The Dardenne Brothers are among the most reliable and consistent filmmakers working today. It was something of a surprise that their appearance at Cannes this year was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed they decided that they needed to recut The Unknown Girl before its international release and seven minutes were excised to leave a 106 minute feature. With this in mind and fearing, if not the worst, then the possibility of disappointment, I was relieved to find that it was business as usual.
The narrative premise is simple. A young and highly-regarded doctor fails to answer the surgery door long after normal working hours. She reasons that if it is really urgent the caller will press the bell again. But nothing happens until later when the police inform the doctor that CCTV footage shows a young woman at the surgery door and that it is the same young woman who has been found dead on the bank of the River Meuse a short distance away. The doctor is shaken and struck by a profound sense of guilt as well as compassion for an unnamed woman whose identity is a mystery. Doctor Jenny Gavin, played by rising French star Adèle Haenel, becomes the first Dardenne brothers’ protagonist to be drawn from the professional classes. She’s also the third mainstream French actress in a row to feature in the Dardennes’ social realist films. As usual, the Dardennes had been mulling over the central idea for the story for a few years before they decided to make it after meeting Adèle Haenel. The circumstances of the story are also quite familiar. It could almost be a spin-off from the opening scenes of The Kid With a Bike when the boy in question runs into a doctor’s surgery. The ‘kid’ (Thomas Doret) turns up again in the new film, five years on in a small role and there are plenty of other familiar faces from the Dardennes’ films including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil and Fabrizio Rongione. But the differences are noticeable.
The social class difference is important. In the other films, the protagonist is either a young person struggling with a social/personal problem or an older woman subject to some form of control. Here, Jenny is a successful doctor, able to make her own decisions and to access the money she needs to fund her ‘investigation’ – since that is what she undertakes, a mission to find out who the dead girl was and even to pay for a decent burial (while hoping that the deceased’s family will eventually appear to claim her). I realised later that the narrative has some similarities with the recent ‘Hollywoodised’ versions of popular novels like The Girl on the Train – in which a middle-class woman tries to find out what happened when she appears to be involved in a murder. I won’t spoil what happens to Jenny but she starts her investigation with no accusations against her – the police accept that not answering the door after closing time at the surgery is not a crime. She is therefore motivated by her own sense of responsibility and morality. Jenny’s behaviour is also linked to another ‘failing’ in that she refused to answer the door as part of an attempt to exert her authority over an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). She was trying to teach him that doctors need to be alert and that he must avoid ‘overworking’ so his head remains clear to deal with patients in surgery time. But perhaps she gets this wrong too?
Dr Jenny is also to some extent an ‘unknown girl/woman’. We know nothing about her background. She appears to be single and without any form of ‘outside’ commitments. (It’s still unusual to have a female protagonist who isn’t either involved with a man or constrained by family responsibilities.) She takes her work seriously and the death of the woman seems to galvanise her into making a decision to work alone as a GP in a working-class practice. She works long hours and spends the rest of her time on the investigation – which will involve people from the neighbourhood. This all makes her sound rather dull and indeed some reviewers have criticised the film because they think that she is a dull and humourless figure and that the story is not ‘exciting’ enough. I don’t really agree with this. She isn’t humourless and she has a good relationship with her patients. It’s true that at first there aren’t the entertaining sequences – confrontations between characters – that we find in earlier Dardennes films. But she finds things out and the confrontations come eventually. Some reviewers have seen the development of a film noir narrative in the second half. Other reviews suggest that she is a ‘do-gooder’ and somehow morally ‘superior’ – which are not attractive features. I think her moral dilemmas are ‘real’ and that the reactions she evokes are understandable and have to be handled. The social issues are still there – migrant workers, male attitudes to prostitution and working-class confrontations with a young female medical practitioner. I also found it interesting to see something about social medicine in Belgium, which has a different system to the UK. Home visits are rare in the UK now but thankfully nobody has to pay for treatment. I’ve seen criticism that the narrative becomes contrived, but this can also be seen (as in other Dardennes films) as portraying the inter-connectedness of communities and the film manages to embed the central story in a recognisable world.
Not a crowd-pleaser film perhaps, but a great central performance offering plenty to think about.
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.
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.
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.
The second Bill Naughton play to get a big screen adaptation a few months after Alfie, The Family Way, stands up well today as a social comedy with a real heart. When it was released at the end of 1966 the film was given an X certificate (just like Alfie) but in 1970 the classification system changed and this was reduced to then new ‘AA’ (nobody under 14) with ‘X’ increasing its age restriction from ’16’ to ’18’. In a wonderful example of the difficulties of classifying films, the current DVD has a ’15’ certificate. Personally, I think 12A would be the most sensible.
