There is no way I couldn’t enjoy Wild Rose. I love traditional country music and I’m particularly fond of a group of female country singers, many of whom are referenced in this film. I’m also a big fan of the classic country biopics, Coalminer’s Daughter (1980, the Loretta Lynn story) and Sweet Dreams (US 1985, the Patsy Cline story). Add to that, Jessie Buckley has a great voice and a real screen presence and I’m sold. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t several questions to ponder and to wonder whether an even better (but less commercial) film is buried in there somewhere.
The Irish actor-singer Jessie Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a woman in her late 20s but with the dreams (and selfishness) of a younger woman. As the narrative begins she is being released from prison with an electronic tag. She returns to her mother Marion (Julie Walters) and her two young children, a boy of five and a girl of eight. Soon, Marion will force Rose out into her own council flat with the two kids, pushing her to take responsibility. Trapped by the tag and a night-time curfew, she has to rebuild her life and grapple with her dream of going to Nashville. Her possible ‘way out’ is a meeting with an unlikely mentor and supporter, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who can open doors usually closed to the likes of Rose. She will eventually make use of one of those doors opening, but this isn’t a conventional ‘star is born’ story.
Wild Rose was a big hit at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year and the film celebrates aspects of Glasgow culture. But also in some ways perpetuates a trend in Scottish film culture, following on from Sunshine on Leith, in having an English director (Tom Harper who handles the material well) and two English lead players with the central character played by an Irish woman. The script is by Nicole Taylor, who is a Scottish writer, best known for a range of well-received TV scripts. This gives it enough authenticity and credibility but does it need the starpower of Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo to get made? Like most UK projects of this kind the production was dependent on public funding – Creative Scotland, BFI and Film 4. I’m imagining the casting decisions aimed at overseas distribution, especially in North America. Julie Walters is very good, dialling down some of her familiar excessive moves. I’m not qualified to judge her accent but it seemed OK to me and Sophie Okonedo is great as usual but I wonder if their presence creates expectations about the narrative?
In much the same way, the songs for Rose to sing are carefully chosen. In the promotional material certain songs are picked out. ‘Country Girl’ originally by Scottish band Primal Scream and ‘Angel from Montgomery’ by John Prine (made famous by Bonnie Raitt) are two titles not usually associated with country music. Perhaps the distributors worried about the disdain for country shown by many in the UK? I wonder if the promotion in the US will pick out other songs? Rose actually sings songs by Wynonna Judd, Patty Griffin and Trisha Yearwood which might be more germane.
I’m being picky because I’m so invested in the music. The house band recruited for the film are excellent and they play mainly with traditional instruments. Glasgow is the focus point for the meeting of Irish and Scottish traditional music with North American associated music culture every year in the Transatlantic Sessions and Celtic Connections so there is an authenticity in both the playing and the Glasgow cultural roots. Because I don’t watch ‘reality TV’, I was unaware that Jessie Buckley had made a big impact on the show that sought to find a new singer for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. She can certainly sing and I was convinced that she could make it singing most forms of popular music. She also has the acting ability to make Rose-Lynn believable. This all means that Wild Rose is very enjoyable and entertaining. But it could be something else as well. I was reminded of the Irish film Once (2007) which told a simple story but explored a real interest in music (and won an Oscar).
Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.
Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.
She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)
What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.
The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.
Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.
This unusual film has created a fair amount of controversy and has seemingly divided audiences sharply between those who see it as representing an important issue for women and those who were flat-out bored watching it. Before the screening I had seen a Twitter conversation in which a female critic complained a) about the “white male” audience of critics she watched the film with at a press showing and b) that these men generally seemed to disregard or simply not mention the sexual abuse in the marriage depicted on screen. I also read an interview with the film’s star (and executive producer), Gemma Arterton. Here are a couple of extracts:
Already released in France, it seemed to make one journalist very angry. “You make a film about a boring wife who’s fed up,” he challenged Arterton in an interview. “She’s always sad, she whinges all the time, she doesn’t stop crying. Why are we compelled?” “I was so pleased by his reaction!” Arterton exclaims. “I think he hated the film, he was so angry and pissed off that he had to tell me, and I thought, well, that’s good. That’s great. I didn’t set out to make a film that was universally loved. It’s meant to create polarising opinions.”
