Under Capricorn (1949)

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.

Under Capricorn film posterCREDITS
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.

Animals (2019)

Moving in my theme week to a non-American setting, this is a film by an Australian director but set in Ireland (although the original novel was set in England). It’s very much less a comedy in generic form, although Alia Shawkat’s character has a black comedic spirit, and somehow infuses the dramatic elements with a sense of playfulness. It’s fair to say that not every critic was particularly enamoured of this film, but like a lot of the comedy-drama films I’m covering this week, it’s the relationship elements that complicate the story and create a darker undertow, which I think is well exploited here.


I don’t really know sometimes why I give ratings to films, but there’s an allure to it, the possibility of further stratification and classification for the unruly diversity of filmmaking, though it’s mostly just a way to easily indicate that I liked or disliked something. I have tried to simplify it to a sort of traffic-lights system, which is much the same as thumbs-up/thumbs-down simplification with an extra category for ‘meh’. Needless to say, it’s an inadequate way of assessing a film, and so the vast majority of my ratings are ‘GOOD’ (or if we’re doing star ratings, *** or ***½, perhaps) and those could go either way: they could be bad films I’m trying to find something nice to say about, or great films I need some time to sit with before I’m willing to take the extra step of proclaiming their greatness. Maybe in fact, the idea of talking about good or bad, great or failed, is just a bad way of talking about films; it should really be about what they inspire us to think about, or how they make us feel, or how they make us want to think differently about life and some peoples’ experiences of it.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I think I really liked Animals but maybe I’m not exactly sure. After all, the characters themselves are pretty unlikeable people, though Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat are both very good at making them appealing despite all their flaws, and their increasingly tedious commitment to partying and getting drunk. Watching Shawkat minesweeping all the leftover white wine in a bar helped to really make me feel all that drinking in a visceral way, and I too know the bitter reality of waking up the next morning after too much white wine (and the white stuff is very much their drink here, though there’s plenty of other controlled substances too). It’s a film about feeling like maybe you’re growing out of your 20s, and maybe you need something more, but not being sure about what that “more” might be. You (and in this film, that “you” is Grainger’s Laura) think it might be about settling down, getting married, moving out of your shared house with your best friend (that’s Shawkat’s Tyler), or maybe it’s about applying yourself to the creative work you really want to do but have never managed to focus on — but it’s equally clear that maybe you don’t have a clue.

I love Alia Shawkat, and she is excellent at embodying this unruly young woman, but her Tyler isn’t unlike the one in Fight Club, a sort of unknowable character interpreted by those around her (chiefly Laura, for Laura’s is the film’s point of view for the most part), a cipher, an enabler or just a convenient excuse for the life you’re living and the decisions you’re putting off. Appropriately, then, she is given some rather arch and unnatural dialogue at times, as if to almost highlight her place is within this narrative of Laura’s journey. Grainger is the one who shines most as an actor, conveying the confusion of her age, and of the expectations placed upon her (gently, or by herself, but nevertheless very palpable). The men, and there are several, seem almost forgettable by contrast, but really this is a film about female friendship above all and that’s what I loved about it, for all that both are quite difficult and unlikeable as people. I probably shouldn’t have cared about them, but yet I ended up doing so (that’s the acting) and feeling like maybe they were the ones who should have been in a relationship, and maybe they were.

Animals film posterCREDITS
Director Sophie Hyde; Writer Emma Jane Unsworth (based on her novel); Cinematographer Bryan Mason; Starring Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 3 August 2019.

Bran Nue Dae (2009)

A friend suggested my recent Australian cinema week was lacking in bright and cheerful musicals, and short of re-watching something by Baz Luhrmann, this musical from ten years ago fits the bill rather nicely, and also focuses on Aboriginal communities.


This isn’t a perfect film: it has an underlying cheesiness to it, a sort of sentimental cheerfulness that sometimes seems at odds with its story, and yet it’s at heart delightful and criticising it would feel wilfully cynical. The film is based on a stage musical, though it certainly doesn’t hide that — and the way characters will break into song and choreographed dance is one of the pleasures of the form, after all. It presents Aboriginal Australian lives in the late-60s in what feels like an ahistorical way, but it also doesn’t hide some of the unfairness of the way they’re treated as a group: it just couches this in a gaudily-coloured musical ensemble treatment. This is a film about characters who have all the same generic desires as American teenagers in films made 10 years or more before this one is set (the concession to the late-60s moment is a VW van driven by two hippies, although the young man’s German accent is surely one of the worst in recent memory), but set in the Australian outback. There are times when the forced cheerfulness feels so positively sugary that I felt a bit queasy, but I can’t fault its heart and the colourful staging by director Rachel Perkins and DoP Andrew Lesnie.

Bran Nue Dae film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Reg Cribb and Perkins (based on the musical by Jimmy Chi); Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; Starring Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 2019.

