Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward) [uncredited] | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016)

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Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

For all the rippling abs and tattoos sported by hero Inder (Harshvardhan Rane), there’s something old-fashioned to the way this film plays out (which may perhaps be due to the fact that there have been several films of this title over the years, not that their plots seem to bear much similarity). It’s a romantic melodrama, in which two neighbouring young people from either side of the metaphorical tracks fall for one another. Saraswati (Mawra Hocane) is a frumpy librarian (of course!) from a good family whom nobody wants to marry, and Inder is a sexy ex-con with a very long line in laconic brooding and trouble committing to relationships (although there’s a hint that he may have a backstory of privilege). When they are caught talking in his apartment (she wants a makeover to snag herself a business school graduate), her father dramatically severs all ties and performs funerary rites for his now-dead-to-him daughter.

To be honest, for all its big soap-operatic storylines, the film largely had me in its thrall up until the interval. Hocane is delightful as the dowdy Saru, with big dorky glasses looking for all the world like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (2001; a masterpiece, of course). This does all mean that inevitably there will be a makeover scene, and there’s a song and dance to go along with it that’s quite fetching. Meanwhile, the film spares no effort in showing quite how ripped and sexy Inder is, as he’s constantly caught topless (certainly, he’s never without at least three buttons undone on his shirt), or doing pull-ups in his apartment, throwing glances Saru’s way and even joining the library so he can bump into her. Naturally Inder has feelings for Saru that go beyond her looks, but he isn’t able to express himself (because backstory… it all comes out later on), and so every time they’re together (which is most of the time), there’s a whole lot of longing looks and sultry gazes off camera, eyes filled with conflicted emotions — you know the drill, really. Their relationship feels even a little transgressive, as they fall in love in spite of their families’ wishes (both have strained relationships with their dads, and that’s a big issue in this film, and one imagines in wider Indian society).

It’s just that the last third wraps things up just a little too neatly. Things take a sudden tearjerking turn as an illness plot is introduced, seemingly to punish Saru for her feelings (or maybe to punish her father). Needless to say, the patriarchal needs of society are healed, and it’s too bad for our lovers. Sure, doomed love is a plot as old as time, but when you care about your characters, sometimes you hope for something more.


Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru | Cinematographer Chirantan Das | Starring Harshvardhan Rane, Mawra Hocane | Length 154 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016

The Last Five Years (2014)

There’s no accounting for taste I suppose, so maybe you’ll want to set aside this whole review, but I just can’t fathom why there’s been such a lukewarm response to this film (or so it seems to me). I’ll state this upfront, just to be clear, but I think The Last Five Years is fantastic. I mean, I generally love Anna Kendrick, but here she’s playing to her strengths, which is being adorable in a musical setting. The film takes a little time to warm up, as it begins with Kendrick’s character Cathy in tears in a bleak, colourless New York townhouse, and this kind of emotional timbre is not Kendrick’s forte (or maybe I just don’t like to see her being sad). However, following this we start to discern the film’s narrative strategy, as it skips back five years to the start of the relationship between her and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) that defines the film’s structure, in a brightly-coloured romantic musical comedy number “Shiksa Goddess” (for Jamie is Jewish, and Cathy is not) sung from his point of view. The film then goes on to interleave these two stories in a ‘he-said she-said’ sort of way, as each reimagines the highlights but in a different temporal direction. In truth, there are no profound depths here, but putting on a musical about a failed relationship seems somehow a little transgressive in itself. Kendrick’s Cathy is the emotional linchpin, though, as Jamie, for all his initial likeability, is swiftly revealed to be egotistical and vain, and the imbalance in their respective successes — he as a novelist, she as a musical theatre actor — is both comedically skewered and also one of the causes of their relationship breakdown. Cathy has a particularly memorable musical audition scene (“When You Come Home to Me”) in which she sings her frustrations with the process while also delivering a delightful catty aside about Russell Crowe’s musical theatre talents, as well as a number sung from a small-time repertory company in Ohio, a job she takes to make ends meet. In its focus on quotidian setbacks and bittersweet emotions, it plays a little like an updated US version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of my all-time top-five favourites), so how much you like it will probably depend on your tolerance for this kind of thing, but if you have any time for musicals at all, definitely check it out.


© Radius-TWC

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown) | Cinematographer Steven Meizler | Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Monday 27 April 2015

Xiao cheng zhi chun (Spring in a Small Town, 1948)

RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 27 June 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Columbia Pictures

When Chinese cinema is discussed, there’s a lot of love shared for this little film, a sort of proto-neo-realist take on Chinese peasantry via the medium of what is outwardly a melodramatic story of a three-way love affair. It wasn’t at all successful when released, but has since come to be seen as a key text, encapsulating through its beautifully subtle staging all the potential pitfalls of its story with far from the expected restraint but rather a bold acknowledgment of all its erotic potentials. Which isn’t to say it’s a bodice-ripper, just that it has the kind of candour you might naïvely think wouldn’t be present in this era and setting, a bombed-out rural house (calling it a village wouldn’t do justice to the fact that no one else aside from the four central household figures is even glimpsed). Here, following the war, Liyan (Shi Yu) recuperates from an unspecified illness, and with his young sister is looked after by his patient wife Yuwen (Wei Wei). An attractive doctor, Zhichen (Li Wei), arrives at the home, and it turns out he and the wife had some previous history, memory of which is provoked by his reappearance. There are no bad guys or overt judgements made on this three-way relationship, but as it unfolds — in scenes at the dilapidated house, and at some nearby ruined fortifications (a sort of objective correlative to her own heart, perhaps) — we get a sense of how conflicted Yuwen feels about Zhichen’s arrival and about her own husband. It’s such a small and minutely-observed drama that it can sometimes seem as if little is happening, but its slowly-unfolding and underdramatised style gradually grows on the viewer. If it doesn’t seem to me like the kind of masterpiece it’s often acclaimed as, that’s probably as much due to my own weariness when I saw it as anything else, and I have no doubt it would reward repeat viewing.


CREDITS || Director Fei Mu | Writer Li Tianji (based on a short story) | Cinematographer Li Shengwei | Starring Wei Wei, Li Wei, Shi Yu | Length 93 minutes

The Invisible Woman (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Ralph Fiennes | Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin) | Cinematographer Rob Hardy | Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander | Length 111 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Lionsgate

It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.

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Anna Karenina (2012)


FILM REVIEW || Director Joe Wright | Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson | Length 129 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

Continue reading “Anna Karenina (2012)”