T2 Trainspotting (UK 2017)

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It seems a long time since there was any real mass enthusiasm for a new popular/populist ‘British’ film. There has been plenty of promotion for T2 Trainspotting including a takeover of The Graham Norton Show on the day of the film’s UK release. Danny Boyle has been doing an excellent job drumming up business. Even though early reports were reassuring, I was worried it wouldn’t be up to much and a running time of just under two hours worried me further. But to my relief it’s not bad at all.

The concept of a sequel is flexible in the movie business. Sometimes it just means a re-tread of the first film but this felt like a genuine attempt to work out what twenty years later might mean. It’s slower paced and heavily imbued with the sadness of encroaching middle age – with many references to childhood friendships. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the original and it was good to be reminded of Ewen Bremner’s portrayal of Spud as the most likeable of the central trio.

I saw a review which remarked on the lack of female roles and the waste of Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson who feature only briefly. It’s a reasonable criticism and it does feel more of a boys’ film, even if they’ve grown up a bit. On the other hand, Anjela Nedyalkova does well as Veronika, Simon (Sick Boy)’s girlfriend, and the women who do appear tend to have the upper hand.

For its fans, the first Trainspotting seems to have been enjoyed for many reasons including its use of music, the characters and the various set pieces in specific locations, some of which have become tourist attractions. For many critics/commentators the original also seemed, in sometimes contradictory ways, to engage with ideas about popular culture and in particular the debates about ‘Cool Britannia’ in the mid 1990s. Danny Boyle, like Ken Loach, became an English director who has made more than one film that has been accepted as part of Scottish film culture. By directly linking London and Edinburgh (even if it was represented by Glasgow much of the time) Trainspotting commented on the divides within the UK. T2 oddly doesn’t refer to the SNP rule in Scotland or the Referendum – but it does explicitly refer to the EU and, by implication, Scotland’s connections to Amsterdam (where Renton has been living) and Bulgaria/Slovenia (from where recent migrants have come). The film was actually being made at the time of the Brexit Referendum. I think there are two reasons why T2 doesn’t seem so ‘connected’ to what is happening now. The first is that the source material started off as an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno and the second is that the theme of ‘looking back’ is so strong. The irony is that it is only Veronika who speaks about looking ahead.

When I looked back at the synopsis and running time of Trainspotting in 1996, I remembered just how much seemed to be crammed into its 93 minutes. By comparison, the extra 24 minutes in the new film don’t seem to contain as much narrative development. Inevitably, the pace seems slower and there is more reflection. There is less ‘story’ and more soul-searching. A middle-aged film? I enjoyed watching the film but I’m not a fan as such. I have less investment in the project so I’m neither excited or disappointed. I will be intrigued to see how it works with younger audiences. I’m guessing the people who sat a few rows in front of me (our local cinema was not full on Saturday tea-time) were in their 30s or 40s. T3 has been suggested as a possibility but I’d be happy if the ride stopped here – now that I’ve finally learned what ‘trainspotting’ refers to and looked up the history of Leith Central Station.

Queen of Katwe (US 2016)

Lupita-N'Yongo, Mira Nair and David Oyelowo on set for Queen of Katwe

Lupita Nyong’o, Mira Nair and David Oyelowo on set for ‘Queen of Katwe’

Queen of Katwe is a ‘Disney movie’ set in Uganda. But it’s also a Mira Nair film and part of David Oyelowo’s overall project to bring African stories into mainstream cinemas. These three factors ought to combine to create a significant box office hit. The film itself is very good and had the same emotional impact for me as A United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Disney as a corporation seems to tripped up in trying to promote the film. There are many websites, videos and stories online about the original project and the Disney film, so perhaps the problem is that the Disney brand is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that audiences are unable to negotiate it in different ways. Either way, the result is that despite an initial ‘wide’ release in the UK and US, Queen of Katwe hasn’t found the audience it seeks. I finally managed to get to a local screening organised by Keighley Film club, which is able to screen films in our 1913 Picture House. I hope many more find it on DVD/Blu-ray and TV in the coming months.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) collects water in Katwe.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) collects water in Katwe.

