As a late night film on TV this was an undemanding but generally enjoyable watch. I watched it because of Felicity Jones and she and Jessica Brown Findlay as the two leads both give spirited performances. On reflection, the film offers a case study in the problems facing British filmmakers. There are quite a few films like this, offering vehicles for some talented performers and technicians but also being deeply flawed because of poor scripts. I try not to moan about scripts – I’m sure they are difficult to write and I couldn’t write one. However, the relatively inexperienced Tamzin Rafn doesn’t seem to have had much support here. The producers must take some of the responsibility.
Ms Rafn has stated that she was inspired by the example of Diablo Cody who developed the script for Juno (Canada/US 2007) after beginning to write autobiographically about her life as a stripper. Rafn took on board the idea of writing about what she knew and produced a script featuring a ‘naughty girl’ in a seaside town. From this interview it is clear that the script was gradually changed in pre-production and what began as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ domestic comedy became more about the relationship between two young women. The film begins with Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) as a rather mysterious but vivacious 17 year-old taken on as a cleaner in a small private hotel owned by Jonathan, the German writer of a single bestselling novel (Sebastian Koch), his shrewish wife Joa played by Julia Ormond, bookish daughter Beth (Felicity Jones) and her much younger sister Posy. Emelia is witty and tantalising and has soon entranced the writer and Beth, pushed Joa almost to the edge and amused Posy. Emelia is later revealed to be living with her grandparents and the ‘albatross’ of the title is that she genuinely believes she is related to the writer Arthur Conan Doyle. She has left school, started taking casual jobs and wants to become a writer.
The scenario sounds familiar with the insertion of a ‘disrupting influence’ into a family which has become mired in frustration in terms of its internal relationships. The reviews and critical reaction tend to refer to this as a ‘coming of age’ story with both Emelia and Beth as 17/18 year-olds. The marketing of the film deliberately makes reference to David Leland’s Wish You Were Here (UK 1987). Tamzin Rafn tells us that Leland himself sent an encouraging message after the film’s Edinburgh screening. Leland made several very good films and TV plays about young people in the UK and Rafn finds parallels between her own experience and that of Emily Lloyd as Leland’s young heroine in a 1950s South Coast town. Both films make use of Bert Hardy’s iconic image of freedom and sexual liberation for holidaymakers in Blackpool – yet the young women in both films are residents not ‘grockles’.
And here is the second problem for the film. It was made by CinemaNX the company that managed the investment-funding of the Isle of Man Film Commission and its first and best-known credit was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (US/UK 2009) which used several key locations on the island. I think it has now been taken over by Pinewood Studios. The Isle of Man is a fabulous location with a range of landscapes and many buildings that can stand in for a variety of locations – as they did for a New York theatre in the 1930s in the Linklater film. In Albatross the key location is the pretty harbour of Peel. For those of you outside the UK, the Isle of Man sits in the Irish Sea almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Its glorious scenery reflects its geographical location, though it could also represent West Wales or the Cornish/Devon coast. But it doesn’t look like the coast further east where I take Albatross to be set. Landscape does matter. More important for the narrative perhaps, Emilia and Beth feel isolated in this ‘dump’ of a South Coast town. This is fine, but unlike Emily Lloyd in the 195os, 17 year-olds today could easily catch a train or hitch a lift to London at any time. Think how much more ‘isolated’ they would be located on the Isle of Man or the coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to one of the key sequences – Beth’s visit to Oxford for a university interview. A decent script would use the sense of place. The idea of the writer who buys a hotel in a quiet seaside town could work quite well – I’ve seen some films set on Scottish islands that do this.
The film eventually becomes about the two very different young women and many reviews compared the film to Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (UK 2004) with Emily Blunt and Natalie Press. The comparison doesn’t favour Albatross. My first thoughts turned to Sandra Golbacher’s underrated Me Without You (UK 2001) with Anna Friel and Michelle Williams. Again, the comparison doesn’t do the script of Albatross very many favours. It’s a shame because the performers are generally very good, including the wonderful Peter Vaughan as Emilia’s granddad. The direction is fine by Niall MacCormick and the ‘Scope cinematography by Swedish(?) cinematographer Jan Jonaeus shows off the locations very well. The music score is lively – but there is only so much you can do with characters who don’t have much to say that is interesting.