The sex scenes in The Escape are strikingly unlike what we’re used to seeing in movies. The camera remains trained on Arterton’s face, so we can’t fail to see the gritted teeth and deadening disappointment her husband doesn’t even notice. Even when tears are streaming down her face, he still doesn’t get the message, and says: “I can’t tell whether you’re laughing or crying.” “But it’s not abusive,” Arterton stresses. “Because she could say no.” (from ‘Gemma Arterton: ‘Everyone in the industry knows I’m a pain’’, interview by Decca Aikenhead, the Guardian 14 July 2018
The interview above also discusses the production background to this film. Its £1 million budget was raised independently from City investors and the outline screenplay by writer-director Dominic Savage was then developed through improvisation by the central characters.
I should perhaps state at this point that I am a fan and admirer of Gemma Arterton’s work and I see her, alongside Maxine Peake, as one of the UK’s foremost actors from a working-class background. For me her career began unfortunately in blockbuster mainstream films (which I haven’t seen) which she herself now tends to disown. I have seen several of her lower budget films but The Escape is different because of her own personal involvement in its production.
Dominic Savage is best known as a writer-director in TV but I have strong memories of his previous film Love + Hate (UK 2005) which was set very carefully and precisely in Blackburn and imagined a kind of Romeo and Juliet story involving a young Asian woman and a similarly young white working-class lad. I used the film in a schools film education event and explored the representation issues in what is a form of realist narrative with sensitive casting. Savage is very interested in ‘love stories’ and The Escape shares some elements with Love + Hate, especially in its location and casting. Savage himself was born in Margate, one of the seaside towns beloved of traditional London working-class communities. Gemma Arterton was born in Gravesend, a little closer to London but still in Kent. Her co-star in The Escape, Dominic Cooper, was born in Blackheath, South-East London (on the way to Gravesend). Cooper and Arterton have been paired before in Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but here both are playing close to their roots. Because of the peculiarities of the English education system, working-class Gemma went to a grammar school in Kent while the more middle-class Dominic went to the local comprehensive, Thomas Tallis in Kidbroke. Both ended up at drama school. I mention all of this because The Escape seems to me as much about class as about gender.
Mark (Dominic Cooper) and Tara (Gemma Arterton) live on a new estate of ‘junior executive homes’ in a London ‘satellite town’ in Kent. We don’t know what Mark does but it obviously pays well as this is a two car family and Tara doesn’t work, although she is expected to be a ‘good housewife and mother’ with a youngest child in nursery school and another in the primary school next door. But Tara is unhappy and she’s not sure why. Mark is played by Dominic Cooper as a somewhat thuggish/boorish character. The ‘sexual abuse’ referred to above describes his behaviour whereby he expects sex when he wants it and is less than considerate towards Tara, not seeing or feeling her unhappiness. Is this abuse? I suspect many men have treated wives and girlfriends like this on occasions, out of ignorance and insensitivity, but probably not as frequently or unpleasantly as Mark. In the interview above, Arterton explains:
“In Gravesend, we all know that kind of guy, and he’s not a bad guy. What he is, he’s just . . . I think he’s just out of his depth. He’s not creative. He’s not open-minded. He’s just quite traditional, and not on the same wavelength.”
I think we are meant to recognise that Tara should call him out and challenge his behaviour and that the two of them should talk it through. But it has already gone too far. Tara is depressed and has become de-sensitised. This is as much about her situation more broadly than it is about solely Mark’s behaviour in the bedroom. The film feels to me like a critique of a whole way of life. At one point the camera rises and show a vista of rooftops with, in the distance, electricity pylons and the outlines of other settlements leading towards the metropolis. The rooftops reminded me of an undeservedly long-forgotten film, Ken Loach’s Family Life (UK 1971), his film version of David Mercer’s play about a young woman with schizophrenia, aggravated by her ‘caring’ family in suburbia. Many, many people in the UK live on modern estates like this in identical houses. I don’t know how they do it. One of the major controversies about The Escape concerns Tara’s inability/refusal to ‘look after’ her children. She finds she is just not interested in them and that her relationship with them has broken down. Mark is actually better with them. As many viewers have pointed out, men can feel this way towards their children as well, but they aren’t immediately pilloried as a result. But a woman can’t admit that she doesn’t feel for her children.