The story is set in Katwe, a district of Kampala (population 1.5 million) the capital of Uganda. It’s a true story and in the final credits we meet the ‘real’ characters in the drama. Katwe appears to have a reputation both as an innovative centre for artisan manufacture and as a sprawling ‘slum’ district. In the film it comes across much like the shanty towns of other African cities with low quality housing thrown up alongside the railway track. In other descriptions, Katwe is presented as the worst kind of slum with no sanitation, no secure accommodation and a trap into which the poor from rural areas and other parts of the city are destined to fall. As photographed by Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbit it looks bright and lively, but also plagued by sewage and subject to flooding. In this unlikely setting Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is the single parent of three children. The two younger children, close in age, are Brian and Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and it is the latter who is the focus of the film. (The older daughter Night provides the illustration of what Phiona might become if she gives up the discipline of chess.) The film’s title logically refers to Phiona who, through her success in chess tournaments, will become a celebrated media star. But it is also possible to see her mother as a ‘Queen’, simply on the basis that Lupita Nyong’o is such a stunning star presence with the stature of a model and the experience of red carpet occasions as well as her own distinguished family background. There is no reason why mothers in Katwe shouldn’t be beautiful, but Nyong’o certainly stands out.

Robert Katende teaches a class at the Katwe Chess Academy, which he founded in 2003. Martina Bacigalupo for NPR (http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/05/496425623/photos-theyre-all-kings-and-queens-of-katwe)

Robert Katende teaches a class at the Katwe Chess Academy, which he founded in 2003.
Photo: Martina Bacigalupo for NPR (www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/05/496425623/photos-theyre-all-kings-and-queens-of-katwe)

Phiona discovers chess alongside Brian in a community ‘school’ run by an outreach worker for a Christian charity. Robert Katende himself had a difficult childhood. You can learn about his life through a documentary made by Mira Nair and available on Vimeo. The same documentary is also available on The Queen of Katwe website from Sport Outreach. Katende’s childhood involved the dangers of living in the bush with the violence of the DRC spreading over the border. In the film he becomes an ex-footballer who has had to retire because of injury and a qualified engineer with an excellent degree thwarted by the recruitment policies of local firms. This latter is explored through the class divisions in Ugandan society when Katende takes his brightest hopes, including Phiona and Brian to a competition in an upmarket school where the Katwe children are at first treated as aliens.

The Katwe children at the chessboard

The Katwe children at the chessboard

At first glance, it isn’t difficult to see why Disney agreed to fund the film. It combines two attractive ideas for the studio – a bright and intelligent young female lead character (for a studio that has brought us Brave and Moana in the last few years) and a solid genre narrative as a ‘sports movie’ with a charismatic ‘coach’ and enough dramatic conflict, but also a ‘happy ending’. As a bonus it is based on a true story. Working with a director like Mira Nair is perhaps an innovation for the main Disney brand (as distinct from Disney’s previous ‘adult brands’ such as Touchstone). Queen of Katwe actually originated from ESPN, Disney’s majority-owned sports company in the form of a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, but it is branded with the Disney logo. Nair has a distinctive approach which includes work with non-professional actors (e.g. in Salaam Bombay) as well as a background in documentary filmmaking. Madina Nalwanga had not acted before but she has trained as a dancer and the skills she has learned helped her to maintain composure in the role. Mira Nair also has the local knowledge that is so important in making this kind of film in a country with limited film infrastructure like Uganda. She is married to a Ugandan and in 1991 she made Mississippi Mermaid which followed the story of an East Asian family from Uganda migrating to the American South. That story focused on the daughter of the family played by Sarita Choudhury. In the case of Queen of Katwe, it would appear that the Disney ‘front office’ kept its distance and Nair was able to make the film on her own terms in Kampala with support from the South African film infrastructure which has interests in East Africa.

