Tagged: thriller

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu Japan-France 2016)

A misleading 'selfie' suggesting 'harmony' in the extended family of Akie, Hotaru and Toshio – and the mysterious Yasaka

A misleading ‘selfie’ suggesting ‘harmony’ in the extended family of (from left) Akie, Hotaru and Toshio – and the mysterious Yasaka

The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.

Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.

Formal breakfast in the household

Formal breakfast in the household

At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.

The Girl on the Train (US 2016)

The world from the train window . . .

The world from the train window . . .

The Girl on the Train proved to be much more interesting than the majority of reviews suggested. I was fully engaged by a film that may have flaws but also many pluses that reviewers seem to have overlooked. I arrived early for my multiplex seat, able to watch the rest of the audience file in. I was struck by the overwhelming majority of women (of all ages) over men. Since the novelist whose work has been adapted, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer and the film’s three leads are all women, my first thought was “Why is the film directed by a man?”. I also wondered if this was a modern version of the ‘woman’s picture’?

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

The two aspects of the film that are most commented on are the adaptation’s relocation of the narrative from the Home Counties in the UK to New York State and a direct comparison with the similarly themed and structured Gone Girl by David Fincher. These weren’t in fact the two aspects of the film that intrigued me but perhaps I need to confront them first. I haven’t read Paula Hawkins novel and I’m not interested in valuing novels over film adaptations or vice versa. I did read Gone Girl before seeing Fincher’s film adaptation and so I had a different reaction to that film and its ‘unreliable narration’. The Girl on the Train also employs some ‘unreliable narrators’ but unlike in Gone Girl, the ‘unreliability’ is not deliberate for much of the time on behalf of the lead character Rachel (Emily Blunt). If you haven’t read the novel or the many reviews of the film, Rachel is a (barely) functioning alcoholic who can’t help torturing herself by thinking about her ex-husband Tom’s new marriage and his new baby daughter Evie. Rachel is unable to have a child and each day she travels on a commuter train past her old house looking for her successor Anna and her baby. (The train conveniently stops at the same signal near her old house.) She also becomes interested in another young couple Megan and Scott living close by in a house equally observable from the train window. Rachel frequently passes out when she has drunk too much and one day she wakes to discover on the TV news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel is disturbed by a vague feeling that somehow she is connected to Megan’s disappearance. Eventually she finds herself under suspicion by Police Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) and decides to do some investigating, especially since she thinks she saw Megan kissing another man.

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie – trapped in the town which is a "baby-making factory"?

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie, trapped in the town – which is a “baby-making factory”?

I understand that in Hawkins’ novel, the commuting journey is from a fictional town in Buckinghamshire. Transferring the narrative to Metro North along the Hudson River makes sense I think. Commuting into Marylebone or Euston is rather different to the jam-packed commuter trains and stations of South and East London and is closer to the commuting experience in New York. The Metro North trains are slower, less crowded and have the big windows which link this film to classics like Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. It also struck me that by shooting in the Autumn in Westchester County, the filmmakers also conjure up the feel of classic melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its re-working Far From Heaven (2002). On another level, it made me think of The Stepford Wives (1975). I realise that these are references to New England rather than upstate New York, but the central point is around the milieu of the middle-class commuter town and the aridity of a culture which develops tensions between work in the city and domesticity in the small town. Like the Sirkian melodramas, the central characters are the women, trapped in a community with little vision and subject to domestic abuse and conventional norms of child-bearing. (I remember Megan’s line about the town as a ‘baby-making’ factory.) Rachel’s response to pressure is to become an alcoholic.

