The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.
The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.
The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun, smaller cruisers and destroyers and outun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships. Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.
I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.
Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.
It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.
The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.
I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.
I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:
This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.
With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.
After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)
The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.
First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.
Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.
I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!
This last week has given us two unusual titles broadcast by the ever-intriguing Talking Pictures TV – a rare Ida Lupino film from the Filmakers (more on that later) and this co-production monster. Is Paris Burning? is exactly the kind of production that interests us on this blog. It’s a mammoth production which attempts to represent the successful attempt by the Allies and the French résistance forces to take back control of Paris in 1944 before the city could be literally rased to the ground as Hitler demanded. The title refers to the desperate demand by Hitler at the moment of German capitulation. Many reviews and commentaries compare the film to the similarly large-scale production of The Longest Day in 1960. This is understandable but there also some important differences between the two. I would also bracket Is Paris Burning? with The Victors (UK-US 1963), Carl Foreman’s excellent film about American GIs in the European campaign.
It might be helpful to begin with the details of the broadcast print. Since Talking Pictures TV has ad breaks I can’t be sure of the length of the film but I think it conforms to the usual stated length of 175 minutes. It appears to be the American print as distributed by Paramount. The film is dubbed into English and was broadcast in a ratio close to the intended 2.35:1. IMDb tells me there was also a 70mm print blown-up from the 35mm original and projected in 2.20:1 and that might be the TV ratio as well? The film was shot in Black and White but the final shot of the city and the closing credit sequence appears in colour and was framed in a slightly narrower ratio within the widescreen Black and White frame.
The film is directed by René Clément and written by a host of writers adapting and presumably adding to material adapted from a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The lead writers, credited with the screenplay, appear to be Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. As far as I can make out, this is essentially a French production with American funding, which offers a host of American stars in return for control over the script. The 1960s was a major period of ‘international productions’, often by American independent producers persuading Hollywood studios to finance films made in Italy or France or Spain. These were the so-called ‘runaway productions’. Hollywood studios also poured funding into the British film in the 1960s. At the same time, various producers in Europe attempted to mount big budget genre pictures in various European locations. These would often have international casts and many would be made in English or dubbed into English and other languages. It’s worth remembering that the Italian, French and West German film markets were still maintaining admissions in the 1960s in contrast to the big declines in the UK and US. Many of these films were criticised, partly because the language and cultural differences between crews, actors and producers caused problems and sometimes muddled and incoherent film narratives. Is Paris Burning? seems to have suffered from this incoherence problem.
The situation in France in August 1944 was complicated following the D-Day landings in June. The British and Canadians were moving through Northern France with the intention of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. The Americans were further south but were focused on reaching the Rhine rather than attacking German defences around Paris. A joint American and French campaign launched earlier in August from landings in the South of France made rapid progress northwards and this prompted the resistance groups in Paris to consider mobilisation. (The campaign in the south involved the French ‘Army of Africa’ as detailed in the film Indigènes (Algeria-France 2006)). The German occupation of Paris was always seen as important in ideological terms. Hitler seemingly enjoyed the humiliation heaped on France and the French in turn reacted to that. I don’t think Paris was bombed by the Allies (unlike many strategic French targets). I know that the RAF flew several low-level morale-boosting sorties over Paris for propaganda purposes without attacking targets. De Gaulle was insistent that Paris was to be ‘liberated’ by Free French forces.
IMDb carries an interesting range of ‘User comments’ on the film which range from the ecstatic to the woeful in terms of their appreciation, arguably with more towards the lower end of the scale. Most of the comments appear to be by Americans (as most comments are on the site) but the most perceptive are from Americans who have lived in France and know Paris and the history. The underlying issue here is the delicacy of the historical record of the Liberation of Paris and in particular the control over shooting on the streets of the city as demanded by Charles de Gaulle. Various sources suggest that this meant the film couldn’t be in colour because the Nazi flags on Parisian buildings were not allowed to be shown. The monochrome representation was deemed acceptable. The attraction of co-productions is often seen to be the guarantee that the film will be widely screened in both countries but in this case that also became a major problem. American audiences perhaps felt that the American contribution was being diminished in what finally appeared in the film. In France the film was much more successful.