The problems for this film have come in distribution and exhibition. In the UK, Disney is able to organise cinema ads and trailers that target the same audience as the Disney film that is showing. When I saw the film there were no children in the audience which was predominantly 55+ but we got trails for new Disney films. Disney needed two strategies to sell the film to two different audiences in multiplexes and in specialised cinemas. They failed to reach audiences in both. I think the situation in North America was similar. The critics (professional and amateur) rated the film highly but audiences didn’t find the film. Perhaps Queen of Katwe is a ‘safe’ film in terms of its story, but though it pursues a genre narrative, it avoids easy sentimentality and sticks largely to the facts. It doesn’t need any white characters to in any way ‘legitimise’ Phiona’s success as a chess player. I can imagine it would have been tempting for Disney to press for Phiona’s story to end up in the US. But the film sticks to two overseas trips – to Sudan and Russia. At the end of the film, a song from Alicia Keys appears. I thought this was out of place (I like Ms Keys and the song, but it didn’t fit here for me, even though she wrote it specifically for the film). There’s a clip here explaining why she wrote it – and some comments by the cast about the music scene in Uganda. I urge you to see this film and if you want to learn more I suggest looking at the various clips, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. Here’s the trailer (with the Alicia Keys song):

and here’s a documentary from NTV Uganda:

John Berger 1926 to 2017

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This seminal writer and cultural critic passed on early in January at the ripe old age of 90. Is Marxism, like Jazz, good for a long life, at least in relation to natural causes? I remember watching the original ‘Ways of Seeing’ programmes on BBC television and later on buying the book. I was impressed with the critical acumen on display, the effective and very up-to-date style and techniques in the programmes, and with John Berger’s taste in colourful shirts. The book remains a classic and over the years he added to this with fictional, documentary, theatrical and poetic works. It influenced my view and reading of art, photography, advertising and, indeed, film. And among all his other verbal and writing skills Berger also produced very fine screenplays.

The best known of these were produced in partnership with the Swiss film-maker, Alain Tanner. It is a sad reflection on British film that whilst Tanner continued working up until 2004 the last film that he directed to get a release in Britain was The Diary of Lady M / Le journal de Lady M (1993). Yet in my time as a film society member and regular at art cinemas I saw a number of fine films directed by him. One title that I only saw once but still wait to see again is Le retour d’Afrique (1973, West Germany).

Tanner and Berger collaborated on four films together, jointly working on the script with Tanner directing.. The first was a documentary, A City of Chandigarh (1966), the regional capital in the Punjab designed by Le Corbusier. I have never seen this film.

Le Salamandre / The Salamander (Switzerland / France 1974)) was the first feature collaboration between Berger and Tanner. I saw this film at a Film Society in the late 1970s and I have not been able to see it since. Shot in black and white it runs for just over two hours. The film  is centred on a triangle. Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau) and Paul (Jacques Denis) ‘investigate’ Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier). She is possibly involved / responsible for the wounding of her uncle. Inevitably both men are increasingly attracted to Rosemonde, an attractive and vital working class young woman. Bulle Ogier I remember as enthralling as Rosemonde. The two men are would-be writers who expect Rosemonde’s story to be their ticket to success. Whilst Rosemonde is both engaging and mystifying, [hence the title], the men are satirised for their bourgeois pretensions. A female voice-over provides both narration and comment. The film is shot in black and white, with a number of exterior free-wheeling camera sequences. The film also uses the popular music of the time.

Their next feature together was The Middle of the World / Le Milieu du monde (1974). The title referred to a town in the film where the Rhine and Rhone rivers meet. However, the ‘centre’ or ‘middle’ also referred to a restaurant of that name in the town. But the focus in the film is the self-centred world of the bourgeois protagonist Paul (Philippe Léotard). Paul is a successful engineer and manager. He is asked to run as a ‘non-political’ candidate for a bourgeois party in local elections. However, during the campaign he meets Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi) who works in a local café and begins an affair with her. Adrian is an Italian migrant worker, [also a widow], so the affair both offends susceptibilities about marriage and home and plays to prejudice about migrant workers in Switzerland.   Paul’s self-centred complacency means that he allows the affair to disrupt his election activities and it quickly becomes public knowledge. But it also means that he fails to consider the situation of Adriana. Finally she ends the relationship, moves north and is last seen working as a machinist in a textile factory.