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The major flaw in the film seems to me to be in the narration. I understand from the novel that there are meant to be three narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is often drunk. Megan does have a ‘voice’ in the narration and she discusses her life with Dr Abdic, a local psychiatrist but Anna seems much less of a ‘narrator’. The film uses titles to inform us that it is ‘Six months ago’ etc. I confess that I found these titles somewhat confusing. I still followed the story but clearly I became mixed up about the plot. I suspect that because I treated the narrative as a melodrama with Rachel as the central subject, I didn’t bother too much about the plotting of the thriller elements and I certainly didn’t worry about contrivances or ‘excessive’ emotional responses. Emily Blunt is terrific in the film and the other two women are also very good. It’s interesting that two out of the three are Brits (or Swedish Brit in the case of Rebecca Ferguson). Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen is particularly good at presenting Emily Blunt on screen.The best line of the film for me was when Rachel challenges the psychiatrist played by Edgar Ramírez (the Venezuelan actor who speaks several languages fluently – see Carlos (France-Germany 2010)). “You have an accent”, she says. “So do you” he responds – touché! I like Ramírez a lot. I’m not sure that it matters, but he has more charisma than the other two male leads. On the other hand Justin Theroux plays Tom Watson very well as the rather dull guy with something lurking underneath. Luke Evans (another Brit!) plays Megan’s partner Scott and his macho tendencies seem more obvious. I was intrigued to see that the scriptwriter on the film, Erin Cressida Wilson, began her career with Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a very effective film. I’d forgotten, before I wrote this review, that I’d seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) by director Tate Taylor. When I re-read my posting on that film I noticed that one of my issues with it was the narrative structure. Taylor handles the actors and the action well. It’s mainly the narration that I have problems with in Girl on the Train.

The Girl on the Train is still on release and it’s worth seeing in a cinema. At the very least it has three lead roles for women, no car chases or explosions and no super-heroes. It’s a movie for grown-ups. The next day I watched Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950) with Gene Tierney as a woman who falls prey to a hypnotist. I enjoyed both films.

¡Viva! 22 #5: Magallanes (Peru-Argentina-Columbia-Spain 2015)

Taxi driver Harvey Magallanes

Taxi driver Harvey Magallanes

(This is an edited version of my introduction to the film on its first ¡Viva! screening)

Magallanes offers a relatively rare opportunity to see a Peruvian film and to consider what it means to produce a film in a country like Peru. Peru is the fifth-largest Latin American country in terms of population but its film culture is not as developed as that of its northern neighbour Columbia or Venezuela (roughly the same population) or Chile (smaller population but a bigger film market). Cinema requires a substantial middle class audience to support a thriving film culture, at least in terms of cinema audiences and domestic productions. Peru has a history of social inequality and poor economic performance until the last decade of significant growth.

Peru makes around 10 films per year. Its cinemas are dominated by Hollywood features (less than 1% of the audience is for domestic features) but the average frequency of attendance is less than once a year per head of population. (All figures for 2011 from FOCUS produced by the European Audio-Visual Observatory – the figures are four years old, but I don’t think they will have changed significantly.)

Making a local Peruvian film that will appeal to a domestic popular audience (and therefore compete with Hollywood imports) and to international film markets (conferring cultural status) is very difficult and requires one or more factors to be in place.

  • public funding
  • external funding – film festival support for scripts and filmmakers
  • co-production

It usually means finding a popular genre as a carrier for an important local story that will also have some kind of universal appeal outside the country.

Magallanes is a co-production with Argentina, Colombia and Spain. Writer-director Salvador del Solar is a Peruvian actor known for films and TV performances across Latin America and this is his début film. The three main actors are the Mexican Damián Alcázar, the Argentinian Federico Luppi (known in the UK for his roles in Guillermo del Toro films) and Peru’s own Magaly Solier (who has appeared in two previous ¡Viva! films from Peru, Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009) ).

The music is by the Argentinian Federico Jusid, who also composed the music for The Secret in Their Eyes, one of the most successful Latin American films of the last few years and shown in this ¡Viva! festival as part of the Ricardo Darin strand. In some ways, Magallanes is similar kind of film, a genre film with its roots in a national issue. It’s less complex in terms of narrative and less spectacular in terms of action – but perhaps more profound in what it attempts to say.

