I’m not sure I’ve ever been to watch a new film that has been so heavily criticised and denounced by both critics and audiences. It isn’t the total disaster those reviews suggests, but given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t great. Something has clearly gone wrong and I’m still struggling to see where the blame lies.
The Snowman is an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 ‘Harry Hole’ novel. There are now 11 crime novels featuring the maverick cop. The Snowman is No7 in the series, though numbers 1 and 2 were translated into English after The Snowman. So, for UK readers it was number 5. The first question then is, why start with No. 5? The response has been so poor that it seems unlikely any more will be adapted in English. Why it was adapted at this point seems to be a consequence of the usual crap which surrounds studio pictures. The novel appeared in English in 2011 – at the peak of ‘Nordic Noir‘ in the UK/US. A quick glance back through my posts and the various events I organised on that topic suggests that this was indeed the case.
Nesbø has always been ripe for adaptation. His self-confessed love of American culture pushes his crime fiction away from the ‘Nordic Noir’ ideal that developed from Mah Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (though he claimed his own links to the Martin Beck books with an introduction to one of the re-issued novels). His hero Harry Hole likes rock music (Nesbø played in a band) and American films and there is much more of a Hollywood thriller feel to the novels. Perhaps he is like Stieg Larsson to a certain extent – but far less overtly political. Harry is like Larsson’s characters though – in the sense that he is personally involved in the narratives. Either he is targeted by the villain or the narrative is introduced by something out of his past. In The Snowman, the Harry-Rakel-Oleg triangle is central in more ways than one.
My memory is that Scorsese was named quite early on as interested in making a Harry Hole movie, but instead the first Nesbø film was Headhunters (Norway 2011), adapted from a standalone novel and followed by Nesbø’s involvement in a TV series, Okkupert (2015), a political thriller imagining Norway occupied by the Russians. The Snowman arrives perhaps four or five years too late. I don’t think Nordic Noir is finished but it doesn’t have the same ‘must see’ cachet any more.
The next issue is comprehension. The Harry Hole novels are in a distinct series – they have the overall narrative ‘arc’ that we now have to acknowledge for long form narratives and in that sense they match both the Beck and Wallander books – though I find Harry a less appealing character than either of the other police officers. Each novel draws on what has happened before so The Snowman relies on audience knowledge about Harry and about Rakel and her son Oleg. Harry is not married to Rakel, yet she is the love of his life. Oleg is not his son, but Harry tries to act like his father. If you don’t know this – and Harry’s history of alcoholism and his loner status within the Oslo Police – you can’t understand him. The script (which has some input from Nesbø, some from Søren Sveistrup, the Danish writer of The Killing and some from the Brits, Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini) seems to me something of a lash-up – as if it has been re-written many times. It does include the information about Harry, but not in an easily understandable way. The book is 550 pages so a great deal has to be left out or dealt with in different ways. Some of the changes are puzzling. The novel opens with a prologue in 1980, in which the date is signalled by a radio announcement about Reagan’s election victory over Jimmy Carter. It then comes forward to 2004 and victory for George W. Bush. In the film, ‘the past’ features a boy being quizzed about Norwegian modern history and there are no American references.
The need to reduce and select the narrative data explains why, even for someone who knows the Harry Hole novels reasonably well, the narrative seems complex. Against this, the cinematography offers us plenty of snowbound landscapes and there is a very talented cast. Alas, the way they are used is also problematic. I was watching out for Sofia Heflin, the Swedish star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge and it was only at the end of the film that I realised she had been a character who was quickly killed off. Similarly, the Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, a star from Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) and many other films, has a minor role. There are some Nordic actors in bigger roles and I enjoyed the irony of Jonas Karlsson playing the villain in this film and the despised police ‘manager’ in the Swedish Beck TV series. But mostly it is British and American actors filling the lengthy cast list. Apart from a child with an American whine, most of the actors use what might be described as unaccented ‘International English’ and I can live with that (although a Norwegian pronunciation of ‘Hole’ might have worked better). The tragedy of the film is to see a director such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson, internationally lauded for Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) and the English language Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), lose control of a production which also boasts Dion Beebe as cinematographer and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, not to mention Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading cast members.
