Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
Nic Roeg was the subject of an interesting BBC 4 Arena documentary a few weeks ago and it seems like a good time to look at one of his films. Roeg is something of a forgotten auteur in the UK despite directing Don’t Look Now (1973), one of the most revered films in UK cinema history. He has several other significant titles in his list of directorial outings – as well as some very important credits as a cinematographer. However his films since 1980’s Bad Timing have not usually been well-received and his last success was probably The Witches (1990). Even so, I was shocked by the general response to Puffball, a film that isn’t perfect but certainly doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it. In several ways it resembles Don’t Look Now and also has qualities that link it to Roeg’s earlier success Walkabout (1971). I suspect that some of the antipathy towards Puffball (which currently scores 4.3 on IMDB) derives from the original story by Fay Weldon, a story first written in 1980 that does seem ‘out of time’ in some ways and possibly just too ‘female’ for some male audiences (the adaptation was, however, by Weldon’s son Dan).
A puffball is a type of mushroom which can grow into a football-sized white sphere. The spores of this mushroom are formed inside the sphere which then splits when the spores are ready to be released. The resemblance of the puffball to the swollen stomach of a pregnant woman is clear and this is what the film’s narrative utilises as its central visual image. Written originally for an English rural setting, the film adaptation moves to rural Ireland – presumably for funding reasons (the budget comes from soft money funds in the UK, Ireland and Canada). The move doesn’t alter the story in any way except that the sense of rural magic/mythology becomes even more pronounced and for some may be seen as pandering to easy typing of rural Ireland.
Liffey (Kelly Reilly) is an architect and she and her fiancé Richard (Oscar Pearce) have bought an abandoned cottage with the intention of rebuilding it and creating a modern designer house. The cottage originally belonged to a farming family who live close by. Mabs (Miranda Richardson) and Tucker (William Houston) have three daughters and Mabs’ mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) lives in a large caravan parked in the farmyard. The cottage was originally Molly’s home. It isn’t until some way into the narrative that we learn that Molly lost a son in the fire that gutted the cottage. Mabs and Tucker want a fourth child – a boy and Liffey has somehow careered into an emotional narrative. The inciting incident in the narrative is the moment when Liffey and Richard make love on an ancient stone monument close by the cottage (said to be associated with the Norse God, Odin – and, yes, the Vikings did get to Ireland). A puffball grows close by. Liffey becomes pregnant but by now Richard has had to return to work in his office in New York. Liffey is alone apart from the Polish builders who come to work on the house during the day. When Liffey visits the local doctor about the pregnancy, word gets out to Mabs via her sister Carol (Tina Kellegher), the receptionist at the surgery.
I don’t need to ‘spoil’ any more of the plot. Mabs, Molly and Carol are prepared to go to any lengths to bring a boy into the family, including magic. Liffey is alone, working on her architectural drawings. The plot elements strongly resemble Don’t Look Now in which Donald Sutherland is a church restorer separated from his wife by a job that takes him abroad and Julie Christie is the mother who meets a woman with ‘second sight’ when she is distraught after the death of her son. Sutherland even turns up in Puffball (a function of Canadian funding?) as Liffey’s one-time boss, offering her a partnership if she will come back to work.
The criticisms of the film seem to be that the performances of this strong cast are too much in melodrama mode, that the sex scenes are ‘too strong’ (18 Certificate) and that the cinematography is too obvious/too crude/too cheap. The DP is Nigel Willoughby (whose first major credit was on Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters) but the style is immediately recognisable as Roeg’s from the opening landscape shots. There is that palpable sense of the environment being a character in the story (as in Walkabout). None of these seem like reasons to denigrate the film. Perhaps the key for some critics is Roeg’s decision to use traditional camera ‘tricks’ to illustrate the magical elements in the film and to compound this with shots that link the foetus in Liffey’s uterus with the spores in the puffball and to ‘replay’ the sexual act with images of a penis entering a vagina as seen ‘internally’. Some have complained that the effects are ‘cheap’, others that the sex is gratuitous. The sex is not gratuitous and needs to be represented in the way it has been to work with the narrative. Personally I like traditional camera tricks more than CGI. Overall, the negative reactions seem to me to be part of a British distaste for fantasy cinema and the excess of melodrama – strengths of British Cinema I would argue.
The Wikipedia page for the film suggests an estimated budget for the film of £7 million. I would be surprised if it was half that and a quarter might be more realistic. There is a small cast and a limited number of locations. Roeg has clearly been marginalised and at 87 he is perhaps unlikely to get too many more chances to make films. I’m certainly now willing to go back and look at some of his films again as I’m sure that he deserves more attention. I’m going to look at the documentary by David Thompson again as well.