With a budget of around £650,000 Magallanes is a genuine popular film with international appeal, recognised by its successful screenings at film festivals such as Toronto and San Sebastián. The script is adapted from a novel by Alonso Cueto called The Passenger – and its story begins when a woman gets into a taxi cab. Critics described the novel as a suspense thriller mixed with the psychological depth of the realist novel – and this description suits the film as well.

The narrative and the Political history of Peru

It’s useful to think about Magallanes as similar to some of the successful films made in the smaller film industries of Europe have over the last decade. Films like Black Book (2006) in the Netherlands, Flame and Citron (2008) in Denmark and Max Manus (2008) in Norway. These extremely popular films in their local markets competed successfully with Hollywood in looking back to the Second World War and the ways in which local people dealt with the experience of Occupation and the development of Resistance movements. Sometimes films have also looked at the shame associated with collaboration. This is especially true in France where specific films such as Un héros tres discrèt (1996) explored the ‘myth’ of ‘resistance’ and others such as Un secret (2007) explored the ways in which anti-semitism in France became part of ‘collaboration’.

In Latin America it is the aftermath of the vicious oppression of military regimes and forms of civil war from the 1970s through to the 1990s and beyond which has formed the basis for successful film stories, especially in Argentina. The Chilean documentarist Patricio Guzmán has made it his life’s work to document the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the subsequent atrocities of the General Pinochet regime – Guzmán’s latest film The Pearl Button (France-Chile 2015) is currently on release in the UK.

Peru experienced a civil war which reached its height in the 1980s and continued through to 2000.  The main conflict, in what was a complicated struggle for power involving several different groups, was between the security forces of the right-wing governments of the period and the Maoist guerrilla group known as the Shining Path. These two forces tried to take control of the mountain areas in the Andes, particularly in the Ayacucho region and in doing so they imposed themselves violently on the indigenous peoples of the region. Both sides committed atrocities on a large scale. A ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ reported in Peru in 2003 and suggested that some 70,000 people had been killed or ‘disappeared’ in the conflict and some 500,000 were displaced from their homes. Ayacucho experienced a ‘reign of terror’. The victims were mainly indigenous people and after they fled to the slums of the capital Lima, they became the focus of investigations and death squads as the conflict moved to urban areas in the 1990s.

Celina (Magaly Solier)

Celina (Magaly Solier)

The story of Magallanes – the name of the central character – takes place in Lima in the present day. Lima is a very large city of nearly 10 million people and one of the three largest in the Americas with nearly a third of Peru’s population. It’s a sprawling modern city suggesting economic progress and looking forward to the future, but for many of its residents the horrors of the past are not easy to forget. Magallanes (Damián Alcázar) is a part-time taxi driver and paid ‘companion’ to ‘the Colonel’ – his former commanding officer when the two men were stationed in Ayacucho. The Colonel (Federico Luppi). The Colonel has now succumbed to a form of dementia and we can’t be sure what he remembers of his time in the Andes. When Celina (Magaly Solier) climbs into his cab, Magallanes recognises her as the young indigenous girl taken by the Colonel as his sex slave during those years in Ayacucho. Magallanes quickly hatches a plan to extort money from the Colonel’s wealthy son – but is it the money that he wants or something else? What was his relationship with Celina?

I was most struck in watching the film by a scene towards the end of the film in which during an argument Celina begins to speak in Quechua, the language spoken by many indigenous people. The dialogue is not translated in the English subtitles and as the audience we can’t be sure if the European Peruvians who speak Spanish understand this outburst. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Some people prefer not to think about the past, others try to hide it. Some try to come to terms with what happened and some just refuse to even listen. Spanish is the dominant official language, Quechua is spoken by perhaps 10% of the Peruvian population. 

The people in power in Peru today still face questions about the aftermath of a conflict that ended less than 20 years ago. In the 1990s the President of Peru was Alberto Fujimori whose ’counter-insurgency’ measures led to deaths and disappearances in Lima. He fled to Japan to escape justice in 2000 but was extradited and in 2009 he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 25 years in gaol. In April 2016 his daughter Keiko Fujimori won the first round of voting during the Presidential Elections with nearly 40% of the vote. She looks like winning the second round in June. So it goes.