Michael Fassbender is a fine actor and it sounds like great casting, but he isn’t my idea of Harry Hole – and that’s always the problem with adapting a novel with a ‘known’ character. Audiences who revere Fassbender but don’t know Nesbø’s character will also be puzzled I think. Val Kilmer and Toby Jones just seem odd as Bergen police officers and Anne Reid as a next door neighbour in Oslo is a surprise for British audiences (she has been an important TV actor in the UK for many decades). Working Title, the most successful British film production company through its long relationships with Universal and Studio Canal, succeeded with Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor . . . , but that was a StudioCanal project. The Snowman is a Universal picture and I wonder if that is the problem. The Snowman seems similar to David Fincher’s Hollywood version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (US 2011) – but at least that film proved popular with audiences. I’ve rather lost interest in Harry Hole since Book 9 and now it looks like there won’t be any more film adaptations. Now, if they’d started with The Redbreast (Book 3, the first to be translated) it might have worked, but it would probably have been too ‘Norwegian’ for a big budget international thriller. Such is the film business. Instead of a distinct Nordic Noir, Hollywood wants another snowbound police thriller. Here’s the trailer for The Snowman, which is visually intriguing – but the dialogue is terrible. Pretty much sums up the film I’m afraid.
Screen 1 at Curzon Soho was not full for the first evening screening of Steve Jobs (on the night of the Paris attacks). This doesn’t augur well for a film that has been designated a ‘flop’ in North America. It’s a shame that this production isn’t succeeding commercially, though given its relatively modest – by Hollywood standards – budget of $30 million it won’t be the disaster some commentators seem to be gleefully anticipating. All involved in the film will be comforted by the high levels of critical acclaim that the film has generated so far and in the group that I was part of, all of us were impressed by the script, performances, direction and technical contributions.
Inevitably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs has been compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network, especially since Fincher reportedly turned down the chance to direct Steve Jobs because the fee offered was too low. I was not a fan of The Social Network but it was well made. However, it cost $50 million and I think Danny Boyle did a better job on a smaller budget. Aaron Sorkin wrote both films – with Steve Jobs heavily dependent on the biography of Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Neither film is a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, both focusing on the founding myths and early years of the two companies (Facebook and Apple). Steve Jobs covers three moments of Jobs ‘presenting’ aspects of his ‘work’ (or perhaps his ‘vision’). The Social Network sometimes feels like a thriller/legal investigation into who did what, whereas Steve Jobs is more like a relationship drama with Jobs ranged against five different individuals, most of whom have positive reasons to love/admire him as well as genuine anger about what he has done.
Danny Boyle is a theatre director as well as a renowned film director and he seems like the perfect choice for a film which is heavily biased towards long dialogue scenes in enclosed spaces. Boyle rehearsed his cast for two weeks before shooting each of the film’s three sections and the result is a series of dialogue exchanges which really zing and hum with intensity (and quite a few laughs). But despite the restrictions, Boyle finds ways to make the film narrative genuinely cinematic in feel. I’m at a loss as to why some critics (and film scholars) disparage Danny Boyle. He makes films that are always interesting to watch – and he seems like a genuinely nice bloke (and a genuine supporter of working-class popular culture as part of film and theatre). He is often innovative in his approach to the visual style of his films and here he turns again to Alwin H. Küchler (who previously photographed Boyle’s Sunshine in 2007). Küchler has been one of the best UK-based cinematographers since the 1990s (he trained at the UK National Film School) and first worked for Lynne Ramsay and then Michael Winterbottom. The three sections of Steve Jobs are set in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh, 1988 with Jobs’ presentation of his NeXT cube and 1998 with the iMac launch. These are photographed in 16mm, 35 mm and HD with interesting ‘bridging’ moments. It would require a second viewing to see if the sections are also framed differently or if there are other distinctive features.