Apart from co-productions, I think I’ve only seen one other Venezuelan film and that was at a festival. All credit then to Matchbox films, the distributor of the UK DVD released today, 27th April. In some ways very familiar, this is actually quite a complex and unusual film. Ostensibly a distinctly Hispanic Gothic ‘haunted house’ story, the title reveals that there is also a ‘time’ dimension which adds a further element to the mix.
The central character is Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), a mother with two young boys living with a man who is the father of the younger child. The narrative begins in 1981 when Dulce is arrested for the murder of her partner in circumstances she doesn’t really understand. Thirty years later she is released from prison but held under house arrest in the same old house. Where are her two sons? By constantly moving between 1981 and 2011 the story is gradually revealed. This ‘reveal’ also requires an ‘investigator’, here a young priest. Added to the Catholic discourse is a visit from a medium and a spirit guide drawn from Venezuela’s African and indigenous cultural mix. The priest will discover that the house has a history and that previous families who lived there also had problems.
At the beginning of the film I felt that there was something odd about the aesthetics of the film and for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be Spain or Latin America (I hadn’t checked before sticking the DVD in the player). The haunted house and the female-centred family melodrama have been explored in several high profile Spanish films including El orfanato (2007) but I sensed rather than saw directly links to Mexican horror films like Kilómetro 31 (2006) or in the case of the spirit guide, aspects of Cuban cinema and Santería (a religious tradition found across Cuba and Venezuela). Another Cuban link and the first indication that confirmed Latin American cinema for me was the importance of baseball.
I can’t imagine that first time producer-writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo had much of a budget to play with but he handles the complex shifts in time and the repetition of sequences from different perspectives very well. The house itself is a great setting and although the pacing and use of music teeters on the edge of constant portentousness, he manages to keep control and deliver. Looking at the comments from various horror fansites the film has gone down well with its intended audiences. If I have a criticism it’s that I would like to have found out more about the early history of the house, but really the story is complex enough and the closing sequences spring some surprises and twists. I hope the film finds its audience in the UK.
Official trailer (US?):
This Hollywood film made mainly in the UK by novice director Rupert Sanders was Kristen Stewart’s second blockbuster lead following the Twilight films (and released between Nos 4 and 5 in that franchise). Neither an outright critical or audience ‘winner’ as such, the film still made nearly $400 million worldwide and was claimed as a major box office hit by its producers and Universal. It cost an estimated $170 million – which by my rule of thumb (a film needs to recoup around three times the production budget to move towards a profit for the producers) means its success was qualified. The questions that interest me are 1) how important was the casting and performance of Kristen Stewart as a factor in audience responses and 2) what are our expectations of narratives created on this scale and with these generic references. The relevant genres here are fantasy, action, war – but surprisingly little of ‘romance’. The source is the Snow White story but here taken back to the original Brothers Grimm story rather than Disney. The worldwide box office suggests that similar stories exist/appeal in non-European cultures (the film did well in East and South East Asia).
The obvious recent franchises which the film relates to are the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/Game of Thrones fantasy worlds. I suspect that these are more ‘coherent’ fictional worlds – but I have very little knowledge of them so I’m happy to be corrected. Snow White has a certain kind of coherence of locations since many scenes were shot in the more rugged parts of the UK. The two main fantasy locations are the ‘Dark Forest’ and the ‘Fairy Kingdom’. Where the former appears as a generic devastated world full of clever CGI trickery, the latter reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke with several almost identical images – most strikingly in the case of the white hart. Miyazaki himself may have borrowed ideas from Western literature but it is the mode of presentation that seems so familiar here. (Guillermo del Toro’s fairies from Pan’s Labyrinth also pop up.) The castle, the focus for the film’s finale, is built on rocks pushing into the sea and though it is a CGI creation it is reminiscent of several such castles in parts of the UK or Northern Europe. I was also reminded of the battle at the end of El Cid (1961). Inside the castle the ‘mirror on the wall’ to which the Evil Queen addresses her famous question “Who is the fairest of them all?” appears to have learned a trick or two from Terminator 2 as it morphs into a molten metal figure. The strangest image for me was that of the Chinese fishing nets in the village of women. I have no idea what this was supposed to summon up but it took me back to Kerala in South India. If none of these intertextual references resonate with audiences perhaps the film’s setting will not seem disjointed – but of course they were leapt on by critics eager to suggest the ersatz qualities of the film.