René Clément had a big success in 1946 with La battaile du rail. That film had used a neo-realist approach to present the sabotage organised by large numbers of railway workers and the big plus for me in Is Paris Burning? is the coverage of the large number of resistance fighters in the initial struggle to take over the Prefecture of Police. As far as I could follow the plot (and the accepted history) of the struggle to liberate Paris, there were many different resistance groups. I think there is a communist group as well as the FFI (‘French Forces of the Interior’), the main organised force primed to ‘rise up’ in Paris occupying key buildings (and conveniently wearing FFI armbands in the film). Eventually these groups would be merged with the Free French units equipped by the British and Americans and part of the Allied invasion forces. The Free French units were de Gaulle’s forces and in the film the Gaullist politicians represented by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris are trying to follow orders from London and control events on the ground. My problem in identifying who is who is partly because of Clément’s use of Long Shot compositions, which often means large groups of characters together, and partly the dubbing. The dubbing is heavily criticised by many viewers but I found it was generally pretty good – ironically the Long Shot compositions meant we don’t see so many close-ups and problems of lip-synching but all the same I did fail to recognise some of the well-known French actors I certainly should have recognised.
This is a film of too many cameo performances, especially the American stars who may only appear for a couple of lines. There is a feeling that some of these cameos have required a separate bit of ‘business’ for their moments on screen. Yves Montand has a couple of moments in a tank that work in script terms but don’t need his star presence – as is the case for Simone Signoret’s moment behind the bar in a café. Only Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe have the kind of roles which might be developed in a conventional drama. Pierre Vanek as Major Gallois also features across a lengthy sequence as the envoy sent out from the city to the front line of the American advance in order to contact the American and Free French High Command in the hope of diverting some forces towards Paris.
Overall, I would say the first half of the film works best, leading up to the occupation of the Prefecture of Police and its defence against German forces. I love the fact that the prefecture has a large wine cellar and that the FFI have planned to empty the wine and make Molotov cocktails. I didn’t enjoy the the arrival of Allied troops as much but there is still the emotional rush of a population liberated. There is greater use of archive footage at various points, including images of de Gaulle arriving. Unfortunately much of the archive footage is squashed and I’m surprised more care was not taken. All in all, though, this film is certainly worth watching even at over three hours with the ads. That’s an afternoon out of lockdown!
The film has its second showing on Talking Pictures TV tomorrow (Friday 6 November) at 14.40 in the UK.
This debut feature shot in just 20 days on the coast of Connemara (the seaboard of present day Co. Galway) tells the story of one small community at the time of potato blight and famine in 1845. It’s a narrative that focuses on a personal story of survival within the context of the wider story of English indifference to Irish suffering. The inciting incident is the arrival in a small fishing community of an Irishman, Patsy (Dara Devaney) who has served with the British armed forces. He is most likely a deserter and he has strong anti-British feelings. A fisherman Colmán Sharkey is persuaded to put him up for a few nights. The potato blight is coming soon and Colmán can smell it on the wind. At the same time, the local English landlord has raised the rents on the smallholdings. Colmán decides to try to persuade the landlord to delay the rent rise for the whole community but foolishly perhaps he allows Patsy to join his delegation. What happens next will drive Colmán into hiding during the terrible impact of the famine. Colmán represent a man at peace with the world in before the blight arrives. He’s an intelligent man with extensive local knowledge of his environment and an uneasy but stable relationship with his landlord. But his world is going to be turned upside down.
