Custody is quite a difficult film to write about without giving away too much. It’s scheduled for release by Picturehouses in the UK in the near future, so no spoilers! The screening at Glasgow Film Theatre was attended by the director Xavier Legrand and lead actor Denis Ménochet. The nearly full house was very enthusiastic during the Q&A and had clearly ‘enjoyed’ the film despite or because of its intensity, shocks and strong emotions.
I think I was thrown by the opening sequence which comprises a ‘mediation meeting’ between a husband and wife struggling through the dissolution of their marriage and custody of their children, both speaking through their legal representatives who deliver their cases in rapid (French) legalese. They are seated in close proximity around a table. The judge barely speaks and goes away promising a verdict some time later. The couple’s daughter is about to become 18, but her younger brother is only 12 and what happens to him is seemingly the focus of the drama. Watching the sequence, I thought of the opening to Asgar Farhadi’s film, A Separation (Iran 2011) and wondered if Custody was going to turn into that kind of family melodrama with dramatic intensity and legal/social/moral questions. I was wrong and I clearly misread or didn’t notice the clues to a different kind of drama. I can tell you that the director was inspired by three films (all American). One was Kramer v. Kramer. The other two were more suprising, but to name them would give the game away.
I can’t tell you what kind of narrative develops without saying too much about the plot and I think the power of the film depends on not knowing what will happen – in fact, creating uncertainty about the characters was a deliberate ploy by the director. The performances of Denis Ménochet as the father Antoine, Léa Drucker as the mother Miriam and, especially, Thomas Gioria as their son Julien are all excellent. Perhaps I can simply say that the audience is offered the same evidence/testimony in the opening as the judge. What do we think? And what will we find out over the next 90 minutes?
One of the perceptive comments in the Q&A was that the film has more female than male characters in important roles, so during the mediation, the judge and both advocates are female. The director pointed out that this was to be expected in urban areas because as mothers the three legal professionals were less likely to take jobs outside the strong childcare network in the city. But it’s also the case that Miriam has a sister and her daughter has friends but Thomas is more on his own. You might take from these observations that this is a film aware of gender issues and that it is in tune with its times. If the Glasgow audience is anything to go by, the film should receive press coverage and strong word of mouth. I think I would have liked to see the story take a different turn, but that doesn’t mean that I think the narrative presented here is not of supreme importance. Rather I have a preference for melodrama and for the sociology of the situation. I was amused that some of the action takes place on the ‘Rue Winston Churchill’ in what the subtitles called ‘the projects’, but these were more middle class than les cités familiar from banlieue films in France. I would have liked to ask questions about the setting (suburban Paris or a city in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, listed as giving support) and the social class positions of the characters during the Q&A, but this clearly wasn’t what the majority of the audience was interested in. I think this might be classed as a social realist melodrama, though there is little music in the film. This is odd since Josephine, the daughter, is a music student who sings two versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’, which could be a commentary of some sort on the action. I hope the film finds its audience on release.
Sometimes you find that your selection criteria for festival screenings goes awry. Mobile Homes started late because though we were told the lead actors had arrived they didn’t actually appear in the cinema until 15 mins past the advertised screening start time. I’d chosen the film thinking it was a Canadian film with a French co-production partner. I was bemused that it should have two British leads, Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, but I assumed that the director was French-Canadian. Wrong.
Vladimir de Fontenay won a prize with his short film Mobile Homes in 2013. He is a French director who has lived and worked in the US and studied at New York University Film School which gave him considerable support to help make this extended/’opened out’ version of his short as his first feature. He originated the story based on his experience of areas in upstate New York. Why did he end up shooting over the border with a Canadian crew? The obvious answer is that a France-Canada co-production would be official and would be eligible for both Canadian and French support from public agencies, but there is no indication of this. Does any of this matter, you may well ask. I think so.
The film’s title is both metaphorical and actual. Ali (Imogen Poots) and her son Bone (Frank Oulton) have teamed up with Evan (Callum Turner), a hustler dealing drugs and roosters for illegal fights. The trio move from one motel to the next or squat somewhere overnight. They have no ‘home’, either in terms of a permanent residence or as ‘a place to call their own’. When they become separated, Ali and Bone find themselves in a wooden house which is being transported on a low loader by Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) who runs a small ‘park’ of these wooden buildings. This is confusing for Brits as we tend to think of a ‘mobile home’ as a trailer, a caravan or a van with sleeping accommodation. These are bigger buildings without wheels of their own. They are assembled in a factory and then moved to a ‘park’. Evan, having lost Ali and Bone will come looking for them in the last section of the narrative.