My initial focus was Felicity Jones. Here she plays a character much younger than her real age and it only showed a couple of times. This film completed a trio of youth pictures following Cemetery Junction (UK 2010) and SoulBoy (UK 2010), both ‘period’ stories. Also in 2011 she was the lead in Chalet Girl, an enjoyable romantic social comedy which perhaps I’ll write about later. Felicity Jones has already clocked up an impressive list of film and TV credits and is now beginning to appear in more international films following her The Amazing Spider-Man 2 appearance in 2014. This year she is opposite Jonah Hill and James Franco in the re-titled US film Jill. She has also completed the next Eran Creevy film Autobahn made in Germany with US money. I’m looking forward to that. Jones has been all over the US chat shows in the last few years and she is clearly going places. She’s clearly bright and hard-working and distinctive. I hope she can maintain that persona.
Meanwhile Jessica Brown Findlay, who is actually the lead in Albatross, hasn’t quite capitalised on her high profile in Downton Abbey as yet but she is clearly talented too. But then so was Julia Ormond whose reign as a lead in Hollywood films was altogether too brief in the mid-1990s. Now she’s a character actor (in a thankless role here, I think).
See all three of the British actors (I couldn’t find any reason why Sebastian Koch was cast as the author, unless it was an attempt to sell the film in Europe) in this (US) trailer:
This newly released film looks set to do well in the Award Season, especially at the UK BAFTAS, having already won a Golden Globe for its star. It does posses a lot of the qualities that have pleased the BAFTA membership, including the fine acting that so frequently graces British films. However, despite a dramatic and ultimately feel-good real-life story as a basis, it rather fails to engage. I think the problems lies in the scripting and direction, as the production values are pretty good.
The film seems to be inhibited by that sense of ‘good taste’ that is so common in British films. To give one example [which as it is a recorded event is hardly a plot spoiler], late in the film Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. We see the fore and after but not the actual event, which feels like an anti-climax. The same decorum also inhibits the sexual relations which are an important part of the story.
The film also suffers from a common problem with biopics – how to convey complex ideas without becoming complicated. One way used in this production occurs at the film’s end. The plot is reversed in a brief and rapid montage: a sort of mini-Benjamin Button. One can guess at the intended relationship to Stephen Hawkins’s famous work on Time: but it feels facile. The film is taken from the memoir by Jane: whilst the film shows her engaging with Stephen’s theorising the focus is personal rather than scientific.
But what the film really lacks is intensity. It crosses over in some ways with two earlier films – My Left Foot (UK 1989) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (US/France 2007). But those films not only enjoy fine lead performances, they also generate a sense of emotion that seems to engage most audiences. I rather think this film fails on that account.
This film is based on the study by Claire Tomalin of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) illicit relationship with Ellen Ternan (Nelly – Felicity Jones). I decided to see it a week after its UK release. It turned out to be quite difficult. The two independent cinemas in Leeds may screen it, but that is not yet certain. None of the multiplex listings I checked has the film in their programme. Finally I found it programmed at Bradford’s National Media Museum: though even here it was in the smaller of the Museum’s auditoria. The larger had Her; which had a dozen or maybe two dozen punters. The Dickens’s film had over fifty. I put this down to the dead hand of the distributors, accentuated by it being the Awards season. Our distribution companies clearly have little sense of British culture: Dickens may not be the celebrity focus he was in his own lifetime, but following on from his bi-centenary he remains a popular figure and writer.
