Tagged: historical drama

Viceroy’s House (UK-US-India-Sweden 2017)

The four figures in the centre are Fatima Jinnah (Jinnah’s sister – actor unknown), Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), the Viceroy (Hugh Bonneville) and the Vicereine (Gillian Anderson)

Gurinder Chadha is a distinctive director. Ever since her first short, but important, first film I’m British, But . . . (1990), she has sought to make films that draw on her personal experience but which also reach out to audiences using music and strong emotions. From 2000’s What’s Cooking she has written scripts with her partner Paul Mayeda Berges and an American sense of the popular ‘feelgood’ formula has been melded with Chadha’s own sense of joyfulness. Perhaps as a result, her films have tended to fare better with broad public audiences than with critics. Nevertheless, her importance within British Cinema has been recognised. Viceroy’s House has been a long time in the making and it feels like the most personal of Chadha’s films. In the final credits, amongst all the archive photographs and newsreel footage of both the carnage and the celebrations that followed the partition of British India and the emergence of two new independent states, she tells the story of a woman who fled the Punjab. As the caption reads, that woman was the director’s grandmother.

There have been many films that have tried to deal with Partition and its aftermath. Gurinder Chadha is not alone in being a diaspora director ‘returning’ to the sub-continent to make a partition film using funding and infrastructure from Europe and North America. Other examples include Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) and Vic Sarin’s Partition (2007). There are many ‘popular’ Indian films that include stories about partition and its aftermath, but some of the best are examples of art cinema or parallel cinema, such as Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of films about the aftermath of partition in Bengal, Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) or a film like Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1973) by M.S. Sathyu. In this context, Gurinder Chadha’s film needs to be seen as an attempt to introduce an outline history of the process of Partition and British withdrawal to a broad audience. She explains all of this in an interview in the Observer (and see below for a video presentation of her motivations). The angry denouncements of Viceroy’s House by writers such as Fatima Bhutto in the Guardian seem to rather miss the point.

Chadha has based her film on a range of published histories and has used a romance between two Punjabis, a Hindu young man and a Muslim young woman, to provide an emotional charge that takes us into the ‘personal stories’. This romance is part of what she herself has referred to as a ‘below the stairs’ narrative to compare with the story of diplomatic negotiation hurriedly conducted by the ‘last Viceroy’, Louis Mountbatten, and Indian political leaders. Chadha also includes the activities of Lady Mountbatten, although not the rumoured flirtation with Nehru. In the space of only 106 minutes, Viceroy’s House tries to be both epic and personal. Inevitably, the historical detail is limited, but it serves as an introduction and as far as I can see it is fairly accurate. I was surprised to hear on the BBC’s Film Programme that the host Charlie Brooker didn’t know the history and found the politics interesting but as he put it, “heavy lifting”. So, perhaps Gurinder Chadha was wise to try to sugar the pill of a history that should be taught in schools (i.e. the history of the British Empire).

Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) as the lovers

The ‘below the stairs’ reference is to the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) that Chadha must have watched as a child (she was born in 1960). A re-boot of the series was attempted in 2010 which ran for two seasons. Inevitably, however, for many reviewers the reference point has been Downton Abbey (2010-15), especially with the portrayal of Louis Mountbatten by Hugh Bonneville, one of the stars of Downton as the Earl. My feeling is that Bonneville is miscast as the Viceroy. Although he is closer in age to the historical Viceroy than James Fox in Jinnah (1998), he feels rather ‘chummy’ and not like a successful military commander and second cousin of the King Emperor. From her various statements, it seems clear that Gurinder Chadha is much more familiar with the British ‘heritage’ films and TV programmes about the Raj than with the many Indian and diasporic films about the end of the Raj and its aftermath. However, the romance she conjures up does figure in some of those Indian films and I felt a sudden recognition in the closing scenes when the Hindu boy seeks and finds his Muslim girlfriend (e.g. in Train to Pakistan and in Earth, where the religious mix is reversed). I was suddenly reminded of scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) in which a young Muslim-Hindu couple are caught up in communal riots in Mumbai. Both films are scored by A. R. Rahman. I found the score for Viceroy’s House to be conventional and almost lost in the presentation for much of the film, but it worked in those closing scenes. I’m aware that for some UK audiences, the romance seems ‘tagged on’ and unnecessary – but it is central to Chadha’s strategy. She wants audiences to both understand the complexity of the political negotiations and to feel the emotional torment on a personal level. I think she gets close to doing that. I’m not convinced though by the romance. The two actors don’t seem well-matched. I know Huma Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, but I didn’t recognise the actor playing Jeet Kumar. It was only later that I discovered that Manish Dyal is an American actor. Gurinder Chadha appears to be concerned to use British or American South Asians or Indians who are used to working in ‘international productions’ rather than actors working in Indian film industries. I wonder if this will be a barrier to acceptance by Indian audiences? (There is, however, a brief appearance from Om Puri, who died recently, far too young, and who will be sorely missed.)

