As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.
The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.
Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.
It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.
Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.
Rojo is a meticulously scripted and played mystery drama/thriller. It is calm and ‘dry’ with touches of humour but beneath the surface is a commentary on one of the darkest periods of Argentina’s history. The time is around 1975 and the setting is a provincial town. The opening scene offers a static camera watching the door of an unremarkable house in a quiet street. Over the next few minutes someone will open the door and come out carrying a household item like a wall-clock or a mirror. Perhaps some kind of house clearance sale is taking place indoors? In the next scene a man is sitting at his table in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive before ordering his food. A second man comes into the restaurant and starts arguing with the waiter because no tables are free. The argument will then include the man waiting for his wife who eventually feels obliged to give up his table before the newcomer starts any more trouble. But still the man who has lost his table can’t resist from criticising the other man for being boorish and morally degraded. We suspect that this might not work out well in the long-term.
These two scenes set up the tone of the narrative very well and I won’t spoil the plot any further since the film will appear in both the UK and US and presumably in the other co-producing countries after some successful festival appearances. This is the third film by the rising Argentinian auteur Benjamín Naishtat after a début as one of several directors on the compendium film Historias Breves 5 (Argentina 2009). Rojo appears to be a step up with the casting of two well-known actors. The man waiting for his wife in the restaurant is Claudio, a local lawyer played by Darío Grandinetti, who is probably best known to UK audiences for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Me (2002) and Julieta (Spain 2016) plus the Argentinian comedy-drama Wild Tales (Argentina-Spain 2014). Claudio exudes ‘respectability’ and possibly the sense of someone who thinks he is more sophisticated and cultured/educated than he is in reality. He is the narrative’s central character and he isn’t really prepared for what is going to happen to him. Later on he will be up against a private detective, ‘Sinclair’, who was once a real policeman and then a TV detective. This character is played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, perhaps best-known to European audiences for his roles in films for Pablo Larraín.
In small provincial towns, everybody knows everybody else and anything unusual gets talked about. But this also generates a concern about other people knowing your business and can lead to forms of paranoia. This is what suffuses Rojo. I do wonder how the film will fare on release outside Argentina. UK audiences seemed to get on very well with the original version of the The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina-Spain 2009), but that was a film scripted like an American thriller. Rojo requires a modicum of knowledge about Argentina’s political history – and a willingness to think about possible symbols and metaphors. The title simply means ‘red’ in Spanish but in the 1970s it might have referred to suspected communists.
Rojo has been acquired by New Wave, one of the best UK distributors for foreign language films. I suspect that this is a film that some people will love and others may leave the screening still puzzled. All the same, I’d urge you to go and see it. The trailer below gives a few more clues to what the film is about but not too many.
Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.
Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.
I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.
The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. IMDb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)
Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.
Based on Lynda LaPlante’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Soundinterview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).
Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.
It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.
Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.
However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.
Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.