When The Family Way was released in 1966, I ignored it for two reasons, I think. First, I mistakenly thought it would be a comedy about shotgun weddings with a young man forced to marry when he got his girlfriend pregnant. I don’t know how I got this impression. Second, the film starred John Mills and his daughter Hayley. Hayley Mills was in the process of trying to change her star image from children’s/Disney roles to adult roles and I think this put me off. In addition, I was not particularly a fan of John Mills who I associated with 1950s films. Again, I was wrong on both these counts but I think it’s interesting how strong and misleading impressions are formed. I’m less sure of whether I knew that this was a Boulting Brothers’ production at the time. The twin Boultings had been making films since the late 1930s, alternating roles as writer, producer and director. Post-1945 they had shown themselves as committed to mainstream Labour Party values and in the 1950s had begun to produce a series of satires on British institutions – Private’s Progress (1956), Brothers in Law (1957), Lucky Jim (1957) – from the Kingsley Amis novel about a university lecturer – Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959) (UK diplomats) and the brave satire on industrial relations I’m Alright Jack (1959). These were all productions by the Boultings as ‘independents’ but eventually they became involved in the machinations of the public funding agency for film in the UK, the National Film Finance Corporation, and its attempts to merge and support British Lion, the independent studio facility (Shepperton) and distributor. The Family Way is a Boultings production released in the UK through British Lion. Variety suggests that the film was successful in North America with over $2 million in rentals – equivalent to a box office gross of $3-4 million. The film was also notable as offering Paul McCartney his first chance to score a film. It was photographed (in colour) by the veteran UK cinematographer Harry Waxman.
Bill Naughton had originally written the story as an ‘Armchair Theatre’ play for ITV in 1961 titled Honeymoon Postponed. In 1963 it became a stage play All in Good Time before its film adaptation (by Naughton himself). In many ways the narrative takes the form of a traditional Lancashire social comedy (often referred to as ‘North Country comedy’ and popular as a stage comedy in theatres across the North). Arthur Fitton (Hywel Bennett) is a sensitive 20 year-old who works as a cinema projectionist (we see him projecting another British Lion hit of 1966, Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment). The film opens on the day of his wedding to Jenny Piper (20 year-old Hayley Mills). The couple are going to spend one night in Arthur’s old room in the Fitton household and then take off on their honeymoon to ‘Majorca’ (with a ‘j’). But next day they discover that the local travel agent has done a runner with all their cash and the trip is off – they are doomed to start married life in Arthur’s old bed. The first night has not gone well – a practical joke collapsed the bed beneath them and Arthur was put off his stride. One of the great things about the film is that the script avoids too many jokes about Arthur and Jenny’s predicament. Jenny is the sweetest of girls and truly loves Arthur, but she is human too and sometimes goes out with his brother when Arthur is at work.
The Lancashire comedy has several important elements. Here we have two contrasting families. The Pipers have the ‘hard’ mother (Avril Angers) and soft, doting father (John Comer). Arthur’s father is the impossible strutting working-class gamecock played to the hilt by John Mills and the understanding mother (the best role in the film) brilliantly presented by Marjorie Rhodes. Add in Arthur’s younger motorcycle-riding brother Geoffrey played by Murray Head and it isn’t difficult to see why Arthur feels under so much pressure in his old room with his young wife. In addition, his troubles with Jenny are bound to come to the notice of all the gossiping women in the neighbourhood who still discuss local events over the garden wall, in the queue at the fish and chip shop and when they are employed as cleaners at the Town Hall.
Really, the film shouldn’t work. Beautifully shot by Waxman, most of the photography is on location – in Rochdale according to Wikipedia with some scenes in Bolton and interiors at Shepperton. There is good use of night-time streets, record shops and the cinema etc. and I especially enjoyed a motorcycle ‘scrambling event’ – a genuine Pennine pursuit that Geoffrey takes Jenny to visit. But the casting is all ‘wrong’. Mills père and fille are from the UK cinema tradition of Southern actors playing Northern types. Murray Head is also a London lad and looks as if he is in a genuine 1966 film, not a 1961 comedy. (Head would later star as the young man in the middle in Sunday, Bloody Sunday with Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch in 1971.) Hywel Bennett was born in Wales but brought up in South London and Liz Fraser is another Londoner. Most of the rest of the cast are from across the North – the Ken Loach approach to local actors with a genuine identification with the characters they play seems some way away (although Kes would come out in 1969). But it does work. These are solid, professional actors and Naughton’s script is strong.
At the centre of the narrative is John Mills’ macho father, Ezra, the scourge of the local gas works and so ‘unreconstructed’ he could be a working man from the 1930s. I was amazed to realise that Mills was only 58 at the time. He leads the drinking and the singing at the wedding and berates his son for ‘book-reading’. As a balance to Mills, Wilfred Pickles plays Jenny’s uncle Fred who works as a ‘masseur’ – and is therefore deemed to know more about anything vaguely scientific/medical (and therefore ‘what’s up’ with Arthur). Pickles doesn’t have a long list of film credits but from the 1940s onwards he was a huge ‘personality’ presenter on radio and later television. A proud Yorkshireman despite settling in Lancashire, he may well have attracted older audiences to the film. A younger version of ‘macho man’ is played by Barry Foster, Arthur’s boss in the projection box. Arthur himself is a typical Lancashire comedy type. He looks so delicate. It’s only later that we learn that all did not go swimmingly on Ezra’s honeymoon and we might wonder whether Arthur is actually related to his father (on the other hand, we’ve noted that the younger son Geoffrey seems to be from another planet altogether). Arthur may well be a kind of ‘future man’.