But perhaps the production of a celebrated feature film trying to deal with remembering the past is a sign that Peruvian culture can move forward?

Magallanes plays again as the final screening in this years ¡Viva! at HOME on Sunday 24th April at 16.00

Victim (UK 1961)

dearden_victim2001

This is a seminal film from the 1960s, partly because it was a trail blazer in addressing issues around sexual orientation. When the film appeared homosexuality was illegal and gay people were constantly victimised, especially by the police. What makes this more impressive is that two major British stars lead the film, Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr and Sylvia Syms as his wife Laura. This is very much Bogarde’s film, but Syms is excellent and there is one powerful scene between the couple when they have to confront the question of same sex attraction. There is also a very goods supporting cast with actors like Peter McEnery, Dennis Price and Derren Nesbitt.

The film was produced by Allied Filmmakers, whose other productions of the period included Whistle Down the Wind (1961). The key figures in this film would appear to be the team of Michael Relph [Producer] and Basil Dearden [Director]. They made a series of important social problem films in the 1950s and early 1960s. Two of their really interesting films are Pool of London (1951) which addresses inter-racial romance and Violent Playground (1958) dealing with police and crime in Manchester. One aspect of their work is the use of location filming and a consequent sense of realism. Their films tend to appear somewhat conventional today as they have to operate within the conventions of popular film of the time. So there is always a sense that something is held back: neither Pool of London or Victim go the whole way in showing explicit physical contact either between a black man and a white woman or between two men.

However, when one take into account the censorship of the time by the British Board of Film Censors this is understandable. Victim received an X certificate when it was released and had to be cut by about ten minutes. Intriguingly over the years the certification has gone down: 15, 12 and then PG. So credit should also go to the writers, Janet Green and John McCormick. As so frequently was the case the film subject has been wrapped up in a genre plot, in this case a thriller concerning blackmail. The film actually has a strong noir feel, much of this due to the cinematography of Otto Heller, who had a tendency to expressionist camera work. [He also worked on the then infamous, now famous Peeping Tom (1960)].

The version screening on Sunday at The Hyde Park Picture House appears to be a full length version, 101 minutes. Equally good news, it is screening in a pristine 35mm print. This is definitely a key popular artwork from the 1960s, that decade that dramatised nearly all of the major contradictions in British society. It is also a very entertaining film, and much better seen on the big screen.

LFF 2015 #6: 11 Minutes (Poland-Ireland 2015)

The actress (Paulina Chapko) and the producer (Richard Dormer).

The actress (Paulina Chapko) and the producer (Richard Dormer).

LFFThere are NO SPOILERS here! A word of advice – don’t read any reviews of this film that don’t give you this assurance.

Jerzy Skolimowski is the Polish director who was a rebel filmmaker in the early 1960s, a young man who went to Lodz film school and tussled with Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and Roman Polanski. After several Polish features he moved into ‘international’ filmmaking with a series of English language films, including Deep End (1970) made about UK issues but shot mainly in West Germany. Later he moved to Hollywood but his directing career foundered in the 1990s. In 2010 he teamed up with Jeremy Thomas to produce a critically acclaimed international thriller Essential Killing. Thomas is a legendary international producer who had previously produced Skolimowski’s The Shout in the UK in 1978. Essential Killing premiered at Venice and like many of Skolimowski’s previous titles generated awards interest (Skolimowski boasts 22 awards as writer and director from major festivals around the world). 11 Minutes, the next Skolimowski-Thomas production also opened at Venice in 2015 and was again nominated for the Golden Lion.