Kate Winslet is a revelation in her role as Jobs’ Marketing Manager and Michael Fassbender is as terrific as Jobs as we all expected. Jeff Daniels is the CEO who battles Jobs and Michael Stuhlbarg is the engineer in a similar position. Seth Rogen and Katherine Waterston draw the short straws as Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple with Jobs) and the mother of Jobs’ daughter – two roles that are restricted to being angry about Jobs’ behaviour. The real question, as another friend suggested to me is: “Why would anyone buy a ticket to see this film?”. Despite the great script, terrific performances etc. the truth is that the film almost deliberately thwarts the expectations of at least two communities. Apple devotees interested in the history of the computers get only a partial story that stops in 1998. Anyone who sees Steve Jobs as some kind of visionary figure (the film begins with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke ‘predicting’ the coming of the personal computer) may well find his treatment of his closest colleagues and collaborators repellent. And those who actually enjoy the ‘warts and all’ story are likely to be dismayed by the last (unnecessary) 10 minutes which become very sentimental. The truth is that in the early days of Apple, the computers were venerated by relatively small groups of people who struggled to convince others in a world dominated by Microsoft. And it’s true that the machines were expensive and actually not very useful outside certain DTP and Design applications until the appearance of the G3 range in 1997. This is more or less when Steve Jobs ends with the announcement of the iMac. Unlike Facebook which the majority of the audience know something about, Jobs and Apple’s story is obscure for most of the audience who know Apple through its ‘phones and tablets.
In some ways the script refers back to those Warner Bros. biopics of the 1930s – about the great men and women who did something unique. But Jobs’ achievements are not as easily defined as those of Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. To really understand some of his ‘vision’ requires a great deal of context about computer design and the history of the industry which can’t be contained in a feature like this. Sorkin’s script relies on the marketing/promotional spiel at the launches of new products (were these his unique contributions?). Little is heard about Microsoft (or the Amiga and Atari – both as important as Apple in the 1980s). When the breakthrough comes with the iMac in 1998, there is no mention of Jony Ive who designed it. Ive has spoken about Jobs as having “bold” and “magnificent” ideas, but he is the one who puts them into practice like Steve Wozniak did earlier, only to be ditched by Jobs.
Steve Jobs will endure as a film to be studied, I think, and it represents another chapter in Danny Boyle’s interesting directing career, even if it doesn’t do the expected business at the box office.
Here’s the ‘featurette’ that tries to explain what the film is about:
Slow West is beautiful to look at. It includes several stunning set pieces and it is well-researched and carefully prepared – but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t quite produce the coherent narrative I was hoping for. Perhaps the main issue is whether or not this is ‘a Western’? There has been plenty of critical weight behind Slow West including a piece on the ’10 Great Modern Westerns’ by the BFI and the implication that Slow West belongs in such company.
John Maclean was previously a musician in The Beta Band and he directed the band’s videos. One of these was seen by Michael Fassbender and eventually Fassbender appeared in two short films which both won prizes for Maclean. Slow West, written and directed by Maclean is his first feature. Maclean’s parents are both well-known visual artists and he studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. It’s not surprising then that there are some wonderful compositions in Slow West. With the highly talented Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, Maclean is also served by a marvellous use of natural light. There are several scenes in the film I would like study in detail once it is available on DVD.
The film’s story involves a quest by a teenage Scots boy Jay (played by the gangling Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the girl he loves whose family has been ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. He believes she now lives in Colorado with her father. (Jay claims to be the son of ‘Lady Cavendish’.) At the start of the film’s narrative we meet Jay in a forest clearing in the first of many dangerous encounters. He’s rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced but clearly suspect ‘drifter’ (the character repeatedly refers to ‘drifting’ and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter may be a reference). The rest of the narrative takes the pair through a series of other similar encounters until it reaches the inevitable climax. Maclean also uses flashbacks and dreams experienced by Jay and voiceovers offering forms of narration by Silas. Maclean’s musical background means that there is an appropriate score composed by Jed Kurzel, the Australian musician who also scored The Babadook, plus a campfire song written by Maclean himself.
