The 4K digital restoration of John Schlesinger’s 1967 version of Thomas Hardy’s most popular novel has been in selected UK cinemas over the last few weeks leading up to the release of the new Thomas Vinterberg version on May 1st. I managed to catch the restoration at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House. I remembered only a couple of scenes from a first viewing a long time ago and I enjoyed every minute of the restoration (there are 168 minutes in all but it felt like 90 – I know many think the opposite).
This film provides another of those examples of storytelling that divide some critics from some audiences. I can’t understand some of the negative comments made on the film’s initial release. For me there are five reasons why the film works so well. First is Hardy’s story. OK, it doesn’t have the depth of Tess or Jude the Obscure but there are enough eventful sequences threaded through the everyday depiction of life for rural communities in 1860s ‘Wessex’ to drive the narrative towards its expected conclusion. If you don’t know the story, Julie Christie is Bathsheba Everdene the young woman who inherits her uncle’s extensive farm and who is wooed in turn by shepherd Gabriel Oak, gentleman farmer Boldwood and dashing Sergeant Troy (the cad!). Second is the representation of the English landscapes of Dorset and Wiltshire and the set pieces of an outdoor communal meal, the wedding night drinking and the travelling circus among others. Allied to this is the cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and the equally fine production and costume design, the film and sound editing and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score. Third is the starpower of the four leads. In 1967 Julie Christie was at the height of her fame after Darling (1965) for which she had won an Oscar and Doctor Zhivago (1965) – although she had also asserted her interest in less mainstream work such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) for François Truffaut (with Nic Roeg on camera). Peter Finch as Boldwood had been a stalwart of British Cinema as a leading man from the early 1950s, although his two biggest roles were arguably in the 1970s. Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy and Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak represented two of the strongest acting talents and star performers to emerge in the 1960s. It’s salutary to remember the diversity and high quality of UK film actors in this period. I’m expecting Vinterberg’s new film to be very different and to use its performers differently. Faced with the quartet here, Carey Mulligan and co. would have difficulty radiating the same starpower.
The fourth strength of the film is its supporting cast, who inhabit their period dress, wigs and facial hair with real relish. I recognised several character actors but I would have believed anyone who told me these were non-professionals acting as themselves. It’s partly this supporting cast that helps steer the film away from the BBC ‘costume drama’ and the later designation of ‘heritage film’. In many ways the film looks like an American Western set down in Dorset, giving off the same sense of earthy vitality. Finally, what brings all these elements together is the trio of John Schlesinger, Joseph Janni and Frederic Raphael. This trio of director, producer and writer had worked together on Darling and for Janni and Schlesinger it was their fourth collaboration. I think that everything works in the film and it feels like a complete and polished production. The best compliment I can pay it is to say that it is almost as good as Polanski’s stunning Tess made 12 years later. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the better novel and Polanski is a Champions League director compared to Schlesinger as a solid Premiership director, but the two films have things in common including a sense of landscape (even if Tess cheats by using Brittany).
I’m not sure what to make of the 4K restoration. Sitting close to the screen, what seemed like excessive grain was evident in the opening shot. Some scenes did seem very dark and I wasn’t sure if this was Roeg’s intention or whether it was a feature of the attempt to create true blacks in the digital print. I’m no expert on such things. On the cinematography generally I was surprised by the combination of what I would term a classical use of close-ups in the ‘Scope frame and several more innovatory devices. It would take two or three more viewings to fully appreciate Roeg’s work in terms of colours, framings and camera movements. The opening shots of the downs and the later sequence in which Sergeant Troy ‘ravishes’ Bathsheba with his sabre are stunning.