11 Minutes is a Polish co-production with Ireland. Most of the film appears to be shot in Warsaw with sound recording and possibly some interiors in Dublin. Most of the dialogue is Polish except for English used in one narrative strand. The only thing I can say about the ‘plot’ is that it covers what happens between 5pm and 5.11 one afternoon in the lives of a group of characters in central Warsaw. The group includes an actress who has an appointment in a hotel with an American actor/producer re a new film. Her husband is trying to find her in the hotel. A man sells hot dogs from a cart in the park and a woman walks a dog. A teenager breaks into a pawnbroker’s shop. A couple look through some video porn on a laptop. A motor-cycle courier delivers more than just a package to a married woman. Some nuns wait for a bus. A security guard watches CCTV monitors. An ambulance crew are on a mercy mission. There may be other characters I’ve forgotten. The separate stories are not told in a linear fashion and Skolimowski sometimes goes back in time before he goes forward again. This play with time also includes a cheeky image of time running backwards. The film lasts just 81 minutes, cut down from a 120 minutes original version.

Action at the Bus Stop

Action at the Bus Stop

For me, this was a thrilling ride. At one point I thought I was watching some kind of avant-garde film and I searched for the kinds of editing rhythms I remembered from 1970s structural films. Eventually I realised what was happening but I wasn’t prepared for the ending. Somebody who watched the same screening that I attended, at which Skolimowski answered questions, reported on IMDB that they were unimpressed. They must be hard to please. I thought that 11 Minutes was a triumph of editing and the choreography of actors’ movements and camera set-ups must have been very difficult. At the Q&A Skolomowski said that he treated the narrative as a poem full of metaphors and symbols and that like all poems he thought that readers should decide for themselves what the metaphors meant. There was a brief discussion as to what the ‘dead pixel’ on one of the CCTV screens might mean as well as suggestions that there was something supernatural going on. What was it that seemed to make some of the characters look up into the sky? It occurred to me afterwards that the film had something in common with the Argentinian collection of short stories, Wild Tales (2014). The two films have very different narrative structures but both seem in a way to be commenting on something about lives in their respective countries/cultures. A final question asked about the opening of the film and this was indeed interesting. Skolimowski begins with introductions to several of the most important characters by way of what might be considered ‘non-theatrical’ video sources – a camera on a mobile phone, the webcam on a laptop, CCTV in an interview room etc. The rest of the film is then shot conventionally on film or HD. Again, we are invited to decide what this choice of formats means.

11 Minutes does not yet have a UK distributor but it does have a leading UK sales agent, Hanway, so it should arrive here. It will be released in Ireland by co-producers Element Pictures. The film will divide critics perhaps but if you like terrific cinematography combined with excellent sound and great choreography in a whole that challenges your perception of the pace of contemporary city life, this is a winner.

Glasgow FF15 #5: Red Amnesia (Chuǎngrù zhě, China 2014)

Mrs Deng (left, facing the camera) is one of the 'neighbourhood watch'-type guardians of her housing block. Is that the mysterious teenage boy she can see?

Mrs Deng (left, facing the camera) is one of the ‘neighbourhood watch’-type guardians of her housing block. Is that the mysterious teenage boy she can see?

The first part of a double bill of new Chinese films at the Glasgow Festival (see comments on Dearest to follow) is Wang Xiaoshuai’s third part of a loose trilogy about the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ‘rightist’ families from the East of China sent to factories in the Western part of the country. The first two parts dealt with life in the Western cities in Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers. The third film focuses on the Deng family in Beijing and it is some time into the film that we realise the connection to the other two films.

Wang is a ‘Sixth Generation’ director who, unlike his peers such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye, has tended to produce films that seem to be more like the social realist art films of the West. Red Amnesia begins as if it is going to be a form of ‘social issue’ film in which the central character is Mrs Deng as a woman in her late 60s who is seen as something of a nuisance by her grown-up sons. She lives in her old apartment in Beijing after the death of her husband and visits both her married son and her gay son, as well as her own mother in a care home. Is the issue the care of the elderly (or merely ‘old’) in a society which for generations has venerated them? Certainly her daughter-in-law, a thoroughly modern, ‘globalised’ woman, doesn’t want her ‘interference’. Soon, however, the film changes genres and we seem to be in thriller mode with mysterious phone calls and other disturbances. At one point I thought that the intention was to enter J-horror territory as Mrs Deng, who regularly converses with her dead husband, seems to be being followed by a teenage boy who doesn’t seem quite real when she invites him to dinner. (I’m thinking here of Nakata Hideo’s films like Dark Water.)