Mountbatten with his valets. Is Hugh Bonneville too associated with ‘Downton Abbey’ to be credible?

Having discussed the film with friends, I think there is a consensus that although the mis-castings are a barrier and the romance could have been better handled, overall the film has attracted a popular audience and it does deliver that basic history lesson. The trailer perhaps inadvertently provides the key to the problems Gurinder Chadha faced. She has explained how difficult it is to sell a story like this to funders for mainstream films and I’m assuming that the UK trailer is the price you have to pay to satisfy a conservative distribution/exhibition environment. Several people have told me that the trailer put them off seeing the film or that it nearly stopped them (and they said that would have been a shame).

The film has received quite a lot of coverage in the UK media, with Gurinder Chadha responding. Yesterday, when I thought all had quietened down, another over-the-top piece was published in the Guardian by Ian Jack. I was particularly disappointed to read this as I usually enjoy Ian Jack’s writing. He is an ‘old India hand’ and therefore perhaps emotionally involved, but he claims the film as ‘fake history’ and detects that Chadha and her fellow writers, her husband and the British playwright and scriptwriter Moira Buffini, have been too reliant on a 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. The two central findings of this book that Jack finds objectionable/not proven/not credible are 1) that the British government’s long-term policy was to support a separate Pakistan as an ally against Soviet influence in South Asia and that 2) that this was Churchill’s policy formulated before he lost power in 1945 and introduced secretly into the 1947 negotiations by Lord Ismay, Churchill’s wartime military assistant after 1940. By 1947 he’d become Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff. The point about British policy seems to me to be not really an issue. After 1947 Pakistan became a Western ally, India became a non-aligned nation with ‘normal’ relations with the Soviet Union. Ismay and Churchill’s role in all this (in the film, it is a document supposedly drawn up for Churchill that provides the basis for the Partition boundaries in Punjab) is obviously more debatable. But then, as most historians would agree, Churchill’s racist comments about India and Indians as well as his extreme anti-communism were well-known and it certainly seems plausible that his influence may have been felt on men pressurised to make decisions in July/August 1947. Ian Jack attempts to discredit Sarila by quoting various British historian’s reviews of the book. I haven’t read either Sarila’s book or the full reviews Jack mentions (I have read other quite favourable reviews, but possibly by less distinguished reviewers) so I’m not going to comment further. I only wish to point out that where anyone stands in these debates about Partition depends to a certain extent on where their broader sympathies lie with Indian, Pakistani or British positions. Again I don’t favour one over another, but I do feel for Gurinder Chadha in her attempt to view her personal story in the context of all of these political machinations.

On one score, Ian Jack is certainly on shaky ground. He asserts: “The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office”. In fact it has had a ‘wide’ UK release and after two weekends (i.e. ten days in cinemas) it has made £2.34 million. Given that the film did quite well in the first week with older audiences, the full two week total might be closer to £2.8 to £3 million which is more than OK for a UK release. I will be intrigued to see how the film does in other territories and especially what happens when it reaches India. Indian media company Reliance is a production partner and should promote the film, but so far there seems to be confusion about when an Indian release might happen. I’ve seen March, June and August mentioned.

In the video clip below, Gurinder Chadha describes the long preparation process for her film which she started mainly because of her experience in travelling back to Kenya and then to her family’s home in Punjab as part of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006. The whole of that episode is online and it’s a fascinating watch. When she reaches Pakistan and finds the family house which was allocated to Muslim refugee families fleeing in the opposite direction to her grandparents in 1947, she knows she must tell the story of Partition.