Tara’s ‘escape’ begins with a trip to the South Bank in London where she buys a pair of art books from the stalls outside the NFT/BFI. Could art be her way out? When she finally cracks, she takes advantage of Kent’s transport links and hops on a Eurostar train at Ebbsfleet, heading for Paris. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. You can probably guess some of what happens in Paris. The ending of the film is ‘open’. In fact, at the end we realise that we have returned to the sequence at the start of the film which doesn’t see Tara in the house in Kent, but somewhere quite different. Why is she there? What will happen to her marriage, her husband and her children?
This is not a ‘fun film’ but it is one which will resonate with many viewers. Gemma Arteton is excellent throughout and Dominic Cooper plays ‘ugly’ very effectively. Dominic Savage uses several strategies to suggest Tara’s internal world. Laurie Rose’s camera frequently uses shallow focus to catch Tara’s face as she twists and turns in what feel like enclosed spaces, emphasised by the blurred backgrounds. I usually find this an irritating technique, but it has a real purpose here. Compositions emphasise Tara in halls, opening doors, looking through windows and in a different scenario looking out over landscapes. Many of these techniques are evident in the trailer below and in the image above. On the soundtrack the music by Anthony John and Alexandra Harwood includes throbbing bass notes as Tara’s anxiety increases.
I need to repeat that this isn’t ‘feelgood’ cinema. Tara is not noble, she isn’t oppressed by money worries. She is beautiful and she is healthy. She has everything capitalist society is supposed to offer a young mother. She has a husband who may love her but who can’t understand her and hasn’t got the emotional intelligence to know what is going on. He lashes out at her and assumes he knows what is best. She doesn’t know what to do. I can see some audiences will dislike the main characters and will find the film slow and perhaps ‘boring’, but for me it is a devastating look at a failed consumer society that has become soulless. It’s no coincidence that in England today, support for the arts and ‘cultural opportunities for all’ is being cut and educational programmes are narrowing in scope. Tara’s ‘escape’ is a search for some kind of meaning. What divides her and Mark is that she can just about remember what education gave her but he hasn’t retained anything. The problem with those new estates is partly a lack of ‘community culture’ – and meaningful local relationships – Tara doesn’t have a female friend to talk to, only her not very sympathetic mother. Mark probably thinks he is ‘middle-class’ now because of his well-paid job, but it’s a myth. Perhaps we need to know more about what he feels? But then again, this is Tara’s story, isn’t it?
There are relatively few global filmmakers who regularly release films of consistent high quality – and which make it into UK cinemas. One of the few is Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest film, arriving here only six months after its Venice appearance, maintains this record. It will be seen, however, as a departure in some ways from the mainly family melodramas that have brought him the widest audiences.
It’s not immediately apparent what kind of film this is and some of the promotional material I’ve seen is quite misleading. It’s not primarily a crime film or a legal thriller. Perhaps it’s a kind of ‘philosophical protest film’. The protest is against the Japanese justice system and it is philosophical because it is very personal and not at all practical – only a handful of people have an inkling of what the protest is about. I don’t know that much about how the Japanese justice system works but one anomaly, given the other aspects of Japan’s modern democracy, is that the death penalty is still in operation. Wikipedia has a useful page detailing the very precise instructions for sentencing which could result in execution by hanging. It’s worth reading through these to understand the legal case that faces the film’s protagonist, the lawyer Shigemori. He’s played by Fukuyama Masaharu, who also played a lead role in Kore-eda’s earlier Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013), his biggest hit in Japan. There is another link between the two films. Like Father, Like Son is about an attempt to resolve problems for both families when it becomes known after six years that two mothers in a maternity hospital were given each other’s babies. The discovery raises a host of legal questions as well as issues for the families. Kore-eda was told by his legal consultant that: “Court is not the place to determine the truth”. This observation (quoted in the film’s Press Pack interview) then drives the approach to The Third Murder.
