I booked to see this film simply because it seemed the best choice in the particular slot in the festival programme. I’m not sure why Glasgow selected the film which was released widely in the UK just three days after its two festival screenings. Perhaps it was a purely commercial decision – it was a sell-out on the night for a screening that must have been a première (I don’t tend to notice these things). I wonder if the distributors Fox Searchlight lost faith in the film and avoided a big London opening? Anyway, there was a festival flavour to the screening with the presence of director James Kent and one of the producers (Jack Arbuthnot I think, but apologies because I missed his name) and the Q&A that followed was enjoyable and interesting in terms of audience feedback.
The narrative explores a period of a few months from October 1946 during the British military mission in Hamburg, a city almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing earlier in the war. Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is in charge of the clear-up in the city with the unearthing of corpses buried in the rubble and small groups of Nazis still creating disorder and launching attacks on British personnel. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives to join her husband and the couple are assigned a requisitioned country house on the outskirts which is undamaged. The house belongs to an architect, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who is a widower with a teenage daughter, Freda. The Luberts and the servants are to stay on but at first Rachael finds it difficult to have them in the house and they retreat to rooms in the attic spaces. We sense that a form of romantic melodrama is about to play out since Lewis is overworked and out much of the time while Rachael has time on her hands to think about the loss of her son two or three years earlier in a bombing raid. Herr Lubert lost his wife during the firestorm created by British incendiaries around the same time.
The situation is based on the real events experienced by the novelist Rhidian Brook’s grandparents. There is an interesting account of this history on the BBC website. A script by Brook was originally commissioned by Scott Free (Ridley Scott, who is credited as a producer on the film, was a 10 year-old with his parents in Hamburg a year later) which Brook then turned into a novel. The film took shape after the novel’s publication and two new writers were brought in to develop the romance and in doing so to move further away from the ‘real’ events. Much of the film was shot in the Czech Republic and the film is very much a European co-production with important German involvement through producer Malte Grunert.
Since the film has now been given a wide release in the UK, it has been widely reviewed and I’m not going to use my space here to repeat many of the comments. Most reviewers come to the same conclusion – that despite the potential of the situation and the characters’ interaction, the film doesn’t really generate the emotion that might be expected. I’m afraid I have to agree. The word that kept coming into my head when watching it was ‘bloodless’ which seems strange for a drama set in the rubble, but there you are. This doesn’t mean it’s a ‘bad film’. It’s well-made, possibly too well-made with the costumes and the decor of the house sometimes overwhelming the tensions of the living arrangements. The three leads all give good performances and I was impressed by Jason Clarke in particular. I kept wondering where I’d seen him before (he has made several big budget American films) and it wasn’t until later that I realised it was in Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002). Few would recognise him as coming from Queensland in this role.
Glasgow Film Festival programmed the film as part of the ‘Local Heroes’ strand – celebrating Scottish contributions to cinema. James Kent told us that he had family connections in Paisley and was glad to be in Glasgow, but I presume that the only Scottish contribution came via fourth-billed Martin Compston who plays an intelligence officer, a hard and hard-drinking man. Not Compston’s finest moment I feel. The character didn’t work for me and I’m usually a big admirer.
The Q&A that followed was in some ways more interesting for me that the film itself. On the whole, the people who stayed for the session (the majority of the audience, I think) appeared to have enjoyed themselves. A couple of Germans in the audience commented favourably on the representation of Germans in the film and others said how interesting it was to focus on this period. It’s easy to forget that for most people under 60(?) this is not a history that will be familiar. One questioner asked about the balance between the romance and the historical/political back story. James Kent admitted that the production team had discussed this and opted for the romance. The questioner said they would have liked more ‘history’. Kent replied that some audiences might be ‘bored’ by the history. So there we have it. Actually, a bit more history might have created a bit more drama. As it is the history sub-plot (involving the daughter and a young Nazi ‘guerilla’) doesn’t quite work as well as it might. This was an educated audience and someone mentioned Lore (Germany-Australia-UK 2012) as a film set in the same period. Kent agreed and suggested Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015) on which Malte Grunert was a producer. I refrained from asking whether the production team had looked at German ‘rubble films’ (Trümmerfilme) both from the late 1940s and at various times since. These were mostly set in Berlin, I think, but they might have informed a film set in Hamburg.