Apart from a few scenes in Scotland, most of the film was shot in New Zealand. Many critics have suggested that the setting could easily be the Rockies and that audiences won’t notice. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the story could have taken place in New Zealand anyway and still allowed Maclean to make all of the points he wants to make (i.e. about racism, colonialism, violence etc.) – ‘Westerns’ have often been set outside North America. It’s certainly the case that everything in the film could be an element in the repertoire of the Western. Maclean has done his research and he is aware that until recently Westerns were more mythological than realist. He wants to emphasise the various European migrant groups in the American West in the late 19th century, the ‘real’ Native Americans etc. – though I’m not sure about the three musicians from Francophone Africa (French imperialism in Central and West Africa was mostly later than 1870). According to this Guardian online piece by Rowan Righelato, Maclean himself has described his film as “an existential European road movie”. That seems a pretty good description for the overall ‘form’ of the film. It seems to me that although all the Western elements are ‘authentic’ they don’t all fit together either as a realist historical drama or as a traditional Western genre film. I’d be interested to see what academic scholars of the American West make of the film. Reviewers seem to refer to the setting as ‘1870’ but if this information was conveyed in the film (perhaps a date in a newspaper?) I missed it. It is clearly ‘post’ Civil War but some of the incidents suggest earlier or later periods – and different locations.
Does all of this matter? Probably not or probably only if, like me, you are expecting a Western. The Western was once the American genre par excellence and whatever the ostensible narrative intentions, Westerns always conveyed something about American myths and changing ideologies as well as broad statements about the history of the frontier. Even the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s conveyed something, perhaps more than before, in their discourses about the end of the West and the corporatisation of Western activities. I’m not sure that Slow West tells us anything apart from its fairly universal story about a young man’s dream and an older man’s survival instinct. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in this case Maclean’s film is entertaining and its relatively brief running time (84 minutes) is packed with sounds and images to stimulate. Nick, my viewing companion did also question whether the script did enough to establish the relationship between the two central characters, citing the shaving scene. Are we meant to think of a surrogate father/son relationship? Michael Fassbender will attract many audiences to the film and he gives a strong performance, but I wonder if in this case his star persona is too powerful for the overall balance of the film, especially with his cigar-chomping flashing smile?
Reading through the reviews and audience comments I think that Slow West is being enjoyed in much the same way as the Coen Bros. films – and enjoyed in terms of its dark humour and intelligence.
On a technical note, Robbie Ryan’s images are presented in the old European ‘widescreen’ ratio of 1.66:1. I’m not sure why and because I saw the film in a real cinema with proper tabs and masking I didn’t really notice. But it looks great.
A short clip from the opening sequence in the film:
Performance can be difficult to analyse especially as the acting profession tends to mystify the process when interviewed. Maybe they, too, find it difficult to analyse or maybe they prefer the mystique. Possibly the key factor in performance is non-verbal communication which includes body language, posture, clothing and vocal tone. Their position and movement in the frame is likely to be determined by the director and the scriptwriter provides the words; how their body ‘speaks’ and how they speak those words is determined by the actor. Of course, even these can be directed but if we are to think of actors as more than Hitchcock’s ‘cattle’ then we must give them some credit.
I first noticed Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Steve McQueen’s debut, and since I’ve found him to be the most compelling male actor in cinema. What follows is an extract from the 2nd edition of my Introduction to Film (forthcoming):
The smartly-dressed Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), in X-Men First Class (US-UK, 2011), is visiting a Swiss banker to find out the location of Dr Klaus Schmidt, the concentration camp doctor who experimented on him when he was a child. He’s brought an ingot of Nazi gold as a pretext for the visit and to make his point about the fate of Jewish wealth in Germany in World War II. (DVD: Ch.4 13mins 37secs.)