The film is fast-paced in the opening section with the camera whipping about as the trio try to make money from various deals. The cinematography is by Benoit Soler who also shot Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013), a very different kind of film that I liked a lot. When the ‘split’ takes place, the pace slows a little but I was dreading the return of Evan. Imogen Poots does very well with her role and Frank Boulton as Bone is excellent. This part might have been a social realist drama. I’ve seen Poots in several roles and she’s always been impressive. There is music in the film, but the most important song (the only one I recognised) was Etta James’ version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – an odd choice, especially as it’s a live version. You may have noticed that I’m being rather down on the Evan character who is described in some promotional material as ‘intoxicating’. I don’t think so. The actor Callum Turner has a list of credits in TV and mainly mainstream films, none of which I’ve seen, but he clearly has a fan following and star potential. He and Imogen Poots offered a rather ‘starry’ Q&A which went down very well with the festival audience. The fourth major character Robert is a potential balance for Evan and as played by the Alberta-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie he adds further weight to the central section of the narrative.
I suspect it is my (old) age (and interest in Canadian cinema) that made me less than sympathetic about the film overall. The lack of Canadian identity in the film (no recognisable Eastern Canada accents or distinctive locations) made it feel like it could be happening anywhere. The whole narrative didn’t seem to hold together – the third section includes a dramatic action sequence which in some ways matches the earlier scenes. What starts off as an odd crime melodrama transforms into a social drama/melodrama and then a road movie of sorts. You’ll be able to make up your own minds later this year in the UK with a release via Thunderbird (a Canadian company I think).
Equilibrium is a low-key social melodrama filmed in a style that suggests a Loachian realism, but also a more expressive use of tracking cameras alongside long shots and the midshots of social melodrama. It’s a modest film about an important issue, but for me its modesty gives it great power. Written and directed by Vincenzo Marra, Equilibrium is a questionable concept or ideal when it refers to the role of a parish priest in a difficult area. At the start of the film we meet Fr. Giuseppe who has returned from a mission in Africa and is now working in a hostel for migrants (asylum seekers?) in Rome. He’s a rather solemn man, still with youth and vigour, who is clearly capable but he is also disturbed by his feelings towards a young female teacher/social worker helping in the hostel. Fr. Giuseppe approaches his bishop and requests a transfer. He is sent to the suburbs of Naples to replace Fr. Antonio, a parish priest who is moving on after 15 years. Fr. Antonio shows the new man the smouldering heaps of refuse that are poisoning the atmosphere locally and causing many cancers and other life-threatening diseases. This is the battle to be fought – to persuade the authorities to do something about the pollution. But Fr. Giuseppe soon learns that other battles are not being fought, especially with the local drugs business since it is controlled by a Camorra clan based close to the parish church.
Fr. Giuseppe reveals himself to be emotionally open and also impetuous in attempting to find solutions to the misery experienced by certain parishioners. He seems somewhat naïve in the way he ignores warning signs and barges straight into situations. He wants to save people but is in danger of making life much more difficult for them. This isn’t to say that the status quo should be maintained or that Fr. Giuseppe shouldn’t do anything. Rather, he should think first and look at the various possible ways of acting. I should stress that this is how I read the narrative – I’m not necessarily making a moral judgement. The film’s presentation is key here. Marra, during an interesting Q&A, told us that he decided to use non-professional actors and theatre actors, mainly I think because they would do what they were asked to do and not what they thought was conventional for a film, based on their experience of previous films. Fr Giusseppe is played by Mimmo Borrelli who, if I’ve interpreted Google Translate properly, is a major figure in Neapolitan theatre. His role in this film (his only credit on IMDb) seems far removed from the flamboyance of his theatrical persona. Here he is mournful and moves slowly for the most part (except when he is determined to act). His casting, indeed the whole casting process seems to echo the Loach/Laverty approach and in the Q&A Marra told us that he thought the situation in Naples was similar to other conurbations in Europe, picking out Glasgow and saying that he had visited the locations for Loach’s Sixteen Films productions around Clydeside. During the film I had thought about Sweet Sixteen (UK 2002), made in Greenock on the Clyde and starring the then unknown Martin Compston. I’m not sure why this film came to mind because the situation and characters are quite different. I guess that both films use local non-film actors who play characters who are up against some kind of organised crime in a district with little hope for significant groups in the population. Overall, Liam in the Loach film achieves more and the narrative is slightly more optimistic. The new ‘Equilibrium’ in the Italian film doesn’t seem to offer the locals much more than the old – but there is a glimpse of hope from one character in the closing shot and perhaps that is enough?