The film uses the form common in counter-cinema of the period, designed to disrupt linear narratives. A narrative voice, that of a woman (Claire Dominique) , both provides contextual information but also passes comment on the characters. The story sequences are frequently inter-cut with shots of landscapes. These are mainly rural and empty of people and animals. These sparse and empty frames , rather than fitting into the plot, seem to offer metaphors for the characters: Paul self-absorbed and Adriana isolated.

The issue of migrant workers is one that is found in other works by Berger, especially in ‘A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe’ (1975). There is also his sensibility to landscape, something that comes across in his fiction writing, his poetry and his works with other artists, especially photographer Jean Mohr with whom he worked with on the above book. It is also there in the scenes of sexual intimacy, Adriana is seen as partly or fully naked, not nude, a concept Berger interrogated ‘Ways of Seeing’. Most of all there is the view of the of the bourgeois class, no longer progressive but self-absorbed with personal relationship as liable to lead to alienation as to union.

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Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000, (Switzerland / France 1976) was the third and final feature by the pair. The film follows four couples, eight characters, whose lives cross and intertwine. An important date in the story is May ’68 and one factor in several of the lives on-screen is how they continue when the radical options of 1968 have failed to materialise.

Marguerite (Dominique Labourier) and Marcel (Roger Jendly) run an organic market garden. Mathieu (Rufus) is n unemployed typesetter. His wife Mathilde (Myriam Boyer) works as a machinist. When Mathieu gets work at the market garden she is able to turn to having a baby. Max (Jean-Luc Bideau) works as a proof-reader on a Geneva paper. He strikes up with Madeleine (Myriam Mézière) from whom he learns of a development that threatens the market garden and he warns Marcel and Marguerite. Their neighbour is Marco who works, unconventionally, as a teacher in a local school. Marco develops a relationship Marie (Miou-Miou), a supermarket cashier who subverts the pricing policy at work,. The film carefully develops the interaction among these key characters, demonstrating a command and narrative complexity that rivals that of the US independent film-maker John Sayles.

Over the course of the film the characters politics and situations illustrate and comment on contemporary society. As in the earlier ‘The Middle of the Earth’ Marie is effectively a migrant worker who has to return to her resident in France every night. Her dereliction of the law and her work rules leads to a jail term. Marco offers the school students radical and political lessons which lead to his dismissal. Mathieu progressively opts out of work at the market garden and develops a ‘free school’ for his and Mathilde’s children, including Jonah of the film’s title. This leads to Marguerite firing him, though she allows him to retain the apartment that came with the job. Whilst these events develop the children constructs a mural on as wall at the garden which features the eight adult characters.

The film does not offer a solution to the post-68 society but is does offer a regrouping and a sense of a way forward: to be realised by Jonah in the titular year 2000. The sense of the alternative political world that is still on the agenda is signalled by the frequent references to important and radical thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau [whose statue we see several times], Pablo Neruda and Jean Piaget. And at one point we see Mathieu reading a copy of ‘Lotta Continua’.

Like the earlier films this production plays with narrative form. However here we see sequences in black and white rather than the film’s dominant Eastman colour, and these appear to present the characters’ thoughts, fantasies and alternative visions. They care carefully spaced through the film encouraging viewers to think through the characters situations and developments. This is a film that stands up to several viewings so, sadly, it is now two decades since I was able to see it at the cinema.

Berger had other credits as a writer and also one as a director of a short film: 12.Août.2002, a 12 minute short. His distinctive style and voice have been heard in range of television programme and documentaries and [to my surprise] in a video game. The most recent documentary John Berger: The Art of Looking [BBC 2016], produced for his 90th birthday, is still on the BBC I-Player.

Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016)

Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy – still wearing the blood-spattered suit when she returns to the White House. Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Jackie is a surprising film. I found it to be a riveting watch and it left me strangely uplifted but also puzzled. I’m not sure what immediate conclusions, if any, I came to except that I’m glad I saw it on a big screen. It’s a film about a moment of American history that resonated around the world for those of us alive in 1963 and that has been ‘re-presented’ in different ways ever since. But though this is an American event, it doesn’t feel like an American film, or at least it doesn’t seem to belong to either Hollywood or American Independent Cinema, despite the involvement of several US producers. Instead, this is essentially a French film directed by the Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. The script and the impressive cast are mainly American but the creative personnel supporting Larrain are European. The best known of the production companies involved, the French company Why Not Productions, has been involved in the recent films of Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach. In what follows I try to analyse my response.