Barry Lyndon (UK-US 1975)

The opening shot of Barry Lyndon presenting Redmond Barry's father's death in long shot

The opening shot of ‘Barry Lyndon’ presenting Redmond Barry’s father’s death in long shot

The BFI’s release of a 4K restoration print of Barry Lyndon is now doing the rounds of UK specialised screens. After my recent viewing of the new Blu-ray of Novecento/1900, I wondered how Stanley Kubrick would measure up to Bertolucci with a similarly long and meticulously created historical drama. I didn’t see Barry Lyndon on its 1975-6 UK release but I vaguely remember its poor reception by critics and its lack of commercial success (i.e. compared to Clockwork Orange in 1971-2). Since that first release Barry Lyndon‘s stock has risen considerably and now it is taken by some critics to be Kubrick’s masterpiece. Intrigued by this change of heart I went back to the extended review article by Penelope Houston in Sight and Sound, Spring 1976. She sets out what reads now as a calm and measured view on the film and one which seems ‘spot on’ to me. Sight and Sound gave the film a 3 star (out of 4) rating. I also checked Monthly Film Bulletin in which Richard Combs also gives a positive/constructive review, so the critical reception was not all negative. Houston does quote some of the negative comments by UK and US press reviewers and says that she herself was puzzled by the film, but then uses the space available to her (as the editor of Sight and Sound) to produce a more measured response.

Background to the production

Barry Lyndon is argued to be the eventual outcome of Kubrick’s frustrated attempt to make a film set during the Napoleonic Wars. After a lukewarm response from Warner Bros. he turned instead to an early work by Thackeray, first published as a serial in 1844 and later re-issued as a novel. Set in the second half of the 18th century, the story (based on a real biography) involves a young Irish ‘gentleman’ named Redmond Barry with limited prospects who seeks to better himself and who, after adventures in Prussia and across Europe, marries a wealthy widow, Lady Lyndon, with land and a small son (who inherits his birth father’s title). Barry becomes ‘Barry Lyndon’ but ultimately fails to establish himself as a member of the aristocracy and is effectively defeated by his own stepson. The story is in some ways a precursor to Thackeray’s much more well-known Vanity Fair (1847) with Becky Sharp as its protagonist. Kubrick appears to have altered significant aspects of the narrative of Barry Lyndon, including changing the narrator from Barry himself to an unseen ‘omniscient’ narrator voiced by Michael Hordern. The suggestion is that Kubrick loses something of Thackeray’s comedy and changes the nature of his satire. For some audiences this means it is more difficult to understand what it is that Kubrick wants to say about 18th century British life or about the aristocracy of Europe. The two charges against the film are therefore that it is ‘cold’, ‘distant’ and ‘static’ and that Kubrick’s intention is difficult to define.

One of Alcott's interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son's tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

One of Alcott’s interiors lit by candles. Lady Lyndon ( Marisa Berenson) at the card table with her son’s tutor and the family chaplin Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin)

The outcome of the film’s Oscar nominations seems to have been influenced by these charges so that its four Oscar wins were all ‘technical’ – Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Music Scoring. Kubrick himself was nominated in three categories – Best Picture, Direction and Adapted Screenplay – but didn’t win for any of these. I’m not sure about the music (an acknowledged strength of Kubrick’s productions) – it is certainly noticeable and there are some excellent choices but sometimes it seems heavy-handed. The other three awards are richly deserved. Cinematographer John Alcott worked with Kubrick to produce interiors lit only with candles and the long shots of landscapes and several of the interiors evoke the fine art painting of the 18th century masters. It’s hard to deny that the film is wondrous to behold on screen. But what does it all mean?

Analysis

Kubrick followed the (eminently sensible) roadshow convention of inserting an intermission so there is a part 1 of 102 mins and a Part 2 of 82 minutes. Part 1 is the picaresque adventure and Part 2 is the failed attempt to become an aristo. Richard Combs argues that by removing Barry’s ironic narration and presenting the action in such a distanced way Kubrick creates a character who is first passive and then compliant as an agent in the cold, harsh world of 18th century Europe. He sees a connection to Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory and he argues that Ryan O’Neal as Barry is “not perverse casting against type, but essential to the way Kubrick has revised the character of Thackeray’s swashbuckling braggart”. Combs goes on to carefully sketch out how this works. He may well be right but I’m afraid I’m still stuck with O’Neal as miscasting.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry's fall.

One of the beautifully-composed scenes from Part 2 with Barry drunk in his club. The image recalls a Hogarth etching and signals the beginning of Barry’s fall.