It’s taken me a long time to realise it, but Naughton knew what he was about and his script is about a ‘real’ family – or at least a family I can recognise. It is arguably out of date for 1966, but memory is a strange device. When I attended a wedding only a few miles away from Rochdale/Bolton in 1970 it wasn’t too different from this one. I’m just grateful that DVD gives me the chance to relive it. Perhaps it will also help younger people to learn something about the Lancashire culture of the time.
I’d like to include a short extract from the film but StudioCanal (who bought the British Lion library) won’t allow it.
This screening was part of the work and research of a project at University College London – Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s. It was a real pleasure to revisit this film, which now looks like one of the finest features of the New British Cinema. This was a good 35mm print: neither dupe nor dark. The film does rely on extensive locations, and some of these – on dismal days or at night – are grey or shadowy.
The film was adapted by Tony Richardson, the director, and Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the original and very fine play. The film follows the play fairly closely, but fills out the story with sequences that are ‘off-stage’ in the theatre. So the film opens with a pre-credit sequence which introduces the protagonist Jo (Rita Tushingham) at her school, where she is in her final year. Then we meet her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) at their bedsit as she prepares for a ‘moonlight flit’. The scenes set up the central characters of the film. There is then a sequence behind the credits travelling across central Manchester, with a number of the city’s landmarks visible.
The film returns to central Manchester later when we see Jo, and her perspective friend Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin) watching the annual city Roman Catholic Parade. There are also scenes at the Blackpool resort; at the shoe shop where Jo works for a period; in Public Houses where Helen is in her element; at the car dealers where her boyfriend Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) works: and in a ballroom, that recurring setting in British films of this and earlier decades. And there are distinctive sequences set on and around the Manchester Ship Canal. Most of the urban centres are in Salford, where Jo and Geoffrey live.
What stands out at a viewing are the performances. 18 year old Rita Tushingham is a delight to behold. In the pre-credit sequence we see her in a class at the school and her behaviour and actions set up the character for the subsequent story. She is the centre of the film, and there are innumerable scenes with memorable delivery of dialogue or of carefully nuanced movement and expressions. She has a great smile but she also offers evocative stances and positioning. So in the class room, as she regales her fellow students, the use of her body, arms and stance all contribute to the personality. And the supporting cast is excellent. Dora Bryan turns in a performance as Helen which is full of panache and exuberance, her bubbly persona reminiscence of the music hall. Murray Melvin as Geoffrey is excellent, suggesting the fine line around sexual orientation which was almost completely absent from British film at this time. He is slightly camp but is also able to introduce the note of both anger and pathos. And Robert Stephens’ performance as the rather callow boyfriend was better than I remembered, the class is not quite right but the seediness is apt. There is also Paul Danquah in a minor role as the sailor-cum-cook who has a brief relationship with Jo. His blackness is another distinctive feature for the period. Frequently surrounding these are a group of children who play and sing in many of the exteriors. Presumably local Salford children they are completely convincing. Which reminds one of what a good director of actors was Tony Richardson.
The production overall is excellent. The structure of the film combines the freshness of the original drama with definitive cinematic quality. This seems the most assured of the film that Richardson directed in this period. Visually the film is a delight to watch. Much of the film was shot on location. The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, at the same time captures the state of the run-down Salford area with beautifully composed shots of the urban landscape. There is one memorable series of shots near a viaduct which is not only visually impressive but captures the élan of Jo and Geoffrey as they discuss their place in this world.
The film also has a very good soundtrack, full of interesting location noise. The music by Richard Addinsell is evocative and often lyrical Inserted are a series of children’s songs and rhymes, like ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally o’ at the film’s opening. My memory of the film was that it softened slightly the original play. However, I have revisited this in a BBC Radio production. And now I feel that the film does capture the play’s lyrical qualities but also its rather more downbeat ruminations. The film ends with a fine visual addition; we see Geoffrey in the shadows, Helen having retuned to Jo’s rather ramshackle room; and Jo herself watching a Guy Fawkes fire whilst the children sing. This ambiguous closure is as good as any other sequence in the film.
After the screening there was Q&A cum discussion as the project team encouraged the audience to remember aspect of cinema-going in the 1960s. We got dating, smoking and its effect [not on health but the screen], refreshments like Kia-Ora and the general plush interiors of the cinemas, especially chains like ABC or Odeon. The project team are looking for more reminiscences so if interested visit their website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories