राजा हरिश्चंद्र Raja Harishchandra (1913)

This is just a brief post, since I’m doing an India-themed week, to cover the first known Indian feature film, albeit one from which only two reels survive (so actually all we have is essentially a short film). However, a recent Indian season at the BFI in 2017 presented it with live accompaniment as part of a programme introducing the season as a whole, and it’s still rather fascinating to a see a glimpse of filmmaking from over a hundred years ago.


Being only a remaining reel or two of what was originally a longer film, and one which touches on Indian mythology at that, meant that I’d never be likely to follow what’s going on. That said, it sticks (as myth often does) to the grand themes of love, betrayal and the restoration of order by a divinity. The screening I saw also had a fantastic performance by a number of excellent traditional musicians so that will stay with me. The film itself, being (what survives of) the first ever Indian feature film is a fascinating document, though it has some nice effects too for what was an industry in its absolute infancy.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Dadasaheb Phalke दादासाहेब फाळके; Cinematographer Trymbak B. Telang திரிம்பாக் பி. தெலாங்கு; Starring D.D. Dabke दत्तात्रय दामोदर दबके, Anna Salunke अण्णा सालुंके; Length 12 minutes [original length 40 minutes].
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 May 2017.

Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, 1987)

Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.


I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines film posterCREDITS
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).

Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.


One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

A number of recent British heritage productions have attempted in their various ways to try to break away from some of the clichés of the genre, most notably the recent Lady Macbeth (2016). A lot of this has been in terms of casting (and certainly there’s a certain element of colour-blindness here), but the director also pushes the visual expectations of the genre with this adaptation of a well-loved and well-known novel.


Andrea Arnold certainly has an assured visual style. This film is shot in an Academy ratio (watch out that your TV doesn’t try to stretch it into widescreen) and frequently shoots through cracks and veils to further reduce the image size. When the camera does go outside there are some frankly beautiful shots, and some pretty taut editing too. It’s just that the script doesn’t always match this visual sense. There’s a lot of play with class and (newly for this adaptation) race, but most of it is enunciated at a formal level rather than in the dialogue, though that’s probably right for the period. There’s also an over-reliance on handheld camera; in many ways this feels like a period film for those who don’t tend to like them. Still, whatever else I might say, I do like it. The style is strong enough — and the performances too — to carry it.

Wuthering Heights film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Arnold; Writers Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Emily Brontë); Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 3 August 2016.

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.

Two Recent Films by Amma Asante: A United Kingdom (2016) and Where Hands Touch (2018)

The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.

Continue reading “Two Recent Films by Amma Asante: A United Kingdom (2016) and Where Hands Touch (2018)”

West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté (West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, 1979)

I’ve been doing themed weeks of films since restarting this blog, but as we come up to the end of the year, I want to dedicate a few weeks to reviews for films I’ve not yet managed to shoehorn into a themed week, which I regard as among the best I’ve seen this year. They won’t all be new films, though, so I’m starting with Med Hondo’s wonderful West Indies, a 1979 musical dedicated to anti-colonialism and laying bare the hypocrisy of the French state. It’s a lesson that could be applied to a number of former colonialist and imperialist countries, I suspect.


Historically speaking, African cinema doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Western cinephilia (certainly the opportunities I had when I was younger to watch any on home media or TV were fairly sparse), and it feels like this has begun to change somewhat only in recent decades. Filmmakers like Scorsese and George Lucas have been putting money into restorations of African and other non-Western developing nations’ cinema (Il Cinema Ritrovato has been screening some great film restorations every year), but there are still so many gems that languish unrestored, and a few of those are by Mauritanian director Med Hondo (though his debut feature Soleil Ô did receive treatment recently).

Hondo’s 1979 film West Indies might be the best thing I’ve yet seen by him, and a truly sui generis work that fuses the radical political sensibility that a number of African filmmakers were channelling from the 60s onwards, in the spirit of pan-African post-colonialism (and which also reminds me a little of contemporary Caribbean filmmakers like Raoul Peck) with something of the avant-garde staging that you might get with Godard or Akerman (who also made her own modernist musical in the 80s).

Needless to say, this single-set musical about colonialism, empire, slavery, capitalism and hypocrisy is truly everything you could want: there are energetic dance numbers, and there’s anger about the West and its involvement in both Africa and the Caribbean. The film makes explicit links between the exploitation of workers in migrant economies with the economics of slavery itself (one notable sequence sees the parade of people getting flights to France, whipped up by the conniving of French businessmen and political leaders, overlap with an historical flashback to slaves in chains being led to the slave ships). The links between this historical violence and the suppression of revolts by riot police in modern French cities is also effectively done, and Hondo throughout deploys recurring visual motifs to link past and present, which all wheels by together on the same multi-layered set.

It’s a virtuoso exercise, but far from a hollow one, as it mercilessly mocks and derides White imperialism — whether economic, political or cultural (oh, the tourists) — and evinces anger at the circumstances of the African-Caribbean peoples. At the same time it mellifluously weaves in song and dance, the sound design as effective as any propagandist, but aimed instead at exploding the myths of Western neo-liberalism when it comes to exploitation and power. It’s a glorious pageant, and a truly inspiring film, which hasn’t dated or lost its relevance in 40 years (because these topics never truly seem to go away). I only hope it can continue to inspire in the future.

CREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Daniel Boukman (from Boukman’s novel Les Negriers “The Slavers”); Cinematographer François Catonné; Starring Robert Liensol, Roland Bertin, Hélène Vincent; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 5 December 2019.