Ryan O’Neal was undoubtedly a star in the early 1970s with lead roles in Love Story, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon – films which did very well at the box office, pleased many critics and won awards. In most of these roles O’Neal is the romantic/passive/idealist figure. I certainly see these elements of his star persona in Barry Lyndon but the role also demands cunning/deceit and a form of courage which is less in evidence for me. I’m not suggesting that this is ‘bad acting’ but rather that O’Neal brings ‘star baggage’ that works against the other performances, mostly by British character actors. Leonard Rossiter offers one of his gurning comic turns but generally the rest of the cast fits Combs’ overall description of the world Kubrick creates. I wondered how Barry might have come across played by Malcolm McDowell. I was thinking not only of Clockwork Orange but also of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). Penelope Houston points out that McDowell also appeared as an early 19th century scoundrel/cad in Royal Flash (1975) and argues that he might have portrayed Thackeray’s original Barry – but not Kubrick’s revised version. I think the point here is simply to recognise that in ‘reading’ Kubrick’s film it is too constricting to take it as either an auteurist project or a literary adaptation. The approach to cinematography, set design and costumes places the film in relation to a long history of attempts to represent British landscapes and rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was reminded of Chris Menges’ work on Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) (set in Yorkshire in the 1750s) and in my post on that film I discuss many of the other titles to which Kubrick’s film alludes, if only tangentially, via its concern with landscape and forms of realism.

I’m pleased to have seen Barry Lyndon. I think that what I most enjoyed was the array of British character actors as well as the sheer beauty of the film. I did feel distanced from the narrative but I think with a second viewing I would fully appreciate the Houston/Combs readings and understand Kubrick’s project. But I don’t think I would be moved by it. I’d like now to go back to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), a film I did enjoy at the time despite its generally poor critical reception and indifferent box office. Both Nair and Kubrick represent attempts to use Hollywood money to make ‘international films’ based on British literary texts by the same author. Their very different approaches are worth exploring.

Barry Lyndon new 2016 trailer:

1900 (Novecento, Italy/France/West Germany 1976)

novocentoposter

Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic historical melodrama of family and political ideas has had a difficult time reaching audiences in the form that the director intended. In April 2016 the excellent Masters of Cinema label released a 2 disc Blu-ray package offering the full version in the correct ratio and with supporting materials. Now seems a good time to try to revise ideas about a major film from the 1970s.

Bertolucci moved into production of Novecento (see below on titles) in 1974/5 at a time when his stock was high, especially after the great international commercial success of Last Tango in Paris in 1972. Because of this potential ‘bankability’, producer Alberto Grimaldi was able raise a budget equivalent to $9 million – a very large budget for an Italian film at this time. However, Grimaldi’s deal with Hollywood distributors demanded a film of 195 minutes and the cut that Bertolucci showed at Cannes in 1975 ran to 317 minutes. Forced to cut, Bertolucci managed to come up with a single film lasting 247 minutes with an English dub. This was eventually released in many territories (it reached the UK at the turn of 1977/78). Meanwhile a two-part film comprising all the material was released in Italy, France and other European territories in Italian/French/German dubbed versions in 1976. All Italian films were routinely post-dubbed at this time. Novecento has an international cast but the subtitled version of the Italian dub on the new discs didn’t present me with any problems. IMDB lists the film as 1:1.66, the ratio common in Europe post the adoption of widescreen in the 1950s. The MoC discs offer a 1:1.85 version. I’m guessing that this was a condition of the film’s international release.

Burt Lancaster as the padrone in 1901 (all these screen grabs are from dvdbeaver.com

Burt Lancaster as the padrone in 1901 (all these screen grabs are from dvdbeaver.com)

Sterling Hayden as Olmo's grandfather

Sterling Hayden as Olmo’s grandfather

The Hollywood distributors also seem to have chosen the ‘1900’ title. This is misleading. ‘Novecento’ doesn’t translate directly but Bertolucci’s intention was to suggest the ‘new century’ and its history – the ‘1900s’ perhaps. He thought about a second production (“a third act”) which would follow the story after 1945. He discusses this in an interview on the MoC disc of Part One (the same interview that appeared on a Paramount DVD in 2006). The film narrative begins on the day in 1901 when two male births bring grandsons to the landowner (padrone) of a large estate in Emilia-Romagna and to the patriarch of the large extended family of paesani who live and work on the estate. The padrone is played by Burt Lancaster and the paesano Leo Dalcò by Sterling Hayden. Lancaster reportedly worked for no fee because he liked the script (he was working on Visconti’s Conversation Piece (1974) when Bertolucci approached him – he had played a similar role as an aristocratic landowner in Visconti’s The Leopard in 1963). I think Bertolucci and his scriptwriters introduced the traditional patriarchs and then skipped a generation to introduce two characters who in some way represent the ‘modernity’ of the early 20th century.