Eventually, we will learn that the boy is a link to Guizhou in South-West China where Wang’s family were placed and he was born. Did the Dengs do something which has prompted retaliation now they are back in Beijing? The Guizhou references reminded me a little bit of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City with its tales of workers being sent to a factory in the South-West for strategic reasons. Only in the later sequences do we realise that the credit sequence at the beginning of the film had actually shown us the abandoned factory in Guizhou.

As Mrs Deng, the theatre actor Lu Zhong is wonderful and the other performances are strong. This well-made film should attract audiences but in the West, as the years go by, I wonder how many of the younger audience will appreciate the points about the Cultural Revolution?

’71 (UK 2014)

Private Hook (Jack O'Connell)  has a steep learning curve on the reality of life on the streets of Belfast

Private Hook (Jack O’Connell) has a steep learning curve on the reality of life on the streets of Belfast

“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is the pithy if not totally inaccurate verdict on the British Army made, in ‘71, by a character who had spent 20 years as an army medic. He is carrying out DIY surgery in the bedroom on Gary Hook, a young British Army private who has been left behind after a raid on a Republican area of West Belfast. Ironically, the life-threatening injuries are inflicted on him not by the initial beating by the crowd in the street but by a bomb accidentally set off in a Loyalist pub given by army intelligence black-ops operatives in order to get the Loyalists to set it off in a Nationalist area. This gives some idea of the twists and turns of the plot in this short but intense film, mostly set over the course of 12 hours in West Belfast in 1971, when the Troubles moved into a new phase.

Hook’s abandonment follows a house-search operation in a Nationalist area by the RUC (Northern Ireland police) who are given back-up by Hook’s squad. The women of the area sound the warning by banging dustbin lids on the pavement and a crowd soon gathers. A riot ensues during which a young boy makes off with a rifle and Hook gives chase but is intercepted by the crowd. He gets beaten up despite the efforts of a couple of the women from the area but he does manage to escape. In a superbly-handled sequence, he runs through a warren of lanes, gardens, abandoned pubs and houses bombed out during the pogroms in the previous year. He hides in a toilet to wait for nightfall and partially disguises himself by taking some civilian clothes from a washing line.

He has to rely for help where he can get it, whether Loyalist or Republican, as he is stalked by a group of armed IRA activists. He comes across a garrulous young Loyalist boy who takes him to the Loyalist pub where Hook (but not the boy) survives the bombing and is seriously injured. A Catholic father (the former British Army medic) and his daughter find him lying on the street. Frightened, both for themselves and Hook, to take him to hospital, they take him home, which is in the famous Divis Flats on the Falls Road, and call on local IRA leader, Boyle, to get him to safety. (Just before this period, the IRA had what was effectively a cease-fire with the Army and Boyle is in contact with the military). However he is in dispute with younger, more trigger-happy elements in the IRA and things don’t go according to plan. From here the plot becomes even more tortuous, with double-crossing taking place among both the British forces and rival Republicans, the Official-Provisional IRA split having taken place a few months before.

Kids running through streets of fire in West Belfast

Kids running through streets of fire in West Belfast

Although the film starts off with a familiar trope from war films – rookie soldiers undergoing basic training before being sent into battle – it quickly becomes an urban thriller with a relentless tempo and a constantly tense atmosphere. This is the first feature film directed by Yann Demange, a Frenchman but brought up in Britain, and he has made an impressive debut. It is also the first screenplay by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke who wrote the acclaimed play ‘Black Watch’ (2006), based on interviews with soldiers serving in Iraq, which was highly critical of politicians and officers, a stance evident in the film. The cinematographer is Anthony Radcliffe and much of the camerawork is done with hand-held cameras which help ratchet up the tension. The production design gives an authentic feel of the early 70s Belfast – although the long hair and sideburns of the undercover soldiers are on the edge of caricature. But the aspect of the production that particularly impressed me was atmospheric pounding score written by David Holmes (who also scored Steve McQueen’s 20 film, Hunger). He dispenses with the  Celtic folk-ish music which is frequently used in films set during the Troubles and instead uses guitars and synthesisers. [Samples have been made available here:

http://www.hotpress.com/news/LISTEN–David-Holmes–soundtrack-for–71/12584905.html ]

