Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas today, by all accounts a brutal drama about a woman seeking revenge. Last year also saw the release of Mike Leigh’s grand reenactment of historical events that are now 200 years old, a brutal massacre by the government of poor and disenfranchised people demanding Parliamentary reform, a massacre which led eventually to changes in the electoral system. I didn’t love the film, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.
Oh, there are bits in this long evocation of working-class northern England (well, Manchester, specifically) that I really liked, but I’m already struggling to remember what those were in the overwhelming sense that this is a piece of teachable didactic history intended to be introduced in classrooms with study packs and discussion points… [adopting teacher voice] “So you heard the aristocrats voicing their anxiety about the French Revolution while idly quaffing wine; do you understand how that could have been an underlying reason for why they felt compelled to send in the cavalry so quickly?” etc etc. The problem is, I never really felt any of that: the characters were types, represented ideas and classes, embodied such roles as ‘mill workers’, ‘land-owning reformers’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘the King, who is obviously a massive wanker’ et al. When they discussed ideas, I never got a sense of what these might mean for any actual people, and so the whole just came across as a pageant (or even as propaganda), such that the final battle never really had much emotional pull for me — other than the obvious ‘this is bad: never trust the government’. There’s also a constant sense of cheeky jollity on the sidelines, sparkling little bits of wordplay or hamminess, that made me feel like I was supposed to laugh at everyone. The performances are fine, as far as they are written at all (Maxine Peake is never bad), but too much of it is fairly one-note, so it’s only in small details that the film comes alive — fiddlers practising in the fields on the outskirts of town, a cat leaping around behind a mill owner fulminating at his workers taking time off, that kind of thing. It’s well-mounted, it will hopefully spur discussion and understanding, but it never really felt alive to me as a film.
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Saturday 17 November 2018.
It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.
I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.
Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is always a trove of fascinating older films, covering a range of genres and national cinemas, but you can always count on a few good period dramas. One such was this screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and underseen 1949 film Under Capricorn, set in 19th century Australia (though not filmed there).
One of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated films, and I do wonder if for English-speaking audiences it’s because of Ingrid Bergman’s rather patchy Irish accent. Needless to say, coming right after he made Rope, it’s filled with a bravura sense of adventure with the camera, which for all its physical clunkiness, seems to glide around these sets, particularly in a pair of scenes as a character approaches a home and moves around it and into it with ease, revealing these little snippets of the life within. Well, of course, that life is melodramatic and rather cloistered, a tale of power and class and the way that old English money (represented by Michael Wilding’s character, who has an imperious hauteur which is progressively broken down through the film) looks down on the transported criminals whose past it may have been untoward to enquire into, but who are also clearly very much aware of said pasts. In this case, it’s that of Joseph Cotten’s Flasky which comes into question, and his strange drunken wife played by Ingrid Bergman. The film begins and ends with the British flag flying over Australia, and plays out in 1830s Sydney, and there’s a hothouse atmosphere which the filming only heightens. Some of the characters may allow for rather broad performances, but this a beguiling Technicolor film that should probably have a higher standing amongst Hitch’s filmography.
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers James Bridie and Hume Cronyn (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, itself based on the novel by Helen Simpson); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.
Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.
Moving from the Coen brothers’ modern reinterpretation of the form to a rather more classic western, dealing with themes of the frontier, of capitalism and exploitation, in a ravishing package.
When American studio pictures are at their best — and quite often it’s in the western genre that they’re at their best — they present a microcosm of high capitalist American society with all its ideological contradictions and self-destructive tendencies. After all, you can make a film about people living scrappy violent lives on the frontiers of society and pretend that it’s about these other people distant in time and place, when really it’s about what’s going on around us even now. The quandaries that these saloon-hopping gamblers face, the choices they make in the people with whom they do business, the colonial aggression they unthinkingly enact towards Native Americans (who, of course, take their revenge, as is undoubtedly not surprising to any of the characters, hence their wearied assumption of the consequences), these are all prescient stories. But also this is a gorgeous film, all beautifully hued landscapes and light filtering through forests, with some sensitive acting as well. (I probably need to see this on the big screen when next I have a chance, and might even rate it higher if I do.)
Director Jacques Tourneur; Writer Ernest Pascal (based on the novel by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Edward Cronjager; Starring Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 12 April 2018.
Most Westerns are set in the 19th century, at a time when the United States was aggressively expansionist within its continent, and settlers were pushing the boundaries of the territory towards the western coast. The Coen Brothers treat this history as fodder for a number of stories in this Netflix-originated anthology, some of which focus on the comic side of the genre, but others delve into something more primal.
Until I saw True Grit (2010), I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the films of the Coen brothers. I know it seems heretical (and, sure, I found The Big Lebowski enjoyable), but I thought they were essentially charlatans and made arch, bitter films about people they considered themselves superior to — or so it seemed to me up until that point. There are parts of this anthology which I think hark back to that, so maybe the hardcore will be pleased; it’s a pretty thorough mixture of impish comic touches (Stephen Root prancing about shouting “pan shot!” is a highlight), character portraits (like Tom Waits’ solitary gold prospector), brutal violence and nastiness (the story with Liam Neeson particularly callously so). Pretty much every story ends up with one of the characters dying (not always the one you expect), and while some of them the film treats as pretty funny, others are laden with pathos. My favourite story is probably Zoe Kazan on the Oregon Trail (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”), and even if the way it ends does seem particularly indebted to a certain spirit of male-centred alienation, heartbreak and loss, it at least seems to be dealing with a character arc rather than a punchline.
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based partly on the novels All Gold Canyon by Jack London, and The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 24 November 2018.
Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.
This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.
As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.
This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.
Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.
In a season when we’ve had The Favourite, all other costume dramas now seem particularly plodding, unoriginal and well-meaning, and Colette seems at first blush to fit into the idea of a handsomely-mounted heritage film about another era, anchored by some strong lead acting performances, but presenting a very cleaned-up recreation of a past filmed in various grand houses and city panoramas retouched to remove all the signs of modernity. Still, there’s at least a queer subtext (no that’s not fair, by the latter half of the film it’s simply the text) to subvert things a bit, as Knightley’s title character has affairs with both men and women, while her marriage to Dominic West’s foolish husband starts to pall. Indeed, his priggish idiocy and the way that he is constantly put in his place by everyone, particularly his younger wife, becomes an enjoyable theme for the film. Setting aside the dreadful Louisiana accent of one of Colette’s companions, there’s a lot to enjoy in all the performances, and even the more affected cliches of the script feel a little bit revived by the particular focus brought by this story of a writer who remains largely unknown to English-speaking audiences. (I actually own one of her novels, but haven’t read it in the 20 years it’s been on my shelves, so perhaps now is the time.)
Director Wash Westmoreland; Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Westmoreland; Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens; Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 January 2019.
Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.
I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).