A young Gerard Depardieu as Olmo.

A young Gerard Depardieu as Olmo.

Robert De Niro as Alfredo.

Robert De Niro as Alfredo.

Donald Sutherland as Attila.

Donald Sutherland as Attila.

Olmo (‘Elm’) is the paesano as played by Gerard Depardieu. Alfredo is the future padrone played by Robert De Niro. Olmo’s father is ‘unknown’. Alfredo’s father Giovanni is a new style capitalist and a bad father – forcing Alfredo into the company of his uncle Ottavio (who should have inherited the estate but instead has become an aesthete). It is Giovanni who hires the foreman Attila – who later joins the new Fascist Party in the 1920s and becomes the third major figure in the narrative played by Donald Sutherland. Attila appears along with a threshing machine in 1918 just as Olmo returns from the war and begins to move into working for the new communist party of Italy – marking the beginning of the struggle between landowners and agricultural workers. This aspect of the story reminded me of the (slightly earlier) stories featuring agricultural workers in the novels of Thomas Hardy and their filmic adaptations.

Bertolucci in his interview speaks about himself being a ‘country boy’ from Emilia and that this history is essentially about an agricultural community. Certainly the great events of the period are ‘off-screen’ – we only see what happens on the estate and in the neighbouring town (apart from the trip ‘away’ when Alfredo visits Ottavio and meets his future wife Ada (Dominique Sanda)). I enjoyed the whole film but the two aspects I enjoyed most were the presentation of the landscape and the collective actions of the agricultural workers. The film was photographed by Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s regular collaborator. I was surprised to read a comment in Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema 1896-1996 in which the author compares Antonioni’s and Bertolucci’s use of the same landscapes in the Po valley. Sorlin suggests Bertolucci’s rural landscapes (he is referring to 1900 and Before the Revolution) offer “a countryside without workers, a land where crops seemed to grow by themselves”. But this seems to me to be totally inaccurate in relation to Novecento. There are several important scenes related directly to groups of agricultural workers busy in the fields, socialising in the woods and working in the farmyard. The entire last sequence of the film depicts the workers occupying the estate and cornering the fascists alongside the resigned Alfredo as padrone. It is the collectivism of these scenes which stands out – whether it is the women with their giant red flag or the men standing up to the fascists.

Dominque Sanda as Ada

Dominque Sanda as Ada

Stefania Casini as Neve in bed with both Olmo and Alfredo

Stefania Casini as Neve in bed with both Olmo and Alfredo

Stefania Sandrelli as the socialist teacher Anita, who Olmo meets in 1918

Stefania Sandrelli as the socialist teacher Anita, who Olmo meets in 1918

Anita leads the local women in resisting eviction by soldiers

Anita leads the local women in resisting eviction by soldiers

Watching the film more than 40 years after it was shot, it is still a surprise at how sex is represented on screen. So much was cut from the English dub that little was said about the displays of male genitalia which would have been a problem for a full length release in 1976. (There is, however, an unfortunate dialogue about this on the IMDB bulletin board.) The sex scenes seem to me to be open, ‘natural’ and part of the story, but I was shocked by the brutal violence perpetrated by Attila. The main players in the drama – the five international stars pictured above – are all male and the story is about the birth and subsequent lives of two men, but much of the political discourse in the film is presented through the actions of the female characters, especially Olmo’s partner Anita (Stefania Sandrelli), Laura Betti as Regina on the fascist side, and in smaller roles, but equally important, the women of the Dalcò clan led by Maria Monti as Olmo’s mother. Dominique Sanda as Ada, Alfredo’s wife, is the top-billed female star but hers is an important role in the drama of Alfredo’s life away from politics – though it is Alfredo’s failure to act when Olmo is threatened by Attila that causes a rift between the padrone and his wife. Finally, Stefania Casini as a young woman in the town has two important sequences in the narrative – one in a sex scene. Bertolucci was a controversial figure after Last Tango in Paris – especially after the revelations about his treatment of his young star Maria Schneider. Because of that the role of the women and their representations on screen in Novecento might have attracted more attention and perhaps obscured some of the political discourse. It’s interesting to read contemporary reviews.

In Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1978) Jill Forbes finds herself in the odd position of reviewing the English dub of the cut version of the film but also acknowledging that having seen the Italian version she can recognise that most of what she sees as responsible for the failure of the film is not present in the full version. She recognises that Bertolucci is able to combine different elements – conventions from bourgeois literature alongside folktales, farce, Italian comedy etc. – and to place them in context with the gradual unfolding of historical progress in the countryside. Forbes sees exactly the kind of damage Hollywood did to Bertolucci’s great work. In Sight and Sound (Spring 1978) Italian film specialist Geoffrey Nowell-Smith takes a similar line but spends much longer discussing the dub. He makes interesting points about UK vs US vs Italian audiences and I think it is true that for a UK audience subtitling makes a big difference for films which are dubbed automatically in Italian. Certainly I don’t miss the local language inflections when reading the subtitles. Nowell-Smith is less explicit than Forbes about which version he is critiquing, though he seems to share her analysis. He ends by suggesting that “the film’s eccentricity and its incorporation into the staid format of the historical spectacular, proves to be its redemption”.

My feeling is that the film does work – as a saga of two characters and two families – and as a statement about Italian social, economic and political history in one location during the first half of the 20th century. I enjoyed the performances, the cinematography and the music (by Morricone) and I was impressed by the sense of community and collective struggle. I’m also struck by how beautiful and impressive Gerard Depardieu was as a young man.

En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, Den/Czech/Ger/Swe 2012)

Mads Mikkelson as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline (photo by Jiri-Hanzl)

A Royal Affair was a major box-office hit in Denmark in March and has received some rave reviews in the UK and other European territories. It also appears to have done very well in Australia and it will open in North America in November through Magnolia. Perhaps we are seeing the return of costume dramas? The young female lead in this film, Alicia Vikander from Sweden, is next up in the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina. She’s very good and definitely a name to watch.

A Royal Affair is an enjoyable and interesting film for many reasons. In one sense it is a familiar Nordic co-production, a €6 million budget film that easily holds its own against much more expensive British, French or Hollywood productions – demonstrating once again how Lars von Trier’s Zentropa has the capacity to be a major European producer. In the UK, part of the fascination with the film comes from the success of recent Danish and Swedish TV drama series showing on BBC4. The high quality of the performances in the film is enhanced for audiences who can also enjoy spotting familiar faces in the background. What is unfamiliar is the history – I suspect that the intricacies of Scandinavian and German history in the eighteenth century don’t feature strongly in the curriculum in most Anglophone countries. I confess that I had to do some digging to fully appreciate the story which is fairly closely based on the facts of a real ‘royal affair’.

Alicia Vikander plays Caroline Matilda, a member of the British Royal family and younger sister of the Prince of Wales. (Alicia’s father was German of course since the Hanoverian family ascended the British throne in 1701). Her arranged marriage to Christian VII lands her in Copenhagen in 1766 (when the real Caroline was just 15, he was 17) having to learn yet another language (she already spoke three or four). She is beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, but unfortunately Christian is an immature young man who may be mentally ill. Certainly he is unwilling or at least unconcerned about his marriage duties or running his country and Denmark-Norway is a reactionary state governed by a conservative council of ministers. Caroline herself is interested in the Enlightenment and is taken aback when her books are confiscated as ‘unsuitable’. She becomes embroiled, unwittingly at first, in a political narrative in which one group seeks to smuggle Enlightenment ideas into the court, exploiting the weakness of the king, while another, led by the Dowager Queen, seeks to replace the King with his younger step-brother. The agent of the Enlightenment group is Johan Struensee, a German doctor who is appointed as the King’s doctor. He manages to develop a strong bond with the King – and also with the Queen.

Struensee is played by Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the biggest Danish star of the moment. He’s very good of course but perhaps just a little too rugged as a doctor and self-educated scholar. The King is played by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who won the Berlin Film Festival acting prize for his performance – while still at drama school. It is certainly a remarkable performance. The three central characters are ably supported in what is on the one hand a relatively conventional ‘illicit romance’ narrative but on the other a powerful political thriller. The romance works pretty well I think and the costumes are gorgeous – I can imagine that the film will be enjoyed by the audience that sought out The Duchess.