Once he’s seated Lensherr’s framed in medium shot, his eyes appeared almost closed but they are looking down at the ingot that we know is on the desk in front of him. He looks up, at the banker, but his head doesn’t move at first, suggesting he is in complete control of the situation. When he explains to the banker that he wants to deposit the gold, his eyebrows move, suggesting urbanity, while the rest of his face remains impassive. He is controlling his anger, beneath a veneer of respectability, against bankers who continued, in 1963 when the film is set, to benefit from Nazi appropriation of Jews’ wealth.
Lensherr agrees with the banker that he needs to understand the bank’s terms but then he starts to threaten, by explaining the deal will be on his terms. He picks up a photograph of a young child (presumably the banker’s) from the desk, looks at it with an obviously false smile. The falsity contains threat for we expect people to like (smile at) photographs of children but Lensherr obviously doesn’t like what he sees. His gaze flicks to the ingot on the desk reminding us of the purpose of his visit.
The banker understands the threat and tries to sound the alarm but Lensherr’s uses his X-Men powers to stop him.
Lensherr moves to the banker’s side of the desk; he’s about to get nasty, his face contorted in a grimace. At one point Fassbinder thrusts his bottom teeth forward in a feral gesture showing the violence that’s brewing just beneath his urbane demeanour.
Lensherr is now in the process of extracting a filling, via his powers, from the banker’s mouth; using torture as the Nazis did in the camps. Almost imperceptibly the merest hint of enjoyment flickers in his expression; his eyes move slightly, as if taking in all the banker’s facial expression of pain. Fassbender is signifying the sadistic side of Lensherr, a character with whom we have sympathy given his treatment in the concentration camp.
After he’s caught the filling, that’s flown out of the victim’s mouth, Lensherr looks at it with a slightly amused (at his own ability) expression which quickly hardens as he gets back down to business.
Fassbender has conveyed very controlled determination of Lensherr at the start, and end, of the scene to emphasise the violence of the mid-section. This mirrors Lensherr’s (and the film’s?) attitude toward the business of the Swiss bank, which is to deal, in an exceedingly polite way, with ill-gotten gains. The urbanity of the setting is therefore hiding the violence that is the source of their wealth.
Virtually everything that Fassbender wants to portray about Lensherr’s character is shown through subtle changes of facial expression. It is a masterclass of acting.
Prometheus is a good example of ‘Global Hollywood’ and its release in 2012 points to several aspects of how Hollywood is coping with the evolving global film ecology. The film is a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise which began in 1979 with three further instalments (and two more related to the Predator franchise) over the next thirty years.
The production cost an estimated $130-140 million to produce and a great deal to market ($60 million if the 50% of production cost rule applies). Only a Hollywood studio could afford that kind of money. It was produced by three companies, two American and one British for the studio major 20th Century Fox. Producer-director Ridley Scott is British, the scriptwriters are American. The principal technical credits are for Europeans who are all US residents (Polish cinematographer, Italian film editor, German music composer). There are thirteen speaking parts in the film and these are played by five English, two Scottish, one South-African, one Irish-German, one Australian, one Swedish-Spanish and two American actors. Having said that, all the principals are known to American film and television audiences. As if to add to the confusion, the art director Arthur Max is an American who has worked mostly in the UK. The film was shot mainly on Pinewood sets in the UK and on location in Iceland, Scotland and Spain. The extensive visual effects work was carried out in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.
Trying to assign ‘nationality’ to a film like Prometheus is clearly pointless. IMDB currently describes it as a ‘US’ production. That must be wrong. If anything it is a British production using international talent and facilities, all of which are paid for with American money (though of course that money probably comes ultimately from a variety of sources).
Prometheus is a ‘tentpole’ release by 20th Century Fox, a News Corporation company. Its release strategy follows that of Avengers Assemble (or whatever it is called internationally!) in releasing to the ‘International’ market a week before the ‘domestic’ North American release. I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument as to why this development has taken place. We know that ‘international’ is now twice the size of ‘domestic’ but that doesn’t explain why it necessarily comes first. In the UK, Prometheus opened on 1,019 screens with 73% of box office coming from 3D presentations (UK multiplexes are now almost completely converted to digital projection). Given that the opening date coincided with the Jubilee celebrations this was perhaps an odd decision. On the other hand, it was also a school holiday (it’s a ’15’ release) and the weather in the UK has been terrible – which is always good for the box office. I expect a healthy total for the full week following a weekend screen average of $10,000 (though the inflated cost of 3D presentations disguises the admissions numbers). The film opens in the US today.