The acting is also first class. I was familiar with Jack O’Connor who plays Gary Hook from Starred Up where he played a brutalised young convict in a violent prison but in ‘71 he is more not so much brutal as bewildered. Here he doesn’t have much dialogue to work with and has to do a lot with looks and gestures. Other notable performances are those of David Wilmot and Martin McCann, representing old and new Republicans; Richard Dormer as the former Army medic and Charlie Murphy as his daughter Brigid. Sean Harris carries his devious and ruthless persona from his role as Micheletto Corella, the Borgias’ hit man in the Showtimes television series The Borgias and is convincingly evil as Captain Browning, the officer in charge of the army black-ops team. A special word for the young actor Corey McKinley who plays the chirpy Loyalist boy with an assurance beyond his years.

Many films set during the Troubles in Ireland have been criticised for simply using the setting as an easy provider of tension and explosive violence rather than shedding light on the underlying causes of the conflict (I’m thinking in particularly of Fifty Dead Men Walking, directed by Karl Skogland in 2008, Shadow Dancer by James Marsh in 2012, and Harry’s Game, by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1982) and I think that is the case to some extent with ’71. Indeed, apart from some local detail, it could easily be set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Burke’s script doesn’t really lead to any real understanding of what The Troubles were about. Certainly we are shown the brutality of the of RUC police during the house searches but beyond that the film doesn’t probe too deeply into the economic and political origins of the conflict, beyond a simplistic potted history that the soldiers are given on arrival in Belfast. If there is a political position, it is that the conflict is simply due to sectarian rivalry and one side is as bad as the other. When Gary tells Brigid he is from Derby and she says she has family members in Nottingham, he tells her that people from these two counties don’t get on with each other but he doesn’t know why this is. The subtext is therefore that the conflict is due to irrational hatred.

As a thriller, however, this was one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in a long time.

Here is the trailer:

Night Train (Pociag, Poland, 1959)

Humanity in microcosm

Humanity in microcosm

Like Knife in the Water Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s (he directed and co-wrote) Night Train emphasises the claustrophobic setting by utilising the space close to the camera through deep focus cinematography and, much in the same way 3D works, having characters appear in the frame, from the side, closer than you’d expect given the scene’s composition. That, and great black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski, means I’m already likely to enjoy the film. However, Night Train also has a tense Hitchcockian narrative and an unhinged climactic chase through a graveyard (yes, most of the film is set on a train), making it an essential one to watch.

The promise ‘Polish Spring’ of 1956, when Gomulka’s government looked like it might break free of (the recently diseased) Stalin, had evaporated by 1959 and the petty voyeurism, and mob mentality of many passengers, who consist of what I take to be a cross section of Polish society, give the film a cynical edge that might reflect political disappointment.

Night Train is a film that grips immediately with the distinctive angle (see below), used for the credit sequence, which reminds me of Harry Lime’s speech, in The Third Man (UK, 1949), of how people look like ants from high above.

People swarm into the station

People swarm into the station

The protagonist, Jerzy, is played Leon Niemczyk who also appeared in Knife in the Water; Niemczyk is a powerful lead whose morally ambiguous character is in keeping with the cynicism of the film. Zbigniew Cybulski, who starred in the Polish classic Ashes and Diamonds (1958), plays, typically, a rebellious young man, Staszek, infatuated with Lucyna Winnicka’s Marta (see below); but she’s more interested in Jerzy.

Youth's desperate infatuation

Youth’s desperate infatuation

A couple of times in the film Staszek is warned about jumping onto a moving train; tragically Cybulski was to fall under a train when jumping off eight years later.