I’ve enjoyed all the Italian films I’ve seen at LFF in the last few years. Some have been flawed but all have been worthwhile, so thanks Adrian Wootton, the former Festival Director who now acts as the ‘Regional Adviser’ to the festival on Italian Cinema. Unfortunately, the one thing the films have in common is that none to my knowledge have received UK distribution. All foreign language films struggle in the current climate, but Italy is the major producer that seems to suffer most.
This trailer doesn’t have English subs, but gives a good idea of the style:
La Madre was a challenging start to my ¡Viva! viewing, both in terms of its uncompromising aesthetic and barebones story. The title is slightly misleading in that the protagonist is 14 year-old Miguel. His mother is largely absent and when she is present she doesn’t contribute a great deal. This explains why Miguel has attracted the attention of social services in his small town in the Valencia region. They want to take him into care and he is hoping that his mother will get a job and be able to provide a home for him.
We first meet Miguel on the street, attempting to sell packets of tissues to motorists at traffic junctions. The camera follows him closely, often focusing on the back of his neck. He’s learned how to be resilient in pursuing the necessities of daily life – shoplifting, accepting food from his friends at school who don’t always eat their packed lunches, selling his (stolen) tissues. We don’t know why his mother is in the state she is in – lacking energy, sleeping during the day and seemingly suffering from depression. We don’t learn about Miguel’s absent father. Quite early on I was reminded of Moonlight, not only because of the mother-son set-up, but also because of the roaming hand-held camera and the use of shallow focus.
As in Moonlight, the narrative provides the young teenager with a surrogate father figure. In this case, at his mother’s prompting, Miguel seeks out her ex-lover Bogdan, who lives in a neighbouring district with his son Andrei. Andrei is a few years older than Miguel and not necessarily pleased to see the younger boy. But it is during his time with Bogdan that Miguel will meet María (the impressive Nieve de Medina) a woman who runs a local bar-café and who offers Miguel the kind of adult support he hasn’t very often experienced. How will he respond and how will it affect his feelings about his mother?
There is nothing sentimental about La Madre and little in the way of generic trappings or obvious narrative delights. The setting is important. This is the south of Spain in a landscape of dusty roads, humdrum residential areas and industrial estates. There is no escape for Miguel into places of natural beauty or contact with animals. It’s traffic junctions, bus stops, small shops etc. It’s also a ‘sterile’, almost abstract environment with relatively few people on the streets or in the shops and bars. Presented in CinemaScope framings, the images seem to contradict or challenge our assumptions about what kind of film this might be.
After the screening I read about the film on Cineuropa’s website which carries a review and an interview with the director and co-writer Alberto Morais. He tells us that he wanted to make a film about the new economic ‘war’ on the poor and that his starting point was observing children in Russia after the fall of communism. The orphanages and children’s homes closed and children were sleeping in the metro stations. He argues that he is making a ‘film of the moment’, but not offering a moral point of view. He had the idea of focusing on attitudes towards the marginalisation of migrants by having a Spanish boy be taken in by Romanian migrants. He also gives us ideas about his own influences – Bergman and Pasolini are mentioned but he seems to make a judgement against the Dardenne Brothers and generally what he sees as the ‘Catholic guilt’ of many liberal ‘social’ films. I’m still trying to understand this approach. I like the Dardennes and I’m wary of Bergman (I don’t know Pasolini well enough to make a judgement). I think perhaps I like my realism combined with melodrama and enough sociology to place the characters and the story in the world I recognise. Morais and his co-writers have a different strategy. I think I would have found the narrative even more difficult to engage with if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary performance by the young debutant actor Javier Mendo as Miguel. My attention was certainly held by Miguel/Mendo who is on screen almost all the time. He has one of those faces that can switch from vulnerability to resilience and an almost adult sense of introspection. I couldn’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ La Madre, but I was impressed by the filmmaking and the performances. I don’t think a little more emotion would have undermined the film’s purpose.
The trailer below shows some of the visual style and conveys the tension of Miguel’s experiences.
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.
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid, the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:
“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”
The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.
I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.
Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in the Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.
As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.
So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.
The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.
In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.
Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.
This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.
A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.
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.