Tagged: social problem

No Trees in the Street (UK 1959)

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A noir seduction

Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.

Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.

Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.

The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.

The Blue Lamp (UK 1950)

Jack Warner (left) band Jimmy Hanley as the two ‘beat bobbies’

The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).

The ‘problem’ – Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) with Diana (Peggy Evans)

George Dixon brings Andy home to meet Mrs Dixon – Em. This scene could be from any wartime Ealing picture

Bernard Lee and Robert Flemyng act as the CID team in the station

In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.

Robbing the cinema cashier

The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951)(DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.

The Humber Super Snipe – various Humber models were often used as police cars in the period. The spectacular car chases are along roads often free of traffic.

But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.

The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.

Violent Playground (UK 1958)

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The youth of the day

Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).

The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.

Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.

As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the mayor of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!

Dead End (US 1937)

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Tough guys

It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.

Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.

Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrea and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.

Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well-known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.

GFF18 #14: The Bigamist (US 1953)

Harry (Edmond O’Brien), Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) discuss the possibility of adoption.

The final screening in the Ida Lupino retrospective again proved to be a fascinating production and an absorbing film. I’m indebted to the excellent detailed study of Lupino’s work on the Cinema Scope website by Christoph Huber for some of the insights explored here. After The Hitch-Hiker was a sleeper hit (earning over $1 million dollars) Lupino was persuaded by her partners at The Filmakers, against her best instincts, to end the link with RKO and distribute The Bigamist independently. Although by all accounts they promoted the film well, it failed at the box office and sent The Filmakers into a decline it never recovered from. That’s a shame because The Bigamist is definitely worth seeing and we were able to watch a 35mm restoration by UCLA. I understand that some of the other films from The Filmakers are now in the public domain and only exist on poor quality video transfers.

Phyllis (Ida Lupino) and Harry (Edmond O’Brien) meet on the bus trip round ‘ the homes of the Hollywood stars’.

The Bigamist is an example of how Ida Lupino managed to bring elements of film noir to bear on a social issue/problem film. The plot involves a couple, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) who want to adopt a child. An agency is pleased to help them and Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) sets out to investigate whether the couple will be good parents. Jordan is a complex character drawing on Gwenn’s signature role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. He appears avuncular (he was 75 when the film came out) but also sharp as a tack when it comes to checking out a prospective parent. He follows Harry, a travelling salesman, from San Francisco to Los Angeles where he corners him and extracts a story, told in flashback in the best film noir style. Eve is the wife and Ida Lupino herself is Phyllis, the woman in another city who Harry turns to from loneliness. I don’t really need to say any more, except that Lupino handles the narrative with great skill and cleverly allows for an ‘open ending’ when the two women meet after the court hearing.

Harry presented in long shot ‘alone in the city’. This is just after Harry has attempted to make perhaps the most difficult phone call he’s ever made.

What I found fascinating was that Lupino injects a real sense of disturbance through Mr. Jordan’s investigation. Innocent actions by Harry can take on different meanings and eventually he will be ‘betrayed’. Lupino plays her part very well and she gives it a tone of the innocent young woman caught up in a film noir story. She knew all about that from her own acting career. She was 35 when she made the picture but feels younger. Having said that she has a mature woman’s playful response to Harry’s attempted pickup. Joan Fontaine is also well cast as Eve, unable to have children, super-efficient at building a business with Harry and concerned about her own parents. Harry’s actions are stupid perhaps, but not malicious. He tries to do his best for both women and that’s why it is oddly satisfying that we are denied a ‘resolution’. In the central role, Edmond O’Brien is very good indeed.

The Bigamist looks good and that’s probably down to the partnership of Ida Lupino as director and George Deskant as cinematographer. Deskant had been behind the camera at RKO since 1946 and he’d worked with Lupino, shooting On Dangerous Ground (1951) and another title from The Filmakers, Beware, My Lovely (1952). After The Bigamist he moved into TV – like Lupino herself and I think he must have shot several of the many TV episodes Ida Lupino directed. I suspect too that others from The Bigamist crew followed her into TV. Christoph Huber adds another twist, reporting that Lupino and Deskant decided to use a different camera crew for Eve’s and Phyllis’s scenes. I confess I’m not sure what this achieved. The other strange set of links about The Bigamist concerns Collier Young. His marriage to Lupino had ended in 1951 and in 1952 he married Joan Fontaine. Ida Lupino thus found herself directing her ex-husband’s new wife in a film he produced and for which he provided the original story and even took a bit part in a scene featuring Lupino. The landlady of the apartment house where Phyllis lives is played by Joan Fontaine’s mother Lilian. In one sense it sounds like a bewildering experience for Lupino yet I think it demonstrates how organised and disciplined she must have been. The result is a tight 80 minute feature with not a frame wasted. It’s not surprising that Ida Lupino was so prolific in directing episodes of TV series from 1956 until the late 1960s (during which time she also acted on TV). One other aspect of The Filmakers work that is interesting is an early embracing of product placement in The Bigamist – a clever way to make some extra money. I didn’t notice it until I found it mentioned in a useful Cineaste piece by Dan Georgakas (Vol XXV No. 3 June 2000).