I think James Kent was probably considered a ‘safe’ choice to direct the film and in the sense that he has made several major TV films and series as well as the adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth in 2014, that’s probably a reasonable judgement by Fox Searchlight in funding the film. As one of the American reviews suggests, the film will work well on rainy afternoons as a TV or cinema matinée, but it could have been much more. On the other hand, audiences may prove that to be too conservative a view and if the film introduces just a little history alongside the costumes and the tasteful sex scenes that might be a good thing.
Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.
Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.
Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.
Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.
Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.
When I mused on the possibility of showing A Dangerous Method to A Level students a few months ago, it was suggested to me that it was too wordy – with the implication that students would be bored. Now I’ve seen the film, I wouldn’t worry about the dialogue at all. The narrative seemed to race along to me. If the film has a flaw it is in the closing stages of the narrative when I felt I was being rushed through some short scenes which spanned several years and in which a great deal of narrative development needed to be inferred. For such weighty subject matter the film is actually quite short (99 minutes) and at the end I was enjoying it so much that I could happily have taken another 30 mins. As usual, I read an interview with director David Cronenberg (in Sight and Sound March 2012) after seeing the film. Perhaps I should have read it first because the interview explained several points I’d puzzled about during the screening.
The ‘Dangerous Method’ is a reference to the ‘talking cure’ constituted by the nascent medical practice of psychoanalysis as practised by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in Vienna and taken up by the psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in Zürich in the early 1900s. At first there is almost a father/son, master/pupil relationship between Freud and Jung – something which events will ultimately undermine. The two confer over the case of a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who arrives at Jung’s clinic suffering from ‘hysteria’ but who will eventually become a leading psychoanalyst herself. Sabina is a historical figure who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941.
The film does seem to have provoked a very hostile reception from fans of Cronenberg’s earlier work in ‘body horror’ and from others with a strong interest in either Freud or Jung or both. As a squeamish film watcher I avoided Cronenberg’s earlier films and only began to be interested in his work at the time of Crash (1996). I was painfully aware of Freudian ideas when they were fashionable inside film studies in the 1980s and I’m aware of him as a historical figure but I’ve never read Freud and I know even less about Jung. I’m not sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage in watching A Dangerous Method, but I think some of the criticism of the film that I’ve read is plain silly.
Here are just a few observations about the film narrative. The screenplay is by Christopher Hampton who wrote a play The Talking Cure first performed in 2003. There was also a book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method (1994) and various historical documents that also informed the screenplay. This review of Hampton’s play by the Guardian‘s Michael Billington is interesting in that I had the opposite response to that of Billington (an excellent critic) when I watched the film. I noticed, but didn’t think too much about, the points Billington makes as I was too busy enjoying the spectacle. Billington argues is that the play is about ideas but that an over-fussy set is distracting and that perhaps a film would be better. However I saw a film about characters in a particular historical context. Cronenberg creates a world of order in Vienna and Zürich. The sun is nearly always shining, the houses, rooms and, most of all, the formal gardens are beautifully designed, clean and sparkling. The clothes are exquisite (and Knightley and Fassbender wear them beautifully). The cinematography by Cronenberg’s long-term collaborator Peter Suschitzky uses the settings to create a composed world. The film deals with the period between 1904 and 1912 when the five great empires in Europe were at their height (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain). Only a few years later and the five would be at war and in Central Europe (apart from in Switzerland) the certainty of outlook and status of rich scientists like Jung (the money was from his wife’s family) would be severely questioned. The insights that Freud and Jung has into the psyche would become potentially even more important in the aftermath of the ‘Great War’.