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (2018)

I guess what’s good and also valuable about this documentary is a number of things. First off, it shows — without judgement or sneering — people of various age ranges who have all been enormous fans (“fangirls” if you will) of a boyband, getting the posters, collecting the paraphernalia, going to the gigs, just generally defining their lives for at least some period entirely around a band and their experience of that band. All four of the women interviewed in the documentary have their own respective boxes of mementoes that they retrieve from some corner of their cabinet, as if hidden away in concession to getting older. Some of them have moved on with their lives in interesting ways, but none have lost their fangirlish love of the band, and for all of them it provokes interesting digressions in their life stories.

And I suppose that’s another thing that’s really interesting about the film, in that it shows that being a fan is something that helps you through your life and does not (should not) mark you out as weird or beneath contempt. The film is keen to stress the positive, sustaining power of — in this case — being an enormous music fan, but I imagine it applies to anything else one might be a fan of. It creates social worlds and connections that can lead to love and happiness, it bridges experiences of trauma, it even connects generations. The women here have similar experiences, despite being separated by continents (there are two women in the US and two in Australia), and they are all very eloquent in talking about their lives, which it seems are more often than not unified by a feeling of being out of place. There’s the young Muslim-American women whose families in various ways find their daughters’ interests difficult, the elderly Australian woman who wasn’t allowed to pursue her own interests by her parents, or the younger one who was grappling with her own sexual orientation issues. Actually, a lot of the stuff that’s away from the fandom becomes an equally fascinating part of the story.

But most of all, there’s the filmmaker’s generosity of spirit in highlighting stories that are perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and yet so often vilified or laughed at in mainstream culture, and this finally is what is wonderful about I Used to Be Normal.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Leski; Cinematographers Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron-Hoving; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 7 January 2019.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”

Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)

Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.

Continue reading “Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)”

Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.

Continue reading “Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)”

beDevil (1993)

Following contemporary women-authored stories set amongst communities within white Australia, like Celia (1989) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), it took artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt to become the first woman of Aboriginal background to make a feature film, one distinctive and idiosyncratic enough that she never did make another. I saw it at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, a fantastic long weekend of cinema which is modelled after Il Cinema Ritrovato, and takes place at the end of July each year.


An extraordinarily stylish one-of-a-kind film (not least because director Tracey Moffatt never made another feature), it has a heightened unreality that recalls not just studio-bound 50s Hollywood hothouse melodramas but arthouse experiments like Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) or Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The three ghost stories share not just this visual stylisation but the way they leap between past and present with ease, for these are not just stories, but collective memories or perhaps cultural touchstones, channelling a sort of Australian mythology that (for a change) isn’t rooted just in white men ‘going bush’, but a wide variety of ethnic identities, not least Moffatt’s Aboriginal roots. It’s quite possible the range of reference points is too specific for me (a non-Australian) to pick up on much of it, but it’s a heady watch all the same, a knowing wink at the audience without the suffocating irony and cynicism that too many directors of the 90s considered cool. Maybe that’s why it never made much of a splash at the time, but it’s ripe (in every sense) for rediscovery.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tracey Moffatt; Cinematographer Geoff Burton; Starring Tracey Moffatt, Lex Marinos; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 28 July 2018.

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)


This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.

* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.

My Brilliant Career film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.

Celia (1989)

This week here I’m doing a themed week of Australian films, mostly documentaries, but I’m starting it with this important and perhaps under-recognised 1989 drama that distills a particular vision of (white) Australia in the recent past. The 1990s would turn out to be a successful decade for Australian cinema, both at home and abroad, and the same cinematographer worked on another prominent film made by women a few years later that I’ve also reviewed on my blog, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). If you want a primer on women in Australian cinema, by the way, you could do a lot worse than this Senses of Cinema dossier, which includes an essay on Celia which properly contextualises my own remarks below as being on the lower end of amateurish.


This Australian film from the late-1980s certainly builds up a curious atmosphere, not quite horror but inhabiting a strange and (to the film’s young protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart) at times terrifying world in between lived reality and paranoid fantasy, based on fears stoked up by the adults — these being around both the ‘Red menace’ of Communists, but also the government’s attempts to eradicate the rabbit population by introducing myxomatosis. It’s not a million miles from the allegorical territory of The Babadook (again without the specifically horror genre elements, aside from a few brief monstrous dream rabbits), but rooted more firmly in a 1950s milieu of conservative culture. Celia’s cherished grandmother turns out to have had Communist sympathies, and her neighbours are local organisers, so this brings them into conflict with her regressive father (Nicholas Eadie). A parallel storyline about Celia’s pet rabbit becoming a threat to state security (enforced by her uncle, the local police chief) strangely manages to bring together some of these fraught family dynamics. Overall, it sustains a striking atmosphere of cultural dread, aptly filtered through the experiences of a young girl.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.