The central section of the film focuses on Colmán’s almost impossible struggle for survival as most of his friends and family succumb to starvation and disease. His salvation comes partly from his chance encounter with a sick young girl Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn) who he is able to save and who will help him remain sane. In the final sequences, the past will ‘return’ and Colmán will find some form of closure. I’m outlining the narrative in this way to demonstrate that this is not a full scale story of the famine, or of English persecution of the Irish and the resulting migrations from the West of Ireland. It’s much more one man’s story. We were lucky in Glasgow to have the lead actor Dónall Ó Héalai present for a Q&A. This was the second screening of the film at GFF, the first being the UK premiere. Dónall proved an engaging guest and spoke about the intense preparation for the shoot, including the ‘controlled’ starvation dieting and the skills needed for the water-based sequences. I found these an interesting aspect of the story. In discussion, Colman explains to the English landlord that many families gave up their fishing traditions because growing potatoes was easier. Colman’s use of his own boat takes him outside of the economic trap that catches his neighbours. Those who survive also need to know the old ways of using local resources like the kelp on the rocky shore as well as the shellfish.
The film is the début effort of writer-director Thomas Sullivan. It features stunning cinematography by Kate McCullough in CinemaScope ratio and her long experience of documentary is evident in presenting Colmán’s life in hiding and at sea. Music by Kila and editing by Mary Crumlish add to the presentation of the local environment. Many of the cast, including Dónall Ó Héalai, are locals. This part of Connemara is an important region in the Gaeltacht and the film uses Gaelic throughout apart from the confrontations with the English and their agents. At just 86 minutes the film offers a thrilling and hard-hitting experience illuminating one aspect of the colonial suppression of the Irish. I was reminded of a similar representation of British exploitation of colonised people some thirty years earlier in The Nightingale (Australia 2018) which featured the experience of an Irish woman at the hands of British soldiers as well as the murder of indigenous peoples.
The rights for distribution of Arracht are held by Break Out Pictures for Ireland and the UK. The Irish release date is April 3rd. In the UK, the company is listed as ‘Break Thru Pictures’ and the film is listed for the same opening date but no details of how many screens or locations are on the release schedule as yet. There is also an ‘international title’ of ‘Monster’ which may be used in other territories. That is an ambiguous title that could refer to Patsy Kelly or to the famine or the British colonialists. I was very impressed by Arracht and I hope it finds its audience in both Ireland and the UK. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been very good but the rather dismissive view in Sight and Sound seems to me to miss the point of the film, comparing it to Black ’47 (Ireland 2018) and complaining that it has “no similar wit or ideas”. I was unable to catch Black ’47 in the cinema but will look out for as it is set in the same region during the famine. It seems to be a ‘larger’ film with a starry cast and more of an action narrative. I think there is room for many more stories from the 1840s, especially in post-Brexit UK obsessed by an imaginary past. The Glasgow audience clearly enjoyed the film.
This is the third female-led major release of early 2019 in the UK and for me it is the most interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed Colette but was underwhelmed by The Favourite (although I recognise the three outstanding performances by the female leads and Sandy Powell’s costumes). But Saoirse Ronan as Mary tops all the others. Margot Robbie is also very good and we are blessed with such an array of powerful female stars in contemporary cinema. At one point in Mary Queen of Scots, Ms Ronan managed to invoke both Deborah Kerr and Maureen O’Hara as an auburn-haired Scots-Irish woman and I can’t think of a better recommendation.
It may be because I have only the faintest remembrance of the Mary story from the history books of my childhood that I found this the most engaging of the three narratives about female figures in specific historical contexts. Perhaps right now it is because it speaks to my desperation in Brexit England and a strong feeling that I would rather be in Ireland or Scotland. Mary’s story is about both the Catholic-Protestant struggle in the British Isles and the ‘Auld Alliance’ between France and Scotland, two countries concerned by the nascent imperialist visions of England (though the French angle is dropped too early I think). All of this comes down to the confrontation between the cousins Mary and Elizabeth and the former’s belief that she has the prior claim to be queen in both Scotland and England. It is a story that has been told many times, sometimes by unlikely story-tellers. I’ve tried in the past to watch John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936) with Katharine Hepburn as Mary. Ford’s Irish Catholicism naturally backs Mary and by all accounts he was entranced by Hepburn who was well able to spar with him. I’d like to see that again now. There have since been many TV offerings of Mary’s story and at least three more feature films before the current release. In 1940 the biggest star in Nazi cinema, Zarah Leander, played Mary in a German film. In 1971 Vanessa Redgrave was Mary opposite Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in Charles Jarrot’s film Mary, Queen of Scots and in 2013 Camille Rutherford appeared as Mary in a French-Swiss version of the story.
It’s not difficult to see the attraction of the story of an intelligent and passionate woman who finds herself Queen in such difficult circumstances- and sometimes makes unwise decisions. Mary attracts the more romantically-inclined narratives while Elizabeth has often become the focus for the stories of adventure and strength in building up English naval and mercantilist power (though famously also the romantic adventures of Elizabeth and Essex (US 1939)). The two Elizabeth films starring Cate Blanchett in 1998 and 2007 portray Elizabeth in terms of creating the myths of British power. The script for the new film by the American writer Beau Gallimon is based on John Guy’s prizewinning biography My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots published in 2004. Guy is a highly-respected historian but this was a book which attempted to dismantle the mythology surrounding Mary and it had its critics. I’m not sure how closely Gallimon sticks to Guy’s ideas, but the film has also been criticised. I’m sure that there are the usual condensings of characters and time-lines but at heart the film tries to stick to historical events apart from its fictional meeting between Elizabeth and Mary.
I think there are several interesting elements in this production. I was struck by the use of landscape. Scotland and the North of England are characterised by sweeping long shots of mountains and glens through which Mary and her entourage travel. (See Scottish locations used here.) By contrast, Elizabeth is seen only in her palace in London. John Mathieson as cinematographer has long experience of productions like this, working on Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood for Ridley Scott among several other similar titles. Director Josie Rourke making her first film is a celebrated stage director and I was interested in the settings for Mary’s Holyrood court which seemed to me more intriguing than the stiffness and formality of Elizabeth’s English court. I suspect that Alexandra Byrne’s costumes also work to distinguish the two court settings. Again I felt drawn to the Scots locations rather than Elizabeth’s. The distinction also arises in relation to the question of casting. Several prominent Scots actors are depicted in Holyrood with Martin Compston as Bothwell, James McCardle as Moray, Jack Lowden as Darnley and David Tennant almost unrecognisable as John Knox. Researching this I discovered that the distinction carries through to the more controversial aspect of the casting. At last we have a British film with a significant number of BAME actors in a major historical drama. Some of these are prominent roles such as Adrian Lester as Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Scotland and Gemma Chan as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Others are in smaller roles and here I found the Scottish-Asian actor Kal Sabir. This approach has sadly produced an array of ‘outraged’ IMDb User Comments. Some of these are clearly racist but others suggest a lack of knowledge of British history. There have been ‘people of colour’ living in the UK since at least Roman times. But anyway it doesn’t really matter whether the casting is historically accurate. It’s no longer an issue for someone like Adrian Lester to play classical (e.g. Shakespearean) roles on stage so why should it matter on screen?
But how has this film gone down in Scotland you might ask? I’m not sure, but checking out the reviews in The Scotsman and the Herald, I found the first lukewarm but the second complimentary and I came across at least one piece wondering why an Irish woman was playing Mary. More intriguing as I thumbed through several reviews was that most of the negative reviews came from men and most of the positive ones came from women. Has Josie Rourke managed to make a film in which women (not just a solitary woman) have significant roles in the history of the British Isles? I’d say yes. I’m hesitant in arguing that Rourke shows aspects of the two monarchs from a clearly female perspective, but it is certainly true that I thought quite a lot about what being a female monarch in the 16th century actually meant and how child-bearing and questions of fertility were so important in the legal/constitutional wrangles over claims to the thrones of England and Scotland during this period. I’ve been a fervent anti-monarchist for as long as I can remember, but thanks to Saoirse Ronan and Josie Rourke this production made me feel for Mary’s predicament.
The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?
I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.
The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.
The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.
I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.
The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?
Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).
The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.
Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.