(Some spoilers in this para)
The ideas in the film are about sexuality and mental health, about social status and about anti-semitism. Freud needed Jung because his Swiss Protestantism diluted the Jewish Austrian identity of the Viennese group of psychoanalysts. Freud was also disturbed by Jung’s class position and possibly felt undermined. He despaired when he learned of Jung’s interest in the possibilities of parapsychology, having hoped that Jung would help psychoanalysis achieve status as a scientific discipline. Hampton’s strategy in the screenplay is to explore these ideas first through Jung’s treatment of Sabina’s hysteria. Hysteria (literally a condition associated with the uterus) appears to have been a socially constructed ailment afflicting young middle class women whose sexuality was severely repressed in polite society. Sabina has to ‘face up’ to what has caused her physical ailment and she does so through the talking cure when she finally admits to Jung that she became sexually excited after being beaten by her father and felt a desire to masturbate. In order to represent the symptoms of hysteria Keira Knightley ‘gurns’ (pulls very exaggerated facial expression), squirms and shouts excitedly in a performance that some viewers have interpreted as ‘over the top’. As far as I can see Knightley and Cronenberg researched this and I think her performance is terrific. I think she is well-cast and certainly matches the two male leads. When Sabina asks Jung to spank her as the final act of her abreaction, the narrative leads us into a potential sexual relationship with Jung. He is in turn egged on by a provocative and dangerous psychotherapist, Otto Gross – played with enormous brio by Vincent Cassel. Gross is all in favour of therapists having sexual relationships with their patients and discovering more about human sexuality. Cassell reminded me of the figure of the satyr or the god Pan – all hair and testosterone. As an actor he has always reminded be of Michel Simon – this time perhaps as the tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning. Our interest in Jung’s possible infidelity also prompts us to think about Mrs Jung, seemingly always pregnant (and serene) played very well in such a difficult role by the young Canadian, Sarah Gadon. What we should also remember is that Otto was recommended to Jung (as a patient) by Freud and that Sabina will eventually move to Vienna when she has qualified as a psychoanalyst herself.
The film narrative is essentially about the triangle of Jung, Sabina and Freud, although Jung and Sabina are the main focus. I found the first 80-90% of this narrative fascinating but lost it in the final stretch. There is an interesting sequence on the liner taking Jung and Freud to New York – which tells us a great deal about the state of their relationship, but frustratingly little about why they were going to America and what happened when they got there. Otherwise, I think this is a great watch and I’ve praised many of the others so I should finish by congratulating Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as well. I’ve seen many reviews by disappointed Cronenberg fans who think that the film is ‘staid’, ‘conservative’ etc. but I think that they miss the point. Cronenberg, Suschitzky and production designer James McAteer have created a representation of a world of sexual repression and bourgeois respectability within which some intellectual breakthroughs are achieved through and perhaps in spite of some interesting personal relationships. Now, perhaps I should read that book on Jung and Film (Hauke and Alister 2001) that has remained unopened for so long? We’ll see.
Roy was bemoaning the inability to make a decent British based crime thriller (see here) but (if he can overcome his aversion to the female lead!) is one worth seeing. I don’t know why it bombed at the box office as I found it mostly gripping and well acted: Keira Knightley in particular as the vulnerable actor hounded by paparazzi. Even Ray Winstone, reprising his gangster role, manages to squeeze even more menace than usual from the scumbag he plays. Colin Farrell is an engaging lead and add David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Eddie Marsan and Stephen Graham, you can see we have some of the best actors in the British business. And I haven’t mentioned Ben Chaplin, who seemed to have disappeared for a while, as an absolutely terrific sleazeball.
This was William Monahan’s debut as a director, having scripted The Departed (2006) amongst others; he also wrote and produced. It’s well shot and the only miscalculation, apart from a rather unraveling ending, is Sanjeev Bhaskar’s doctor who’s meant to be comic relief. The British gangster film has a terrible reputation; with the honourable exceptions of Sexy Beast (2000), with Winstone, and Gangster No.1 (2001), with Thewlis. This uses London locations well, eschewing the tourist spots apart from some eloquently composed skyline shots, conveying the sense of menace of estates and the gentility of the posh areas; gangster Winstone is comfortable in both locations.
Maybe the romance between the principals, Farrell is meant to be protecting Knightley, is too reminiscent of The Bodyguard (1992) or it was because Thewlis’ washed-up druggie actor is entirely unconvincing (as a character not as a performance). Well worth catching up with on DVD I suggest.
Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.
I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.
Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).
Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.
How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.
Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.
Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.