The casting of a blockbuster like this is crucially important. Budgets of this size imply either a film dominated by cutting-edge technology or an international cast with recognisable stars. The script for the latter must enable some form of consistent performance across the variegated group of actors. Snow White falls somewhere between the two big budget models. The CGI is important, but so are the cast. Since at least the 1930s these kinds of large scale action pictures with historical/fantasy settings have tended towards the casting of British theatre-trained actors or other Anglophone actors with similar training. In 1938 the Australian Errol Flynn crossed swords with the South African Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (with RADA-trained Claude Rains as King John). The current crop of superhero franchises is awash with the modern equivalents of these ‘Imperial actors’ – Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston etc. It isn’t surprising then that Snow White features the South African Charlize Theron and current action hero Australian Chris Hemsworth in two of the three leading roles. Theron is completely at home as the Evil Queen Ravenna. Hemsworth uses an accent I wasn’t able to fathom (he comes across as Mel Gibson channelling Sean Bean) but he too knows what he is doing. How then does Kristen Stewart fit in?
I’ve checked out all Ms Stewart’s roles since 2007 (i.e. her ‘adult’ roles) and she seems to have been cast solely in contemporary or ‘near contemporary’ roles (On the Road is set in the late 1940s). Besides the Twilight series there is only a minor role in Doug Liman’s Jumper which relates to fantasy and the main characters in Twilight relate, I think, to contemporary American teens. Snow White marks a break into a different kind of fantasy, dominated as I’ve suggested by a different acting style. Overall, I think Stewart makes the leap effectively but I do think her vocal delivery is a problem. It isn’t the accent as such, which I didn’t really notice, but the diction and projection. I realised that I had watched several of the other films with subtitles in order to catch her dialogue. On this occasion too there were moments when I couldn’t follow her dialogue. She tends to shorten sentences, to ‘swallow’ the ends of words etc. It’s a naturalistic mode and fits the portrayal of young people in contemporary America but in this kind of film, alongside not just the leads but also the band of renowned British/Irish character actors playing the (eight!) dwarves, it creates a disjuncture. My memory suggests that in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart begins to change her approach – but I must watch that film again. Partly I think it’s just a case of of playing a wider variety of roles. It is interesting though just how many young actors come out of Australia capable of appearing in American and British films with no problems and performing alongside both theatre-trained Brits and Americans. Kristen Stewart has an Australian mother – perhaps she can tap into home advice?
If there is a weakness in the film’s casting it isn’t Kristen Stewart but perhaps it is the lack of star-power in the supporting roles, specifically Ravenna’s brother Finn and ‘Prince William’, Snow White’s childhood playmate and the exiled Duke’s son. Neither actor plays their role badly but they don’t have the presence that a more distinctive figure might bring (although Sam Claflin as William is one of the lead performers in the Hunger Games franchise). On the other hand, truly distinctive performers such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane are included in the controversial decision to use CGI techniques to present character actors as dwarves. McShane could have played Ravenna’s brother and Winstone could have played William’s father.
I think a great deal of the criticism of Kristen Stewart’s performance as Snow White is prompted by her success in Twilight and critics’ (and non-fan audiences’) antipathy to that franchise. It’s worth noting the other aspects of her performance that do contribute to the film. She moves athletically and convincingly enough in the action scenes, but also looks quite regal with her exposed neck and shoulders. Best of all is her portrayal of a Snow White with grimy fingernails and a wild look after a night in the Dark Forest. (The prominent front teeth in the image above contrast with theusual bland white choppers of Hollywood leads.)
IMDb lists Stewart’s salary for the film as $9.5 million. Presumably what the film’s producers are buying is Stewart’s Twilight audience. This prompts consideration of Tom Austin’s 2002 paper, ‘Gone With the Wind Plus Fangs‘: Genre, Taste and Distinction in the Assembly, Marketing and Reception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (included in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale, London: bfi). Austin refers to Hollywood’s ‘commercial aesthetic of aggregation’ that produces a ‘dispersible text’. He identifies Coppola’s Dracula as the first in a cycle of blockbuster classic horror tales and suggests that it is constructed so that it can be marketed in different ways – as an auteur production by Coppola, a star vehicle for any of its four stars, a reworking of a popular myth, a literary adaptation, a horror film etc. Each of these options might appeal to a different audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a slightly different kind of ‘dispersible text’. It is also part of a looser contemporary cycle, this time of reworkings of fairy tales. If Stewart brings the Twilight audience of younger women, Hemsworth also has an audience – crucially more likely to include young males. Charlize Theron may not have a specific following as such, but as Ravenna she offers another interesting role for ‘older’ women (cf with Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods). Just as important perhaps is the array of CGI effects. Director Sanders comes out of TV advertising and he has certainly been able to create striking visual sequences working with Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser and designer Dominic Watkins. The cycle itself might also attract audiences. The real question is how well this aggregation works. I’ve already hinted that the visual style does seem to be too obviously ‘grabbing’ ideas from earlier films – and perhaps not integrating them fully. The low critics/users ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes suggest that the sequel may have difficulty reaching the same size of audience again. Many of the pro and anti comments refer to Kristen Stewart’s performance. The prequel that has now been announced for 2016 replaces Stewart with Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt (Theron and Hemsworth remain) and changes director to Cedric Nicolas Troyan, another novice director who was visual effects director on Snow White. This looks like a gamble to me. Losing Stewart and her fan audience means a big box office hole to fill.