I’m looking forward to the new version of the story and especially Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba. Christie was the 1960s star of my teenage years and I realise that I was somewhat gushing about Mulligan’s role as the 1960s schoolgirl in An Education. I’ve found Ms Mulligan’s choice of roles since then to be a mix of the very interesting (Never Let Me Go and Shame) and those which I’ve no real wish to see (Wall Street and The Great Gatsby). She is clearly an intelligent actor and with Vinterberg she should be able to create something wonderful. Julie Christie seems at times too girlish and flighty to be Hardy’s Bathsheba – but she is still the star of the show. She dominates her scenes by the way she moves and uses her costumes. I never tire of watching her. I suspect that Carey Mulligan has the acting chops but that they will be deployed rather differently.
Although I’ve always been aware of this film, for some reason I don’t remember watching it in the 1980s. Watching it now I was surprised at how accessible it was. I remember the critical backlash against the film which attracted the attention of the mainstream press because it featured Julie Christie – during her 1980s stint as champion of independent and political film. There are several notable features of its production which are key to its high status in the history of feminist filmmaking in the UK. As well as Sally Potter as writer-director it had a largely female crew and creative team. It was also one of the first films to be produced by the BFI Production Board and the new Channel 4 working together and this means it was in the vanguard of the British experimental and new art film movement of the 1980s. In her succinct and very helpful entry on the Screenonline website, Annette Kuhn comments on the film’s beautiful black and white cinematography by Babette Mangolte, suggesting that it has the qualities of the best European art cinema such as Ingmar Bergman’s films. Mangolte had already worked with Chantal Akerman and was herself already a specialist in photographing dance and performance art as well as working on experimental film and theatre productions.
The Gold Diggers was shot on 35mm with a budget of around £250,000, most of which went on the shoot itself as all the participants, including its star, were on the same basic wage of £30 a day. The look of the film is thus very different from the 16mm low-budget Thriller. Its narrative is, like Thriller, a feminist investigation of patriarchy but with a much wider remit. The story concerns two women, one a computer operator (Collette Lafont from Thriller) and the other an actor/performer (Julie Christie). The computer operator wants to discover how men control the economy through possession of gold and she teams up with the actor who, born to a ‘gold digger’ (scenes shot in Iceland to represent the Klondike) later finds herself as the ‘queen’ in a parade of bankers. She is in effect investigating her own image as a ‘woman in film’. The film’s title is also a clue to this second narrative investigation into the history of cinema itself from Chaplin’s Gold Rush, through Busby Berkeley musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933) to later melodramas and costume pictures. The investigation is both a celebration and a critique of mainstream cinema and, via the chase and the dream sequence, the ways in which those narratives use female stars. Rather than linear, the narrative is circular so the investigation ‘reveals’ many things but never finds closure – the ‘riddle’ of cinema as an art form underpins everything. If this sounds ‘difficult’, rest assured it isn’t. There are songs and dances (music by Lindsay Cooper, choreography by Sally Potter, who also sings) and sly digs at the pompous men who are definitely not in control of the action. All the performers acquit themselves well and this is not ‘minor’ Julie Christie work.
Intrigued as to how the film was received at the time, I sought out Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound. In 1984 (when the film was released) the two BFI journals were still separate publications and they had distinctly different writing cultures. MFB in May 1984 included an interview with Sally Potter by Sheila Johnson alongside a detailed and perceptive review of the film by Pam Cook. In Sight & Sound by contrast, the film receives a mainly positive but limited ‘thumbnail review’ in the Summer 1984 issue, but earlier in the Spring issue, Jonathan Rosenbaum had reported from the Rotterdam film festival to the effect that: “Shown only in the Market, it has not yet found many defenders”. To be fair to Rosenbaum, he did write that he found the visuals “deserved applause” and the avant-garde tropes were “consistently fresh and unpredictable”. According to this 2010 review of the BFI’s DVD package of the film and Sally Potter’s shorts, Jonathan Rosenbaum has produced a new essay on the film which refers to him being “taken aback” by the reaction of Janet Maslin (then New York Times film critic) who described watching the film on its 1988 American release as “pure torture”. I have to agree with Rosenbaum. Pure pleasure was my reaction watching it now. I hope more people find the DVD. There are more films from this era to be re-discovered. I note that The Gold Diggers was released alongside another BFI-distributed film, Bette Gordon’s Variety with a script by Kathy Acker. Variety is reviewed in that same MFB issue with an interview with the director conducted by Jane Root. When was the last time two feminist filmmakers were reviewed together in this way?