The film’s title refers to the hidden nature of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly: hidden from the prurient gaze of the dominant Victorian public discourse. The film has been adapted from the book by Abi Morgan and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It has the expected graces of a British period film: beautifully composed and authentic looking production design and a sterling cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Ternan matriarch and Tom Hollander as a delightful scapegrace Willkie Collins. The plotting however is less conventional. The presentation is elliptical, not just in the use of flashbacks but also in the ellipses from the description of the affairs development. I did wonder if the limitations of a commercial running time, 111 minutes, had not had an effect. There were several missing emotional developments, including aspects of how Dickens bought his passion to fruition. This fits with the sense of the title, the woman hidden from view: but I was aware of these lacunae whilst watching the film.
It is Nelly’s viewpoint that pre-dominates as she provides the main narrative voice. There are however sequences which she will not have seen. One is when Dickens has the connecting door between the rooms of himself and his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon, another fine performance) boarded up. One imagines that Dickens never told Nelly of this incident.
The absences in the film are not just down to discretion. We see sex scenes between Dickens and Nelly and also between Nelly and her later husband, George Wharton (Tom Burke). These throw an interesting and unexpected light on sexuality in the Victorian era.
Claire Tomalin has an excellent piece in The Guardian Review (01-02-2014). She describes how she persuaded Ralph Fiennes not only to direct but also to take the part of Dickens in the film – clearly she is a fine judge of actor and character. She also comments on some differences between her study and the film. These have affected the ending of them film, making it less downbeat. However, it also has the effect of making Nelly a less interesting and less complex character.
This is an excellent production and deserves better than the ‘limited release’ accorded it.
SoulBoy is a small gem of a movie. It’s a flawed gem because the opening is clunky but then the narrative gathers speed and with Martin Compston’s assured central performance it makes its way to an admittedly predictable resolution – but then this is basically a sweet little love story with an interesting background in one of the UK’s great subcultures.
The Potteries in 1974. Joe (Compston) is in a rut with a boring job as an assistant deliveryman and no luck on Saturday night in the Purple Onion, his locality’s excuse for a nightspot where his dancing fails to impress the girls. Spotting the glamorous Jane (Nichola Burley) in the street he tracks her down to her job in a hairdressers and asks for a cut. He gets a rather surprising cut and learns about a new dance culture in Wigan, ‘Northern Soul’. When he takes the coach to Wigan, Joe discovers that he has been missing out when he meets an ex-classmate and his younger sister Mandy (Felicity Jones). From here Joe will pursue Jane and be taught how to dance by Mandy while at the same time trying to avoid being dragged into trouble by his best mate (Alfie Alan) and avoiding Jane’s ‘protector’ and dancefloor dictator (Craig Parkinson). You can probably work out the rest from there.
There are many good things about this production – and a couple of problems. One of the plus points is the setting in Stoke-on-Trent. For readers outside the UK, Stoke is probably best known as the home of English chinaware and the film includes shots of decaying factories. Stoke is symbolic in many ways of an industrial area that has been ‘left behind’ and forgotten even when the larger industrial cities have been ‘regenerated’. (Stoke is midway between Birmingham and Manchester.) In the 1970s, social change seemed to reach such areas rather later so the emergence of Northern Soul was significant. The new dance craze started in Manchester at The Twisted Wheel and came to full prominence at the Wigan Casino with Blackpool Mecca and the Golden Torch in Stoke as other major venues.
Northern Soul is a popular dance culture which in its heyday attracted young working-class dancers in the North of England to all-night sessions dancing to relatively obscure American soul records from the hinterland of African-American music in the post-Tamla era. The soulboys and girls were often mods and brought with them and interest in fashion and pills rather than alcohol and in many ways introduced aspects of the club culture and rave scene that emerged later in the 1990s. Although all the original venues are long gone, Northern Soul lives on attracting new young fans and a hardcore of those who have been dancing for more than thirty years.