But what about the film as a narrative? It deals with a mission at the end of the 21st century to find an alien civilisation which may have visited the Earth 3,000 years ago – as seen on cave paintings. (This idea is loosely drawn from The Chariot of the Gods, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken.) The ship’s crew find the remains of an alien base, which at first appears derelict, but then . . . etc.
I confess that I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. His films are brilliantly ‘visualised’ and always contain exciting sequences – but most of the time they are also confused and messy in their storytelling. On a few occasions Scott has had a decent script and a strong cast and the film is a standout – I give you Thelma and Louise and Alien. (I still can’t forgive the scriptwriters for what they did to Phil K. Dick’s work in Blade Runner.) Unfortunately, I have to agree with what I think is the majority verdict on this, his latest film. Prometheus looks great, the cast is terrific and the script is pretty ropey. (I watched a 2D version.)
Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are terrific, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron have less to do but certainly have a presence and with supporting cast as strong as Kate Dickie, Sean Harris, Timothy Spall and Benedict Wong there shouldn’t really be a problem (the casting and the theme of the film are very reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine).
There will no doubt be a sequel (i.e. at least one more prequel to Alien) but I hope that more work goes on the script. I’ll just mention one irritating script element. At the beginning of the film a credit tells us that the ‘Prometheus’ has a crew of 17 – yet only 10 of the crew have lines of dialogue. In a confined space like the ship, doesn’t it seem lazy to have nearly half the crew as simple, mute spear carriers?
I think in the end that this ‘global film’ isn’t in fact ‘global’ enough. It will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office outside Europe and North America. An English-speaking audience will hear its ‘Britishness’ in the dialogue but that will be lost in dubbing. In the first week, Prometheus was released in 15 territories and entered the international chart at No 3. It failed to beat Men In Black 3 (in 90 territories) and Snow White and the Huntsman (in 45 territories). The comparison with Snow White is significant. That film was in its second week in some territories but its screen average was still higher than that of Prometheus. The grittier, more ‘realist’ end of science fiction is not such a global attraction as comedy and romance/fantasy.
Many territories will see the film as simply ‘American’. On the other hand, there is not a specifically American ideological feel about the story – though it does have a ‘creationist’ discourse which I assume will resonate more in the US than it does over here. It’s worth remembering that the original Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon (co-creator of one of my favourite science fiction films Dark Star (1974)) during the counter-culture years in Southern California – indeed, Wikipedia suggests that the Alien script was developed from Dark Star. I don’t know if that influenced the sense of corporate exploitation of space with its truculent crew but the Alien films seem quite different in ideological terms to the Star Trek franchise (which has always felt like an odd combination of progressive, liberal ideas married to an American military ethos).
It’s going to be interesting to see how feminist film studies approaches this ‘re-boot’ of the Alien franchise. And I’m particularly looking forward to the analysis of Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw v. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, triangulated with Noomi as Lisbeth Salander. I suspect that Ms Rapace is here to stay. She looks and sounds different – and she is an outstanding acting talent.
Steve McQueen’s debut feature has rightly been described as brutal, visceral filmmaking. It’s an incredible experience in the cinema, visually and aurally, that does leave you shaken with the power of the images it has shown you, and the ideas that underpin them. The film blends a broad narrative arc, with more experimental styles that make it recognisable as an art, or avant-garde, film. It begins with a wordless montage of the life of one of the prison guards. Without giving away the details, there is an emotive juxtaposition of the banal and the extreme in this daily routine – and the sense of a man barely containing his emotions and the stress under the brutality he is part of, is powerfully conveyed. I want to say that here, as elsewhere, the emotions assault you such that you begin to experience that fear and tension, despite a recognition that this is at odds with the controlled, fluent sequence and its attention to cinematographic detail and controlled compositions. You are never in doubt that there is a guiding artist behind the scenes presented to you; an artist who knows how to create visual beauty, which you feel and respond to, at the same time as you are repelled or horrified by what is actually happening in the filmed sequence.