Caspar Phillipson as "John Fitzgerald Kennedy" and Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Caspar Phillipson as JFK with Jackie on arrival in Dallas. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting. The irony is that Jackie was shot on Super 16 film, giving the image a slightly grainier and less sharp/bright feel than a digital original image. To add to the disturbance of the framing and image texture, the score by the British composer Mica Levy (best known for her score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) and some of the compositions by DoP Stéphane Fontaine are equally unsettling. Together they set up very well the performances by the actors and especially that of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.

Billy Crudup as "The Journalist" and Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Billy Crudup as “the journalist” with Jackie in Hiyannis Port. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Jackie is routinely described as a ‘biopic’ by reviewers. But I don’t buy this. A biopic needs to cover a substantial part of a subject’s life with at least some reference to childhood and other key stages in the development of the adult persona. Jackie focuses on not much more than one intensely dramatic week of the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy plus some occasional references to earlier events. The narrative structure is such that these events are discussed in retrospect in an interview given to a journalist (such an interview was conducted by Theodore H White for Life magazine in 1964) in the rather austere surroundings of a house in the Kennedy ‘homeland’ of Hiyannis Port in Massachusetts.

The original choice for the director of the film was Darren Aranovsky who later became one of several producers. He is reported to have told Natalie Portman that the key to the film was Jackie’s voice. The character is in virtually every scene and must go through some terrible experiences. Portman appears to have responded fully to his comment in her study of Jackie Kennedy and her delivery has become one of the talking points of the film. Portman does not ‘resemble’ Mrs Kennedy, either facially or in her body shape. The hairstyle and the iconic Chanel suits certainly help to create the character but a lot depends on the voice and on Portman’s performance skills. I have no memory of hearing Jackie Kennedy speak so the only signifier for me was when Portman shifts her voice between the soft, breathy and almost girlish ‘public voice’ of the character and the more clipped and authoritative voice she uses for the ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Overall, I found the performance convincing. I didn’t know much about Jackie before I saw the film and what I learned from the film and subsequently through research I found interesting.

Peter Sarsgaard as "Bobby Kennedy" and Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Bruno Calvo. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy with Jackie. Photo by Bruno Calvo. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

It seems to me that the film illustrates two main points. The first is that there is humanity even in the processes inside the White House and the Presidency. Everyone treats Jackie and her children with respect even as a new administration has to begin. I’m not sure how ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ this is. In one scene Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone, including President Johnson, to sit down when Jackie is under stress. Johnson is represented as an amenable figure – which belies the stories of his anger and violent language, though the camera does hint at what he and Ladybird might be saying off screen/off microphone. Personally, I found the scenes of Jackie coping with her grief and the procedures she had to follow quite moving. The other main theme of the film is Jackie’s attempt to create the image of JFK’s legacy. She did this as a continuation of her earlier attempts to redecorate the White House and to learn from the history of other presidential figures. We can see this theme played out both in her determination to organise an appropriate state funeral and burial at Arlington and in the way she conducts the interview with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup with a distinct swagger). Again, I rather admired Jackie as a character and Natalie Portman’s performance.

Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Jackie Kennedy in the bedroom that was once Lincoln’s Cabinet Room. Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

I’m grateful to Nick Lacey, my viewing partner, who found this useful interview with Stéphane Fontaine on ‘No Film School’. It was Nick who spotted the use of 16mm and in the interview Fontaine explains how he and Pablo Larrain approached the shoot which was mainly in a Paris studio with only a few exteriors in Washington. Larrain went so far as to bring an old three-tube video camera (as used in No) from Chile to Paris in an attempt to ‘insert’ Portman into the 1962 video recording of Mrs Kennedy offering TV viewers a tour around the White House – one of the pre-assassination sequences included to help build Jackie’s persona as a character.  The film’s whole budget is listed as $9 million on IMDB which seems extraordinary (it’s quite a lot less than most mainstream French features). All I can say is well done to cast and crew. If you are interested in cinematography this interview is a must.