The first few scenes of the film seem to promise a strong visual style but really what follows is fairly conventional and presumably limited by budget considerations. It still looks wonderful, however. More to the point, there is so much crammed in to the 137 minute running time that too extravagant a mise en scène might obscure the plot developments. I confess that my attention did wander in the middle of the film – but only for a moment. The script by director Nikolaj Arcel and his writing partner from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rasmus Heisterberg is based on a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. I think it works very well though I do have a few queries. At one point the King is distracted by being ‘given’ a young African boy, almost as a pet or playmate. He is told that the boy escaped from a Dutch slavetrader’s ship. He is delighted by something so ‘novel’. However, Denmark had its own slave ports in West Africa in the eighteenth century. Is this a deliberate obfuscation? The other odd aspect of the plot is that although we meet Caroline’s mother at the beginning of the film, after that we never hear any more about her family. When Caroline is later in difficulties it seems surprising that she never contacts her brother – who was George III, the British monarch and one of the most powerful people in Europe. History seems to suggest that it was the German connection that was the problem. All the royal families of Northern Europe seem to have been interconnected and family relationships were somewhat fraught.

I surprised myself by feeling quite emotional at the end of the film, partly because of what happens to the characters and partly because of the political outcome – perhaps this is a romantic melodrama/political thriller? On the latter score my feeling was that it is all very well reading Rousseau and Voltaire but as a young Queen it is advisable to watch your back and to read Machiavelli.

The official UK trailer:

Ken Loach: Black Jack (UK/France 1979)

Jack and Tolly look for some evidence. (Image from DVD Beaver)

Black Jack is one of the least known of Ken Loach’s early films, appearing as the only cinema feature between Family Life (1971) and Fatherland (1986). During that long period, when Loach should have been establishing himself as a major international filmmaker, he was confined to television and then in the early 1980s almost kept off screens of any kind (as he would be again in the late 1980s). The television years were by no means wasted as John Hill points out in Sight and Sound, October 2011 and Days of Hope (1975) was, I seem to recall, shown on cinema screens in France.

So how did Black Jack come about and why was it generally forgotten for such a long time, only recently appearing on a BFI DVD? The DVD includes a Loach commentary and he has also spoken about the film in Graham Fuller’s book, Loach on Loach (Faber 1998). He explains that although the second of Kestrel Films’ releases, Family Life, had been a flop in the UK, it had attracted attention in France. Tony Garnett, Loach’s partner in Kestrel Films, thought that with the right property another film release could exploit this French interest. However, the UK film industry in the 1970s was in dire straits and the prospects of finding investors for a feature production were poor. Then Garnett discovered that a ‘children’s film’ stood a chance of attracting public funds via the National Film Finance Corporation. Kestrel Films were then able to embark on an adaptation of a novel by Leon Garfield that Loach knew from his own children’s reading. The story was changed in two crucial ways. First, ‘Jack’ was made into a Frenchman and second the location was shifted from Sussex to North and East Yorkshire. Clearly the casting of Jean Franval was supposed to help the film in France, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence of French money in the production – or whether or not the film played in French cinemas. The film did appear at Cannes where it won the Critics’ Prize and it is listed with various alternative titles suggesting that it went to both North America and across Europe – I suspect that a subtitled version might have worked well.

The story is set in the 18th century, 1750 to be precise. 12 year-old Bartholomew (‘Tolly’) finds himself unwittingly helping a giant Frenchman, ‘Black Jack’, escape the hangman’s noose and is then forced to accompany him in fleeing from York. On the road Jack and Tolly become involved in rescuing a young girl, Belle, who is being sent to an asylum so that her unseemly behaviour will not threaten the marriage arrangements of her elder sister. Eventually, the three companions end up travelling with a fairground troupe with Belle’s fate being fought over by her father, the men who run the asylum and a blackmailer, all determined to get her back.

When the film was released (by a small independent distributor, Enterprise Films) I’m afraid that, despite being a Loach fan, I stupidly dismissed it as a ‘children’s film’. I should have known better. Watching the film now, three points are clear. First, it looks terrific and demonstrates just how well cinematographer Chris Menges’ approach fitted in with Loach and Garnett’s vision. Second, it is clearly part of the overall ‘project’ of Kestrel Films and the broader spread of Loach’s work – and it also relates to other radical attempts to rethink ‘period drama’ during this period of British Cinema. Third, wonderful though it is, it doesn’t quite hold together – or perhaps it just has a couple of problems. But it’s still absolutely worth seeing.

