I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.
Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.
My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.
There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.
The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.
If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.
In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.
It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.
* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.
Although set amongst British characters, and with a very strong sense of the operation of class in particular, this film was made by a Dutch director. However, it feels very much anchored by the performance of Vicky Knight, the woman at the centre of the story.
A film about trauma — about Jade (Vicky Knight), a woman who has been left scarred by an acid attack — which has the benefit of having as its lead actor someone who has herself survived serious burns. Knight is fantastic in the role, and is really pushed into some dark places, and the film itself is all very solid, even as it keeps leading her (and us) down these painful paths, fuelled equally by desperation and depression over her fate. Into the mix is wrapped a story about class and race in modern England (the film is set in East London), about the underpaid and dispiriting jobs available to those with few means, and about the exploitation that takes place of those who are in a desperate place. The sequence set in Morocco feels like a stretch, and while it opens the film out from its grim council estate focus of the early parts of the film, in the end it feels just as claustrophobic, because we remain inside the lead character’s point-of-view for so much of the film.
Director Sacha Polak; Writers Susie Farrell and Polak; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Vicky Knight; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Castle Cinema, London, Friday 14 June 2019.
Josh O’Connor already starred in probably the most celebrated British romantic drama of 2017, God’s Own Country, but whether playing gay or straight it turns out he seems to be suited to difficult, bruising romances far better than the light and fluffy kinds which are released on Netflix every other week. This film, directed by a woman (don’t be confused by her name), is built around pregnancy just like in, say, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), but takes a somewhat different approach.
This is a very romantic film, distilled down to something very elemental; you could call it a two-hankie weepie even. Jake (Josh O’Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa, who was in Victoria) are two young people (though she’s a little older than he is) who meet cute in Glasgow. Neither of them are Scottish (he’s English, she’s Spanish), and it becomes clear that this is set before Brexit as the film progresses, otherwise her resistance to marriage might seem somewhat self-defeating. Nevertheless, they hit it off and pretty soon there’s a sex scene where he suggests having a baby, which feels like a stretch to assume after such a short time that she’d want to conceive, but pretty soon that becomes an obsession for her, and thereafter everything starts to unravel. There’s coordinating their sex with her fertility cycles, then the IVF and the injections (which all entails money), and the constant pregnancy tests followed by crying jags in the bathroom, and their strained relationship as a result of all this. We talk a lot in our current culture about “toxic masculinity” — that set of codes that defines and limits how men are supposed to act in the world — but this film seems to be about whatever women’s equivalent to that is: a slightly insidious idea that to be doing womanhood correctly you need to have a baby (which even if you’re only thinking about cis womanhood, is deeply problematic). And so Elena gets the little nags from those around her, finding that all her friends are starting to have kids, and she starts to feel excluded from gatherings and become desperate to be part of the in-group. It should really be a lot more painful a film than it is (and I don’t doubt it will be to some people), but the director manages to get her actors to find the humanity and the warmth underneath all this, so that it’s never quite as bleak as it could be.
Director Harry Wootliff; Writers Wootliff and Matthieu de Braconier; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Laia Costa, Josh O’Connor; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 July 2019.
Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).
Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.
British cinema is in constant dialogue with the heritage industry, and there is no shortage of films set in the past — with particularly popular eras being during World War II and the 1950s (as seen here), the Victorian age, or the Tudors. Plenty of women have turned their hand to this heritage, finding further interest in underseen representations (particularly in recent years): Amma Assante put a Black British perspective into the 18th century in Belle, while this film’s conservative small town 1950s setting adds a lesbian romance.
If there’s one thing I’ve gained growing up, it’s a tolerance for fairly desultory period movies, especially ones set in gloomy parts of the UK. This one is set in Scotland in 1952, which is more or less exactly when Carol (2015) was set, but this takes rather a different, let’s say more traditional arc. The two central women (Holliday Grainger’s Lydia, and Anna Paquin’s Dr Jean Markham) find each other and then, in time-honoured fashion, unleash all the ire and judgement that a small close-minded town can muster — and, in the final act, this feels like rather too much. I liked the set-up, and I particularly liked both central performances, even if Anna Paquin has a patchy Scottish accent and spends much of the film looking anguished. There’s also some rather iffy bee CGI towards the end, extending a metaphor which doesn’t entirely hold together. Basically I wanted to like this well-mounted film more than I ended up doing, but it has its moments.
Director Annabel Jankel; Writers Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (based on the novel by Fiona Shaw); Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek; Starring Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 20 July 2019.
Expatriate Chinese director Xiaolu Guo is another key figure in British (and indeed wider European) arts scene, who has made a number of films which bridge documentary and drama and don’t really sit very comfortably within British filmmaking, preferring a rather more avant-garde praxis and perhaps better suited to gallery spaces.
One of Xiaolu Guo’s growing body of films clearly made on a shoestring budget, pitched somewhere in between documentary and fiction. Perhaps this is because of the way they’re filmed, or because they deal with real people in fictionalised scenarios, but it’s interesting to see these five disparate people enact a drama around the reproduction of a Caravaggio painting. Four of these men live in London (none of them English, it would seem, and Brexit inevitably plays a background role), while the artist of the painting is in China, one of a village community entirely filled with artists. One of the four London-based men, a photographer, strips off to pose on trees for his own photos, a hairy counterpoint to the smooth features and perfect light of the young man in Caravaggio’s painting. Another of them is a philosopher, but dabbles in art himself, endlessly trying to reconfigure and improve the reproduction painting, a philosophical exercise perhaps. The third is a writer, displaced from Ethiopia via the Sudan, who has a shelf full of books by Deleuze that he barely understands, but reads obsessively and quotes from, and here we have this idea of the time-image (his are key texts for theorists of cinema), which is I guess what the Caravaggio reproduction functions as for the fourth man, a poet. There’s a lot to unpack, and Guo’s films aren’t always the most accessible, but she’s an artist and this is another of her reproducible works.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Xiaolu Guo 郭小橹; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 October 2018.