Viceroy’s House (2017)

Not all the prestige heritage productions of the British film industry are about rich white aristocrats, but too many of them do tend to be, even the ones directed by British-Asian directors like Gurinder Chadha. I imagine it will take a long time to truly decolonise this most stalwart of the British filmic genres, but perhaps there may be little steps in that direction. This is hardly flag-waving patriotism, mind, but it still feels a little bit misty-eyed, though I broadly liked it.


I’ve seen plenty of commentaries calling this film to task for its representation of the partition of India, specifically the way that Pakistan and its leader Jinnah seem like the ‘bad guys’ and the aristocratic Mountbattens (here played by Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) are the well-meaning yet unwitting deliverers of imperial judgment. I can’t really disagree with these criticisms, though however much the film may go out of its way to make the Mountbattens (especially Lady M) likeable and empathetic towards the Indian people, I can’t ever really get onside with imperialists, so really it’s the story of the younger lovers within the Viceroy’s household which is most affecting. It also leads to a poignant, tearful, melodramatic and sentimental climax, which can be a failing of many a big sumptuous historical epic (and this one is nothing if not sumptuous). It’s not a million miles from A United Kingdom in this respect. It has honour I think (and it clearly has personal meaning to director Gurinder Chadha, as the end credits make clear), but it’s not without its weaknesses.

Viceroy's House film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and Chadha; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi हुमा क़ुरैशी, Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Om Puri ਓਮ ਪੁਰੀ; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 4 March 2017.

Blinded by the Light (2019)

Gurinder Chadha is the director most famous for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), though she made a splash with her first film Bhaji on the Beach (1993). She’s a British filmmaker, born in a British colony (as Kenya was) and who has lived in London for almost the entirety of her life, and is particularly good at locating stories of characters with South-East Asian backgrounds within a diverse cultural milieu that never feels suffocatingly white (as it sometimes can in other middle-class middle-brow British films). That said, of course, racism is a persistent issue in the background of her stories, and we still see those who are intent on denying the multi-ethnic nature of British society, like the skinheads in this latest film.


It’s rare to see a film this earnest and dorky, but it’s honestly very hard to take against it, however much I found it teeth-grittingly cheesy at times. The thing is, it takes its premise — the real life story of Javed (Viveik Kalra, based on the screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor), a young Pakistani kid growing up in Luton discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen and finding connections to his own life — and plays it completely straight, without laughing at it or making jokes (though people certainly make fun of him). The first act sets up 1987 school life, complete with British versions of the classic American high school cliques, dominated by the sounds of the post-punk synth-based new romanticism of the mid- to late-80s, such that when our protagonist is handed some Bruce cassettes and starts listening to them, the music is quite different from what we’ve heard thus far. It even puts the lyrics up on screen to emphasise the effect, as he runs through a storm to the sounds of “The Promised Land” with back-projections on the council house walls: this is Gurinder Chadha’s version of total cinema, undoubtedly. It sorta works too, though I think I’d find it even more affecting to watch this on a plane, or on the couch when sick (that’s not a diss; it’s just one of those kinds of films, really comforting at a base soul level). The standout actor here turns out to be Javed’s Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who turns him onto Bruce, and whom I’d have been pleased to see a lot more of.

Blinded by the Light film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor (based on his memoir Greeting from Bury Park); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Viveik Kalra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Tuesday 13 August 2019.

Belle (2013)

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.

Belle film posterCREDITS
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

There’s not a great deal to be said about this likeable piece of cinematic fluff, so I’ll keep this review short. It deals with events around the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) as seen through the eyes of its Third Assistant Director, Colin Clark, who released two books on this (undoubtedly to him) memorable period of his life. It hardly answers any questions the viewer may have about Marilyn Monroe’s life (she is an evanescent presence at the heart of the film), but affords Michelle Williams plenty of opportunity to craft a fine cinematic performance, as well as showcasing a wonderfully barking egotistical turn by Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, a man surely close to his own actor-directorial heart.