I’m now on a search for more Ida Lupino films – those she directed and those she acted in. Thanks Glasgow FF!

¡Viva! 22 #6: Marsella (Spain 2014)

Sara (Maria Leon) and Claire (Noa Fontanals)

Sara (María León) and Claire (Noa Fontanals)

I’m reluctant to be too judgemental about this film because I missed the first 25 minutes. Reading Jonathan Holland’s review in The Hollywood Reporter, to try to discover what I missed, I have to agree with everything he says. Marsella (Marseille) appears to be a film which explores the relationships between three female characters who are affected by what is an important social issue. Sara (María León) is a 28 year-old from Andalusia who has been allowed by a judge to resume her legal position as mother to Claire (Noa Fontanals), the 10 year-old who was taken from her when Sara had alcohol and behavioural problems as a teenager. Claire has been fostered by a middle-class couple, Virginia (Goya Toledo) and Alberto, who are reluctant to let her go because they still believe Sara is not a ‘fit mother’. The narrative is constructed as a road trip taken by Sara and Claire with the aim of finding Claire’s father. All Sara knows about Jerome, who she has not seen since she became pregnant, is that he worked in a soap factory in Marseille. This genre structure should work well but the real problem with the film seems to be a sub-plot in which Sara has agreed to smuggle a package of cocaine into France. The sub-plot is necessary to the extent that Sara’s pre-occupation with this criminal task means she neglects Claire one night and the child phones Virginia because she is scared. Virginia rushes to her aid and eventually it is agreed that she will join them in the quest to find Jerome. But the scripting of the sub-plot doesn’t really work and it takes time away from the road movie which ends in a more low-key manner than we might expect.

Sara and Claire are joined by Virginia (Goya Toledo).

Sara and Claire are joined by Virginia (Goya Toledo).

The film is co-written and directed by Belén Macías and this is her second feature film (most of her earlier work being for television). She is one of two female directors in ¡Viva! this year dealing with middle-class couples who are/have been engaged in adopting/fostering children from working-class families (see the earlier post on L’adopció). Here, the male characters are less important and there is a real opportunity to focus on the relationships between them. I thought that when this happened it worked very well but there isn’t enough of it. The child actor is good and this was the second appearance of María León in this ¡Viva! festival (see the post on Carmina y amén) . She is a commanding presence and the social class difference between Sara and Virginia is represented through the performances of León and Goya Toledo as well as in the dialogue.

Part of that class difference refers to learning foreign languages so that Virginia (and Claire to a certain extent) have an advantage over Maria when they cross the border. The plot also includes an encounter with a truck driver (played by the engaging Eduard Fernández) and his son, an older teenager. I enjoyed this encounter which again could have been expanded but instead it is dragged into the smuggling sub-plot. Overall this film felt like a missed opportunity in which good ingredients were not allowed to come together to make a satisfying film – but perhaps that’s unkind and if I’d seen the opening I would think differently?

¡Viva! 22 #3: L’adopció (Spain-Lithuania 2015)

Natalia (Nora Navas) and Dani (Frances Garrido)

Natalia (Nora Navas) and Dani (Frances Garrido)

This is a very accomplished film that I found disturbing to watch, especially since the director and co-writer was present – and the story was inspired by her own experiences. Daniela Féjerman answered questions after the screening (the UK première) when around half the audience stayed on and raised a wide range of questions. The film carries a strong emotional punch and the questioners were generally very supportive.

The ‘adoption’ of the title is set in motion by a Spanish couple, Natalia (Nora Navas) and Daniel (Francesc Garrido), who arrive in an unnamed East European country where they are met by an intermediary who they have paid to help them adopt a child under 3 years-old. The process they must go through is bureaucratic and extremely stressful – not helped by the fact that it is Christmas (with offices closed and family rituals) and very cold. It soon transpires that they need the intermediary for more than just interpreter duties – is she to be trusted? At the beginning of the narrative Natalia and Dani appear to have a strong loving relationship, but as the adoption process begins to hit all kinds of snags and they are faced with extremely difficult decisions, the two react in different ways and their relationship begins to suffer. In an interview with Cineuropa, Féjerman describes the film as “like a Christmas tale told by Kafka” – which seems a very good description of the narrative as well as of the real problems of producing the film.