The narrative of The Third Murder really begins with Shigemori’s legal firm being appointed to defend Misumi (Yakusho Kôji), accused of a murder to which he has confessed. Because he has already served time for a murder thirty years ago and because he is charged this time with murder plus burglary, the death sentence appears inevitable. Shigemori begins by following procedures designed to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence, but his meetings with his client and some of the facts he discovers about the case disturb him. It turns out that Shigemori’s father, now retired, was the judge who passed the sentence on Misumi for his crime on Hokkaido in the 1980s. Shigemori would have been a boy then and when he meets his father, the old man says he made a mistake – if he had sentenced Misumi to death, the second murder wouldn’t have happened. His intervention drives the narrative into another family drama. It transpires all three men (Shigemori, Misumi and the murdered man) have daughters and this leads Shigemori into new avenues of investigation which will eventually push him into a change of heart and a change of strategy, especially when he meets the victim’s daughter Sakie (Hirose Suzu, the titular character in Our Little Sister, 2015). However, Misumi seems to be playing his own games and begins to change his testimony. When the case finally comes to court, it isn’t at all clear what will happen. And this is the point of the narrative. The court will make a decision based on judicial procedures and it will not necessarily take note of anything Shigemori or Misumi might say.
Audiences may well resent the fact that we never find out who actually committed the murder, even though we think we’ve seen the act at the beginning of the film. We don’t know whether Misumi ever tells the truth. Is the ‘third murder’ really the death of Shigemori’s belief in the judicial system? At the start of the narrative he seems very efficient and conventional in approach. By the end he has changed considerably. How do we feel about the case now? (Or perhaps more importantly, how does the Japanese audience feel at the film’s conclusion.) Kore-eda succeeds in presenting Shigemori and Misumi as two men who are in many ways quite similar – but one began with certain advantages and was ‘judged’ and the other wasn’t. This ‘doubling’ of the two men is achieved visually in some astonishing scenes in the interview room culminating in a shot which manages to superimpose one head over the other. This was the first time that Kore-eda had used the ‘Scope frame of 2.35:1 and he and his cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya set out to shoot the film very differently compared to their earlier collaborations. They opted for the colder look of crime films and studied Kurosawa’s High and the Low (1963) for ideas about using the ‘Scope frame. There are many big close-ups in the interview room and the courtroom scenes are shot more to emphasise the procedures than to create drama. Kore-eda began his career as a documentary filmmaker and he carried out a great deal of research to represent the procedures faithfully.
There are several things about the plot and the use of imagery that I still don’t understand and which will have to wait for a second viewing. But this didn’t ‘spoil’ the narrative for me. I do recognise one of the complaints though and that is the way the central pairing of the lawyer and client comes to dominate and we lose track of some of the secondary characters. For example, Shigemori has two colleagues working with him. One is an older and perhaps more experienced former prosecutor and the other is a keen younger man (like Kurosawa’s young apprentice figures?). Both these characters seem to fade into the background after earlier providing important sounding-boards for Shigemori’s changing ideas about the case. I’m tempted to conclude that Kore-eda perhaps might have developed his narrative further. Some have complained that the film is too slow and already feels too long at 124 minutes. I could have taken another 30 minutes – or even a two or three part long-form TV production?
I should say something about the two leads in the film. Yakusho Kôji is one of Japan’s best-known and most celebrated actors with roles for major directors such as Imamura Shôhei and Kurosawa Kyoshi. His biggest film in the UK was possibly the romantic comedy Shall We Dance (1996). Fukuyama Masaharu has much less experience in films but he has the distinction of being one of the most successful pop singers ever in Japan with 25 No1 singles. For Kore-eda he seems to have played two roles that both see an uptight, ‘controlled’ man forced to change by the experience of meeting other kinds of men and learning their stories. As well as Takimoto’s cinematography, the score by Ludovico Einaudi also works well to convey the tone of Kore-eda’s film.