Director Pablo Larrain and Natalie Portman on the set of JACKIE. Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Director Pablo Larrain and Natalie Portman on the set of JACKIE. Photo by Pablo Larrain (not sure how!). © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

In conclusion, Jackie is a terrific emotional narrative with a stunning central performance and very good support from a talented supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Hurt). I suspect it will surprise many audiences. I just hope they are open to the approach adopted by Pablo Larrain and his crew and prepared to learn a bit more about an era and a group of historical figures who they think they might already know well.

Here’s a promotional clip from the film in which Jackie fights for the funeral parade she wants:

This clip from a 1961 TV interview reveals not just the real Mrs Kennedy’s’s speaking voice, but also her historical knowledge about the White House. Some of her statements are used verbatim in the new film.

I Know Where I’m Going! (UK 1945)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

If you are in the UK and you haven’t seen I Know Where I’m Going!, you can watch it free on BBC iPlayer for the next four days and I urge you to do so. It’s one of the best films by the UK’s top filmmaking duo, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, AKA ‘The Archers’. I watched it again on the day La La Land was released in the UK. I was intrigued to hear the American film being lauded for its ‘unconventional’ love story. Micky and Emeric knew all about those.

I Know Where I’m Going! begins with some interesting credits and a montage of scenes from the early life of Joan Webster, the girl who has always known where she is going. Now, in the form of Wendy Hiller, she is the 25 year-old daughter of a bank manager engaged to the wealthy businessman and owner of the company she works for. She has to make her way to the (fictional) island of ‘Kiloran’ which her husband-to-be has, in effect, ‘taken over’ for the duration of the war – and their wedding. The only problem is that the weather in the Western Isles is notoriously fickle and Joan finds herself stranded on the larger (real) island of Mull, wondering if the small boat coming to collect her will ever arrive. Of course, she isn’t alone and all kinds of people are aware of her predicament, including Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). Let the drama, the romance and the fun begin!

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona's house.

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona’s house.

It’s worth reflecting on a few ideas about the narratives created by Powell and Pressburger. First, although the setting is unusual, it wasn’t a first for Michael Powell as in 1937 he’d made The Edge of the World, perhaps the best known of his films before he worked with Pressburger. This fictional story was set on an isolated island in the Shetlands and ‘inspired’ by the final days of the even more isolated island settlement of St Kilda out in the North Atlantic, whose last inhabitants left in 1930. Although barely seen at the time, The Edge of the World was re-edited with new material in 1978 and became part of the ‘re-discovery’ of Powell’s early work. Intriguingly though, the other Archers’ film which I Know Where I’m Going! in some ways most resembles is Black Narcissus (1947). In both cases the narrative offers us a proud and intelligent young woman who finds herself in a remote place which deeply unsettles her – especially when she is confronted with a man who understands the place. However, this 1945 narrative is less tragic and (slightly) less dramatic than the later film. The two films both feature a second romance as contrast and they focus on ‘cultural difference’ as the basis for a fantasy and possibly a metaphorical study of British society. In Black Narcissus, the woman is played by Deborah Kerr who had played the triple female lead in another Archers’ film, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). She wasn’t available in 1945 so P&P turned to Wendy Hiller (who had lost the 1943 role to Kerr). One of the things I like about IKWIG (as Powell himself calls it in his autobiography) is that the story starts in Manchester and not London. I hadn’t noticed before that Wendy Hiller was born in Cheshire, so she’s nearly Mancunian. I wish I’d seen more of her films. She’s totally credible as a middle-class young woman from the ‘industrial North’, one with strong convictions who can be set up to lose them in the most delightful way.