As we are taken into the cells with Davey, the new arrival, the expressionistic camerawork allows us the sensation of the degradation and horror of those living conditions – the rotting food, occupied by tiny grubs, the swirls of excrement on the walls. Time and again, McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, create a focal point using a vivid colour within the frame – arresting and attracting your eye, and engaging you with the dialectical argument, simply through the aesthetic affect. The moment where the prisoners are given ‘joke’ Irish clothing to wear as civilian clothes (accompanied by the sniggers of their guards), its bright, jaunty patterns are a visual explanation for the fury of the inmates. With all the brutal violence that is, unflinchingly, shown on screen, it is these daily, petty inhumanities that are, convincingly, as inhumane. The film makes you experience the inhumanity generated person to person by an inanimate political system. Without any particular narrative or dialogue to emphasise it, McQueen (and his collaborators including writer Enda Walsh) demonstrate the futility of violence and opposition on both sides, which only serves to degrade those involved.
I don’t believe it is a film that seeks to impose a viewpoint or an ideology on its viewer. I don’t think it is a film that would, or tries to, change your viewpoint of those times. Terrorists, freedom fighters, political prisoners or murdering criminals? These terms are not (apparently) much debated and extended. The central meeting between Sands and Father Moran lays out the arguments for and against the self-sacrifice of a hunger protest for a belief, not the beliefs themselves. The balance of representation is only adjusted (I felt) by what I took to be the import of their use of Thatcher’s speech on pity – attacking the hunger strikers for being willing to use pity to advance their agenda. This acts as an introduction to Sands’ slow and horrific death – and through this section of the film, the intense focus on the wasting of his body and terrible sores and lesions that afflict gives us nothing but pity as a way out. All we can do is relate on a human level to this one man. Even where we might be antipathetic to his beliefs, his extremism, we do not have to sacrifice our human pity. That is still within our choice. Now, here, McQueen does seem to lean towards a sympathetic portrait – in a flashback, we see the intensity of the young Sands on an outing he has previously described. Running through the cornfields, the beautiful image is invested with portent; we know (from his tale to the priest) that even at eight, Sands is being taught a political lesson in this moment of freedom, which will end in a political act of knowing self-sacrifice.
The fact that we understand this, as we watch the young boy lean against the bus window, is intensely powerful. His life has been invested with a certain knowledge far earlier than others, that will inevitably, almost without his own will, shape it forever. This seems a tragedy – never to have known what freedom is, to experience knowledge that this is not your path.
The images used here – the point of view from Sands’ hospital bed, the shots of the Donegal countryside drive us to experience these feelings for ourselves. The film’s tour-de-force, however, is a single take (apparently 16 minutes long), which dominates the scene between Sands and Father Dom (Liam Cunningham). The balanced debate moves from lively, intellectually nimble banter to emotional expressions of different ideologies. The camera keeps a fixed distance, not too close or favouring either side in its composition. Again, you can find your own access points and sympathies between these two illuminated figures. Emotionally strong, conventions of filmmaking are broken again by creating a theatrical performance at the centre of a cinematic experience, which we experience as if we are in a theatre. The intensity of the static camera translates to an intensity of focus for us.
The film knows how to use dialogue and debate here, but it also uses silence very effectively. Silence seems to allow you to watch and understand. The movement between over-exposure to sound (in some of the violence) and to silence added to the emotional impact.
The rustling of sweet wrappers (unbelievable!) stopped, anyway, very quickly. People did leave the cinema. I honestly wasn’t sure why they went, as it felt it could have been just as much the emotional intensity as the violence. Whatever your feelings about the subject matter, it’s filmmaking that demands to be seen.