The box office of the prequel will give some indication of how much Kristen Stewart was a ‘star attraction’ in Snow White and the Huntsman and it will be helpful in thinking about the development of Stewart’s star image in 2012.
I wanted to see this because it is one of the films identified as part of the raft of new Scottish films that appeared in 2013 when it was first shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Two central questions are whether it is indeed a ‘Scottish’ film and, if it is, what it suggests about Scottish cultural identity. Both questions are pertinent during the run-up to the Scottish independence vote in September.
Not many people have seen For Those in Peril which didn’t receive a significant release in the UK (though it has been seen at several overseas festivals). I was able to watch it projected from a DVD in a community cinema operation. The film includes a mix of video and Super 8 as well as higher resolution material and the DVD projection wasn’t ideal. Unfortunately, there is no Blu-ray as far as I am aware. This début film from writer-director Paul Wright is set in a Scottish fishing village (and filmed mainly in Gourdon in Aberdeenshire). The relatively simple narrative follows the psychological breakdown of Aaron (George MacKay), the only survivor of a fishing tragedy which sees four men drowned, including Aaron’s brother Michael. The people of the village appear to blame Aaron in some way for what happened and he can’t remember anything about the accident. Only his mother (Kate Dickie) and his brother’s girlfriend Jean (Nichola Burley) offer him any support. Gradually Aaron loses contact with reality and begins to pursue a memory of his mother’s stories about the ‘monster of the deep’ which she told him as a child. He becomes convinced that the monster has taken Michael and that he must bring him back from the sea.
Wright initially plays the film as a quasi-documentary story, including faux documentary footage with voiceovers and home movie clips. Then he moves into social realism and finally into a fantasy sequence (which may also offer the subjective experience of someone suffering from schizophrenia or something similar). In visual terms, the film is quite disturbing with a camera style that features hand-held shooting with big close-ups and shallow focus. Occasionally the film moves into long shot, framing the protagonist in the landscape – much the better option for me. The performances are generally very good. Kate Dickie and Nichola Burley are solid performers and George MacKay has a real screen presence. I don’t know if his acne was real or painted on, but he appears the real lump of a 19 year-old that the script requires.
I wish I had seen this on a DCP or film projection. I still wouldn’t have ‘enjoyed’ the aesthetic, but I might have been able to make a more balanced judgement. When we left the cinema, Nick said that it didn’t work but the interesting question was what went wrong. I tend to agree but also to be a bit more forgiving. The reactions by reviewers generally seem to have been more extreme, both in praising the film and condemning it.
To return to the initial questions, the film is Scottish only to the extent that the writer-director is Scottish and it’s located on the Aberdeenshire coast. The main producers are Warp X films from Sheffield working with funding from Film 4’s ‘Low Budget Film Production’ scheme. Some further funding came from Creative Scotland and Screen Yorkshire. I’m not sure how the latter organisation justified funding. Apart from supporting local producers, Nichola Burley is from Leeds. Otherwise I wonder if any of the post-production took place in Sheffield? BFI supported the release of the film for export with £19,000 going to sales agent Protagonist Pictures. It’s not really a great promo for the Aberdeenshire coast however! Soda Pictures released the film in the UK but only on 3 prints for three weeks as far as I can see.
In the end, I’m not sure that the film represents Scottish culture directly. The village could be in Ireland as easily as in Scotland – or indeed anywhere with fishing boats and a fish-processing industry. The fact that this is a low-budget film makes it much more like a typical Scottish production (since there are no established studio facilities to make Scottish films in Scotland). Of the three lead actors only Kate Dickie is Scots and she’s from the Central Belt not the North East. Still. it shows that there is Scottish talent and as a drama this is much more interesting than most of the films that come out of London. It does in some ways share a mixture of realism and fantasy in a Scottish setting with Under the Skin. I’ll return to discussing contemporary Scottish cinema soon.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .
So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.) She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.
Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 2oth century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.
Production and reception
Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.
The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.
Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.
Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.
Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:
Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?
Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.
The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)
In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.
Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.
Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.
I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.
I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.
Useful web reviews:
Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:
The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.