k.d. lang sings Neil Young’s words for ‘Helpless’ at the end of Sarah Polley’s wonderful film Away From Her (a recording taken from her album of Canadian songs entitled ‘Hymns of the 49th Parallel’). Young’s words are powerfully suggestive of the emotions in the film and the cover of k.d. lang’s album could be a still from the film.
I was certainly helpless from about twenty minutes in when I began to weep (possibly as the strains to ‘Harvest Moon’ started on the soundtrack) and couldn’t stop throughout the rest of the film. I had approached the screening with much trepidation. Like most people my age I’ve had some experience of Alzheimer’s disease in the family and the prospect of Julie Christie gradually deteriorating was worrying to say the least. But what I watched was a sensitive and moving story of a marriage which was not sentimental or romantic, but nevertheless optimistic.
On reflection, this is a film in which a quartet (or possibly a quintet) of women effectively help a man to come to terms with being parted from his partner of 44 years (i.e. being ‘away from her’). Some of the women help with compassion, the care home manager is coldly (and irritatingly) efficient, another woman is ‘plain talking’. The chief nurse is the compassionate one – but is also to the point in her criticism of him. And at the centre is Fiona (Julie Christie) devastatingly beautiful and knowing, even as her hold on memory unravels. The man, Grant (a great performance of bewilderment by the veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), worries that she may be putting on an act – and perhaps she is because she does manage to get him to question what he has done during the marriage.
I’ve read some interesting reviews, including one on the Village Voice website by Ella Taylor. I haven’t see too many comments about the style of the film, except to suggest that it is ‘conservative’. I think it is probably a good idea for a first time director to be cautious in presenting a story, so that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming sense is of whiteness, blankness and cold, which seems appropriate. The only visual flourish I remember is the series of cross-fades which removes the visiting relatives from the dining tables in the care home – an appropriate and effective device.
I don’t think I’ve read any of Alice Munro’s short stories (this film is adapted from ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’), but this reminds me of other Canadian women writers. There is something of Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood in it — and also something older and more Nordic (perhaps it’s the landscape). Fiona is supposed to be from Icelandic stock and Grant reads to her from Auden and Louis MacNeice’s book ‘Letters from Iceland’. Trying to research those Canadian stories I’ve read (and regrettably forgotten) I came across Marjorie Anderson, an academic and author whose bio explains that she is of Icelandic fisher stock from a community on Lake Winnipeg – a background which is presumably common in Manitoba and Ontario. There is something about the landscape of Ontario , the Protestantism, the Northern European culture, that creates a tone that you just don’t find in American movies. It’s evident in this film (in the landscape seen through the car windows and in the “brand spanking new” facility that is Meadowdale (or similarly horrible name for a care home)). I’m nudged to think of Cronenberg films like Crash, eXistenZ and A History of Violence (filmed in Canada). Anglophone Canadian Cinema is usually ‘weird’ – but in a good way! This film is simply very good. I must watch more Canadian movies and I’ll certainly be looking out for Sarah Polley, who sounds rather like Jodie Foster in beginning as a child star and making it to respected indy star and now acclaimed director at 27.
(The film was actually shot in Paris and Kitchener in Southern Ontario. My research turned up a term for a literary genre which was new to me – ‘Southern Ontario Gothic’. This includes Munro and Atwood and also my favourite, Robertson Davies. It includes the elements I listed above and tends towards themes of moral hypocrisy according to Wikipedia. Isn’t the internet wonderful? But why isn’t anyone making movies based on Robertson Davies? I guess they would just be too ‘weird’.)