Of course, the protagonist is Clark himself, played by an affable Eddie Redmayne, but he holds little real interest as a character. Clark is a young man born of wealth and privilege, who appears to have met Olivier at a family party (his father was the art historian Kenneth Clark), and is seen tenaciously going after a minor job on his latest production as the film opens. When My Week with Marilyn is focusing on Clark and his feelings — first toward costume assistant Lucy (the ever-lovely Emma Watson) and then Marilyn herself — it drags somewhat, despite Redmayne’s best efforts. It’s when Branagh or Williams are on screen that things liven up, not to mention Judi Dench as straight-talking veteran thesp Dame Sybil Thorndike.

These are not performances that expend any great effort at trying to look as authentic as possible — of course, Williams has Monroe’s peroxided blonde hair, but that seems to be as far as things go — but at capturing an essence of their spirit. In this, Williams seems to have done very well, modulating her voice to capture Marilyn’s on-screen breathiness, and the sequence of her doing a little dance in her showgirl character is delightful. Branagh goes for a self-important pompousness and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs as a result, showing Olivier to be breathlessly undiplomatic in his last directorial role. The rest of the cast is rounded out with a vast number of recognisable British character actors, ensuring as a result that the picture moves along nimbly. It’s never less than likeable and diverting, and in most moods — especially at the end of a long week, with a glass of wine in hand — that’s just fine by me.

My Week with Marilyn film posterCREDITS
Director Simon Curtis; Writer Adrian Hodges (based on the diaries The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and the memoir My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Judi Dench; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 November 2013.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Steve Coogan has done a lot of fine acting work, particularly in the films of Michael Winterbottom (A Cock and Bull Story is my own favourite, though earlier this year was the underrated and less overtly comedic The Look of Love), but he remains most famous to British viewers for his character Alan Partridge, who’s had a number of radio and television series not to mention special appearances over the last two decades. The popularity of the character is such, in fact, that it’s prompted this film, though I’m just reciting what I’ve heard because I’d never seen any of these previous appearances (except for his segments on the wonderful The Day Today media satire). Luckily, the film is strong enough to stand on its own without any previous knowledge of his character.

Partridge is by this point a radio broadcaster in his local Norwich, though an erstwhile TV chat show host and before that a sports reporter, known for his terrible fashion sense (knitted sweaters, polo necks and the like), his penchant for bloated MOR rock, his retrogressive political views and most of all, an overweening ego. When the station is taken over and rebranded by a conglomerate named Shape, threatening layoffs, Partridge does all he can to ensure he does not lose his job (or more particularly, his access to whatever small remaining local celebrity he still retains), forcing fellow DJ Pat (played by Colm Meaney) into the firing line. This leads Pat to take the station and its management hostage, and Partridge is the go-between in the ensuing crisis.

There’s some of the same play with a nostalgic past that’s in the other big British comedy of this summer, The World’s End, and though the initial impulse is to laugh at the expense of Alan’s character, in truth there’s a lot of sadness at some of the changes that have occurred, not least those wrought by the rapacious corporate overlords Shape, who have forsaken community values in implementing a bland programming schedule on the radio station. We repeatedly get the sense that the community is behind Pat and Alan rather than the hostages, though that’s only ever around the edges; the filmmakers thankfully aren’t interested in jokes at the expense of the audience (whether the one in the film, or the one watching it).

Beyond this affectionate tribute to the kind of regional and local media that’s so often overlooked, there’s no really big theme to the film, and it’s competently put together. However, it’s consistently funny and sustains the laughs to the end; even the big emotional scenes aren’t played entirely straight, but you get the feeling that beneath the laughs there is a genuine sense of fondness for a disappearing strain of media personality. Steve Coogan may play the character, but the character seems to have his own existence by now.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa film posterCREDITS
Director Declan Lowney; Writers Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Armando Iannucci; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 10 August 2013.