The production had three Spanish companies, two Lithuanian companies and support from tvE (the Spanish public service broadcaster) and took several years to put together. It was a multiple language film – the Spanish language dialogue sections being shot twice with the second version in Catalan. L’adopció is the Catalan title. The film is also known by the international English title Awaiting. The Castilian Spanish title is La adopción. This is one of the increasing number of European films in which people from different European countries must speak English in order to negotiate bureaucracies. And this in turn creates divisions since the ability to speak a second (or usually third) language denotes either a good education or opportunities to travel and/or work abroad. The film uses Spanish/Catalan, English, Lithuanian, Russian and Italian. The local actors are mainly very experienced Lithuanian theatre actors (everything was shot in Lithuania). The English dialogue seemed to me very impressive and I was slightly surprised that though she introduced herself in English, Daniela Féjerman (herself Argentinian) answered questions via an interpreter. It says much for Ms Féjerman’s directorial skill that she accomplished so much on a multilingual shoot.

I said at the beginning of this post that I found the film disturbing. By this I mean that the film provokes strong audience responses which will be different for each audience member. I could certainly identify with the Spanish couple and I did indeed think about how I would react faced with the same circumstances and difficult decisions I was reminded of similar stresses on my travels, but associated with less important decisions. The two central performances are excellent. It took me some time to realise that Nora Navas had appeared in a previous ¡Viva! festival screening, Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her, Spain 2013). She was excellent in that role as well. I liked Natalia whereas I gradually began to turn against her husband. The central issue is international adoption as a practice. Personally, I find the whole idea problematic, but I appreciate that for some couples it becomes their only viable option for a child. In this case there is also the issue of making out that a whole country is corrupt – from the baggage-handlers at the airport, through civil servants and the medical profession to relatives who might view children as ‘for sale’ to people from Western Europe with money to spend. The latter point works both ways – why shouldn’t they earn extra money while seeing the child have a ‘better’ future in the West? In this case, Daniela Féjerman told us that the story was based on her own experiences adopting a child from Ukraine and that the circumstances in her film are commonplace – or so the Spanish Embassy told her. I’m not sure what my reaction was to that announcement. She also said that the Lithuanian production partners were happy with the script. The country isn’t named and in fact doesn’t allow international adoption. The titles do, however, announce the co-production.

One of the more expressive shots during the adoption process – the couple are watching a doctor with a child through a window.

One of the more expressive shots during the adoption process – the couple are watching a doctor with a child through a window.

But this is a fiction film narrative and much depends on how we might classify the film. On the whole, the film presents itself as a social drama, focusing on the adoption process and what it means for the participants. There are moments of wry humour and moments of heightened emotion about the couple’s relationship such as when they dance to a romantic Italian song in a Vilnius bar. The bar has Murphy’s stout on tap, but does it have Italian songs on a jukebox? Mostly, however, the approach is social realism with rather muted and cold cinematography making some kind of  ironic comment about the emotional stress for the couple during the Christmas period. It’s small things like this which made me think about melodrama. In the Cineuropa review Féjerman tells us:

“it was essential to maintain a certain tone: I had to prevent it from becoming melodramatic, which I was tempted towards, and it’s something that could easily have happened. I had such a brutal vision of the experience that I just couldn’t make a movie with violins playing in the background, because there were certainly none to be heard there.”

I suspect that I don’t have the same ideas about melodrama as this director. I understand what she is saying, but during the film she includes scenes and lines of dialogue which hint at typical relationships within a family. We never find out what Natalia and Dani do for a living, but we do know that Natalia has a father who is a high status and wealthy doctor and that Dani is perhaps affected by this. We also wonder what has happened in the couple’s attempts to conceive. I can see  that it is difficult to decide how much back story to give to the central characters, but the narrative does offer the potential of two intertwined stories, one about the adoption and one about the marriage. This could be a melodrama with Natalia as its centre without resorting to the violins that the director worries about. The film actually has a carefully worked score and includes children’s songs as well as the Italian song described above.

L’adopció is certainly a film to talk about and others will feel differently about the issue of international adoption and about melodrama. As far as I am aware the film has only been released in Spain (in both Catalan and Castilian) and up till now only in Spanish festivals. It deserves a wider audience and we should thank ¡Viva! for bringing it to the UK. L’adopció plays again at ¡Viva! on Thursday April 21 at 18.20.

International trailer (with English subs):

GFF16 #5: Urban Hymn (UK 2015)

Jamie (Letitia Wright) performing as a music student

Jamie (Letitia Wright) performing as a music student

Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.

Kate (Shirley Henderson, centre) in the community choir

Kate (Shirley Henderson, centre) in the community choir

The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.

prison warders control Leanne (Isabella Laughland)

Prison warders control Leanne (Isabella Laughland)

Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.

A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.

On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.