama. In some ways a quieter and more restrained narrative it also has a striking score by Alberto Iglesias, an extraordinary fantasy sequence and the usual exquisite art design of the more familiar melodramas by Almodóvar’s team. The subject matter is potentially ‘disturbing’ and perhaps the impact of the film comes from its delicate treatment, almost like an anti-melodrama. For many film scholars and critics the film represents a peak of creativity.

Rosario Flores as Lydia

The film is written as a series of scenes over several years that are introduced by on-screen titles. Some of the set-ups are recognisable from earlier and later films by Almodóvar. Two men, Marco and Benigno, sit next to each other at a dance theatre performance of Café Müller by Pina Bausch, though they don’t yet know each other. Benigno lives in an apartment that offers a view down into a dance studio where he sees a young woman, Alicia (Leonor Watling) being coached by an older woman, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin). Marco is a writer who one day finds himself watching a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores). He decides to write a profile of her for a magazine and she will eventually become his girlfriend. Some time later the two men meet in an unusual situation in which the two women they have been watching are both in a coma after separate serious accidents (Lydia is gored by a bull). The men begin to get to know each other. Benigno is an unusual young man who has trained as both a nurse and as a beautician. He has managed to become the main carer for Alicia in a small hospital facility known as ‘El Bosque’. There are other (female) members of Alicia’s care team but Benigno spends most days and nights with her, maintaining her body in excellent condition and, of course, talking to her. Marco is also unusual as a highly sensitive man who Benigno remembers from the theatre performance because Marco cried in response to the emotion on stage. The two men form a strong bond that becomes important for each of them. Benigno allows rumours about his sexuality to circulate but he tells the other workers that he isn’t gay. 

Benigno meets Alicia

I won’t spoil any more of the plot if you haven’t yet seen the film. It is a highly complex and sometimes surprising narrative with an emotional climax. As an Almodóvar film it is consistent with his adoration of beautiful women and his interest in male relationships. The script is indeed remarkable. When the film was released in the UK in the summer of 2002, Sight & Sound invited two well known Spanish film scholars to write about it. Paul Julian Smith wrote a feature for the July 2002 issue and José Arroyo reviewed the film for the September issue. These two writers are aware of the reception of the film in Spain and they are able to spot all the numerous cultural references. Almodóvar is the cover star of the July issue and tagged ‘putting the ‘A’ in art film’. Smith’s piece is given the heading ‘Only Connect’ and the kicker is a suggestion that the film is a change of direction for Almodóvar. With the advantage of a nearly twenty years retrospective view, how should we view the idea of a change of direction now? Looking over the seven features completed since Talk to Her, it seems to me that they represent a mix of stories, genres and ‘personal’/autobiographical interest by the director. What has changed is the nature of art cinema and the status of a filmmaker like Almodóvar both in Spain and Hispanic cinemas and in global cinema more generally.

Two men, two women and three relationships?

Smith describes the reception that Talk to Her received in Spain and the promotion of the film by Almodóvar himself – something that he has become increasingly skilled in organising and presenting. Like many writer-directors, Almodóvar tells us things about himself and why he has included scenes in his films etc. I’m always a little wary of these comments as his promotions of his work are performances in themselves and possibly just as fictional. His comments are useful guides or ‘ways in’ to his films but I’d rather rely on the listings of cultural references in his films by scholars and what I can determine by my own and other more informed readings that are available. In this case there are a number of interesting issues. The first is about the gender discourse in the film and whether its focus is the male relationship between Benigno and Marco or the story of the women – both of which in Almodóvar’s films are informed by his own sexual history and by the women who have inspired him. As Smith argues, there is an initial ambiguity about Benigno’s sexuality. Smith also comments on the way in which Lydia is presented during her ‘robing’ as a bullfighter, with an almost fetishistic focus on the constraints the tight costume creates across her breasts and thighs. Arroyo suggests that the narrative presents Benigno as “his mother’s daughter” and Lydia as “her father’s son”. Sexual ambiguity pervades the narrative.

Benigno shows an image of Pina Bausch to Alicia as he talks to her . . .

The second issue for Almodóvar watchers is the inspirational source for his aesthetics in the film. Unlike the maternal melodrama, fuelled by the director’s affection for All About Eve (1950) which informs All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her draws upon Rossellini and Antonioni (according to Almodóvar himself) to enable “the intensity of emotion with transparency of style”. I’m quoting Paul Julian Smith’s reading of Almodóvar’s statements here. Smith refers to the ‘classic neo-realism’ of Rome, Open City (1945) and adds the “hip Mexican urbanism of Amores perros (2000)”. I haven’t seen the latter film by Alejandro González Iñárritu so I can’t comment but the Rossellini reference makes sense. Smith also mentions Almodóvar’s reference to Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (1999) which was adapted as a film in 2002. I saw the film but I don’t remember it well enough to make the connection, apart from the narrative shifts between the stories of different characters during different time periods.

For Smith the cumulative effect of the above and a range of other elements of the film is to create a distinctly arthouse aesthetic. He goes as far as suggesting that the appearance of Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Alicia’s dance tutor is a clear sign to Spanish audiences that Almodóvar is “aiming for the outer reaches of the art movie”. I’m not sure that stands up or the claim that the first few minutes of the film (the dance-theatre sequence) is alienating as an opening. However the cultural references and what Smith calls an “aesthetic patterning” do add up to a rich and compelling narrative. I think I prefer José Arroyo’s conclusion that Almodóvar manages to present a complex story as “simply told”, presenting “a range of feeling at once precise and endlessly evocative”. The more I think about the reception of this film (and its promotion by Almodóvar), the more I am reminded by the similar reception of Julieta in 2016.

One of the performances

The one aspect of the film I haven’t discussed is the most controversial aspect of the story – and that is something I think viewers should come across without any previous knowledge. What I will point out is that Almodóvar presents the whole question through a fantasy dream sequence and that this sequence, several minutes long, is matched by other ‘performances’ by the dance-theatre troupe and by musical sequences, one staged as part of the narrative by the Brazilian singer and musical legend Caetano Veloso. Talk to Her is a joy and I don’t understand how or why I didn’t appreciate it first time around.