The main problem, as Loach admits, is that there just wasn’t enough money to re-shoot scenes or to spend the necessary time on aspects of post-production. The sound mix is certainly a problem – at least on my old TV – but DVD Beaver (the bible on such matters) says it is OK. Loach tells us that the mix was done one weekend and there really wasn’t enough time. In casting the film, Loach and Garnett relied on the local performers that they had found in South Yorkshire around the time of Kes and who were subsequently used on other Barry Hines scripted projects. Some critics have objected to the ‘modern’ working-class accents of South Yorkshire being used by characters from rural North and East Yorkshire in the 18th century, but the accents worked for me – I simply couldn’t hear them well enough in the mix.

It is the hesitant speech of what I take to be mostly non-actors which coupled with Menges camerawork (using natural light, I think) that gives the film is naturalistic qualities. The interiors were shot on 35mm and the exteriors on 16mm and this works well. As with Kes, Menges brings to the image something that is simultaneously ‘realist’ but also ‘magical’ and perhaps ‘romantic’. Certainly it feels different compared to the more observational, but ‘immediate’, style of Barry Ackroyd seen in most of Loach’s later films in the 1990s and 2000s. I was pleased to go back and discover a paper I’d forgotten about by Deborah Knight entitled ‘Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method’ (part of the collection edited by George McKnight, Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books 1997). Knight tries to rescue Loach from the critical attacks from both right and left. The attacks from the right are not surprising and shouldn’t really trouble us, but Loach certainly deserves to be defended from Colin McCabe and those Screen theorists who held to the notion of the ‘classical realist text’ and how it is inevitably a bourgeois form. This isn’t the place to discuss that debate in detail but it’s interesting that Knight traces the development of naturalism back to the novels of Emile Zola with their direct exposition of social ills in the industrial regions of North East France and how they influenced British novelists like Arnold Bennett and George Meredith. She then traces the influences through to the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ of 1950s writing in Britain and the New Wave films of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. Loach, she argues is in this tradition. What McCabe sees as a weakness – the the influence of the realist literature of the late 19th century – she sees as a strength and she argues that it is one of three distinctive features of British ‘naturalist’ drama. It’s partly that the realist novels discussed contemporary social issues, but also that they focused on working-class and lower middle-class characters – ordinary people living through social changes. Secondly she picks out the emphasis on dialogue in British Cinema, partly influenced by the theatrical tradition, but also by the celebration of regional voices through various forms of popular entertainment. And finally she emphasise the importance of location shooting. This latter has always struck me as related to a general enthusiasm for documentary in the UK since the 1930s.

The attempt to offer a more socially-committed historical drama ties Black Jack to films like Comrades (dir. Bill Douglas 1986) and Culloden (dir. Peter Watkins, 1964). In terms of literary adaptation it follow Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) and precedes Michael Winterbottom’s radical take on Jude (1996). In terms of British genre cinema it has links to Witchfinder General (dir Michael Reeves, 1968) and Rob Roy (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 1995). All of these films, set at different times from the 17th to the 19th century, represent the rural regions of Britain in interesting ways and to some extent offer the possibilities of the picaresque and action-adventure found in American genres like the Western. Black Jack stands out because, despite the title, it has a pair of twelve-year-olds at its centre. Whether this makes it a ‘children’s film’ I’m not sure. I think that contemporary audiences of children would need some support in engaging with the story, which is very loosely structured, but the younger characters are both entertaining and affecting. The social commitment in the film resides in its drive to expose the conditions of the asylum and its central role for the ‘marginalised’ in society, e.g. the travelling fairground people. ‘Authenticity’ is always a tricky issue with historical films, especially those that suggest a form of realism. Black Jack features a pair of highly literate young apprentices (with no suggestion where they may have learned to write quite sophisticated letters, although Tolly does have an uncle who captains a ship). It’s the relatively large sums of money that are quoted that struck me as odd but perhaps this is intended to make it easier for audiences without the historical knowledge to follow the plot points easily.

Overall, Black Jack is well worth exploring. It’s perhaps surprising that Loach has not made other films set in the 18th or 19th centuries – periods of enormous social change and various forms of radical politics. He has made 20th century historical dramas of course, not least The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and we’ll try and look at some more of these in due course.