The film certainly attempts to capture the authenticity of the Northern Soul scene and the official website includes plenty of background material and information about the soundtrack and current live events around the UK. There are some interviews tacked onto the credits that feature original soulboys and girls from the 1970s who attest to the authenticity of the film and the popularity of the scene and the website material suggests that the producers tried hard to do justice to the scene. The dancehall location is in fact the current Stoke hall that hosts Northern Soul nights, but I suspect that it is smaller than the Wigan Casino. The film is a low budget independent and there isn’t really the camerawork and setting to do justice to the dancing. The director Shimmy Marcus has a track record in Irish independent cinema, including music documentary and comedy drama, but the writer Jeff Williams has no other credits on IMDB.
I feel that the love story is what works best in the film, not least because of Jones and Compston (I thought the whole cast was strong). The music was great and I thought the film introduced the Northern Soul phenomenon sympathetically without really convincing someone who didn’t know about it already. The worst aspects of the film were the Stoke-on-Trent tourist clip at the beginning – copy of the Full Monty opening and then the broadish comedy/crime stuff on the near-deserted streets of Staffordshire towns. I had terrible flashes of those 1970s British soft porn films like Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate (1978). Thankfully it soon settled down into something more interesting.
Here’s the official trailer (note that it says ‘Northern England’ – not sure how that will go down in the Potteries):
Isn’t the original version of ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones just wonderful?
There is a range of material on the film and its production on YouTube but here’s one of the many YouTube vids of the real thing (and another terrific track):
The film is being released in a very carefully selected pattern of specialised cinemas by Soda Pictures. It’s not the way to draw in the multiplex audience, but perhaps on reflection they are right. I suspect that the film will be most enjoyed as a nostalgic treat in which case its biggest sales will be on DVD.
– Now where’s that copy of Len Barry’s 1-2-3 that we danced to at Blackpool Mecca in 1965?
There’s always a difficulty for funny people when they go serious. Gervais and Merchant are funny men but here they attempt a serious ‘coming of age’ story set in Reading, 1973. Their core audience are going to want what they usually do; they, presumably, want to try something different. Laudably the trailer emphasises the lads’ narrative and Gervais as a cameo (though why does it have to have the dreadful American voiceover for what is, in essence, a British film?). What we get is an at times strange mixture of tones with Gervais, playing the protagonist’s dad, doing his usual (very funny) routine but most of the rest of the film has a sober tone leavened by comic moments (including a great performance of Slade’s Come On Feel the Noize). Stephen Merchant also appears, in two roles, but his scenes as the café manager come across as unnecessarily crass.
The focus is on three friends whose ways are about to diverge. Freddie takes a job as an insurance salesmen leaving his mate Bruce in the factory; he sees this as a way of bettering himself by getting a bourgeois lifestyle. The film portrays both options as a dead-end for the characters: in 1973 manufacturing industry was only a few years away from being decimated by the Thatcher Conservative government and we know now what financial services would do to the economy.
The British New Wave films of the late 1950s-early ’60s loom large, particularly Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) for Bruce’s factory fodder character. In the earlier film Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton says ‘I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda!’ a credo that Bruce lives to. The mind numbing factory work is concisely presented by several scenes where we simply see Bruce turn the machine off at clocking-off time until , apparently decisively, Freddie switches it off for him toward the end. Overall the direction is very good, unlike The Invention of Lies (US, 2009) that Gervais also co-directed. There’s an effective use of the widescreen, particularly in one scene when Bruce talks to his dad; and the lighting’s expressively used too, particularly when Freddie makes a decision about his future.
The performances are great throughout, and although Emily Watson only has a small role – as the neglected wife – she brings pathos to it. Unfortunately for the character she’s married to one of Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant slimeballs. Also great is the music, not only redolent of the era but fitting very well into the drama. Both the casual racism and sexism of the time is shown to be crucial to the understanding of the era. I don’t know why Gervais and Merchant chose 1973; Gervais would have been 12 and Merchant in his mother’s stomach. The ‘coming of age’ film is often autobiographical but whilst Gervais no doubts remembers the time well, he’s far too young for the characters.
Not that that matters, this is a superbly realised, unusual mix of a film that has a satisfying emotional arc; it deserves to do well.