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

The fun begins with the credits which are matched by two expressionist sequences, one as Joan heads north on the Glasgow sleeper and another brief one when she is praying (for the third time) for the winds to drop so she can get to Kiloran. It occurs to me that P&P use these sequences (derived from 1920s German cinema?) more in their b+w films when they don’t have colour to express emotion. The Small Back Room (1949) is perhaps the film in which they are used most extensively (and dramatically). As well as these sequences (which include Joan remembering the dancing at the ceilidh as a contrasting emotion to willing the winds to drop) IKWIG is marked by a significant amount of long shots and images of extreme weather mixed with noirish interiors. Some of the landscapes have mist and fog and a ‘glow’ of sunlight through the clouds which all adds to the sense of Celtic fantasy. The long shots composed by Erwin Hiller also have the function of ‘disguising’ Roger Livesey’s double since Livesey was starring in a West End play and never travelled up to Scotland. As in Black Narcissus, many scenes were shot on studio lots, including the Corryvreckan whirlpool sequence. This latter concerns one of two ancient myths about the fate of lovers that P&P used to underpin the central romance. The other involves a curse on the MacNeil men if they enter a ruined castle. The blooming romance represents P&P’s response to the coming end of the war. In this respect it refers back to A Canterbury Tale (1944), a film which has baffled many audiences. In political terms, this is Powell’s ‘high Tory romanticism’, not necessarily reactionary but definitely preferring the spiritual qualities of the rural and preferably the wild landscape to the ordered, rule-managed materialism of the urban society.

The film’s title was suggested by Powell’s Irish wife Frankie and it comes from the traditional Scots/Irish ballad. In the film it is beautifully sung by the then 69 year-old Boyd Steven (with the Glasgow Orpheus Choir) and used in the closing credit sequence:

Here’s the song:

“I know where I’m going

And I know who’s going with me.

I know who I love

But the de’il (the devil) knows who I’ll marry

The film has a score by Allan Gray and an entire sequence with performances at a ceilidh. In this sense it is another movement towards Powell’s concept of the ‘composed film’. It’s also one of Pressburger’s best scripts with its sly digs about the ‘rich and soulless’ – the wonderful irony of the three pipers hired for the wedding by the industrialist but who also can’t get to the island and therefore play at the ceilidh and provide Kiloran with another opportunity to woo Joan. This time I also noticed that in the opening narration we hear that “When Joan was only 1 year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right, left? No, straight on!” I wonder if this is a joke about the political climate of 1944?

IKWIG has everything, even an early appearance by Pet Clark as a rich brat. It also has an ‘eagle hunter’ with ‘Torquil’, his eagle, on his arm (credited as ‘Mr Ramshaw’). If you miss the BBC screening in HD, there is a Criterion Region 1 DVD (with an essay by Ian Christie) and Region 2 DVDin the UK.

A Monster Calls (Spain-US-UK 2016)

Conor and the monster

Conor and the monster

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.

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

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.

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

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.

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

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 Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

The Long Memory (UK 1953)

Philip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

Phillip (John Mills) and the refugee woman Ilse (Eva Bergh)

The early 1950s has often been dismissed by critics as a weak period in British cinema, when British producers churned out war films and comedies that were popular but not very interesting. In reality this was a stable production period in which British films competed very well with a diminished Hollywood for a big share of over 1 billion cinema admissions annually in the UK. There were also some excellent films that are certainly worth re-visiting. The Long Memory is one of the best and over the last few years plenty of viewers seem to have found it (many on a DVD box set of John Mills performances). The first point of interest is its director Robert Hamer, the genius at Ealing whose later career was damaged by alcohol. Hamer left Ealing after making three well-received films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). He’d also directed a segment to the portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and made uncredited contributions to San Demetrio, London (1943) and The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Charles Barr (in Ealing Studios, Movie, 1977) picks out Hamer (and Alexander Mackendrick) as the Ealing directors who showed most ‘personal continuity’ and exemplified the best of ‘mature Ealing’. It’s fairly typical that in a Guardian piece in 2004, Kevin Jackson ignores The Long Memory completely and focuses primarily on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Keith is a big fan of that fine film and writes about it on this blog, but I prefer the other Ealing films and The Long Memory.

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay's father

Fay (Elizabeth Sellars), Phillip (John Mills) and Fay’s father Captain Driver (Fred Johnson)

Why Hamer left Ealing isn’t clear to me but the consensus seems to be that he had a conflict with studio head Michael Balcon and decided to strike out as a director for hire with various producers. The Long Memory is the third of his features in this freelance career. Although made for two small independents, Europa Films and British Filmmakers, it had the backing of Rank and was an ‘A’ release on the Odeon circuit in 1953 with a starry cast led by John Mills. Mills plays Phillip, a ‘wronged man’ first seen on the day of his release from prison, arriving back in London and then heading down the Thames to find a home in an abandoned barge near to Gravesend. He is followed by a plain clothes police officer. A flashback then reveals that he once had a girlfriend, Fay (Elizabeth Sellars) whose father was an old ship’s captain mixed up in smuggling. Phillip got caught up with the smuggling operation and following a fracas he was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. After 12 years inside he discovers that Fay is now married to a police Superintendent (played by John McCallum, one of Hamer’s actors from Ealing). Why did she betray him? Who else might Phillip want to seek out for revenge?

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The landscape of the Thames estuary is used to create a bleak environment

The Long Memory is notable for both its contemporary concerns – the arrival of refugees in the UK, the importance of smuggling and the black market in a period of austerity (rationing was still in force in 1952) – and its distinctive visual style. Oddly, its narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the war directly – Phillip would have been sent to prison in 1940. The film is strikingly shot, making use of the stark landscape of the estuary mudflats and the whole river environment as far up as Tower Bridge. The landscape is similar to the Romney Marsh wetlands of Kent and East Sussex on the South Coast which featured in The Loves of Joanna Godden. Douglas Slocombe, who shot that film, was still working at Ealing in 1952 and Hamer communicated his ideas to Harry Waxman, another distinguished British cinematographer whose previous titles included Brighton Rock (1947) and who would later shoot The Wicker Man (1973). Waxman covered much of the action in long shot on the mudflats and in beautifully orchestrated chase sequences. At other times the film takes on a noir atmosphere – the story, from a novel by Howard Clewes, a well-known ‘action’ novelist of the period, shares elements with several other British films of the post-war era. The ‘wronged man’, the black market and the revenge narrative were also the basis for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), a classic British noir directed by Cavalcanti, Hamer’s mentor in his GPO Film Unit and early Ealing days. Basil Dearden, Hamer’s directing colleague at Ealing, made The Ship That Died of Shame in 1955 about a trio of ex-Navy men who run a smuggling boat until their confidence gets the better of them and in an actual Ealing film, Pool of London (1950), there are similar chase scenes through night-time London, as there are as well in the classic Jules Dassin film Night and the City (1950). British noir was strong for several years from 1947 through to the late 1950s (though it wasn’t described as such at the time) and Hamer certainly knew what he was doing. In a marvellous sequence, Phillip, the Mills character, watches a house in Gravesend throughout the night – and is in turn watched by the police. From inside the house, a frightened man peers through the letterbox to see Phillip framed half in the shadows but clearly visible.

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

The noirish mise en scène readily available on location among the warehouses of the Port of London

Hamer began his career as an editor and in the second half of The Long Memory his editor Gordon Hales puts together an exciting chase sequence with parallel actions in different locations involving different couples whose lives are intersecting. This may be a relatively conventional crime thriller but it is presented with real flair and I wish I could see it on a big screen. Part of the pleasure is in recognising the array of British character actors – Geoffrey Keen as a principled investigative journalist on a Sunday tabloid, Peter Jones as a younger journalist with much to learn, John Slater as a rather dim-witted heavy, Thora Hird as his wife, Vida Hope, Laurence Naismith and more.

The Long Memory is fine as it is but it’s worth noting that the off relationship between Fay and Bob Lowther the police Superintendent seems to signal a growing interest in the domestic melodramas of the families of police officers in later police procedurals in the 1950s, both in the UK and the US. In the clip below the journalist and the police Superintendent discuss Phillip Davidson’s possible actions – does the journalist know that the woman he suggests is in danger is in fact the Superintendent’s wife? The clip includes some interesting location work (I love the sound of the steam train towards the end of the clip).